North Korea has headlined the media in the past couple weeks with the news of its capability to produce a nuclear warhead that can be carried by an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. The ongoing exchange of threats back and forth mark a historic moment of escalation in the tension of international relations, particularly as the President of the United States, Mr. Donald Trump, has promised to meet further threats from North Korea with “…fire and fury like the world has never seen…”
North Korea’s tenuous place in international relations is one that has evolved over time. In order to understand where these tensions have risen from, who the major players are, and what the future may yet hold, we must take a look back in time to evaluate the past. Most articles on this topic begin their discussion with the Post-WWII establishment of North and South Korea, focusing on the Kim family’s rise to power, but not necessarily the context of the early 20th century that paved the road for events to unfold in this way.
Korea Under Japan
Enter the twentieth century, when Korea was declared a Japanese protectorate with the Eulsa Treaty of 1905, and just a few years later annexed into Japan in 1910. This annexation lasted until the conclusion of World War II in 1945, and left a terrible legacy behind it. In his book Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, Caprio discussed the way Japanese people of the time regarded Koreans: how their assimilation policies shifted between the desire to ‘teach’ Japanese culture as if it were from a place of superiority, and the prejudice in thinking Koreans could never live up to the standard. The reality of these policies is that they manifested in brutality and oppression, which illustrates the environment in which famous resistances arose, leading up to the March 1st Movement.
The March 1st Movement in 1919 was one of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance under Japanese rule. The leaders of the movement signed a document proclaiming the independence of Korea and liberty of the Korean people in witness of human equality, then sent it to the Governor General. This movement kicked off a series of public protests – some of which met violent ends. By the time the movement was suppressed one year later, 7,000 Koreans had been killed and 16,000 people had been wounded.
Laying the Foundations
The earliest roots of formation for the split of Korea that we know today began after the March 1st Movement, when the activist leaders fled to China, where they built ties with the Chinese Nationalist Government to gain support for the Provisional Government of Korea (KPG).
It wasn’t until the 1930s after Japan occupied Manchuria that China re-examined its connections to the exiled revolutionaries of Korea. After a meeting between Chiang Kai-shek and Kim Ku, they came to an agreement where if the Chinese government offered the KPG significant financial aid, it would ignite uprisings in places such as Japan, Korea, and Manchuria within the next two years. After this agreement, Kim Ku was informed that the Chinese hoped the Koreans would shift gears in their tactics to long-term preparations for a war of liberation. Around this time, a left-wing Korean group under the leadership of Kim Won-bong also began to receive assistance from the Chinese government. In time, the Chinese authorities were able to bring the two Korean groups together into a nominal unity by organizing them under the banner of the Korean Restoration Army.
Between July to December 1942, a Chinese committee reviewed the government’s Korea policy. After some proposals and feedback, they settled on a plan that would proscribe China’s leading role among the Allies in granting recognition to the KPG and determined responsibilities for financing the Koreans’ political and military activities in China. In return, the Koreans were tasked with a number of responsibilities, including intelligence collection, conducting psychological warfare within enemy troops, and enhancing their influence in Korea itself. However, this didn’t erase the faction-issues between Korean partisans, and 1942-1945 proved to be a period of political tumult for Koreans in China.
In 1943, a Far East Division memorandum predicted that Russia would eventually wish to occupy the ‘political vacuum’ in North China and Korea left in the wake of Japan’s defeat, and that such occupation would create an entirely new strategic situation with far reaching repercussions. After a meeting in Cairo, the United States government made an open pledge for Korean independence, which sparked planning for America’s military role in reconquering the Korean peninsula. In Recast All Under Heaven: Revolution, War, Diplomacy and Frontier China in the 20th Century, Liu suggests that this marked a significant step in the attitude of America toward Korea, where it evolved from being overlooked to a definitive decision that the United States must itself become a leading influence in the region. This was further expounded upon at the Yalta conference, where it was agreed between Roosevelt and Stalin that the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain must together oversee Korea before its independence. However, this prospect of such cooperation diminished in light of the rising tensions between the Soviet Union and other Allied countries in the final days of World War II. Instead of entrusting Korea to the ‘Big Four’, it became a point of issue between the United States and the Soviet Union. They partitioned Korea at the 38th parallel under the expectation that it would be a temporary solution.
