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Korea: and then there were two: Japan's imperialism and the Cold War split Korea apart, leading to vastly different nations in the North and South.

The 38th parallel, which has divided North and South Korea since 1953, is often considered one of the scariest places on earth. About 2 million soldiers from North and South (as well as 37,000 American troops) stand guard there, and behind the conventional forces loom the North Korean and American nuclear arsenals.

In the South is a global, high-tech economic power of 38 million people, which threw off authoritarian and military rule during the 1980s, and is establishing an increasingly self-confident and vibrant democracy.

In the North, a failed, impoverished and almost totally isolated state sells nuclear-weapons technology and drugs to earn hard currency. After more than half a century of the bizarre Marxist dictatorships of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, North Korea cannot even feed its 23 million people, and it imprisons or executes those who speak out or protest.

The odd thing about comparing the two Koreas is that the Koreans themselves are among the most ethnically homogeneous people on earth, and they lived, until less than a hundred years ago, in one of the world's oldest unified nations, which had endured for 1,300 years.


In the 19th century, Korea became known in the West as the "Hermit Kingdom," for its long-held belief that there was nothing of interest or value in the outside world for Korea. That conviction led to a policy that forbade most foreigners from setting foot on Korean soil.

The division of Korea began almost a century ago, in 1910, when Japan, under Emperor Meiji, decided to annex the entire country.

"Korea as a Nation to End This Week," ran the headline of an Aug. 22, 1910, article in The New York Times. "Within a week," the story said, "the 'Hermit Kingdom' and the 'Empire of Korea' will become historical terms, 12,000,000 persons will be added to the population of Japan, and territory as large as England will become part of the Emperor's dominions."

Japan had recently emerged as the new powerhouse of Asia, rapidly growing in industrial and military might, and was determined to create an empire. It had defeated Korea's two giant neighbors, China and Russia, in two wars, in 1895 and 1903, and then used its regional dominance, first to make Korea a protectorate, and then to annex it outright.

Between 1910 and its defeat in World War II, Japan tried to erase everything Korean about the country and its people. It attempted to destroy Korea's ancient religious and cultural traditions, while rapidly industrializing the country, and dealt brutally with the repeated attempts by the Korean people to resist colonization. Indeed, in 1943, during World War II, Allied leaders issued a statement saying that the Japanese (who were aligned with the Axis powers of Germany and Italy) had "enslaved" their Korean subjects.


In August 1945, with Japan on the verge of surrender, forces of the Soviet Union began moving into Korea from the north. The Soviets were allies of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan, but even before the war ended, Washington feared Soviet ambitions in spreading Communism worldwide. American officials were afraid the Soviets would occupy all of Korea and eventually use it as a staging area for an invasion of Japan.

In response to these concerns, two American military officers--one of whom, Dean Rusk, would later serve as Secretary of State under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson--were given the job of dividing up Korea so that the Soviet Union and the United States could jointly accept Japan's surrender of that country. In his memoirs, Rusk recalled how he and Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel found a National Geographic map of Korea and in half an hour decided on the 38th parallel as the line of demarcation. That would keep Seoul, the largest city, in American hands. Somewhat to everyone's surprise, the Soviets agreed and stopped the advance of their forces. Both countries assumed "temporary" trusteeship of their respective areas.


Korea's great misfortune, of course, was that just as World War II ended, the Cold War began. Whether in Europe or in Asia, Communist and non-Communist nations squared off along borders defined by whoever held what territory when the fighting stopped. In Europe, the border became the "Iron Curtain," in British statesman Winston Churchill's immortal phrase, dividing the Communist East from the democratic West; while in Asia, a divided Korea became a flash point.

In 1948, the United Nations organized elections in Korea that were supposed to lead to the formation of a new national government. The Soviets, however, refused to participate and instead installed a Communist puppet regime in the North, headed by Kim Il Sung, who had lived in exile in Russia during World War II.

In the South, American-educated Syngman Rhee won the election and took office as President. Each man was authoritarian, and each wanted to reunite Korea, but on very different terms. In 1950, with the Soviet Union's approval, Kim Il Sung decided to force the issue.

On June 25, without a declaration of war, North Korean forces, using Soviet weapons, invaded the South. President Harry S. Truman responded--also without a declaration of war--by ordering American air strikes against the Northern forces, and by creating a coalition force of 16 nations, sanctioned by the United Nations, to roll back the invasion. (The force of about 1 million troops, led initially by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, included some 350,000 Americans.) Four months later, China entered the war on the side of North Korea, providing hundreds of thousands of troops.


It was a brutal fight that devastated both Koreas. Tibor Meray, a Hungarian journalist who was in North Korea during the war, described what he saw in the book Korea's Place in the Sun, by Bruce Cumings. "[Every] city was a collection of chimneys. I don't know why houses collapsed and chimneys did not, but I went through a city of 200,000 inhabitants and I saw thousands of chimneys and that--that was all."

Don Oberdorfer, author of The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, first saw South Korea as a young U.S. Army lieutenant just weeks after the war ended in 1953. His impression of the South was similar to Meray's account of the North. "It was a devastated, war-torn, poor, sorrowful country," Oberdorfer recalled recently in a telephone interview.

