The Koreas



Korea under Japanese Rule

The 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of Korea was marked by the suppression of Korean culture and heritage, mass exploitation of the Korean labor, and violent repressions against the Korean independence movement.

Learning Objectives

Analyze conditions in Korea under Japanese rule

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The 1905 Japan–Korea Protectorate Treaty turned Korea into Japanese protectorate and in 1910, Japan effectively annexed Korea by the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty. Korea was controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea until Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, with de jure sovereignty deemed to have passed from the Joseon dynasty to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.
  • After the annexation, Japan set out to repress Korean traditions and culture and develop and implement policies primarily for Japanese benefit. European-style transport and communication networks were established across the nation to extract resources and labor. The banking system was consolidated and Korean currency abolished. By 1932, over half of arable lands were under the control of Japanese landlords but labored by Korean workers.
  • After Emperor Gojong died in 1919 amidst rumors of poisoning, independence rallies against the Japanese took place nationwide (the March 1st Movement). An estimated 2 million people took part in pro-liberation rallies, although Japanese records claim participation of less than half million. This movement was a catalyst for the Korean independence effort.
  • Continued anti-Japanese uprisings led to the strengthening of military rule in 1931. After the outbreaks of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II, Japan attempted to exterminate Korea as a nation. Worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory. The school curriculum was radically modified to eliminate teaching of the Korean language and history. The Korean language was banned, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, and newspapers were prohibited from publishing in Korean. Numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed or taken to Japan.
  • From 1939, labor shortages as a result of conscription of Japanese males for the military efforts of World War II led to organized official recruitment of Koreans to work in mainland Japan. Of the 5.4 million Koreans conscripted, about 670,000 were taken to mainland Japan for civilian labor. Starting in 1944, Japan started the conscription of Koreans into the armed forces. Around 200,000 girls and women, many from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers as so-called comfort women. Koreans and many other Asians were experimented on in Unit 731, a secret military medical experimentation unit in World War II.
  • The rapid growth of the Korean economy under the Japanese rule, which as historians note cannot be ignored in the analysis of the later economic success of South Korea, continues to be the subject of controversy between the two Koreas and Japan. While the growth is unquestionable, North Korea and South Korea point to alleged long-term negative repercussions caused by how the acceleration of industrialization under Japanese occupation was executed.

Key Terms

  • Russo-Japanese War: A 1904 – 1905 war fought between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. The major theatres of operations were the Liaodong Peninsula and Mukden in Southern Manchuria and the seas around Korea, Japan, and the Yellow Sea.
  • Japan–Korea Protectorate Treaty: A 1905 treaty between the Empire of Japan and the Korean Empire that deprived Korea of its diplomatic sovereignty and made it a protectorate of Imperial Japan. It was influenced by Imperial Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
  • Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty: A 1910 treaty between representatives of the Empire of Japan and the Korean Empire that formally annexed Korea following the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, by which Korea became the protectorate of Japan, and Japan–Korea Treaty of 1907, by which Korea was deprived of the administration of internal affairs.
  • March 1st Movement: One of the earliest public displays of Korean resistance during the ruling of Korea by Japan,
    initiated by activists reading the Korean Declaration of Independence and followed by massive demonstrations. The movement provided a catalytic momentum for the Korean Independence Movement. The ensuing suppression and hunting down of activists by the Japanese resulted in the expatriation of Korean leaders into Manchuria, Shanghai, and other parts of China where they continued their activities. The Movement was also a catalyst for the establishment of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai in 1919.
  • Unit 731: A covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) of World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japan.

Japan’s Annexation of Korea

In 1897, Joseon,  a Korean kingdom founded in 1392, was renamed the Korean Empire, and King Gojong became Emperor Gojong. The imperial government aimed to establish a strong and independent nation by implementing domestic reforms, strengthening military forces, developing commerce and industry, and surveying land ownership.

Russian influence was strong in the Empire until Russia was defeated by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). Having established economic and military dominance in Korea in 1904, Japan reported that it had developed reforms intended to introduce Japanese influences in Korea’s economy, foreign relations, and military. These reforms were forestalled when Japan won the war with Russia, thus eliminating Japan’s last rival to influence in Korea. Two months later, Korea was obliged to become a Japanese protectorate by the Japan–Korea Protectorate Treaty of 1905 and pro-Japanese reforms were enacted, including the reduction of the Korean Army from 20,000 to 1,000 men. Many intellectuals and scholars set up various organizations and associations, embarking on movements for independence. In 1907, Gojong was forced to abdicate after Japan learned that he sent secret envoys to the Second Hague Conventions to protest against the protectorate treaty, leading to the accession of Gojong’s son, Emperor Sunjong.

In 1910, Japan effectively annexed Korea by the Japan–Korea Annexation Treaty. While Japan asserts that the treaty was concluded legally, this argument is not accepted in Korea because it was not signed by the Emperor of Korea as required and violated international convention on external pressures regarding treaties. Korea was controlled by Japan under a Governor-General of Korea until Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces in 1945, with de jure sovereignty deemed to have passed from the Joseon dynasty to the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.

Japanese Rule Begins

After the annexation, Japan set out to repress Korean traditions and culture and develop and implement policies primarily for Japanese benefit. European-style transport and communication networks were established across the nation to extract resources and labor. The banking system was consolidated and Korean currency abolished. The Japanese removed the Joseon hierarchy, destroyed much of the Gyeongbokgung palace, and replaced it with the government office building.

By 1910, an estimated 7 to 8% of all arable land was under Japanese control. This ratio increased steadily. By 1932, the ratio of Japanese land ownership increased to 52.7%. The level of tenancy was similar to that of farmers in Japan but in Korea, the landowners were mostly Japanese, while the tenants were all Koreans. As was often the case in Japan, tenants were required to pay more than half their crop as rent, forcing many to send wives and daughters into factories or prostitution so they could pay taxes. Ironically, by the 1930s, the growth of the urban economy and the exodus of farmers to the cities gradually weakened the hold of the landlords.

