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Why is Korea divided? Who’s doing better? History of Korean War and ‘Kim Dynasty’

Parts of the text have been adopted in full or with modification for optimal reading experience from the following sources under the CC-BY-SA license. wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_War

WHY IS KOREA DIVIDED North and South Korean flag together but divided

WHY IS KOREA DIVIDED?

When the trembling voice of the Japanese Emperor Michinomiya Hirohito declared Japan’s complete surrender over the radio on Aug 15th, 1945, World War II, the most destructive war in human history, finally came to an end. At the same time, the 35 years of pain and suffering brought upon the Korean people as a result of the Japanese Occupation (1910 – 1945) was also over. Korea was finally liberated. But the joy didn’t last long. Fundamental shifts in global politics and ideological split among the Koreans led to the division of Korea into two occupation zones – the U.S. administering the southern half and the Soviet Union the northern half of the 38th parallel. Over the next three years, 1945-1948, a communist regime supported by the Soviet Union was set in the northern part of Korea above the 38th parallel, while a democratic government was set up and supported by the United States below the 38th parallel. The Korean Peninsula became the chessboard on which the intense Cold War power struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was played.

Montage of images from the Korean War. Clockwise from top: U.S. Marines retreating during the Battle of the Chosin Resevoir, U.N. landing at Incheon, Korean refugees in front of an American M-26 tank, U.S. Marines, led by First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, landing at Incheon, and an American F-86 Sabre fighter jet.
Montage of images from the Korean War. Clockwise from top: U.S. Marines retreating during the Battle of the Chosin Resevoir, U.N. landing at Incheon, Korean refugees in front of an American M-26 tank, U.S. Marines, led by First Lieutenant Baldomero Lopez, landing at Incheon, and an American F-86 Sabre fighter jet.

Why is Korea dividedTimeline

1945. 08. 15 – Japan surrenders following the WWII defeat. As a result, the Japanese occupation ended and Korea was liberated. Fundamental shifts in global politics and ideology leads to the division of Korea into two occupation zones – the US administering the southern half and the Soviet Union the northern half of the 38th parallel.
1945. 06. 25 – At the dawn of June 25, 1950, North Korean forces began the sudden invasion of South Korea, triggering the Korean War
1945. 06. 27 – President Harry Truman deploys troops, hoping to stop the spread of Communism to South Korea.
1950. 10 – The Communist China, which bordered North Korea, starts to worry about protecting themselves, and sends a massive amount of troops, making important victories that pushed the UN troops back acorss the 38th parallel.
1951. 07. 10 – With the battling at a stalemate, peace talks began, but it will take two years for the opposite sides to reach an agreement.
1953. 07. 27 – Armistice agreement ends a 3-year-long brutal war between two Koreas.
1954. 04 – US and Chinese representatives meet to discuss the terms to reunite Korea but fail to reach an agreement, leaving Korea divided.

In 1948, a United Nations-sponsored vote was held to let the people of Korea decide their own future, but all the efforts went for naught when North Korea refused to participate. South Korea took the initiative and said checkmate by forming its own provisional democratic government, with Harvard and Princeton educated Dr. Syngman Rhee as the first South Korean president. North Korea quickly reacted by forming their own socialist government led by a former communist guerrilla Kim Il-sung. This historical moment was the last time Korea was ever together as one.

At the dawn of June 25th, 1950, North Korean forces began a sudden invasion of South Korea with the operation code name 폭풍 pokpung (Storm), triggering the Korean War. Immediately after the blitz, President Harry Truman deployed the U.S. troops, hoping to stop the spread of Communism to South Korea, but it wasn’t enough to stop North Korea who was backed by the Soviet Union’s full military support and carefully planned to invade the South. South Korea was not only over-powered but also caught off-guard. North Korea was able to seize the capital city of the South, Seoul, just three days after the outbreak of the war. Then the North kept on marching, all the way down to Busan, the final defense line of the South.

Just when South Korea was on the verge of falling to the hands of the communists, tables turned when the United Nations forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, launched a series of massive counterattacks, starting with the “Incheon Landing Operation (Operation Chromite)” on September 15th. As a result, the forces were able to reach the North’s capital city of Pyongyang on October 10th and all the way up to the northernmost Amnok River. They were just a few kilometers away from victory.

