Posted: March 18th, 2023
Korean War is one of those rare events in human history: it had no official ending and had no official ending. Although there is a marked date for the beginning of War, June 25, 1950, when the 75,000 North Korean soldiers invaded South Korea across the 38th parallel, War was never officially declared and in July of 1953 an armistice was signed between North Korea and the United Nations forces but an official treaty ending the War was never signed and, although the Cold War has ended on the world stage it continues between the nations of North and South Korea (Stueck).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the peninsula of Korea was part of the Japanese empire. When World War II ended, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union were faced with how to deal with the various possessions of the former Japanese empire (Chang). Unceremoniously, the decision as to how to handle the Korean peninsula fell into the lap of two low level US. State Department officials (McCune). For reasons never explained, the two unnamed officials decided to divide the Korean peninsula in half at the 38th parallel with the Soviet Union occupying the Northern half and the United States occupying the Southern half. Under the direction of the Soviet Union and the United States the two halves began to organize their own governments in accordance with the political and economic policies of their respective occupiers. Needless to say, in the North a Communist style government was organized while in the South attempts at forming democratic governments were made but the influence of dictator Syngman Rhee proved too powerful and the U.S. government made the decision to support Rhee. The result was of the formation of two dictatorships. The North Korean government was under the direction of Kim II Sung who was supported by the Soviet government while in the South the government was directed by Syngman Rhee.
Both Sung in the North and Rhee in the South, however, were not content to live in a divided Korea. Sung and Rhee both had visions of a united Korea and late in 1949 and early 1950 border skirmishes began to break out along the 38th parallel as both dictators began to jockey for position. Within a few months nearly 10,000 North and South Korean forces had lost their lives in these “minor” skirmishes.
In the initial stages of the Korean conflict the United States and Soviet Union largely kept themselves divorced from the border skirmishes and, as a result, when the North Koreans ultimately crossed over the 38th parallel in June of 1950 the United States was left wondering what the nature of the invasion was. The United States prior to the invasion was content to allow the border skirmishes to continue and viewed the situation as an internal one for Rhee and his government. The full scale invasion, however, was looked upon much differently by the U.S. And because fears of a Communist expansion throughout the world was paramount in the minds of most Americans North Korea’s invasion was considered the first step forward in such expansion efforts. This American fear motivated the United States to become involved under the auspices of the United Nations and the minor border skirmish escalated into a full-scale War.
The Korean War took on many different looks. It began as a defensive war where the goal was for the UN forces to reclaim the areas occupied by the North Koreans and to force the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel but within months the strategy had changed and the UN forces became determined to liberate North Korea from the Communists. Initially, this liberation tactic was successful but the War eventually developed into a virtual stalemate. A stalemate that lasted for nearly two years and which resulted in an armistice being signed in July of 1953.
Even the actual fighting in Korea was short-lived the casualty levels were exceptionally high. In three years, nearly 5 million people lost their lives with half of those casualties being civilians. In fact, nearly 10% of the Korean population living at the time that the War broke out lost their lives during the conflict.
The Korean War had a lasting effect on the citizens of both North and South Korea. The citizens of the Korean peninsula had suffered through the period of colonization by the Japanese since 1931, and then the tensions and sense of crisis brought on by the Korean War so by the time of the signing of the armistice in 1953 many of those living in Korea had known nothing but conflict and unrest for all their lives.
In North and South Korea, most of the inhabitants had known nothing but the confines of their own villages prior to the War. The ravages of the War, however, caused many to venture outside of their villages for the first time either through military service or as refugees. For many these new exposures were not good ones. The War caused the nation to fall into the depths of poverty and it would take years for the South Koreans to re-establish any state of normalcy and the trauma of the years of colonization and war were not only felt by the generation that had experienced it but was also passed onto the succeeding generation as well.
