History corner – The Korean Peninsula

July 22, 2015

Hanzi P

The cold war is over. Right? That would be a fair statement wouldn’t it?

I think the majority of people would say that there aren’t still tensions between the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, and the capitalist ideology of America. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw to that.

That’s where you’re wrong because it exists today in the Korean Peninsula. In fact this was where the cold war started.

The craziest thing is that Korea had been one unified country ever since 57 BC when the three separate kingdoms were united as the Silla kingdom and operated peacefully under this name until AD 935. The 3 kingdoms actually included 1 in the north, roughly where the country of North Korea stands and two in the south split between the east and west of the land. This is a rudimentary map that I found on the internet (wikipedia).


Tamra is modern day Jeju island in South Korea.

As you can see the relatively small Silla Kingdom in the South East managed to expand over the whole country. Interestingly enough, other states existed in this period, such as the Kaya that is highlighted in pink but they weren’t kingdoms with power like the other three.

After the Silla came the Goryeo kingdom, which survived up until and throughout the 13th century Mongolian invasions, however after the Mongolian empire collapsed there was huge political turmoil in the peninsula and an uprising led by General Yi Seong-Gye toppled the Goryeo empire and created the Joseon. Interestingly though, Goryeo is the basis of the modern term ‘Korea’.

In 1592 Japan tried to attack the Joseon empire but were thwarted by a mastermind military tactician called Yi Sun-Sin who was a big factor in the Japanese inability to win the war because he successfully led the Joseon navy to thwart the Japanese supply lines. This counteracted the advances that had been made on land by the Japanese, particularly as they were also having to content with significant guerrilla tactics in the southern states that they had taken possession of. The death of the Shogun, who was the most powerful Japanese lord at the time and had started the military campaign, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, caused the Japanese to retreat.

It wasn’t until 1910 that Korea came under attack again and it was from their old foes Japan. This time the industrialised militarisation of the Japanese islands, combined with their vision of a unified Asia against colonial powers from Europe, culminated in Korea being taken under Japanese control along with large parts of Manchuria in modern day China. Ironically it was this vision of an Asia free from European colonial influence that drove Japan to colonise and treat some of the countries worse than the Europeans did.

Korea was under the Rising Sun’s Emperor’s control until it was defeated at the end of World War Two. This is where it gets relevant to modern times. As a precursor to the cold war, Korea was split into two wards of safe keeping until the Korean people could install a government for themselves. The period was foreseen as a five year stewardship.

The two countries safe keeping these areas were The Soviet Union, and The United States of America. They were both involved in the same conflict against Japan having declared war against the country after victory in Europe. In the subsequent years a land that had been unified for hundreds of years, before the invasion of Japan, started to be indoctrinated by opposite ideologies. From 1945 to 1950 the two countries grew apart.

By 1950, America had pulled most of it’s troops out of Korea apart from a few hundred advisors, foreseeing no need or perhaps no care to be in a prolonged war zone. Unfortunately Kim Il Sung, who was the leader of Soviet backed North Korea at the time, was rubbing his hands with excitement and planning an invasion.

On the 25th June 1950 he invaded South Korea with the help of the Soviet Union and captured most of the country apart from the far South Eastern corner where Busan sits today. The UN acted quickly and sent a force to land at Incheon, which is a city that sits on the nearest coast to Seoul. They managed to liberate Seoul from the communist forces however a bloody war was fought over three years with over a million casualties. It’s very difficult to get a figure that all countries agree on.

The UN force consisted of Koreans, a number of European and Asian countries and the USA. The North Korean army consisted of Koreans, Soviets, and in October 1950 when the UN forces reached the Chinese border, China became involved in the war for the communists. It’s interesting to note that a huge amount of Koreans helped the communists win their civil war in China.

Since 1954 there has been a ceasefire between the two countries, and every man in both countries has to do national service from when they’re 20 years old. In the south it used to be 3 years but has been reduced to one year and nine months. In the north apparently it is seven years but no one can be sure.

Here’s the crazy part. Technically, they’re still at war.

I know, it’s a well known fact but it’s not until you actually approach the area called ‘The Demilitarised Zone’ that it fully comes across as a strange thing to have to live with. The border is set on the 38 degree parallel but wiggles in and out with the topography, sometimes it is less than a kilometre between the two sides. Sometimes it is up to four. Each side has a buffer zone of 2 km from the official border. Then a further 2km from that that is heavily policed by the army.

There’s a joint security area where the border runs through a building that both sides have their own part to. This is where the two sides hold negotiations and conferences and I imagine where they threaten each other from. South Korea apparently use Swiss and Swedish soldiers from the UN to communicate with North Korea.

For example during the 2002 world cup, which was held in South Korea and Japan, the North Korean forces invaded a stretch of coast of South Korea and many young Koreans died in the fighting.

Can we just take a moment to process that information, because I certainly needed a moment when I was told that.

During an international sports event, with upwards of a million citizens of other countries visiting the peninsula and watching football, there was a military invasion where people died.

There’s a lot in the news about FIFA being corrupt at the moment and it’s a fact I think everyone who follows football suspected, but you have to ask yourself why football games were allowed to be played 53km away from an active war zone. The reason that they invaded was maybe because organised sport is the height of individualistic society, the North Korean leader was getting really angry that South Koreans were enjoying so much good publicity from the world so he invaded.

It turns out that recently, the South Koreans are becoming more concerned with the fact that Kim Jung Un has taken control over the North, because he is young and seemingly ruthless. We were told a story that he asked his engineers to make a building’s roof into the shape of a flower that his grandfather favoured, when the engineers couldn’t achieve this with limited resources he had them killed. Apparently there is casualty cases like this all the time. In the past he has threatened to launch an atomic bomb into South Korea – he did this when Gangnam Style was released and was so popular, and he also launches missiles into the eastern and western seas when he gets annoyed. This is all hearsay so don’t quote me on that.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, the two countries are working together in one instance. The Kaesong Industrial Region is a special administrative industrial region of North Korea in which they allow South Koreans to come and manage a factory of North Korean workers to make things like kitchen utensils. The North Korean workers get a really low wage, maybe $130 a month, although to them that is a lot of money. However, apparently, $50 gets taken by the government and only $2 gets given to them in cash, the rest is given in supplies such as corn and rice. Still this is a sought after job and it makes a family proud if one of their sons or daughters can get a job in the region.

The region allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is skilled and fluent in Korean, whilst providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency. Although in times of tension between the two countries it is shut and the South Koreans return across the border.

Interestingly and perhaps a little worryingly, South Korea are proposing a railroad connection between Seoul and Pyongyang – the capital of North Korea, and as the name of the observatory suggests they would like to unify Korea in the near future. Now the logistical and ideological problems that may come from unifying a country with opposite ideals is one thing, families that have been split by the war and indoctrination of opposite mindsets for two generations is another, and a dictator who is used to absolute power and military style control is the final reason why I don’t believe that this would work peacefully.

I fear for this region’s future.

Most of the young people that we have met and asked about this problem would rather forget about it than worry, or they simply don’t think that it will ever happen. I think it’s a shame that a country had to be split into the ideas of others before being abandoned and left to live in the fractured land without a solution. What’s most interesting though is this was actually the precursor to the cold war, this was the first instance of tension between two of the most powerful countries on the planet at that time, tension that would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.