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Three Koreans shot for pulling up rails as a protest against seizure of land without payment by the Japanese, 1900s. Source: The passing of Korea (book), p. 263.

Many Japanese settlers were interested in acquiring agricultural land in Korea even before Japanese land ownership was officially legalized in 1906. Japanese landlords included both individuals and corporations such as the Oriental Development Company. Many former Korean landowners and agricultural workers became tenant farmers after losing their entitlements almost overnight.

After Emperor Gojong died in 1919 amidst rumors of poisoning, independence rallies against the Japanese took place nationwide (the March 1st Movement). This movement was suppressed by force and about 7,000 were killed by Japanese soldiers and police. An estimated 2 million people took part in pro-liberation rallies, although Japanese records claim participation of less than half million. This movement was partly inspired by United States President Woodrow Wilson’s speech of 1919, declaring support for right of self-determination and an end to colonial rule for Europeans. No comment was made by Wilson on Korean independence. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was established in Shanghai, China, in the aftermath of March 1 Movement, which coordinated the liberation effort and resistance against Japanese control. The Provisional Government is considered the de jure government of the Korean people between 1919 and 1948, and its legitimacy is enshrined in the preamble to the constitution of the Republic of Korea.

Continued anti-Japanese uprisings, such as the nationwide uprising of students in November 1929, led to the strengthening of military rule in 1931. After the outbreaks of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and World War II, Japan attempted to exterminate Korea as a nation. The continuance of Korean culture itself became illegal. Worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory. The school curriculum was radically modified to eliminate teaching of the Korean language and history. The Korean language was banned, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, and newspapers were prohibited from publishing in Korean. Numerous Korean cultural artifacts were destroyed or taken to Japan. According to an investigation by the South Korean government, 75,311 cultural assets were taken from Korea.

World War II

From 1939, labor shortages as a result of conscription of Japanese males for the military efforts of World War II led to organized official recruitment of Koreans to work in mainland Japan, initially through civilian agents and later directly, often involving elements of coercion. As the labor shortage increased, by 1942 the Japanese authorities extended the provisions of the National Mobilization Law to include the conscription of Korean workers for factories and mines on the Korean peninsula, Manchukuo, and the involuntary relocation of workers to Japan itself as needed.

Of the 5.4 million Koreans conscripted, about 670,000 were taken to mainland Japan for civilian labor. Those who were brought to Japan were often forced to work under appalling and dangerous conditions. Although Koreans were often treated better than laborers from other countries, their work hours, food, and medical care still led to many deaths. The number of deaths of Korean forced laborers in Korea and Manchuria is estimated to be between 270,000 and 810,000. Most Korean atomic-bomb victims in Japan were drafted for work at military industrial factories in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan did not draft ethnic Koreans into its military until 1944 when the tide of WW II turned dire. Until 1944, enlistment in the Imperial Japanese Army by ethnic Koreans was voluntary and highly competitive. From a 14% acceptance rate in 1938, it dropped to a 2% acceptance rate in 1943 while the raw number of applicants increased from 3000 per annum to 300,000 in just five years during World War II. Starting in 1944, Japan started the conscription of Koreans into the armed forces. All Korean males were drafted to either join the Imperial Japanese Army, as of April 1944, or work in the military industrial sector, as of September 1944. Around 200,000 girls and women, many from China and Korea, were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers as the so-called comfort women. Former Korean comfort women are still demanding formal apologies from  the Japanese Government.

Koreans, along with many other Asians, were experimented on in Unit 731, a secret military medical experimentation unit in World War II. The victims who died in the camp included at least 25 victims from the former Soviet Union and Korea. General Shiro Ishii, the head of Unit 731, revealed during the Tokyo War Crime Trials that 254 Koreans were killed in Unit 731. Some historians estimate up to 250,000 total people were subjected to human experiments. A Unit 731 veteran attested that most that were experimented on were Chinese, Koreans, and Mongolians.

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Unit 731 Complex. Source: Unidentified Bulletin of Unit 731.

Some historians estimate that up to 250,000 men, women, and children were subjected to experimentation conducted by Unit 731 at the camp based in Pingfang alone, which does not include victims from other medical experimentation sites such as Unit 100. Unit 731 veterans of Japan attest that most of the victims they experimented on were Chinese while a small percentage were Russian, Mongolian, Korean, and Allied POW’s.

Economic Growth Controversy

The industrialization of the Korean Peninsula began with the Joseon dynasty while Korea was still independent, but vastly accelerated under Japanese occupation. The rapid growth of the Korean economy under Japanese rule, which as historians note cannot be ignored in the analysis of the later economic success of South Korea, continues to be the subject of controversy between the two Koreas and Japan. While the growth is unquestionable, North Korea and South Korea point to alleged long-term negative repercussions caused by how the acceleration of industrialization under Japanese occupation was executed, including utilization of industrialization only for the purposes of benefiting Japan, the exploitation of the Korean people, the marginalization of Korean history and culture, and the environmental exploitation of the Korean Peninsula.

Occupation by the US and USSR

In light of the lack of consensus over the post-World War II status of Korea among the Allies and their competition for the sphere of influence in the region, the U.S. and Soviet governments divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, paving the way for the existence of two separate Korean states.

Learning Objectives

Describe the roles the U.S. and the USSR played in Korea after WWII

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • At the Tehran Conference in 1943 and the Yalta Conference in 1945, the Soviet Union promised to join its allies in the Pacific War within three months of victory in Europe. On August 8, 1945, after three months to the day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Soviet troops advanced rapidly and the U.S. government became anxious that they would occupy Korea.
  • On August 10, 1945, two young officers – Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel – were assigned to define an American occupation zone. Working on extremely short notice and completely unprepared, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel. They chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would also place capital city Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted. To the surprise of the Americans, the Soviet Union immediately accepted the division.
  • On September 7, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur announced that Lieutenant General John R. Hodge was to administer Korean affairs. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was the official ruling body of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from September 8, 1945, to August 15, 1948.
  • The USAMGIK tried to contain civil violence in the south by banning strikes and outlawing the People’s Republic of Korea and the people’s committees, but it did not prevent anti-division protests. It eventually outlawed all the left-leaning and allegedly communist organizations, and its continuation of the Japanese colonial system made it unpopular among Koreans.
  • In 1946, a provisional government called the Provisional People’s Committee was formed under Kim Il-sung in North Korea. The government instituted a sweeping land-reform program, which distributed land more equally and forced big landlords and Japanese collaborators to seek refugee status in the South.
  • Following a failed UN intervention in 1947, on May 10, 1948, the south held a general election. On August 15, the Republic of Korea formally took over power from the U.S. military, with Syngman Rhee as the first president. In the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared on September 9, 1948, with Kim Il-sung as prime minister. On December 12, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the report of UNTCOK and declared the Republic of Korea to be the “only lawful government in Korea.”