In all, the war, which ended in a military stalemate, killed an estimated 5 million people--including more than 36,000 American soldiers. Five million Koreans became refugees; perhaps 10 million family members found themselves separated. Even today, more than 50 years later, many have no idea what happened to their relatives on the other side.

There was no peace treaty, only an armistice, signed on July 27, 1953, that established a cease-fire and created the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel. In other words, though the fighting stopped, the Korean War has never really ended.

In the South, now the world's 12th-largest economy, officials have long expressed a desire for eventual reunification--though they greatly fear being inundated with impoverished North Korean refugees, just as West Germany was flooded with East Germans after unification in 1990.

The North remains an enigma. Dictator Kim Jong Il, known as "the Great Leader," his official nickname, is literally worshipped as a god. The government spends much of its money on maintaining a military with a standing army of i million, while by some estimates millions of North Koreans have died of starvation in the last decade.

In 2002, North Korea admitted to having a nuclear-weapons program in violation of an agreement it had signed in the 1990s with the U.S. It's thought to have at least several nuclear warheads capable of destroying Seoul, where thousands of U.S. troops are still stationed, as well as Tokyo.


President Bush has said he won't "tolerate" nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea. Since 2003, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia have engaged in on-again off-again negotiations with the North to end its nuclear-weapons program, in return for food and security guarantees.

But at this point no one can predict whether the negotiations will bear fruit, or if the strange, anachronistic North can be brought into the modern age. Until that happens, Korea will remain divided.


One of oldest countries in the world, Korea became an early victim of the Cold War. The country was split in two in 1945 as the Soviet Union seized the North and installed a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter as a Communist dictator. An authoritarian, U.S.-educated leader was elected in the South.


* In a five-paragraph essay, offer some reasons why Koreans were so insular that they once thought the outside world had nothing to offer and therefore forbade foreigners on their soil. (Did Korea's geography isolate it from outsiders?)


* Why do you suppose that in 1910, unlike in 1950, the U.S. did nothing to defend Korea? (Korea seemed much more distant in 1910, and there was no Communist threat.)

* Why do you think the U.S. backed an authoritarian leader in the South after World War II? (The U.S. has often backed authoritarian leaders if they were anti-Communist, as Communism was seen as the greater threat.)

* Discuss the perfunctory manner in which the North-South border was drawn. (Throughout history, boundaries have been drawn arbitrarily by outsiders; most of Africa's borders, for example, were drawn by European colonists.)


* Many people around the world thought the Korean War was the opening phase of World War III. Given the deep East-West split, why did it not develop into World War III?

* (One reason: the Soviets had nuclear weapons. A new world war might have destroyed both the Soviet Union and the U.S.)


In the early 1960s, South Korea's per capita GDP was comparable to that of the poorer countries of Africa and Asia, somewhere between several hundred dollars and $1,000. Today, it exceeds $19,000, and the country has a trillion-dollar economy.

WEB WATCH The Central Intelligence Agency provides a wealth of political, historical, economic, and social data on both Koreas. Click on "World Factbook," lower left. Then scroll to Korea, North or South., is the U.S. Defense Department's official Web site on the Korean War.

1. Traditional Korean culture can best be described as

a adventurous.

b open to new ideas.

c isolated.

d neutral.

2. The 1950-1953 Korean War ended with

a U.S. victory.

b South Korean victory.

c North Korea gaining territory.

d an armistice, with neither side winning.

3. Koreans, North and South are

a ethnically homogeneous.

b a mixture of people from East Asia.

c ethnically united, but linguistically divided.

d descended from Vietnamese.

4. What action of the Soviet Union near the end of World War II made the U.S. fear it might invade Japan?--

5. In 1948, three years after the end of World War II, national elections were supposed to be held in North and South Korea, but they never took place. What happened?

a Koreans on both sides objected because elections were not part of Korean culture.

b Southerners objected because they feared they would be overrun by migrating northerners.

c The UN said it could not guarantee fair elections.

d The Soviets refused to participate and set up a Communist dictatorship in the North.

6. Which of the following descriptions of the Korean War is accurate?

a North Korean troops, aided by China, invaded South Korea in 1950.

b U.S. troops held back North Korean invaders in June 1950.

c UN troops were on the border in 1945.

d North Korea invaded in 1950 and a U.S.-led coalition was sent to roll back the invaders.


1. In November, North Korea and South Korea announced they would send a unified team to the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, next year and to the 2008 Olympics in China. Why would countries that are military rivals, with soldiers at the ready, decide to field a joint sports team?

2. The U.S. still has 37,000 troops in South Korea, Do you think that those troops are still, needed in South Korea?

1. [c] isolated.

2. [d] an armistice, with neither side winning.

3. [a] ethnically homogeneous.

4. The Soviets moved into Korea. [Similar wording is acceptable.]

5. [d] The Soviets refused to participate and set up a Communist dictatorship in the North.

6. [d] North Korea invaded in 1950 and a U.S.-led coalition was sent to roll back the invaders. Peter Edidin is an editor for the Week in Review section of The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:TIME PAST
Author:Edidin, Peter
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Dec 12, 2005
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