The refugee problem in post-war South Korea was significant. South Korea had to find a way to not only deal with their own refugees following the War they also had to address the needs of over a million North Koreans who were seeking new homes in the South. Those from the North and a great number of the displaced South Koreans settled in South Korean cities which resulted in a major urbanization of South Korean society. Unfortunately, the South Korean government was not equipped to handle the influx of refugees and the result was the emergence of slum areas in South Korean cities.
In North Korea, following the War, Kim Sung worked to secure this position as dictator (Lankov). There were some several minor threats to Sung’s power but they were systematically purged by Sung and he established himself as the permanent and total dictator in North Korea. Sung’s control of the North Korean government was complete. Every aspect of the government and the economy was state controlled which led to a state of stagnation developing. The country was also plagued by several natural disasters that, when combined with the economic mismanagement caused by Sung’s and his advisors caused the nation to become heavily dependent on the receipt of foreign aid in order to feed the North Korean people. Meanwhile, however, the North Korean government maintained its heavy military build-up. Sung moved after the War to separate his nation’s dependence on China and part of this break with China included Sung developing one of the largest standing armies in the world.
Although Sung’s power and authority was never seriously challenged following the end of the Korean War, his government still maintained a systemic pattern of human rights violations. Information emanating out of North Korea was sketchy but there were regular reports of torture, public executions, slave labor, and infanticide. Anyone expressing displeasure of any kind was subject to incarceration in a prison camp.
It was Sung’s theory after the War to create a nation built on self-reliance. Sung’s goal, described as juche, was to build a nation focused on industrialization that would rebuild the country after years of war and colonial domination and allow it to become totally self-reliant in regard to food, technology and all domestic needs. Sung’s goal was to eliminate any North Korean dependence on imports.
From the beginning Sung’s economic program struggled but with assistance from the Soviet Union and Red China, North Korea was able to move forward but the program began to stall significantly when North Korea suddenly found itself caught between a power struggle with the Soviets and Chinese. In the end the Soviets determined that North Korea was siding too heavily in favor of Red China and so the Soviets began to withdraw their support. Gradually the loss of Soviet support affected the struggling North Korean economy and by the early 1970s the North Korean economy was on the verge of collapse.
Kim Sung II, the dictator who led North Korea through its transition from a Japanese colony, its involvement in the Korean War, and in the years subsequent as North Korea attempted to become self-reliant, died in 1994 leaving a country that continued to struggle economically. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il. At the time of Kim Sung II’s death, North Korea remained heavily dependent on foreign aid to feed its people.
By the end of the Korean War, South Korea lay devastated. The economic infrastructure of the nation was in ruins, millions of its citizens had lost their lives, and millions more were homeless. As the War ended, South Korea was among the poorest nations in the world. Despite extensive assistance from the United States and the United Nations, the South Korean economy failed to rebound and it took nearly a decade before the South Korean economy began to demonstrate any significant improvement. Oddly the South Korean improvement coincided with the rise to power of Park Chung Hee (Vu). Prior to 1961, South Korea was ruled by a civilian government but a military coup occurred in 1961 which brought to power Major General Park Chung Hee. Under Park, the South Korean economy began to show improvement.
Park was assassinated in 1979 and things were in turmoil in South Korea for a few short years. During such time, South Korea again attempted civilian government but it was unsuccessful. A new militarily controlled government assumed control under the leadership of General Chun Doo Hwan. The economy rebounded during Chun’s tenure but he was never able to attain the popularity enjoyed by his predecessor, Park Chung Hee. Chun led the South Korean government through its rise to prosperity and its procuring the 1988 Olympics but stepped down prior to the Olympics actually being held in South Korea. In 1987, Chun stepped down and his close friend, Roh Tae Woo, assumed leadership and was subsequently elected president in South Korea’s third attempt at establishing a stable civilian government. Four years later, Kim Young Sam, succeeded Roh Tae Woo and, by doing so, became South Korea’s first non-military leader since the military coup in 1961 (Cotton). Since Chun election South Korea has continued to maintain a civilian government and has gradually become more democratic. Additionally, the South Korean government has attempted to open the door toward increasing dialogue with the North Korean government and people.