Key Terms

  • The United States Army Military Government in Korea: The official ruling body of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from September 8, 1945, to August 15, 1948. Popular discontent stemmed from the body’s support of the Japanese colonial government and, once removed, keeping the former Japanese governors on as advisors; from ignoring, censoring, and forcibly disbanding the People’s Republic of Korea; and from its support for United Nations elections that divided Korea.
  • People’s Republic of Korea: A short-lived provisional government organized with the aim to take over control of Korea shortly after the surrender of the Empire of Japan at the end of World War II. It operated as a government from late August to early September 1945 until the United States Army Military Government in Korea was established in the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula by the United States. After that it operated unofficially and in opposition to the United States Army Military Government until it was forcibly dissolved in January 1946.
  • Provisional People’s Committee: The official name of the provisional government governing the northern portion of the Korean Peninsula following its post-World War II partition by the United States and the Soviet Union after the defeat of the Empire of Japan in 1945. In the north, a pro-Soviet, ideologically communist government was established, officially succeeding a quasi-government composed of five provinces in 1946. The government was largely modeled after the Soviet Union.

End of World War II: Division of Korea

In November 1943, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek met at the Cairo Conference to discuss what should happen to territories occupied by Japan and agreed that Japan should lose all the territories it had conquered by force. In the declaration after the conference, Korea was mentioned for the first time. The three powers declared that they were “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea,… determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”

At the Tehran Conference in 1943 and the Yalta Conference in 1945, the Soviet Union promised to join its allies in the Pacific War within three months of victory in Europe. On August 8, 1945, after three months to the day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Soviet troops advanced rapidly and the U.S. government became anxious that they would occupy Korea. On August 10, 1945, two young officers – Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel – were assigned to define an American occupation zone. Working on extremely short notice and completely unprepared, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel. They chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would also place the capital city Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted. The two men were unaware that 40 years earlier, Japan and Russia had discussed sharing Korea along the same parallel. The division placed sixteen million Koreans in the American zone and nine million in the Soviet zone. To the surprise of the Americans, the Soviet Union immediately accepted the division.

General Abe Nobuyuki, the last Japanese Governor-General of Korea, had established contact with a number of influential Koreans since the beginning of August 1945 to prepare the handover of power. Throughout August, Koreans organized people’s committee branches for the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence headed by Lyuh Woon-hyung, a moderate left-wing politician. On September 6, 1945, a congress of representatives convened in Seoul and founded the short-lived People’s Republic of Korea.

In December 1945 at the Moscow Conference, the Allies agreed that the Soviet Union, the U.S., the Republic of China, and Britain would take part in a trusteeship over Korea for up to five years in the lead-up to independence. Most Koreans demanded independence immediately, with the exception of the Communist Party, which supported the trusteeship under pressure from the Soviet government. A Soviet-U.S. Joint Commission met in 1946 and 1947 to work towards a unified administration, but failed to make progress due to increasing Cold War antagonism and Korean opposition to the trusteeship. Meanwhile, the division between the two zones deepened. The difference in policy between the occupying powers led to a polarization of politics and a transfer of population between North and South. In May 1946, it was made illegal to cross the 38th parallel without a permit.

U.S. Occupation of the South

On September 7, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur announced that Lieutenant General John R. Hodge was to administer Korean affairs and Hodge landed in Incheon with his troops the next day. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was the official ruling body of the southern half of the Korean Peninsula from September 8, 1945, to August 15, 1948. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which had operated from China, sent a delegation with three interpreters to Hodge, but he refused to meet with them.

The USAMGIK tried to contain civil violence in the south by banning strikes and outlawing the People’s Republic of Korea and the people’s committees. Things spiraled quickly out of control, however, with a massive strike in September 1946 by 8,000 railway workers in Busan, which quickly spread to other cities in the South. On October 1, police attempts to control protesters in Daegu caused the death of three student demonstrators and injuries to many others, sparking a mass counter-attack that killed 38 policemen. In Yeongcheon, a police station came under attack by a 10,000-strong crowd on October 3, killing over 40 policemen and the county chief. Other attacks killed about 20 landlords and pro-Japanese officials. The U.S. administration responded by declaring martial law, firing into crowds of demonstrators, and killing a publicly unknown number of people.

Although the military government was hostile to leftism from the beginning, it initially tolerated the activities of left-wing political groups, including the Korean Communist Party. However, this period of reconciliation did not last long. Within a short time, the military government actively disempowered and eventually banned popular organizations that were gaining public support. The justification was the USAMGIK’s suspicion that they were aligned with the Communist bloc, despite professing a relatively moderate stance compared to the actual Korean Communist Party, which was also banned.

Among the earliest edicts promulgated by USAMGIK was to reopen all schools. No immediate changes were made in the educational system, which was simply carried over from the Japanese colonial period. In this area as in others, the military government sought to maintain the forms of the Japanese occupation system. Although it did not implement sweeping educational reforms, the military government did lay the foundations for reforms that were implemented later. In 1946, a council of about 100 Korean educators was convened to map out the future path of Korean education.

Soviet Occupation of the North

When Soviet troops entered Pyongyang, they found a local branch of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence operating under the leadership of veteran nationalist Cho Man-sik. The Soviet Army allowed these people’s committees, which were friendly to the Soviet Union, to function. Colonel-General Terentii Shtykov set up the Soviet Civil Administration, taking control of the committees and placing Communists in key positions.

