A Divided Country
Korea Since 1945
Freedom House: at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea
Icon of North and South Korea with respective flags
Cold War: US and Soviet flags
The Cold War
The Cold War first erupted into heated conflict on the Korean peninsula, and the Cold War lingers on still today in Korea long after it has passed into history almost everywhere else. ... Soviet Russian troops had already entered the peninsula from the north on August 9, 1945, during the final days of World War II. The first U.S. occupation forces in Korea did not arrive in the south until September 8, a full month later. The arriving American GIs found, as one report to the State Department concluded on September 15, “a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark.”
North Korea with image of founder Kim Il-Sung and South Korea with founder Syngman Rhee
Amid the gathering signs of what would soon become an open cold war rivalry between the two former World War II Allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, there was a not unreasonable fear in Washington that the Soviets might press their early advantage to overrun the entire Korean peninsula. A joint partition of Korea was therefore hastily arranged, and it was actually the U.S. Pentagon that somewhat arbitrarily decided on the thirty-eighth parallel — a mere line on a Pentagon office wall map, reflecting no particular preexisting cultural or geographical conditions — as the point of division between the U.S. and Soviet zones. ... The newly elected Korean National Assembly then selected Syngman Rhee to serve as the first president in July, and on August 15, 1948, the establishment of the Republic of Korea (commonly known as South Korea) was formally proclaimed. Less than a month later, on September 9, a rival Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was created in the north. Kim Il Sung ... was designated premier (later, president). By early 1949, both the Soviet Union and the United States had withdrawn their troops from Korea, and the postwar Allied military occupation of Korea was over. (HEA, 330-1)
Icon of North and South Korea with respective flags
Korean woman with a child standing in front of a tank
The Korean War
Map showing shifting boundary between North and South Korea[In late 1949 and early 1950, there] seemed to be signals that the United States might not actively intervene in a Korean civil war, or be willing to shed vast quantities of American blood to prevent a forcible North Korean reunification of the peninsula. In 1950, therefore, Joseph Stalin finally gave his approval to Kim Il Sung’s ambitious plan of attack — with the understanding that there would be no active Russian participation. ... South Korea had a larger population than the north — approximately two-thirds of Korea’s total — but most of Korea’s existing heavy industry was located in the north. The northern military forces were also better equipped ... [and] as many as one hundred thousand North Korean soldiers had previous combat experience fighting with the Chinese communist forces during China’s civil war. These troops were already battle hardened, and their prior service in the Chinese communist cause also established an ominous burden of debt that the Chinese communists felt obliged to repay. ...

Map showing military movements in the Korean WarIn the early morning hours before dawn on June 25, 1950, North Korean forces staged a massive offensive south across the line of the thirty-eighth parallel. ... President Truman fully committed U.S forces in Korea and also ordered the American Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straits to prevent a possible communist invasion of Taiwan. ... The defense of South Korea became a UN action. Eventually some fifteen countries would contribute soldiers to the war effort, although by far the largest foreign contingent came from the United States. ... By the third week of the war, over half of South Korea had been captured by northern armies. With only light handheld weapons to confront the northern armored vehicles, the first American units that engaged the enemy also fell back quickly. Eventually, however, UN forces were able to dig in and hold a defensive perimeter of about fifty square miles around the southeastern Korean port city of Pusan, which provided an essential base for resupply and buildup for a counteroffensive. ...

Map showing the mudflats of Inchon with US ships

Map showing military movements in the Korean WarNext, in a daring gamble, General MacArthur staged an amphibious landing farther up the west coast at Inch’on, on September 15. Inch’on is an important port city, serving the southern capital Seoul, but it has no nice sandy beaches and features one of the world’s most extreme tidal ranges. At low tide, an amphibious invasion must confront miles of mudflats. Inch’on could very easily have become a deathtrap for the UN soldiers, and MacArthur decided to strike there against much contrary advice — but he was fortunate, this time. Inch’on turned out to be perhaps the single greatest triumph in General MacArthur’s long and distinguished military career. A mighty invasion armada consisting of 261 ships put the American X Corps ashore with the loss of only 536 men. By the end of September, the North Korean forces had been driven back to the place from which they had started, across the thirty-eighth parallel. ...

