After North Korea’s recent missile test, Defense Secretary James Mattis declared the nation now had the capability to hit “everywhere in the world,” demonstrating the rising tensions between the United States and North Korea. Due to this new political climate, it feels increasingly pertinent to examine the history of the peninsula and the two opposing nations. I am, of course, a Medievalist who specializes in Europe attempting to explain a modern conflict in East Asia, so you’ll have to bear with me at points; but I’ll do my very best to give Korea’s complex and intriguing history its due.
Our first question, and a very important one, is what Korea was like before it split into North and South. Literate peoples lived on the Korean peninsula as early as the 4th century BCE, and eventually 3 kingdoms developed: Goguryeo (or Koguryo), Silla, and Paekche. Between the 1st and 7th centuries BC
E, Goguryeo dominated the northern half of Korea, and most of Manchuria from their capital in the city of Pyongyang for the latter two centuries of this rule, until Silla finally united the peninsula in 668. Under the Goguryeo Dynasty, which reigned again from 918-1392, a unified Korean government extended to borders that more or less correspond with the modern borders. It is from this dynasty’s name that Korea gained its name, as it was sometimes referred to as the Koryo. The Choson (or Joseon) dynasty, which ruled the peninsula until 1910, consolidated Korea into a singular entity with distinctive cultural practices and stable borders.
Korea’s culture and language developed in a mostly homogeneous way, and those speaking regional dialects can generally understand one another within Korea. Though Korea’s customs, art forms, and religious doctrines were often adopted from their more powerful neighbors, especially Chinese culture amongst the upper class, Korea’s culture remains distinct from all of its surrounding neighbors and represents a singularly Korean identity. Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism, and the written word all came to Korea from their neighbor, and they often found themselves involved in the Chinese tribute system. Though this required they send regular gifts to the Chinese and acknowledge Chinese superiority over the Korean king, and though this curtailed parts of their foreign policy and required that they rely on the Chinese military for protection, they remained largely in control of their domestic policy.
In the 16th century, a massive Japanese invasion wracked the peninsula. Although they repelled it, a subsequent invasion by Manchurian Qing Dynasty in China at the beginning of the following century solidified them as a tribute state. In response, the reigning Choson Dynasty shut off all contact with the outside world, excepted only by sending sanctioned diplomatic contacts to China and allowing a small group of Japanese merchants in Pusan (now Busan). For 250 years, the Korean peninsula remained in relatively peaceful isolation despite growing peasant animosity beginning in 1800, referred to as a “hermit kingdom” by Westerners due to its incredible isolation.
Throughout the 19th century, Western nations such as Britain, France, and the United States all attempted to open Korea up to foreign trade, but the Japanese were the first to force a treaty on Korea in 1876. For the next quarter of a century, Japan, China, and Russia all battled for control of Korea, and after a series of wars, Japan emerged the winner, defeating the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, giving them complete control of the Korean peninsula. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, bringing the independent Korean state to an end after centuries of self-rule. The Japanese then imposed their culture upon the Koreans, even forcing them to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. Despite the brutal treatment, Japan also industrialized Korea, bringing in a significant railway network as well as modern steel, cement, and chemical plants powered by a system of coal and hydroelectric power. The northern half of the peninsula produced a large portion of the nation’s electricity, as it was abundant in resources.
In 1945, the Japanese Empire announced their official surrender at the close of World War II and the United States and the Soviet Union split Korea between them, with the US gaining control of the south and the USSR gaining control of the north. In 1948, the United States established the Republic of Korea under the auspices of President Syngman Rhee, a dictator who wished to unify the peninsula by force. Three weeks later, the Soviets established the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under Kim Il-Sung, a hardline Stalinist who fought a war of resistance against the Japanese and commanded an army equipped with Russian tanks and artillery.
After a period of occasional border skirmishes, the DPRK invaded the ROK in 1950, sweeping down the peninsula in a series of decisive battles. The US invoked the UN Charter while the USSR boycotted the organization over the UN’s refusal to unseat the delegation from Nationalist China, which still occupied a seat on the Security Council despite only truly controlling the island of Taiwan, calling for an intervention against the DPRK. UN troops, led by the US, soon flooded the peninsula and General MacArthur broke the DPRK’s army, sending them fleeing back into the north. He then followed them across the 38th parallel and marched to the border of Manchuria, claiming the war would be over by Christmas, a mistake made by many generals in the past. China unleashed its army on the UN forces in Korea, pushing them back to Seoul by New Year’s Day. By the middle of the next year, however, the battlelines stabilized at the 38th parallel. The war would not end until 1953, after two more years of entrenched combat along that border. The war left South Korea devastated, particularly with respect to its industrial and agricultural complexes.
For the rest of the 1950s, the ROK relied entirely on the US for military, economic, and political support, while the DPRK flourished with a heavily developed economy based on manufacturing. In 1960, Syngman Rhee stepped down after allegations of electoral fraud, creating the Second Republic, but political freedoms remained fairly limited. The next year, General Park Chung-hee took power through a military coup, putting into place a plan of industrial development and increased political freedoms in the Third Republic. After nine years of rule, Park instituted martial law and increases his power in the government. At the same time, the DPRK’s economy grew incredibly quickly under Kim il-Sung, who slowly and carefully built a cult of personality around himself. In 1972, the two nations held secret talks regarding a peaceful unification, but they did not result in any substantive decisions.
In 1980, General Chun Doo-hwan seized power in the ROK after Park’s assassination the year before and enstated an even harsher form of martial law, with the army gunning down around 200 student demonstrators in the Gwangju Massacre. He established the 5th Republic and was immediately elected for a seven year term. In 1986, the constitution finally changed to allow the direct election of presidents. By 1993, the ROK’s democracy consolidated itself with its first fully free and fair elections. In the DPRK, however, Kim Jong-Il had reigned since 1971 and the nation’s quick industrial growth slid to a halt. Throughout the 1990s, the nation faced a harsh famine following widespread and devastating floods. Despite the ROK’s “sunshine policy” of offering unconditional aid to their northern neighbor, the DPRK ordered large numbers of soldiers into the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries, sent two submarines into ROK waters, one of which ran aground, resulting in a firefight, and another of which was found with the crew dead inside, and fired a missile over Japan.
In the 21st century, the two Koreas have seen their fortunes flip. The ROK, once an unstable dictatorship with a middling economy, now reigns as a modernized, developed, and economically powerful democracy. Alternatively, the DPRK fell from its position as an industrial juggernaut and military powerhouse to an isolated, impoverished, and increasingly politically unstable nation under Kim Jong-Un, once again called a hermit kingdom by Western nations. It seems that, since the Cold War came to a close and the DPRK fell from its powerful position in the region, it has grown more aggressive towards its neighbors in order to retain relevance in a post-Soviet world that has left it behind.
Why does all this long and complicated history matter? Because to understand the fear the Japanese feel about a DPRK nuclear strike, one must first understand Kim Il-Sung’s origins as an anti-Japanese guerilla. We need to understand how the United States continued to support increasingly undemocratic nations in the ROK against the DPRK, as it did in other places throughout the Cold War. The animosity between the ROK and the DPRK cannot be boiled down to a simple question of two nations who want to claim the peninsula for themselves, especially as South Koreans increasingly turn against the reunification of Korea, but as the last remnant of two conflicts that pit powerful ideologies against one another, and as the outcome of imperialist measures from Japan, the USSR, and the US all placing their own goals above Korean lives.