In 1946, a provisional government called the Provisional People’s Committee was formed under Kim Il-sung, who had spent the last years of the war training with Soviet troops in Manchuria. Conflicts and power struggles ensued at the top levels of government in Pyongyang as different aspirants maneuvered to gain positions of power in the new government. The government instituted a sweeping land-reform program: land belonging to Japanese and collaborator landowners was divided and redistributed to poor farmers. Landlords were allowed to keep only the same amount of land as poor civilians who had once rented their land, thereby making for a far more equal distribution of land. The farmers responded positively while many collaborators and former landowners fled to the south. According to the U.S. military government, 400,000 northern Koreans went south as refugees.

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Welcome celebration for the Red Army in Pyongyang on October 14, 1945. Source: Korean People Journal from Japanese book The First Anniversary of Korean Liberation published by Shinkan Sha.

The division of Korea, after more than a millennium of being unified, was seen as controversial and temporary by both regimes. From 1948 until the start of the civil war on June 25, 1950, the armed forces of each side engaged in a series of bloody conflicts along the border. In 1950, these conflicts escalated dramatically when North Korean forces invaded South Korea, triggering the Korean War.

Key industries were nationalized. The economic situation was nearly as difficult in the north as it was in the south, as the Japanese concentrated agriculture in the south and heavy industry in the north.

Failed UN Intervention

With the failure of the Soviet-U.S. Joint Commission to make progress, the U.S. brought the problem before the United Nations in September 1947. The Soviet Union opposed UN involvement but the UN passed a resolution on November 14, 1947, declaring that free elections should be held, foreign troops should be withdrawn, and a UN commission for Korea, the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, should be created. The Soviet Union boycotted the voting and did not consider the resolution to be binding, arguing that the UN could not guarantee fair elections. In the absence of Soviet cooperation, it was decided to hold UN-supervised elections in the south only.

The decision to proceed with separate elections was unpopular among many Koreans, who rightly saw it as a prelude to a permanent division of the country. General strikes in protest against the decision began in February 1948. In April, Jeju islanders rose up against the looming division of the country. South Korean troops were sent to repress the rebellion. Tens of thousands of islanders were killed and by one estimate, 70% of the villages were burned by the South Korean troops. The uprising flared up again with the outbreak of the Korean War.

On May 10, 1948, the south held a general election. On August 15, the Republic of Korea formally took over power from the U.S. military, with Syngman Rhee as the first president. In the North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was declared on September 9, 1948, with Kim Il-sung as prime minister. On December 12, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the report of UNTCOK and declared the Republic of Korea to be the “only lawful government in Korea.”

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South Korean general election on May 10, 1948. Source: Korean book Departure of Republic of Korea Capital Seoul (1945-1961) published by Seoul Metropolitan City History Committee.

Beginning with Syngman Rhee, a series of oppressive autocratic governments took power in South Korea with American support and influence. The country eventually transitioned to become a market-oriented democracy in 1987, largely due to popular demand for reform, and its economy rapidly grew. Due to Soviet influence, North Korea established a communist government with a hereditary succession of leadership, with ties to China and the Soviet Union.

Unrest continued in the South. In October 1948, the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion took place, in which some regiments rejected the suppression of the Jeju uprising and rebelled against the government. In 1949, the Syngman Rhee government established the Bodo League to keep an eye on its political opponents. The majority of the Bodo League’s members were innocent farmers and civilians who were forced into membership. The registered members or their families were executed at the beginning of the Korean War. On December 24, 1949, South Korean Army massacred Mungyeong citizens who were suspected communist sympathizers or their family and affixed blame to communists.

Soviet forces departed from North Korea in 1948 and American troops finally withdrew from South Korea in 1949.

The Outbreak of the Korean War

With the approval and support of Stalin and Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung believing that the effort to unite the Korean Peninsula would be supported by much of the South Korean populations, North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, marking the outbreak of the Korean War.

Learning Objectives

Detail the events that led to the outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the 1948 elections under the auspices of the UN, the new South Korean government promulgated a new constitution and elected Syngman Rhee as president. While in the North the Soviet Union established a communist government led by Kim Il-sung, President Rhee’s regime excluded communists and leftists from southern politics. While Rhee aimed to eradicate communist and leftist groups, the anti-communist slogans were also applied to eradicate all his actual and alleged political opponents and establish authoritarian rule by inciting fear among civilians with no ties to communism.
  • In April 1948, what began as a demonstration commemorating Korean resistance to Japanese rule ended with the Jeju uprising, an attempted insurgency against the scheduled election on the Korean province of Jeju Island, followed by a brutal anticommunist suppression campaign. By early 1950, Rhee had about 20,000-30,000 alleged communists in jails and about 300,000 suspected  sympathizers enrolled in the Bodo League.
  • Kim Il-sung believed that communist guerrillas had weakened the South Korean military and that a North Korean invasion would be welcomed by much of the South Korean population. Kim began seeking Stalin’s support but with Chinese Communist forces still engaged in the Chinese Civil War and American forces stationing in South Korea, Stalin did not want the Soviet Union to become embroiled in a war with the United States.
  • By spring 1950, the strategic situation changed. The Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb, American soldiers had fully withdrawn from Korea, and the Chinese Communists had established the People’s Republic of China. In April 1950, Stalin gave Kim permission to invade the South under the condition that Mao Zedong, the leader of China, would agree to send reinforcements if needed. Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces would not openly engage in combat to avoid a direct war with the Americans.
  • On June 25, 1950, the Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire. The KPA justified its assault with the claim that ROK troops had attacked first, and that they were aiming to arrest and execute the “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee.” There were initial South Korean claims that they had captured the city of Haeju, and this sequence of events has led some scholars to argue that the South Koreans actually fired first. Within an hour, North Korean forces attacked all along the 38th parallel.
  • In five days, the South Korean forces, which had 95,000 men on June 25, were down to less than 22,000 men. In early July, when U.S. forces arrived after the UN passed Resolutions 82 and 83 and it became clear the Soviets would not directly engage in the conflict, what was left of the South Korean forces was placed under U.S. operational command of the United Nations Command.