Map showing military movements in the Korean WarOn September 30, the first South Korean troops passed north across the thirty-eighth parallel. On October 2, the Chinese premier (Zhou Enlai) formally notified the Indian ambassador that China would intervene if any American troops crossed the parallel. ... Although this Chinese message was repeated through several channels, it was evidently not taken seriously. On October 7, the American First Cavalry crossed the thirty-eighth parallel heading into North Korea. On October 19, the North Korean capital fell, and by October 26 advanced units of the UN forces had reached as far as the Yalu River, which marks the border between Korea and China. A few days earlier, on October 15, at an historic meeting on Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, General MacArthur personally assured President Truman that there was “very little” chance of Chinese intervention in the war. Even if the Chinese did intervene, MacArthur boasted that they would be easily crushed in what he predicted would be “the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind.”

Chinese poster with the words "The Korean People's Army and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army will be Victorious for 10,000 Years"
10,000 Years of Victory for the Korean People's Army and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army

Map showing military movements in the Korean WarThe very next day, on October 16, Chinese so-called “volunteers” began crossing the Yalu River into North Korea, undetected by UN observers. Given the vast disparity in military firepower between the United States and China at that time (this was, furthermore, a People’s Republic of China that was still scarcely a year old), China’s decision to enter the war was an enormous gamble. ... Most senior Chinese leaders were reluctant to go to war against the powerful American armed forces, especially after Joseph Stalin belatedly informed them that the Soviet Union would not provide air support. But Mao Zedong calculated that the U.S. would be unwilling to wage an unlimited total war, and Mao was also confident in his doctrine of “people’s war,” which relied on huge Chinese resources of manpower rather than technology. ... On November 27, the Chinese struck in full force. Within a week, the center of the UN line had fallen back again some fifty miles. By January 4, 1951, the South Korean capital at Seoul had fallen to the enemy for a second time.

President Truman relieving General MacArthur of his duty

General MacArthur seems to have felt at this point that the best military response to Chinese intervention in Korea would be to escalate the war by taking the offensive to the Chinese homeland. President Truman and the Joint Chiefs, however, sensibly enough, did not relish the idea of turning a limited, if nasty, war in Korea into a general World War III. ... When President Truman ordered that all future public statements concerning Korean War be cleared through the State Department, General MacArthur proceeded to violate this presidential directive repeatedly. MacArthur’s complaint was that the restraints being imposed on his war effort by civilian politicians were preventing him from winning total victory. In March 1951, MacArthur even wrote a letter endorsing the idea of “unleashing” Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese from Taiwan to open a second front against the Chinese communists. When this letter was read aloud on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. president viewed it as outright insubordination, and on April 11 President Truman officially relieved General MacArthur of his command.

Korean War Memorial in Washington D.C.

The bloodiest phase of the combat in Korea was still yet to come, but by June 1951 the war had reached an effective stalemate not far from its original starting point at the thirty-eighth parallel. Cease-fire talks began, and a truce was declared on July 27, 1953. The war in Korea had cost the United States some thirty-three thousand lives. China lost roughly eight hundred thousand, including Chairman Mao’s own son. The conflict left a staggering three million Koreans killed, wounded, or missing — one out of every ten. In the north, the war provided Kim Il Sung with an opportunity to further consolidate his power. In South Korea, it helped pave the way for three decades of authoritarian military rule. In China, the war greatly increased the prestige of the infant People’s Republic, which had taken on the world’s leading military superpower and not been clearly defeated. To the present day, two mutually hostile Koreas still confront each other across a heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ). An official end to the war has yet to be arranged. (HEA, 331-5)