Boiling Point: The Korean War (1950-1953)
The Korean War is remembered today as a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union that left massive collateral damage for the Korean people and defined their way of life for the decades afterward. Up until this point there had been a lot of rhetoric about the division of the globe and broad ideological concepts related to it, particularly with regard to the division of Germany.
These discussions reached their boiling point in June 1950, when the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) invaded the Republic of Korea (South) and pressed quickly into southern territory virtually unopposed. With the blessing of the United Nations, the United States responded to the crisis and committed air, sea, and infantry support to South Korea.
The war commenced with bad collateral damage to Korean civilians in the region, whether they were refugees escaping the Soviet protectorate or caught in the crossfire between the two sides. It wasn’t until the first few weeks of August that the United Nations Command (UNC) started to slow the progression of the North Korean troops. Refreshed with more troops, artillery pieces, antiaircraft guns, close-air-support aircrafts, rocket launcher and tanks, the UNC began to turn the tide of the conflict, leading to the famous amphibious counter-offensive at Incheon. They rapidly advanced toward the Yalu River, but in October 1950 were surprised by Chinese military invention on behalf of North Korea.
The war reached a critical point one year later. Despite the fact that they had lost some odd 500,000 casualties, the Chinese-North Korean armies had grown to 1.2 million soldiers. Meanwhile, the United Nations Command had grown as well, numbering 256,000 US ground troops, 500,000 ROKA, and 28,000 from other allied contingents in addition to the US FEAF. These developments meant that the leaders of both sides had to consider that peace could not be imposed by sheer military force. That said, these thoughts were slow developments realized over time as people fought and lost their lives.
This simultaneously opened up the gateway to negotiations and led to a war of attrition, where the front line was close to the 38th parallel. Near the end of 1951 that measures for the creation of a demilitarized zone were accepted. Both sides agreed upon this, but they got stuck on negotiating over prisoners of war. The initial assumption was that they would adhere to the Geneva Convention – that is, return any POWs to their homelands as quickly as possible after the war’s end. It was the South Korean government that opposed this type of repatriation, as many POWs in the South had actually been South Korean citizens that were forced to fight with the KPA. In February 1952, President Truman ruled that no prisoner of war in UNC custody would be forced to return to North Korea or China against their will. Thus, Koreans that chose to go North would be exchanged on a ‘one for one’ policy until all 12,000 allied POWs were returned. A series of revolts broke out among the POWs, incited by northern infiltration that sought to ensure the return of POWs to the North. By the end of the year, all of the POWs had been segregated according to their repatriation, refugees resettled, and Chinese POWs sent to Cheju Island.
The war continued still into 1953, experiencing air warfare, guerilla operations, and atrocities committed against civilians. The battle of the Kaesong salient ended the hot war, and by May 1953, the negotiators had worked out details of the POW exchange. By July 1953, the two sides had reached an armistice and finalized the establishment of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which has since been patrolled by forces from both sides.
North Korea and South Korea
Since the separation of the two countries, their relative peace has been marked by a series of skirmishes, abductions, attacks, and attempted assassinations on South Korean leaders.
The cold war has never truly ended on the Korean Peninsula. The two countries remain separated physically and ideologically by the DMZ that was established in the wake of the Korean War. While South Korea today is considered to be part of the western sphere of influence, North Korea has remained an autocratic communist state.
Similarly, the alliances of the Korean War haven’t faded, and as tensions continue to surmount between the United States and Russia and China, we should harbor no illusions that these will have a ripple effect across the old proxy war grounds of the Korean Peninsula.
This article was written by Kristina Weber, Content Supervisor of Centry Ltd.