Some of the Best Korean War-Inspired Movies

Incheon Sangrykjakjeon 인천상륙작전 (Operation Chromite, 2016)
Incheon Sangrykjakjeon 인천상륙작전 (Operation Chromite, 2016)
OPERATION CHROMITE Official Trailer (2016) Liam Neeson War Movie

But in mid-November, Kim Il-Sung of North Korea, on the brink of defeat, sent a series of urgent letters to Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China for reinforcement. Mao responded by sending a massive (over 300,000 soldiers) force of the Chinese army known as the “People’s Volunteer Army.” With the intervention, the tide turned again. The Chinese army found out that the weakness of the South – U.S. army traveled only by road, the UN forces’ superior air power wasn’t a big threat during nighttime, and most importantly, the South Korean force was the weakest link. The Chinese army bypassed the roads and took the mountain route, attacked the Korean troops at night to block the supply route, and cut off the retreat. As a result, the South Korea-UN forces were pushed back, giving up Seoul on January 4th, but reclaimed it on March 15th. With the battling at a stalemate, peace talks began on July 10th, 1951, but it would take two years for both sides to reach an agreement. Finally, on July 27th, 1953, armistice agreement was signed and it ended a 3-year-long brutal war between two Koreas. A year later, the representatives from the U.S. and China met to discuss the terms on uniting the two but failed to reach an agreement, leaving the Korean Peninsula divided in half at the 38th parallel.

Taegeukgi Hwinallimyeo 태극기 휘날리며 (The Brotherhood of War, 2004)
Taegeukgi Hwinallimyeo 태극기 휘날리며 (The Brotherhood of War, 2004)
Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood Of War (2004) – English Trailer // 태극기 휘날리며

Why is Korea dividedPOST-KOREAN WAR Timeline

1960 – April Revolution overthrows the autocratic Rhee administration. Rhee resigns and goes into exile. Yun Bo Seon becomes the President
1961 – General Park Chung Hee, overthrows the government through a military coup and becomes President
1962 –
Start of the Five-year plans of South Korea
1964 –
South Korea joins Vietnam War
1970 –
Start of the government-operated New Community Movement
1976 –
The Axe Murder Incident in Panmunjom, Joint Security Area, triggers the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s first official apology to the South
1977 –
South Korea celebrates 10 billion dollars gained by exports
1979 –
President Park Chung Hee is assassinated by chief of KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), Kim Jaegyu
1980 –
General Chun Doo Hwan gets military power through a coup and becomes the President / Gwangju Uprising / Martial Law is declared throughout the nation
1987 –
June Democracy Movement overthrows the autocratic Chun regime / The ruling party of Fifth republic, Democratic Justice Party, declares democratic elections
1988 –
24th Summer Olympic Games held in Seoul
1991 –
North Korea and South Korea join the United Nations (UN)
1992 –
South Korea’s first satellite, KITSAT-1, 우리별 Uribyol is successfully launched
1993 –
Test of Rodong-1, a single stage, mobile liquid propellant medium range ballistic missile by North Korea.
1994 –
Kim Jong Il takes control of North Korea upon the death of his father Kim Il-Sung. Start of the Arduous March
1999 –
North Korea promises to freeze long-range missile tests
2000 –
The first summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung is held
2002 –
The 2002 FIFA World Cup jointly held by Korea & Japan. North Korea pledges to extend moratorium on missile tests beyond 2003
2006 –
Test of Taepodong-2 missile
2007 –
The second summit is held, with Roh Moo-hyun (South) and Kim Jong Il (North) representing each side / North Korea fires short-range missile into the East Sea
2010 –
North Korea launches missile and attacks Korean Pohang class corvette, ROKS Cheonan / In November, North Korean army rains artillery fire on Yeonpyeongdo island
2011 –
Kim Jong Il dies, Kim Jong un takes over as the Supreme Leader of North Korea

Learn more about the history of Korean War – The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles) [Amazon]

Rhee Syngman 이승만

Rhee Syngman 이승만 (March 26th, 1875 – July 19th, 1965), was the first president of South Korea.

Rhee Syngman 이승만 (March 26th, 1875 – July 19th, 1965), was the first president of South Korea. In his early years, he was forced to live in exile in Hawaii and Shanghai because of the nationalist activities he participated in against Japan during the Japanese Occupation. While in the U.S., he studied at George Washington University, Harvard, and Princeton University. Rhee originally served (1920 – 1925) as president of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, until he was expelled by Kim Ku.

