Understanding the division of Koreas

Posted on November 1, 2009

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DZM trip 082

The famous North Korean flag in the DMZ

Mr. Shin, who was our professor at Kyung Hee for International Business and Marketing Strategy, organised a few guest lectures about North Korea, which provided me with the much needed background information regarding the division of Koreas. Most people, including me, simplify the situation too much and regard the North as an absolute evil and the South as an absolute good. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to justify the brutal regime of the North or neglect the stunning achievements of the South, I just want to understand the underlying reasons that led to the division.

Understanding Korea is impossible without taking a look at its impressive history, which started no later than a few centuries before Christ. Koreans are very proud of their long history and some even consider themselves to be the oldest people on earth (there is a legend that the Korean nation was born 3000 years before Christ). Koreans also take pride in being a very homogenous and unique society, which naturally fosters some nationalistic feelings. During Korea’s last Joseon dynasty, started by Yi Soeng-gye in 1392 (it lasted until Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910), Buddhism was replaced by Confucianism, which greatly influences the Korean mind-set to the present day. In short, Confucianism stands for an absolute respect for seniors (arguing with an older brother or sister, let alone with a teacher or boss is considered a big offence); hierarchical relationships (you must never forget who is senior or junior to you); education, which is considered to be of crucial importance in one’s life; loyalty (for your family, your employer and your country).

Being sandwiched between the two great powers of China and Japan, Korea for centuries had to manoeuvre between the two to sustain its independence (this greatly reminds me of Lithuania, which is in a similar position between Germany and Russia). While China has been regarded as a friend and a source of inspiration for Korean scholars, the feelings towards Japan are quite the opposite. In 1592, Japan swept through Korea killing, raping and stealing, until being fought off with the  help of Chinese troops five years later. The second time Japanese came to visit was in 1910 and China couldn’t help this time, because it had been itself under attack by the Japanese.  The Japanese colonial period lasted until 1945, during which Korea saw both rapid industrial modernization and a great struggle of Korean opposition forces.

Japanese wanted to erase any kind of Korean national identity and they started by changing the language to Japanese. Korean men were drafted to the Japanese army and sent off to fight in Manchuria, while Korean women (up to 200.000 of them) were forced to work as “comfort women” (prostitutes for the army).  Being very proud and nationalistic people, Koreans resisted the Japanese regime and the Japanese fought back (Seodaemun prison in Seoul, built by Japanese to torture rebellious Koreans is a good example of this, it is now a museum).  It was a big surprise to me that the Korean anti-Japanese resistance movement was most prominent in Northern part of Korea and was led by Kim Il Sung (the future “Great Leader” of North Korea).

After the end of WWII, Japanese were replaced by Russians in the North and Americans in the South. This was meant to be a temporary division, until the faith of the country could be decided, and the border along the 38th parallel was simply drawn by three young Americans working in the US State Department. Sadly, the Cold War started and agreeing on democratic elections in Korea was impossible, which led to the establishment of separate governments in the South and North in 1948. Kim Il Sung became the leader of North Korea (and although he is said to have been handpicked by Stalin, he nevertheless was a hero of the resistance movement, which appealed to many Koreans). For Koreans, the division of their ancient nation seemed irrational and unacceptable. The war to reunify the country started as soon as the foreign forces were withdrawn from the peninsula.  However, the war did not change the status quo and it couldn’t, because both sides were supported by equally strong forces. It was just a useless sacrifice of millions of people.

After the war, Kim Il Sung formed the Juche idea. It is an idea shaped more by Confucianism than by Communism, which stresses the self-reliance and self-defence – a manifestation of Korean nationalism and distrust of anything foreign (with a mere exception of China – North’s only ally). The North hates USA as much as it hates Japan (the North Korean propaganda still largely focuses on the crimes committed during the Japanese colonial period). And the reason for this hate lies not as much in the rivalry between communism and capitalism, but in the genuine suffering brought upon Koreans by foreign invasions and occupations.

It remains largely unknown that until 1970’s North Korea was beating the South in terms of industrial production and economic development despite the total destruction of most cities in North Korea after the Korean war. However, after the recession in 1970’s  the North’s economy never really picked up again and reached its lowest point in 1995 when up to three million people died of starvation after terrible floods.

It is also largely unknown that until 1992 South Korea was ruled by military dictators and the whole political system was far from democratic. It was nevertheless always supported by the US (with a short exception during the Kennedy presidency), which again added to the resentment of foreigners and was used by the North’s propaganda.

Taking into account all these things, it appears that everything is far from being just black or white: there are certain points in the North’s ideology that represent old Korean values and there are (or at least were) questionable practices employed by the South. Despite that, it is clear that the ideology of the North has failed, while the South became an economic superpower. Therefore, it is probably just a question of time when the two will reunite again…

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Posted in: Korea