A Brief History of Korea's Problems
North Korea is a hot topic, with numerous reports on the plight of starving North Koreans trying to get out of the country. Here's some some basic historical background so readers can understand why North Korea is such a mess.
Korea is a fairly small country, and perhaps for this reason, few Americans know much about it. Many have no idea where it is located – it’s a peninsula that juts off from southern Siberia, where the Asian mainland come closest to Japan.
For many centuries, Korea was part of the Chinese empire, and relations with China were generally quite good. However, Japan, limited to a string of fairly small islands, wanted territory for expansion. Intense rivalry developed between Japan and China over Korea. Koreans desperately wanted the wars to stop – Koreans’ desire to be left alone led Korea to be nicknamed “the Hermit Kingdom.”
In 1895, Japan won a major war with China and got control of Korea. (Japan also took Taiwan from China during this war, leading to another set of continuing problems in the Far East, but that’s a different topic.) During the first half of the 20th century, Korea became a colony of Japan. Korean culture was suppressed, and substantial portions of the Korean population were enslaved, including large numbers of women who were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II.
When Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea was freed by the Allies from Japanese colonial rule. But, Korea’s problems were far from over. The Soviets insisted that Korea be part of their sphere of influence; the US wanted Korea as part of our sphere of influence. Each took half of the country, with the Soviets installing a Communist government in the North, and the US installing a pro-western government in the South. This division of Korea into two countries, imposed by the outside world, has continued ever since.
In 1950, North Korea (presumably prompted by the Soviets) invaded the South to try to reunite Korea by force. The US was taken by surprise, and US and South Korean forces were initially driven into retreat. However, the US turned the tide with a skillful amphibious assault, driving the communist North Koreans far back into their own territory.
For a while, it seemed that the US would successfully reunite Korea under a US-backed government. Unfortunately, General Douglas McArthur, the US Commander, wasn’t content with just reuniting Korea. He repeatedly and publicly announced his plans – which were opposed by President Truman -- to invade China as soon as the North Koreans were defeated. Since Korea shares a major border with China, close to Beijing, this was no idle threat. China, which previously had avoided involvement in this war, sent over a million troops to aid the North Koreans. President Truman fired General McArthur for insubordination, but by that time, the war had escalated into a major conflict between the US and China. [Technically, the troops aiding South Korea were under United Nations control, but most were in fact Americans.]
The results of this conflict between the US and China were tragic. The Koreans were devastated, with approximately 4 million Koreans killed -- more than one-tenth of their total population. Two-thirds of Koreans killed were civilians. Perhaps as many as one million Chinese soldiers were also killed. The United States lost about 37,000 soldiers, and other UN nations fighting on the US side lost an additional 3,300.
The Korean war dragged on until 1953, eventually ending in a division between North and South that was almost exactly the same as when the war started. A cease-fire was declared, but no peace treaty was ever signed. A massive fortified border (the ironically named “Demilitarized Zone”) separates the two Koreas. Tens of thousands of US troops are still stationed on the Korean peninsula to ensure that the North doesn’t invade the South again.
In the subsequent decades after the Korean War, South Korea received massive aid from the United States, its economy expanded, and it eventually became quite democratic by Asian standards. (In other words, its leaders are now elected by popular vote, but there isn’t the level of free speech found in the west.) North Korea became a totalitarian communist state under “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. The violence of the Korean War increased North Koreans’ fear of the outside world, and North Korea became one of the most isolated countries on earth. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea lost its source of outside aid. In the 1990’s, years of bad weather lead to a major famine, which is still continuing.
Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il (a.k.a. “Dear Leader”) now rules North Korea. (The elder Kim died in 1994.) North Korea is still an intensely repressive, totalitarian society, and people who attempt to flee the famine are regarded as traitors. There have been some signs of opening up, especially a meeting in which Kim Jong-il actually shook hands with South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung. (Yes, that’s right: North Korea’s leader and South Korea’s leader have almost identical names. It could have been even more confusing; South Korea also has a prominent politician named Kim Jong-pil. If he were elected, we'd have Kim Jong-il meeting with Kim Jong-pil.) However, many in the United States fear that North Korea is simply giving lip service to the idea of reform, in order to get international aid.
It’s almost impossible for Americans to travel to North Korea, so I can’t give you any first-hand impressions of what is going on there. I did have an interesting conversation last year with a Chinese diplomat while I was in Beijing last year, however. She said that Kim Jong-il is interested in opening up to the outside world, but that his officials, and the North Korean people, are so afraid of the outside world that he can’t move quickly.
Regardless of whether this assessment of Kim Jong-il is accurate or not, there is no question in my mind that the North Koreans are terrified of the outside world in general, and of the United States in particular. I believe that we have always had the best of intentions regarding North Korea. However, many North Koreans don’t realize this. Their perceptions of Americans are shaped by the violence of the Korean War, including at least one substantial massacre of Korean civilians by US troops.
So, how can the US best end the problems with North Korea? Well, perhaps we can answer that question by asking why North Korea is today so tragically different from South Korea. Initially, they were part of one country, with no major distinctions between them. The only reason for their divergent paths is that South Korea got aid from the US, while North Korea got a failed ideology from the Soviets. We can’t wave a magic wand and transform the North Koreans’ way of thinking, but we can give them aid and show that our intervention on the Korean peninsula was never meant to cause them suffering. With the Soviets gone, there is nothing to stop us from "adopting" the north of Korea like we did the south. This is our best hope for reuniting the two Koreas, and it would be cheaper in the long run than keeping tens of thousands of US troops on the Korean Peninsula.