RELATED : Why are Koreans so furious over the Japanese “rising sun” flag? – JAPANESE OCCUPATION – Sad History. Korean Independence Fighters, March 1st Movement, who were the “comfort women”? The national anthem of Korea.

From 1934 until 1944, he zealously campaigned in New York and Washington D.C., to win international support for Korean independence. Capitalizing on his closeness and familiarity with the United States, Rhee soon built up a mass political organization. As a result, Rhee was able to be elected as the first president of South Korea in 1948 and was re-elected for three consecutive terms following that. His presidency remains controversial among historians today because of his authoritarian government but is also highly regarded for his achievements as a strong anti-Communist, and for leading South Korea through the Korean War. His presidency ended in resignation following the April Revolution. He died in exile in Hawaii.

The Making of the First Korean President: Syngman Rhee’s Quest for Independence [Amazon]

APRIL REVOLUTION

The April Revolution was a large-scale uprising led by labor and student groups, triggered by the discovery in Masan Harbor of the body of a high school student Kim Ju-yul, killed by a tear-gas shell during his participation in demonstrations against a fixed election by then ruling party of Korea in March 1960. As a result, a series of protests led to the eventual resignation of the Rhee administration and the transition to the Second Republic of South Korea.

Park Chung Hee 박정희

Park Chung Hee 박정희 (November 1917 – 26 October 1979) was a South Korean politician and general who served as the president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979

Park Chung Hee 박정희 (November 1917 – 26 October 1979) was a South Korean politician and general who served as the president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979, after seizing power through a military coup he led in 1961. Before he took over the control and became president, he was a military leader in the South Korean army and served as the chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (1961 – 1963). Park’s successful coup ended the interim government (Second Republic) and started the Third Republic. During his reign, he declared martial law and amended the constitution into a highly authoritarian form, termed the Yushin 유신 (reformation) Constitution. Park led a series of monumental campaigns that transformed the devastated nation into an economic powerhouse, which is better known today as the Miracle on The Han River.” Despite the economic success, there was a political discourse among the people in the office, and Park was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, the then director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). After his death, South Korea’s economic growth continued thanks to the strong foundations established under his leadership, but some also criticize that they were achieved at the expense of civil liberties.

The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea [Amazon]

Wonder how North Korea, who chose a vastly different path, is doing? Ever since 1974, which was the last time North Korea was ever ahead of South Korea in terms of GNI, the gap continued to widen and in 2018, North Koreans made a mere $1,300 USD per person while South Koreans made $29,900 USD per person. GDP wise, the North made  1/43 of what the South made. “The Miracle on the Han River” is one of the most remarkable achievements of modern Korean history, which made Korea a model example for developing countries hoping to emulate the success.

An image showing the Korean peninsula at night in the year 2012.
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

RELATED : WHY do Koreans work so darn hard? WHAT is the “Miracle on the Han River 한강의 기적”? Understand the history behind Korea’s economic development!

WHO ARE THE “KIM DYNASTY”?

The "Kim Dynasty" is a tongue-in-cheek expression that refers to the absolute power of the North Korean leadership, which has been passed down for three generations, termed so because it's something you'd see in the dynastic era. Ever since he was named the first leader of the provisional communist government set up in the North by the Soviet Union after the division of Korea in 1945, he never gave up his ambition to unify Korea under a communist government.
From Left: Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un
Image of Kim Jong-Un (background removed) by The Presidential Press and Information Office (Kremlin.ru) licensed under CC-BY-4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en)

The “Kim Dynasty” is a tongue-in-cheek expression that refers to the absolute power of the North Korean leadership, which has been passed down for three generations, termed so because it’s something you’d see in the dynastic era. Ever since he was named the first leader of the provisional communist government set up in the North by the Soviet Union after the division of Korea in 1945, he never gave up his ambition to unify Korea under a communist government.