Key Terms

  • Jeju uprising: An attempted insurgency on the Korean province of Jeju Island followed by a brutal anticommunist suppression campaign that lasted from April 3, 1948, until May 1949. The main cause for the rebellion was elections scheduled for May 10, 1948, designed by the UN to create a new government for all of Korea but only planned for the south of the country. Fearing this would further reinforce division, guerrilla fighters for the South Korean Labor party reacted violently, attacking local police and rightist youth groups stationed on Jeju Island.
  • Bodo League: An official “re-education” movement whose members were communists, communist sympathizers, or actual and alleged political opponents of the President of South Korea Syngman Rhee. The members of the movement were forced into the membership and many were civilians with no ties to communism or politics.
  • war of attrition: A military strategy in which a belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and material. This type of war is usually won by the side with greater resources.

“Anti-Communist” Purge in South Korea

Following the post-World War II division of Korea between the U.S. and the Soviet sphere of influence, the U.S. government cited the inability of the Soviet-U.S. Joint Commission to make progress and decided to hold an election under United Nations auspices with the aim of creating an independent Korea. The Soviet authorities and the Korean Communists refused to cooperate on the grounds it would not be fair. Many South Korean politicians also boycotted the idea. A general election was held in the South in 1948, marred by political violence and sabotage resulting in 600 deaths. North Korea held parliamentary elections three months later.

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South Korean citizens protest Allied trusteeship in December 1945, author unknown.

Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel refused to accept the imposed division of their country.

In 1948, the resultant South Korean government promulgated a new constitution and elected Syngman Rhee as President. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established on August 15, 1948. While in the North the Soviet Union established a communist government led by Kim Il-sung, President Rhee’s regime excluded communists and leftists from southern politics. Disenfranchised, they headed for the hills to prepare for guerrilla war against the US-sponsored ROK government. While Rhee indeed aimed to eradicate communist and leftist groups, the anti-communist slogans were applied to eradicate all his actual and alleged political opponents and establish the authoritarian rule by inciting fear among the civilians with no ties to communism or politics.

In April 1948, what began as a demonstration commemorating Korean resistance to Japanese rule ended with the Jeju uprising, an attempted insurgency against the scheduled election on the Korean province of Jeju Island, followed by a brutal anticommunist suppression campaign that lasted until May 1949. Although atrocities were committed by both sides, the methods used by the South Korean government to suppress the rebels were especially cruel, including random executions of women and children. In the end, between 14,000 and 30,000 people died as a result of the rebellion, or up to 10% of the island’s population. Some 40,000 others fled to Japan to escape the fighting. The persecution of actual and alleged communists in South Korea continued in the aftermath of the uprising. In December 1949, South Korean forces killed 86 to 88 people in the Mungyeong massacre.
The victims were massacred because they were suspected communist supporters or collaborators (though some sources say nearly one-third of the victims were children) but the government blamed the crime on marauding communist bands. By early 1950, Syngman Rhee had about 20,000-30,000 alleged communists in jails and about 300,000 suspected sympathizers enrolled in the Bodo League re-education movement. The Bodo League
gathered suspected communist sympathizers or Rhee’s political opponents but to fulfill the enrollment quota, many civilians with no ties to communists or politics were forced to become members.

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Jeju residents awaiting execution in May 1948, author unknown.

Jeju residents began protesting the UN-designed 1948 elections in the South a whole year before they took place. An attempt by the military government to disperse the crowds only brought more citizens of Jeju out in support of the demonstrations. The persecution of communists and leftists in South Korea and the refusal to accept the 1948 elections and the divide of the Peninsula were important factors behind the invasion of North Korea in 1950.

Political Situation Before the War

By 1949, South Korean forces had reduced the active number of communist guerrillas in the South from 5,000 to 1,000. However, Kim Il-sung believed that the guerrillas had weakened the South Korean military and that a North Korean invasion would be welcomed by much of the South Korean population. Kim began seeking Stalin’s support for an invasion in March 1949, but with Chinese Communist forces still engaged in the Chinese Civil War and American forces stationed in South Korea, Stalin did not want the Soviet Union to become embroiled in a war with the United States. By spring 1950, the strategic situation changed. The Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb in September 1949, American soldiers had fully withdrawn from Korea, and the Chinese Communists had established the People’s Republic of China. The Soviets had also cracked the codes used by the U.S. to communicate with the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and reading the dispatches convinced Stalin that Korea would not warrant a nuclear confrontation.

In April 1950, Stalin gave Kim permission to invade the South under the condition that Mao Zedong, the leader of China, would agree to send reinforcements if they became needed. Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces would not openly engage in combat to avoid a direct war with the Americans. Mao was concerned that the Americans would intervene but agreed to support the North Korean invasion. Once Mao’s commitment was secured, preparations for war accelerated. Soviet generals with extensive combat experience from World War II were sent to North Korea as the Soviet Advisory Group and completed the plans for the attack.

While these preparations were underway in the North, there were frequent clashes along the 38th parallel, many initiated by the South. The Republic of Korea Army (ROK Army) was being trained by the U.S. Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). On the eve of the war, KMAG’s commander General William Lynn Roberts voiced utmost confidence in the ROK Army and boasted that any North Korean invasion would merely provide “target practice.” For his part, Syngman Rhee repeatedly expressed his desire to conquer the North. Despite the southward movement of the Korean’s People’s Army (KPA), U.S. intelligence agencies and UN observers claimed that an invasion was unlikely.

Outbreak of the War

At dawn on Sunday, June 25, 1950, the Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire. The KPA justified its assault with the claim that ROK troops had attacked first, and that they were aiming to arrest and execute the “bandit traitor Syngman Rhee.” Fighting began on the strategic Ongjin peninsula in the west. There were initial South Korean claims that they had captured the city of Haeju and this sequence of events has led some scholars to argue that the South Koreans actually fired first. Within an hour, North Korean forces attacked all along the 38th parallel. The North Koreans had a combined arms force including tanks supported by heavy artillery. The South Koreans did not have any tanks, anti-tank weapons, or heavy artillery that could stop such an attack. In addition, South Koreans committed their forces in a piecemeal fashion and these were routed within a few days.

