Korean Peninsula has always been a conflict zone for warring factions in the regions vying for supremacy, but the last century has probably been the darkest in Korean history, with unspeakable atrocities, subjugation by foreign powers, countless wars, and the worst of all, a proud & unified region Korea split into two rival nations. The unifying national spirit of the Korean people – shattered.
Background before the split
Korean Peninsula was once united under the rule of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled the peninsula from 1392 to 1897, and later as a perfunctory client kingdom of the Qing Dynasty. Joseon dynasty later formed the Kingdom of Korea in 1897, which stood until the annexation by the Japanese Empire in 1910.
After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, which resulted in a humiliating defeat of the Russians by the Empire of Japan, the Russian Empire was forced to cede control and influence in the East Asian region of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, resulting the later becoming a protectorate of the Empire of Japanese until 1910 when it was annexed outright.
Allied Occupation & Division of the Korean Peninsula
The end of the Second World War and the subsequent defeat of the Empire of Japan resulted in the Korean Peninsula being occupied by the Allied forces. The Soviets were in control of the Northern region and the United States in the South. Once united, Korea split along the 38th parallel. A provisional government was proclaimed under the name People’s Republic of Korea(PRK) under the leadership of Syngman Rhee as the president, but the PRK was short-lived as it was outlawed in the American-occupied South and was incorporated into the existing chain in the Soviet-occupied North.
In the Moscow Conference of 1945, the Allied forces agreed to form a trusteeship over Korea for a period of five years which would eventually lead up to an independent Korea. This didn’t sit well with many Koreans who demanded independence immediately and rose up in rebellion but were squashed by their respective occupiers. But with the onset of the Cold War, any US-Soviet Commission talk went nowhere.
In 1946, a provincial government was formed in Soviet-occupied Korea, called the Provisional People’s Committee under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, whereas the Southern affair was administered by Lieutenant General John R. Hodge of the US Army and later by the South Korean Legislative Assembly elected in October 1946.
Due to the heightening tension between the occupiers and the rebellion in the region, it was made illegal to cross the 38th parallel(the de-facto border between the Northern and Southern regions) without a permit.
With the failure of the US-Soviet Joint Commission, the matter of Korea was brought before the newly formed United Nations in 1947. UN passed a resolution stating that free elections should be held, withdrawal of foreign troops, and the creation of a UN commission for Korea, the United Nations Temporary Commission of Korea (UNTCOK).
The Soviet Union boycotted the voting, and in the absence of Soviet cooperation, Elections were held in the south only, and on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea, with Syngman Rhee as the first president, formally took over the control from US Military. In response to this, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared on September 9, 1948, with Kim Il-sung as Prime Minister.
Korean Peninsula, after millennia of being united, was divided into two by the great powers and against the wishes of its people. In 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack on its southern counterpart with the goal to unite the Korean Peninsula under its banner. They quickly overran the Southern troops and captured over 90% of South Korean territory.
The United Nations, led by the US, intervened to save South Korea, which they considered only legitimate Korea, and they quickly pushed the North Korean troops back past the 38th parallel. General Douglas MacArthur stated his intention not just to drive the North Korean troops back but to unify Korea. This was despite warnings from the People’s Republic of China and their threat to get involved if UN forces crossed the 38th parallel. Which they eventually did.
With Chinese involvement, the conflict became a stalemate, and by 1951, the borders stabilized around the 38th parallel and are still in effect to this day known as DMZ (De-Militarised Zone). Both sides signed an armistice in 1953.
Since the Korean War, the Korean Peninsula has remained in a state of conflict, with both sides claiming to be the legitimate government of Korea. But reunification is something both nations agree on.
There are several efforts made for the unification of both countries. The most recent process of reunification was started by the June 15th North-South Joint Korea Declaration in 2000 and reaffirmed by the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, but the possibilities to erase the split look bleak.
North Korea lashed out against South Korean President Park Guen-hye’s Dresden declaration, where she suggested a reunification similar to German reunification in 1990.
The situation surrounding the German reunification couldn’t be more different from the Korean one.
After the Korean War, South Korea thrived under capitalism, whereas the North suffered under the Kim family rule. South Korea has a nominal GDP nearly a hundred times that of North Korea and a younger population that is against reunification.
In a recent survey by the Korean Institute for National Unification, over 72% of those under the 20s believe reunification to be unnecessary, considering the accommodation the South has to make to get the North’s economy anywhere near theirs.
The potential of a unified Korea is enormous. According to a study by Goldman Sachs in 2009, a unified Korea will have an economy larger than Japan by 2050. A unified Korea will have access to cheap labor and untapped natural resources of the North and the existing technology and capital in the South, and one of the largest standing armies to reckon with. But it still is a distant dream, which might one day become a reality but not anytime soon.
On June 16th, 2020, North Korea destroyed the two Koreas’ joint liaison office in the border city of Kaesong, further signifying the deteriorating tensions between the neighbors and tanking the reunification chances of the split nations in the near future.