As indicated earlier, the Cold War ended in most of the world in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapses but in Korea the tensions and hostilities have remained. Communications between the neighboring countries, including phone calls and letters between citizens, were virtually non-existent. This condition had existed since shortly before the commencement of hostilities between the two nations and has continued. Strangely, a situation that was created by totally artificial means through the work of two anonymous U.S. State Department clerks has resulted in a bitter and enduring national division.
There have been some positive signs that the division between the two nations is lessening (Soon-young). As both nations have expressed a desire of eventually reuniting into a single nation the eventuality must be considered but as of now the division remains strong.
The best chance of a reunion between North and South Korea occurred during the presidency of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung. Kim Dae-jung, in an effort to bring the two nations closer together, introduced his “sunshine policy (Lee).” As part of his efforts to promote his sunshine policy, Kim Dae-jung negotiated a summit meeting between himself and Kim Jong II where the differences between the two nations were discussed. The result of this summit meeting was that the two Korean leaders agreed to resolve humanitarian issues, reopen borders and attempt to unite families divided by the War. Unfortunately, the promises made proved to be meaningless and none of the agreements ever came to fruition. None of the thousands of divided families were ever reunited, communications were not opened between the two countries, and the North Korean government has reverted to its old methods of remaining non-communicative with their South Korean neighbors.
To Kim Dae-jung’s credit, despite the failure of North Korea to live up to its promises, he never abandoned the dreams of his sunshine policy. After his death in 2009, it was revealed that Kim Dae-jung induced Kim Jung to participate in the Summit through the payment of $500 million. Obvious questions were asked as to what use the North Korean government put said money but Kim Dae-jung’s intentions were never at issue. In fact, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
In addition to the Summit meeting and as part of his sunshine policy Kim Dae-jung also provided North Korea with assistance in a variety of other ways. Kim sent thousands of tons of fertilizer and food supplies to the North Korean government throughout his entire presidency without seeking anything in return except the good will and the cooperation of the North Koreans. Kim Dae-jung tried relentlessly to convince the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear testing and to convince the U.S. Government to lessen their hard-line policy toward North Korea but the North Koreans continued to pursue their testing and the United States was unconvinced.
Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued his sunshine policy through his administration but the public pressure created by the expense of the program and the lack of cooperation from the North Korean government eventually caused political problems and the program was abandoned as Lee Myung-bak assumed office. Lee Myung-bak was far more conservative in his approach to North Korea and, as a result, the sunshine policy was abandoned by the South Korean government.
Another event that demonstrates the intransience and unreliability of the North Korean government occurred during the sunshine policy period. Inside North Korea was a location Mt. Kumgang, considered by some to be the most beautiful mountain on the Korean peninsula. A gentleman by the name of Chung Ju Yung, founder of the highly successful South Korean company, Hyundai, had a desire to open access to Mt. Kumgang to all Koreans, North and South. Chung Ju Yung approached the leaders of North Korea twice with the prospect of negotiating the necessary arrangements (Lim). The first attempt preceded the adoption of the sunshine policy and was entirely unsuccessful but his second attempt was done under the auspices of the policy and a plan was agreed to and formulated. The plan for opening the Mt. Kumgang site for tourism was looked upon by the South Korean government as a sterling example of how the sunshine policy could result in positive changes in the relationship between the two Koreas.
The plan that was formulated was financially very beneficial to the North Korean government. North Korea stood to gain not only yearly from the contract negotiated by Hyundai’s Chung Ju Yung but to also profit by the creation of jobs in the building of the resort which was constructed to accommodate the tourists visiting Mt. Kumgang. Unfortunately, serious problems developed in the cooperative effort between the two nations due to a variety of factors including poor planning, inadequate funding, and a miscalculation in the number of tourists interested in visiting the Mt. Kumgang area. As a result of these problems, the terms of the agreement between North and South Korea had to be changed on several occasions but the tourism continued despite these problems but two unrelated events, one a detention of a tourist and the second a killing of a tourist. Security had always been a concern surrounding the Mt. Kumgang site both from the standpoint of the tourists visiting the site and North Korea’s need to keep their citizens isolated from the tourists. The two incidents highlighted both nations’ concerns and the plan was suspended following the second incident. Discussions regarding the resumption were conducted by leaders from the Hyundai corporation and an agreement was thought to have been negotiated with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, but the tourism trade between North and South Korea has never been resumed.