On June 27, Rhee evacuated from Seoul with some members of the government. On June 28 at 2 a.m., the South Korean Army blew up the highway Hangang Bridge across the Han River in an attempt to stop the North Korean army. The bridge was detonated while 4,000 refugees were crossing it and hundreds were killed. Destroying the bridge also trapped many South Korean military units north of the Han River. In spite of such desperate measures, Seoul fell that same day. A number of South Korean National Assemblymen remained in Seoul when it fell and 48 subsequently pledged allegiance to the North. On June 28, Rhee ordered the massacre of suspected political opponents in his own country.

In five days, the South Korean forces, which had 95,000 men on June 25, were down to less than 22,000 men. In early July when U.S. forces arrived, what was left of the South Korean forces was placed under U.S. operational command of the United Nations Command.

U.S. and UN Interventions

The Truman administration was unprepared for the invasion. Korea was not included in the strategic Asian Defense Perimeter outlined by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Military strategists were more concerned with the security of Europe against the Soviet Union than East Asia. At the same time, the Administration was worried that a war in Korea could quickly widen into another world war should the Chinese or Soviets decide to get involved as well.

One facet of the changing attitude toward Korea and whether to get involved was Japan. Especially after the fall of China to the Communists, U.S. East Asian experts saw Japan as the critical counterweight to the Soviet Union and China in the region. While there was no United States policy that dealt with South Korea as a national interest, its proximity to Japan increased the importance of South Korea. However, a major consideration was the possible Soviet reaction in the event that the U.S. intervened. The Truman administration was fretful that a war in Korea was a diversionary assault that would escalate to a general war in Europe once the United States committed in Korea. Truman believed if aggression went unchecked, a chain reaction would be initiated that would marginalize the United Nations and encourage Communist aggression elsewhere.

On June 25, 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea with UN Security Council Resolution 82. The Soviet Union, a veto-wielding power, had boycotted the Council meetings since January 1950, protesting that the Republic of China (Taiwan), not the People’s Republic of China, held a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. After debating the matter, the Security Council on June 27, 1950, published Resolution 83 recommending member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On the same day, President Truman ordered U.S. air and sea forces to help the South Korean regime. On July 4, the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister accused the United States of starting armed intervention on behalf of South Korea.

War of Attrition

After the first two months of the conflict, South Korean forces were on the point of defeat, forced back to the Pusan Perimeter. In September 1950, an amphibious UN counter-offensive was launched at Inchon and cut off many of the North Korean troops. Those that escaped envelopment and capture were rapidly forced back north all the way to the border with China at the Yalu River or into the mountainous interior. At this point, in October 1950, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu and entered the war. Chinese intervention triggered a retreat of UN forces which continued until mid-1951.

After these reversals of fortune, which saw Seoul change hands four times, the last two years of conflict became a war of attrition (a strategy in which a belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and material), with the front line close to the 38th parallel. The war in the air, however, was never a stalemate. North Korea was subject to a massive bombing campaign. Jet fighters confronted each other in air-to-air combat for the first time in history and Soviet pilots covertly flew in defense of their communist allies.

Foreign Intervention in Korea

As the conflict between South Korea and North Korea reflected the international tensions of the Cold War, the U.S. military forces supported South Korea under the auspices of the UN while Chinese forces backed North Korea with the Soviet Union providing materiel and strategic help.

Learning Objectives

Compare involvement of the U.S., USSR, and China in the Korean War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • On June 25, 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea with UN Security Council Resolution 82. On June 27, 1950, the Security Council published Resolution 83 recommending member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On the same day, President Truman ordered U.S. air and sea forces to help the South Korean regime.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Truman agreed that the United States was obligated to act, paralleling the North Korean invasion with Adolf Hitler ‘s aggression in the 1930s with the conclusion that the mistake of appeasement must not be repeated. However, Truman later acknowledged that he believed fighting the invasion was essential to the American goal of the global containment of communism.
  • In September 1950, Zhou Enlai warned the United States that China was prepared to intervene in Korea if the U.S. crossed the 38th parallel. By October 1950, the UN Command repelled the Korean People’s Army north past the 38th parallel and the ROK Army crossed after them into North Korea. China justified its entry into the war as a response to “American aggression in the guise of the UN.”
  • Although the Soviet Union agreed upon the Chinese intervention and supported the North Korean and Chinese forces with material and military experts, Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces themselves would not directly intervene.
  • From July 1951 to the end of the war in 1953, the UN Command and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army fought but exchanged little territory. The stalemate held although large-scale bombing of North Korea continued. The UN Command forces’ goal was to recapture all of South Korea and to avoid losing territory. The PVA and the KPA attempted similar operations and later effected military and psychological operations in order to test the UN Command’s resolve to continue the war.
  • The U.S. forces were not the only international units fighting in the Korean War under the auspices of the UN. The United Nations Command was in fact the unified command structure for the multinational military forces supporting South Korea. The United Nations Command and the Chinese-North Korean Command signed the Korean Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, ending the heavy fighting.

Key Terms

  • Korean Demilitarized Zone: A highly militarized strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. It was established at the end of the Korean War to serve as a buffer zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). It is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, created by agreement between North Korea, China, and the United Nations in 1953.
  • United Nations Command: The unified command structure for the multinational military forces supporting South Korea during the 1950-1953 Korean War.
  • Korean War: A 1950 – 1953 military conflict that began when North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal force, came to the aid of South Korea. China came to the aid of North Korea, and the Soviet Union gave some assistance.

U.S. Intervention with UN Support

On June 25, 1950, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned the North Korean invasion of the Republic of Korea with UN Security Council Resolution 82 (the Soviet Union boycotted the UNSC at the time). On June 27, 1950, the Security Council published Resolution 83 recommending member states provide military assistance to the Republic of Korea. On the same day, President Truman ordered U.S. air and sea forces to help the South Korean regime.