Icon of North and South Korea with respective flags

Diagram showing North Korean tunnel into South Korea with photo underneath

Icon of North and South Korea with respective flags

A Tale of Two Koreas: chart comparing various statistics on North and South Korea

Icon of North and South Korea with respective flags

The Kim Dynasty: 3 generations of North Korean leaders: Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un
North Korea
Juche: "Long Live the Great Juche (self-reliance) Ideal"In the immediate aftermath of the war, with substantial Soviet assistance, and through energetic mass mobilization of its population, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recovered from the extensive destruction surprisingly quickly. For many years, the North Korean economy even appeared to be more vigorous than that of the south. But the North Koreans were reluctant to fully acknowledge the massive contribution that had been made by China in saving them from defeat during the war, or the important Soviet role in establishing Kim Il Sung as leader in the first place, and North Korea began charting a resolutely independent course. ... [After Kim Il Sung’s] disastrously failed attempt to conquer the south and reunify Korea, he developed his own unique philosophy of juche, or “self-reliance,” beginning around 1955. Juche became the core ideology of North Korea, to a large extent replacing orthodox Marxism. This ideology was then drummed into the entire population through morning-to-night loudspeaker broadcasts and obligatory political study sessions. The growing personality cult of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung “became a kind of secular religion” in which Kim Il Sung performed the role of “a living sage-king or god.” (HEA, 335-6)
Cult of Personality poster of Kim Il Sung
North Korea Icon
Guns or Butter?
Guns or Butter?
Despite the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s apparent early achievements in economic development, these eventually gave way to stagnation and decay. Available resources were diverted to military applications, which, by the late 1960s, consumed some 30 percent of the total national budget. In 1995-1996, serious erosion problems stemming from years of poor land management, combined with the declining availability of fertilizer and a lack of electric power for irrigation pumps, as well as some bad weather, resulted in a truly massive famine that even North Korea could not conceal. Perhaps as many as a million people died from malnutrition (in a country that today has a total population of less than twenty-five million). (HEA, 336-7)
Chart showing food shortage in North Korea
Lightbulb ("electricity" icon)
Satelite photo showing North Korea completely dark at night (i.e. no electricity)
Guns or Butter?
"Our troops will fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon" (July, 2014)
The Nuclear Threat
North Korea has a military nuclear weapons program and, as of early 2020, is estimated to have an arsenal of approximately 30 to 40 nuclear weapons and sufficient production of fissile material for six to seven nuclear weapons per year. North Korea has also stockpiled a significant quantity of chemical and biological weapons. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Since 2006, the country has been conducting a series of six nuclear tests at increasing levels of expertise, prompting the imposition of sanctions. (Wikipedia)
Movie poster for "The Interview"Under its youthful new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, since 2011 North Korea has appeared, if anything, even more volatile. In 2013, Kim purged and killed his own uncle, who had been the number two leader. In December 2014, the FBI identified North Korea as the culprit behind a cyberattack targeting the Sony Pictures movie “The Interview” — a comedy about a fictional assassination attempt on Kim Jong-un — which included making terroristic threats against movie audiences in the U.S., and which forced Sony to withdraw the film from theatrical release. Even the People’s Republic of China, which in 2010 still refused to condemn North Korea after it (was widely suspected of having) torpedoed and sunk a South Korean navy frigate, with considerable loss of life, and shelled a South Korean island causing civilian as well as military casualties, and which is probably North Korea’s only significant foreign friend in the world, nonetheless now enjoys vastly greater cultural and commercial ties with South Korea than with the north. (HEA, 338)
Cartoon of Kim Jung-un with Nuclear Weapons
Trump/Kim "Peace Talks" Coin
Trump/Kim Summit
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Image of South Korea
South Korea
The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was founded in 1948 as a constitutional democracy, but true democracy in South Korea did not flourish immediately, at least not without qualification. Based on a series of major constitutional revisions, and a couple of military coups, South Korea has gone through a succession of six different so-called “Republics” since 1948, the most recent of which began in 1987. Despite a veneer of democracy, the first president of the First Republic, Syngman Rhee, had somewhat authoritarian inclinations. On one occasion, he literally locked up members of the National Assembly until they voted as he desired. ... Almost immediately after its formation, his new country had been plunged into a devastating war with the north. Even after the end of active combat, in the 1950s, South Korea long remained one of the poorest countries on earth. Even communist North Korea appeared more economically successful than South Korea until as late as the mid-1970s. A U.S.-backed program of compulsory land redistribution did, however, finally destroy the power base of the old Korean yangban aristocracy. ... Korean society was transformed from a highly polarized hierarchy to a relatively egalitarian community — a feature that postwar South Korea also had in common with both postwar Japan and Taiwan. (HEA, 338-9)
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"The 10 Largest Chaebols' Share of South Korea's GDP (2011)
The Korean word chaebol is written with the same two Chinese characters as the Japanese word zaibatsu, and the two are somewhat similar phenomena: essentially, holding companies controlling a range of highly diversified enterprises. ... As of 1991, sales of South Korea’s largest five chaebol amounted to almost 50 percent of total gross national product (GNP). In that year, Samsung’s share of Korea’s GNP alone was equal to the combined total share of the largest twenty American companies in the U.S. They also became remarkably all encompassing: “The typical Hyundai worker drives a Hyundai car, lives in a Hyundai apartment, gets his mortgage from Hyundai credit, receives health care at Hyundai hospital, sends his kids to school on Hyundai loans or scholarships, and eats his meals at Hyundai cafeterias.” 