As a result, he started the Korean War and committed numerous atrocities against the South, including military provocations and terrorist attacks on civilians. Domestically, he showed outstanding ability in political maneuvering. He further consolidated his absolute power through the reign of terror and ruthlessly purging political opponents who threatened his throne. Through Juche Sasang 주체사상 “Juche Ideology,” which adopted and modified the communist ideology to be in line with North Korea’s situation, the North Korean society developed a cult of individuality and worshipped him by calling suryongnim 수령님 (“Great Leader”). When he suddenly died in 1994, his body was embalmed and placed in a public mausoleum at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun 금수산 태양궁전 as has been the case with many other idolized communist leaders. 

As a result of Kim Il-sung’s death, his son Kim Jong-il was named leader after him, and was revered as widaehan yongdoja 위대한 영도자 (“Great Leader”). Kim Jong-ile was determined (or does it run in the family?) to carry on the late father’s grand ambition to communize the South with force, and made numerous provocations such as terrorist attacks against the South Korean civilians (a Korean Air Flight 858 exploded in mid-air by a bomb set up by 2 North Korean spies), launching missiles, as well as developing nuclear missiles.  

After Kim Jong-il’s unexpected death was announced in 2011, his son Kim Jong-un, took over power and was immediately revered as a choego yongdoja 최고 영도자 (“Supreme Leader”). And because he studied in Switzerland as a child and experienced capitalism and freedom, people expected that he would lead North Korea to eventually open up, but instead, he chose the path of ruthless dictatorship like his ancestors. As of 2019, North Korea is recognized as a “de facto nuclear power” by the international community, which the three-generation regime has been using as a tactic to maintain its existence. In 2018, Kim Jong-un had an Inter-Korea summit with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to discuss the official ending of the Korean War. The same year a U.S.-North Korea summit with President Donald Trump took place to discuss the possibility of completely abandoning nuclear weapons in return for massive economic aid while guaranteeing the existence of the Kim Jong-un regime. Permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula seemed to be within reach, but due to the wide disagreements on the terms, no tangible results have come from the negotiation at this time.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom [Amazon]

WHAT IS THE “BAEKDU BLOODLINE”?

Mt. Baekdu
Laika ac from USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bakedu heyoltong 백두혈통 (“Baekdu Bloodline.”) The term “Baekdu” comes from Baekdusan 백두산 (“Mount Baekdu,”) a sacred, and the tallest mountain, on the Korean Peninsula, which North Korea claims to be the base of Kim Il-sung‘s anti-Japanese activities, as well as the birthplace of Kim Jong-il. However, critics claim that these words were entirely made up by Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, to justify the succession of power within the family. In 2013 the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System proclaimed,” The supreme leader in North Korea can only be of Baekdu Bloodline,” and Kim Jong-un‘s power is expected to remain for a considerable amount of time.

DID YOU KNOW THAT KOREA IS STILL AT WAR?

Although the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27th, 1953, no peace treaty was signed, which means technically, South and North Korea are still at war. In 2018, the leaders of South and North Korea met at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to discuss the matter.

Although the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27th, 1953, no peace treaty was signed, which means technically, South and North Korea are still at war. In 2018, the leaders of South and North Korea met at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to discuss the matter.

WHY DO KOREAN MALES HAVE TO GO TO THE MILITARY?

All Korean males, including your favorite K-Pop idol oppa, who have reached the age of 18, and meet a certain level of physical, mental, and academic requirements, are required to serve in the military for a minimum of 18 months (more for Navy and Air Force). The timing of enlistment may be deferred for reasons permitted by the law. Also, if you win an international competition/sports competition (such as the Olympics and music competition) or a certain level of prize set forth by the law, you are exempted from military service (but you will still be required to receive basic military training for four weeks). If it’s difficult to serve in the military for various reasons, alternative service can be performed, such as public service personnel or working at a designated enterprise selected by the Commissioner of the Military Manpower.  

How much do soldiers get paid? As of 2020, a newly joined private will receive ₩408,100 won (about $380 USD) a month, which is 50% of the minimum wage set by the law. While in the military, anyone, including entertainers, can’t engage in commercial activities such as appearing on TV or performing at concerts, and it causes significant damage to those who are at their prime (of course it does the same to any other Korean males, for that matter). Fans of globally renowned K-Pop bands have petitioned to consider applying the exemption rule to treat their achievements the same as having won a prize at an international music competition and thus elevated the country’s reputation but to no avail. 

The mandatory military service also creates a number of social issues. Some of the rich and the powerful were called on the carpet for using dishonest methods to have their sons exempted from military enlistment.

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