U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Truman agreed that the United States was obligated to act, paralleling the North Korean invasion with Adolf Hitler’s aggression in the 1930s with the conclusion that the mistake of appeasement must not be repeated. Several U.S. industries were mobilized to supply materials, labor, capital, production facilities, and other services necessary to support the military objectives of the Korean War. However, Truman later acknowledged that he believed fighting the invasion was essential to the American goal of the global containment of communism. In August 1950, the President and the Secretary of State obtained the consent of Congress to appropriate $12 billion for military action in Korea.

General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was faced with re-organizing and deploying an American military force that was a shadow of its World War II counterpart. Acting on Acheson’s recommendation, President Truman ordered General MacArthur to transfer material to the Army of the Republic of Korea while giving air cover to the evacuation of U.S. nationals. The President disagreed with advisers who recommended unilateral U.S. bombing of the North Korean forces and ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet to protect the Republic of China (Taiwan), whose government asked to fight in Korea. The United States denied ROC’s request for combat lest it provoke a communist Chinese retaliation. Because the United States sent the Seventh Fleet to “neutralize” the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai criticized both the UN and U.S. initiatives as “armed aggression on Chinese territory.”

In September, MacArthur received the top secret National Security Council Memorandum from Truman reminding him that operations north of the 38th parallel were authorized only if “at the time of such operation there was no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces, no announcements of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations militarily.” Just three days later, Zhou Enlai warned the United States that China was prepared to intervene in Korea if the United States crossed the 38th parallel. By October 1950, the UN Command repelled the Korean People’s Army northwards past the 38th parallel and the ROK Army crossed after them into North Korea. MacArthur made a statement demanding the KPA’s unconditional surrender. On October 7, with UN authorization, the UN Command forces followed the ROK forces northwards. The X Corps landed at Wonsan (in southeastern North Korea) and Riwon (in northeastern North Korea), already captured by ROK forces. The Eighth U.S. Army and the ROK Army drove up western Korea and captured Pyongyang city, the North Korean capital, on October 19, 1950. At month’s end, UN forces held 135,000 KPA prisoners of war.

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U.S. Marine guards North Korean POWs aboard ship, 1951, author unknown.: The treatment of prisoners of war and their repatriation was a complicated issue in the Korean War. Nominally, both the Communists and United Nations forces were committed to the terms of the 1949 Third Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of POWs. However, both sides applied exceptions and the negotiations regarding POWs were contentious and difficult.

Taking advantage of the UN Command’s strategic momentum against the communists, General MacArthur believed it necessary to extend the Korean War into China to destroy depots supplying the North Korean war effort. President Truman disagreed and ordered caution at the Sino-Korean border.

Chinese Intervention with Soviet Support

China justified its entry into the war as a response to “American aggression in the guise of the UN.” In August 1950, Zhou Enlai informed the UN that “Korea is China’s neighbor” and “the Chinese people cannot but be concerned about a solution of the Korean question.” Thus, through neutral-country diplomats, China warned that in safeguarding Chinese national security, they would intervene against the UN Command in Korea. President Truman interpreted the communication as an “attempt to blackmail the UN” and dismissed it.

October 1, 1950, the day that UN troops crossed the 38th parallel, was also the first anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. On that day, the Soviet ambassador forwarded a telegram from Stalin to Mao and Zhou requesting that China send five to six divisions into Korea, and Kim Il-sung sent frantic appeals to Mao for Chinese military intervention. At the same time, Stalin made it clear that Soviet forces themselves would not directly intervene.

There was considerable resistance among many Chinese leaders, including senior military leaders, to confronting the U.S. in Korea. Mao strongly supported intervention and Zhou was one of the few Chinese leaders who firmly supported him. In order to enlist Stalin’s support, Zhou and a Chinese delegation arrived in Moscow on October 10. Stalin did not agree to send either military equipment or air support until March 1951. Soviet shipments of materiel, when they did arrive, were limited to small quantities of trucks, grenades, machine guns, and the like. Immediately upon his return to Beijing on October 18, Zhou met with Mao and military leaders Peng Dehuai and Gao Gang. The group ordered 200,000 Chinese troops to enter North Korea.

After secretly crossing the Yalu River on October 19, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) 13th Army Group launched the First Phase Offensive on October 25, attacking the advancing UN forces near the Sino-Korean border. This military decision made solely by China changed the attitude of the Soviet Union. Twelve days after Chinese troops entered the war, Stalin allowed the Soviet Air Force to provide air cover and supported more aid to China. After decimating the ROK II Corps at the Battle of Onjong, the first confrontation between Chinese and U.S. military occurred on November 1, 1950. Deep in North Korea, thousands of soldiers from the PVA 39th Army encircled and attacked the U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment with three-prong assaults—from the north, northwest, and west—and overran the defensive position flanks in the Battle of Unsan.

On December 16, 1950, President Truman declared a national emergency, which remained in force until September 1978. The next day, Kim Il-sung was deprived of the right of command of KPA by China. After that, the leading force of the war on the North Korean side became the Chinese army.

Stalemate and Armistice

From July 1951 to the end of the war, the UN Command and the PVA fought but exchanged little territory. The stalemate held although large-scale bombing of North Korea continued. Protracted armistice negotiations began in July 1951, but combat continued while the belligerents negotiated. The UN Command forces’ goal was to recapture all of South Korea and avoid losing territory. The PVA and the KPA attempted similar operations and later effected military and psychological operations to test the UN Command’s resolve to continue the war. The on-again, off-again armistice negotiations continued for two years, first at Kaesong, on the border between North and South Korea, and then at the neighboring village of Panmunjom. A major, problematic negotiation point was prisoner of war (POW) repatriation. The PVA, KPA, and UN Command could not agree on a system of repatriation because many PVA and KPA soldiers refused to be repatriated back to the north, which was unacceptable to the Chinese and North Koreans. In the final armistice agreement signed in July 1953, a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission was set up to handle the matter.

