North Korea and South Korea Conflict
Korean Peninsula: Sacrificial Pawn in Global politics
There is a famous Korean proverb “when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken” correctly depicts the Korean Peninsula’s exploitation at the hands of its larger and more powerful neighbors. For over a thousand years, successive kingdoms who had ruled over the Korean peninsula managed to maintain a society with political independence and keep cultural distinctiveness from the surrounding nations until the early twentieth century. In the twentieth century, Korea became the focal point for rival interests among neighboring countries like China, Japan, and Russia as well as the more distant United States.
In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan after years of war; the country became an outright Japanese colony until 1945. To establish control over its new protectorate, the Empire of Japan waged an all-out war on Korean culture in a manner that was strict and often brutal. Schools and universities forbade speaking Korean and emphasized loyalty to the Emperor. The whole Korean education system underwent rigorous scrutiny by Japanese occupation as teaching history from non-approved texts became a lawful crime. Authorities burned over 200,000 Korean historical documents, essentially wiping out the history of Korea. Korea saw significant migration of Korean labor as nearly 725,000 Korean workers were made to work in Japan and its other colonies. As World War II loomed, Japan unleashed its atrocities on Korea by forcing hundreds of thousands of Korean women into life as “comfort women” — sexual slaves who served in military brothels.
This view of Korea as backwards and primitive compared to Japan made it into textbooks, museums and even Koreans’ own perceptions of themselves.
However, Japan also brought the beginnings of industrial development to Korea. During the 1920s and 1930s, modern industries such as steel, cement, and chemical plants were set up in the northern part of the peninsula where coal and hydroelectric power resources were in abundance. By the time colonial rule ended after the defeat of Japan in world war II in August 1945, Korea became the second most industrialized country in Asia after Japan itself.
World War II devastated not just the Japanese empire, but the Korean Peninsula. Unlike China, Manchuria, Hong Kong, and the former Western colonies seized by Japan in 1941–42, Korea, did not have a native government or a colonial regime waiting to return after hostilities ceased. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed in August 1945 to divide the country for administrative purposes at the 38th parallel (latitude 38° N). The Korean peninsula was split into two zones of occupation — the U.S.-controlled South Korea and Soviet-controlled North Korea establishing two separate governments in Seoul and Pyongyang respectively. Kim Il-Sung, leader of North Korea, was a former guerrilla who fought under Chinese and Russian command. Syngman Rhee, a Princeton University-educated devoted anti-communist, became the first leader of South Korea.
On 25 June 1950, the Korean People’s Army backed by the Soviet Union invaded South Korea and rapidly advanced southwards circling South Korean and American troops in a small perimeter around the port of Pusan. The North Korean invasion came as an alarming surprise to American officials but as far as they were concerned, many feared it was the first step in a communist campaign to take over the world. “If we let Korea down, the Soviet[s] will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another” President Harry Truman (1884–1972) said. Korean War became a symbol of the power struggle between east and west in the alleged Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
As the North Korean army pushed into Seoul, the South Korean capital. The United Nations was quick to respond and encouraged its members to join the war to provide its support to South Korea. Many countries sent in troops, including the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, and South Africa. United Nations commander General MacArthur's strategic amphibious Inchon’s landing, a port halfway up the Korean peninsula, turned out to be a successful expedition. His forces were able to drive out KPA back to their side of the 38th parallel. But as American troops crossed the boundary and advanced north toward the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and Communist China, the Chinese started to worry about protecting themselves. At this point, China entered the war pushing United Nations forces back into the South. During the first half of 1951 fighting stalled and truce negotiations began in July. However, the negotiation talks broke down and both armies continued to face each other for the next two years.
Finally, on 27 July 1953, an armistice was signed agreeing that Korea would remain a divided country.
After the Korean War, South Korea transformed into a liberal democracy trying to separate itself from the remnants of Japanese rule. The U.S. has maintained close political, military, and economic ties with South Korea. North Korea, on the other hand, has been heavily influenced by Soviet/Russian culture and politics as well as those of China with having a highly centralized political system with a “Great Leader” (Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il since then). However, there is still very little contact between the governments or the people of North and South Korea. Dream of reunified Korea appears to be a distant memory.
Korea holds a very strategic position with regard to world’s politics making it potentially powerful to draw the attention of neighbouring countries to any conflict occurring on the peninsula. Korea may no longer be a small fish in a big pond but the waters it swims in are not yet entirely safe.