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A Brief History of the Two Koreas

The Korean peninsula had enjoyed relative unity since the early 10th century under two dynasties, Koryo and Joseon, but the nation faced a series of ordeals as the 20th century began. Thirteen years after Korea declared full sovereignty from the Qing Empire in China, it was forcibly annexed by the empire of Japan in 1910. In 1945, Japan lost WWII and renounced all of its colonial empire. Korea was liberated from Japan but found itself under military rule by two different superpowers: north of the 38th parallel by the Soviet Union and south of the parallel by the United States.

The northern part of Korea quickly turned into a Soviet state, while the South suffered internal turmoil between communists and those who aligned with capitalism. In 1948, the Republic of Korea was founded in the south, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the north. Both Koreas wanted to reunify the peninsula under their own ideology. One actually tried.

North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. Involving the People’s Republic of China, the United States and many other countries, the war resulted in a stalemate and ended with an armistice signed on July 27, 1953. Three million were left dead, many more wounded and well over a million family members have been permanently separated by the Military Demarcation Line.

After the tragic war, while both Koreas attempted to rebuild in their own ways, socialist North Korea turned out to be more successful at first. Until the 1960s, North Korea outpaced the South in economic growth, thanks to the Soviet bloc’s support, socialist mobilization of the people, and the legacy of heavy industrial investment during the Japanese rule. South Korea’s economy relied heavily on American aid and democratic rule was shaky. However, in choosing liberal democracy (at least in theory) and a market economy, Dr. Syngman Rhee, the first president of the ROK, and the other founding fathers of South Korea in the end proved wise.

South Korea’s economy grew rapidly in the 1960s and 70s, and GDP per capita passed that of North Korea in the late 1970s. While the economy was growing, democracy remained elusive. South Korea’s military regime, ruled first by President Park Chung Hee and then by President Chun Doo Hwan, used economic growth as an excuse to suppress freedom and the human rights of the citizens.

South Korea’s young, educated generation, which benefited from the economic growth and became the country’s new middle class in 1980s, sought and fought for democracy against the military dictatorship and achieved it in 1987, restoring fair, popular presidential elections. South Korean democracy was further stabilized after the opposition party’s long time leader and democracy fighter, Kim Dae Jung, won the presidency in 1997. Now, South Korea’s economy is 13th largest in the world, and boasts an active civil society.

In the meantime, North Korea’s communist regime invested its limited resources on building up the military and personal worship of then-dictator Kim Il-Sung. Because of the misuse of its resources, and also thanks to systemic flaws inherent in all planned economies, North Korea gradually fell behind South Korea, and its economy experienced negative growth after the collapse of Soviet Union. In the mid-1990s, due to these reasons and floods, North Korea suffered a great famine, which killed more than three million people. Nevertheless, North Korea’s leadership chose to neither reform like China nor transform into a democracy like Eastern Europe. Rather, the country maintained its own form of socialism, and personal worship was inherited by the son of the Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il. Of late the propaganda machine seems to be setting the stage for a third-generation succession by Kim Jong-Il’s third son, Kim Jong-Eun.

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