Although the sunshine policy may be looked upon by many as a failure there are some positive developments that grew out of the philosophy of cooperation initiated by said policy. One of these positive developments was the building of an industrial park, Kaesong, that was built in 2004 just over the 38th parallel in North Korea (Kim). The basic concept of the park was to encourage the operation of manufacturing facilities inside the park in an effort to provide South Korea’s industrial base with inexpensive and qualified labor while at the same time assisting the struggling North Korean economy. It was additionally hoped that the successful operation of the complex would provide a potential opening for North Korea to expand its industrial base allow it to begin the process of globalization.
For the most part the Kaesong project has been highly successful. By the end of December 2010 approximately 120 South Korean companies have established operations at the park employing over 47,000 workers and there are existing plans to greatly expand the park. Through the support of the Hyundai Corporation the park has been the beneficiary of considerable financing and development of the park has gone forward in earnest but, not unexpectedly due to the various tensions and hostilities between North and South Korea, the future of the project is always in doubt.
In recent history the project has been jeopardized by events unrelated to its operation. In 2010, the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, by a North Korean submarine in a dispute over territorial waters and North Korea’s subsequent artillery attack on a South Korean later in the same year. Following the two attacks South Korean threatened to withdraw from all cooperative efforts with the North Korean but later relented and agreed to continue with the Kaesong project but it did reduce the number of South Koreans working at the complex.
To date South Korea continues its cooperative effort with the North Koreans relative to the Kaesong Industrial Complex but it is doing so at the risk of irritating the U.S. Government. The Complex provides steady employment for thousands of North Korean and maintains stability on the peninsula but also helps the North Korean regime. The U.S. Government would prefer that pressure be applied to the North Koreans to cease its nuclear weapons development as a prerequisite for the continued support of the Kaesong project but the South Korean Government continues to lend its support in direct opposition to the position of the U.S.
The Kaesong project also presents North Korea with some policy concerns of its own. As a result of the project thousands of North Korean workers are exposed daily to influences outside the carefully orchestrated state plan. The continued operation of the park and the possibility of expansion serve to exacerbate the problem for the North Korean Government which would prefer that its workers have no contact with anyone outside North Korea. Security is a major concern for the North Korean Government and this concern causes the government to oppose any plans at expansion. Despite the financial advantages the Government’s primary concern historically has not been the economic welfare of its citizens but the continued maintenance of the regime.
The Cold War nature of the relationship between North and South Korea continues. Although there have been some major advances in several areas the contentiousness continues. In early 2012 a dispute arose between the two nations regarding alleged military drills by the South Koreans on an island near the enforced border. The North Koreans adopted a strong stance against such activities and threatened to take military action in retaliation to the point of actually mentioning the possibility of a full scale war. Nevertheless the North Koreans continued to accept aid from the South Koreans. Adding further to the dispute, the North Korean Government, under the new direction of Kim Jong-un, declared that they would never again deal with the government of South Korea as a result of the military drills.
In the days that followed this incident the South Koreans were questioning not only whether to continue providing private aid to the North Koreans but also whether there was a need to increase their military presence in the area (Manyin). The fear among the South Koreans was that North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, may use the occasion to strengthen his new position. Fortunately the situation calmed down with neither nation adopting a particularly strong position outside of the rhetoric.