Hyundai Cars

Chart showing Hyundai corporation structure

Like the pre-World-War II Japanese zaibatsu and the postwar Japanese keiretsu, the South Korean chaebol had highly diversified interests, but unlike the Japanese keiretsu, the Korean chaebol were generally not linked to major banks and were therefore ultimately dependent on outside financing. Because they also normally wished to retain ownership and management privately in the hands of a single family, moreover, Korean chaebol were usually also reluctant to go public on the stock market. ... Instead of coming from the stock market, therefore, much capital investment has come in the form of bank loans. Because banking was substantially controlled by the government, these bank loans, together with licensing authority, became key instruments of the South Korean development state. (HEA, 341-2)
Chart showing rapid rise of South Korean GDP
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Map showing South Korea's interactions with the rest of the world
Initially, cheap labor had been South Korea’s principal comparative advantage in the global marketplace, and domestic austerity had been strongly encouraged. ... But by the 1980s, things had begun to seriously change. In the space of a single generation, South Korea had moved dramatically from what had still been a poor and largely peasant society in the 1940s-1950s to a modern, industrialized, and increasingly affluent urban middle-class society. ... With the boom of the 1980s, wages went up sharply, automobiles began to fill the once nearly empty streets, and import restrictions finally began to be lifted. Beginning in 1989, for the first time, passports became easily available to South Koreans wishing to leave the country, and foreign travel has since become much more common. (HEA, 346)
Image of Seoul, South Korea
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Gangnam Style Video
Gangnam Style
Contemporary Pop Culture
Starting in the 1990s, a so-called “Korean wave” (hallyu) of fascination for South Korean television programming, movies, music (K-Pop), and other pop cultural items, as well as for the material products of South Korean industry such as cell phones and automobiles, has swept across much of Asia. Although the astonishing worldwide Internet success of Psy’s (Park Jae-sang, 1977-) music video “Gangnam Style” might be dismissed as a one-time novelty song fluke, within Asia the Korean wave is real and substantial. (HEA, 348)
KPop Video
KPop Icon
BTS on Jimmy Falon
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Poster for Korean Drama "Itaewon Class"
KDrama Icon
Poster for KDrama "Mr. Sunshine"
Cartoon of a Korean man and woman in traditional dress