For this week and the letter ‘N’, I will be giving a brief history on possibly one of the most infamous (if not the most infamous) modern-day political anomaly that is North Korea. North Korea is a byword for oppression, modern-day dictatorships, mass poverty, corruption, and any other negative connotation relating to politics and culture – to the extent that the term “this is like North Korea” is used to immediately express unfairness, personal depravity, and sometimes just commercial inconvenience. But how did North Korea come about? This blog will look at the years between the Second World War and the Korean War and how the political power and state of the land that still exists today originated and grew.
North Korea, like much of Asia, has a very rich history. The name of Korea is a derivative of the native name Goguryeo. Goguryeo was once one of the hegemonic states in East Asia – including the Korean Peninsula, the Russian Far East, and parts of Mongolia, between 37BC and AD668. In the 10th century, a new power in the region arose that also took the name of Goguryeo, in which visiting merchants would often pronounce the name as “Korea”, with the spelling as we know it today first appearing in the works of Hendrik Hamel, as part of the Dutch East India Trading Company in the 17th Century.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Korea was fought over; first by the Chinese and Japanese in the first Sino-Japanese War – also known in China as the War of Jaiwu – and, secondly, during the Russo-Japanese War, involving Russia and Japan. The latter resulted in Korea falling under Japanese occupation. Japanese occupation lasted until 1945, when Japan surrendered to the United States, on the tail end of World War two and the devastating use of atomic bombs as Nagasaki, and Hiroshima. Similar to the division of Berlin, Korea was divided between the United States and Soviet Union – the United States controlled the South part, and Soviet Union the Northern part. This division was set along what is known as the 38th Parallel – or 38 degrees North latitude. The Southern division established the pro-U.S. Republic of Korea, with the capital at Seoul, also known as South Korea; in the Northern division, the Soviet Union installed the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, led by a Premier. The first Premier of this new Republic was Kim Il-Sung. Il-Sung gained his fame through shared-leadership of the resistance against Japanese occupation through guerrilla style warfare. It was Il-Sung who established the Peoples’ Republic, and in turn became their first Premier.
Both the Republic of Korea and Democratic Peoples’ Republic were established in preparation for U.S. and Soviet occupation and, more importantly, their military presence to end and withdraw. In 1948, America had left South Korea under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, and by 1949, the Soviet Union had left North Korea with Il-Sung leading the new Republic. Peace existed between the new states of North and South Korea, but was doomed to be short lived for in 1950, the Korean War began as both sides were claiming jurisdiction over Korea in its entirety.
The Korean War is often referred to as the most destructive event in Korean history. During 1950, Il-Sung wished to unite the whole of Korea by force and, with the back of China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. The invasion of North Korea, caused the UN Security Council to establish a new branch – the United Nations Command (UNC) – in reaction to the invasion. The Soviet Union, part of the UN Security Council, had the power to VETO the proposal, but were at the time boycotting the UN over their disputes in China and the two political powers of the Republic of China and the Peoples’ Republic of China (one can certainly see where Monty Python’s Life of Brian got their inspiration for the Peoples’ Front of Judea from). The U.S led the UNC in deploying troops in North Korea as a means to defend South Korea; around 340,000 troops from various UN countries were deployed. However, in opposition to this, and in defence of North Korea, China intervened on behalf of North Korea and territory along the Parallel 38 frequently shifted hands between the US led South, and the China led North. The war devastating for both sides, but, as normal, it was the civilian population that suffered the most. The war lasted for only a few years, but during the conflicts it is estimated that 2.5 million casualties were suffered – almost 10% of the population – and historians argue that more napalm bomb were dropped in Korea during this was than were used in the later Vietnam War. Pyongyang was obliterated as a result of US bombing campaigns and in July 1953, an armistice was signed by both sides. For Korea, the effects of the war and the death toll were worse than yet-to-be Vietnam war, and World War Two, leading scholars to claim it as the deadliest conflict in the Cold War era. At the end of the war, the division was still along the Parallel 38 border.
The Korean War and the tensions that caused it are still felt today, as the armistice that exists between North and South Korea, and in extension between the U.S and China, is fragile at best. There are often international concerns over North Korea demonstrating its military strength not just against South Korea, but against the Western international community. The totalitarian government of North Korea still believes that rulership over all of Korea is its right, and is one of the reasons why it shows such hostility and defiance against not just Western political intervention, but Western culture as a whole.
I hope you found this an interesting read and provides a little more context for North Korea’s current political and cultural stance. North Korea is technically a democracy, with elections carries out although these are often criticised as a farce. One can only hope that the self-imposed isolation of North Korea is but a temporary stain and that the future will provide not only more openness to the rest of the world, but more opportunities and better qualities of life that its people deserve.