After many years of publicly criticizing North Korea’s stance on the development of nuclear weapons but privately taking no action, South Korea has become to state that they plan to curtail supplying North Korea with any additional food or other humanitarian aid. They have, however, permitted private groups inside South Korea to continue sending small aid shipments to North Korean children. These shipments include items such as flour, rice, medicine, and milk.
The recent events surrounding North Korea’s missile launch has again raised the issue of humanitarian aid. South Korea had just begun the wholesale process of providing aid to North Korea following the events in 2007. Conditions inside North Korea have worsened in recent years due to overall poor economic conditions and several devastating famines. The South Korea had essentially ceased most governmental assistance and had relied on private organization to provide assistance. Over the past five years the South Korean Government had gradually been increasing its aid but there was fear that North Korea’s missile test would cause South Korea to reconsider its position. Government leaders in South Korea, however, have steadfastly stated that they will not be cutting off humanitarian assistance to the North. Although they are considering other punitive actions against North Korea for the missile launch, South Korea has decided not to punish the impoverished North Korean people for the actions of their Government. The South Korean Government will continue to limit governmental aid but all private aid to be administered.
Leaders of private charities throughout South Korea were open in expressing their gratitude that aid programs will be allowed to continue. Such leaders stated that malnutrition is widespread throughout North Korea and that any cut in assistance would be disastrous. The official position of the South Korean Government, however, was that the money being spent on building and trying to fire missiles could feed millions of hungry people in North Korea and that the actions of the government leaders was irresponsible.
The future of the two Koreas is clearly uncertain. In the case of North Korea, the ability of the new leader, Kim Jong-il, to establish himself as an effective leader in the spirit of his father and grandfather remains to be seen and the future of his country is highly dependent on if and when this occurs. His youth and inexperience may cause him problems with the military leadership upon which he is so dependent and any sign of weakness on his part may result in the military attempting a change in leadership. As indicated earlier, there are fears that Kim Jong-il may attempt some form of military venture such as action against South Korea in order to demonstrate his ability to control the military.
The good news is that North Korea has maintained the same basic policies since the armistice and their system is dependent on continuity and there is no reason to believe that Kim Jong-il will work to make any major changes. Radical change by him would be viewed as a sign of weakness and Kim Jong-il’s primary goal at the moment is to demonstrate his ability to rule and hold power.
In South Korea the future is much brighter. South Korea has moved forward in its goal to become a world economic power. Stability within the country has allowed South Korea’s largest and most successful companies to begin seeking business from foreign nations in an effort to broaden South Korea’s industrial base. South Korean companies such as Samsung, POSCO, and Hyundai are leading the country’s efforts at globalization.
Reunification of the two Koreas remains an important goal at least for the Government of South Korea and the government continues to maintain policies toward the North that indicates their willingness to do whatever is necessary to effectuate this goal. Unfortunately, the actions of North Korea continue to make this goal difficult.
Chang, Yunshik. “Colonization as Planned Changed: The Korean Case.” Modern Asian Studies (1971): 161-186.
Cotton, James. “From Authoritarianism to Democracy in South Korea.” Political Studies (1989): 244-259.
Kim, Suk Hi. “The Kaesong Inter-Korean Industrial Complex: Perspectives and Prospects.” North Korean Review (2009): 81-92.
Lankov, Andrei. From Stalin to Kim II Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1960. Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Lee, Hong Yung. “South Korea in 2002: Multiple Political Dramas.” Asian Survey (2003): 64-77.
Lim, Sung-Hoon. “Special Economic Zones as Survival Strategy of North Korea.” North Korean Review (2006): 47-61.
Manyin, Mark E. Assistance to North Korea. Dane Publishing, 2010.
McCune, Shannon. “The Thirty-Eighth Parallel in Korea.” World Politics (1949): 223-232.
Soon-young, Hong. “Thawing Korea’s Cold War.” Foreign Affairs (1999): 8-12.
Stueck, William Whitney. Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Vu, Tuong. “State formation and the origins of developmental states in South Korea and Indonesia.” Studies in Comparative International Development (2007): 27-56.
South Korean government
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