For many, Korea conjures up images of war and the ongoing conflict that resulted; video snippets showing thousands of North Korean troops goose stepping in massive parade, Kim Jong Un inspecting troops, the mass games, and the DMZ. Many recall the harsh rhetoric unleashed by both sides in years past or, recently, the headlines about the North’s increasingly bellicose provocations, threats to turn Washington DC into a sea of fire, and to use new precision nuclear weapons to strike American bases is Japan and South Korea. North Korea is a rogue state gone off the deep end but it hasn’t always been the case and it’s important to understand how the country has become what it is today.
It’s ironic that the conflict and imagery which have so defined Korea for outsiders are so misunderstood, it is alarming how little the general populace knows about how and why the conflict that has shaped the present day political climate in the divided country came about. The headlines are full of catch phrases and sound bites that conveniently roll off the tongue and are easily and instantly committed to the memory of the news consumer, “Axis of Evil” “Rogue State” and “communist Dictator” just to name a few. Most are aware of the conflict but don’t truly understand the roots causes or they subscribe to the over simplified idea that it was the opening battle in the war between communism and democracy, or capitalism, that would shape the politics of the world over the next fifty years, that the communist North lead an unprovoked attack against the south in order to snuff out capitalism and install a communist government, all the while Joseph Stalin the grand puppet master furiously worked the strings behind the scene.
In order to better understand the divided nation we have to go much further back than 1950 for it was much more than a conflict between two ideological systems, it was a conflict rooted deep in the past of Korea, as far back as the 1592 invasion by the Japanese, who invaded with 158,700 troops in hopes of establishing a base in Korea which would allow them to launch an offensive against the Ming dynasty in China, and then eventually India. The Japanese swept over the peninsula at will but were rebuffed by Admiral Yi Sun-Shin and his Turtle Ships, the world’s first armor clad warships. The Ming dynasty sent 22,000 troops to assist the Koreans and together they pushed the Japanese into a small area up against the sea in the south eastern part of the country and forced them to terms.
Japan stalled in treaty negotiations and launched a second invasion in 1597, which was quickly rebuffed by Admiral Yi and the Ming forces, but this attack was different from the first in goal, its aim wasn’t to gain a strong hold to take the rest of Asia but to punish Korea for defeating Japan on their first invasion attempt. Japanese soldiers killed, raped, and tortured civilians, bringing over ten thousand noses and ears back to Japan. The invasion left a legacy of anti Japanese sentiment among Koreans that lasted up until the 20th century.
In 1904 war broke out between Russia and Japan over their spheres of influence in Korea, and Japan came out the victor. Under the peace treaty, brokered by Theodore Roosevelt, Japan gained paramount rights to Korea and established a protectorate at the point of a gun, taking control of Korean diplomacy, deploying police forces and taking over industry. By 1910 Japan had annexed the peninsula and made Korea a colony.
The Japanese were oppressive and put down all forms of rebellion and dissent with blade and bullet. Over ten thousand Korean women, known as “comfort women” were kidnapped and made sex slaves to the Japanese army. They were raped dozens of times daily by soldiers who believed the practice would make them victorious in battle. Rebellions threatened the Japanese government in Korea several times before the colonizers changed their tactics from brute force and repression to a divide and conquer mentality, taking loyal Koreans under their wing, giving them Japanese names, and installing them in positions of power. It was mostly the old landed class, or Yangban, that benefited while the rest of the Korean people starved in misery under Japanese rule.
In China, tens of thousands of Korean rebels were engaging the Japanese army in guerrilla style warfare, successfully enough in fact that the Japanese created special units, headed up by Koreans who were loyal to the Japanese, to track and destroy these guerrilla leaders. One of the most well known and feared guerrilla fighters was none other than Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea.
Here can be seen the root of the conflict, it wasn’t about communism or capitalism; it was about collaborator against nationalist. After Japan surrendered in 1945 the Soviet Union swept into Korea and then allowed the United States to occupy the lower half of the country. The Americans immediately began making mistakes, they refused to turn Korea over to the Koreans instead they wanted only to create an anticommunist South Korean state, just as they would in Greece, Indochina, Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. It didn’t matter that many of the Koreans supported by the United States were seen as traitors and Japanese sympathizers, it mattered only that they called themselves “anticommunist”.
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