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U.S. Marines fighting in Seoul, Korea, 1950, author unknown.

U.S. Marines engaged in street fighting during the liberation of Seoul, circa late September 1950. Note M-1 rifles and Browning Automatic Rifles carried by the Marines, dead Koreans in the street, and M-4 “Sherman” tanks in the distance.

In 1952, the United States elected a new president, and in November, the president-elect, Dwight D. Eisenhower, went to Korea to learn what might end the Korean War. With the United Nations’ acceptance of India’s proposed Korean War armistice, the KPA, the PVA, and the UN Command ceased fire with the battle line approximately at the 38th parallel. Upon agreeing to the armistice, the belligerents established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has since been patrolled by the KPA and ROKA, United States, and Joint UN Commands.

United Nations Command

The U.S. forces were not the only international units fighting in the Korean War under the auspices of the UN. The United Nations Command (UNC) was in fact the unified command structure for the multinational military forces supporting South Korea. The first non-Korean and non-U.S. unit to see combat was No. 77 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, which began escort, patrol and ground attacks from Japan in July 1950. In August 1950, the British Commonwealth’s 27th Infantry Brigade arrived at Busan. Units from other countries of the UN followed in rapid succession, including Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey. Denmark, India, Norway, and Sweden provided medical units. Italy provided a hospital, even though it was not a UN member. Iran provided medical assistance from the Iranian military’s medical service.

A Divided Korea

After the Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, the Korean War ended but the conflict between the two Korean states continues, still shaping their economic, political, diplomatic, and social relations.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the consequences of dividing the Korean Peninsula into two countries

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The United Nations Command, supported by the United States, the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteers, signed the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953, to end the Korean War fighting. The Armistice also called upon the governments of South Korea, North Korea, China, and the United States to participate in continued peace talks. The war is considered to have ended at this point but no peace treaty was ever signed.
  • Upon agreeing to the armistice, the belligerents established the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. Within the Zone, there is a meeting-point between the two nations in the small Joint Security Area near the western end of the zone, where negotiations take place. There have been various incidents in and around the Zone, with military and civilian casualties on both sides.
  • After the war, Operation Glory, which involved the effort to transfer the remains of United Nations Command casualties from North Korea, was conducted from July to November 1954 to allow combatant countries to exchange their dead. Numerous atrocities and massacres of civilians throughout the Korean War committed by both the North and South Koreans also impacted the social landscape after the war. The exact number of South Korean POWs who were detained in North Korea after the war and who still survive in North Korea is unknown.
  • Large numbers of people were displaced as a result of the war and many families were divided by the reconstituted border. In 2007, it was estimated that around 750,000 people remained separated from immediate family members, and family reunions have long been a diplomatic priority.
  • After the war, sporadic conflict continued between North and South Korea. The opposing regimes aligned themselves with opposing sides in the Cold War. Both sides received recognition as the legitimate government of Korea from the opposing blocs and both built up their military capacity. Numerous events and developments continued to shake relations between the two Korean states.
  • As the Cold War ended, North Korea lost the support of the Soviet Union and plunged into economic crisis. In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung initiated the Sunshine Policy, which aimed to foster better relations with the North. The Sunshine Policy was formally abandoned by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak after his election in 2007. Since then, North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear program.

Key Terms

  • Sunshine Policy: The foreign policy of South Korea towards North Korea from 1998 to 2008. Since its articulation by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the policy resulted in greater political contact between the two states and some historic moments in inter-Korean relations, including two Korean summit meetings in Pyongyang (June 2000 and October 2007), several high-profile business ventures, and brief meetings of family members separated by the Korean War.
  • Operation Glory: The code name for Operations Plan KCZ-OPS 14-54, which involved the effort to transfer the remains of United Nations Command casualties from North Korea at the end of the Korean War. The Korean Armistice Agreement of July 1953 called for the repatriation of all casualties and prisoners of war, and through September and October 1954 the Graves Registration Service Command received the remains of approximately 4,000 casualties.
  • Korean Demilitarized Zone: A highly militarized strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula. It was established at the end of the Korean War to serve as a buffer zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). It is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, created by agreement between North Korea, China, and the United Nations in 1953.
  • Bodo League massacre: A massacre and war crime against communists and suspected sympathizers, many of whom were civilians who had no connection with communism or communists, that occurred in the summer of 1950 during the Korean War. Estimates of the death toll range from 100,000 to 200,000 deaths.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

The United Nations Command, supported by the United States, the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteers, signed the Armistice Agreement on July 27, 1953 to end the Korean War fighting. The Armistice also called upon the governments of South Korea, North Korea, China, and the United States to participate in continued peace talks. The war is considered to have ended at this point although there was no peace treaty. North Korea nevertheless claims that it won the Korean War.

Upon agreeing to the armistice, the belligerents established the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which has since been patrolled by the KPA and ROKA, United States, and Joint UN Commands. The Demilitarized Zone runs northeast of the 38th parallel and to the south, it travels west.
It is a de facto border barrier that divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, running 160 miles long and about 2.5 miles wide. Within the Zone, there is a meeting-point between the two nations in the small Joint Security Area near the western end of the zone, where negotiations take place. There have been various incidents in and around the Zone, with military and civilian casualties on both sides.

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A map of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, produced by the CIA in 1969. Relief shown by contours and spot heights. Depths shown by contours. Oriented with north toward the upper right.

Owing to the theoretical stalemate (no peace treaty has been signed) and genuine hostility between the North and the South, large numbers of troops are still stationed along both sides of the line, each side guarding against potential aggression from the other side. The armistice agreement explains exactly how many military personnel and what kind of weapons are allowed in the DMZ.

Social Landscape After the War

After the war, Operation Glory, which involved the effort to transfer the remains of United Nations Command casualties from North Korea, was conducted from July to November 1954 to allow combatant countries to exchange their dead. The remains of 4,167 U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps dead were exchanged for 13,528 KPA and PVA dead and 546 civilians dead in UN prisoner-of-war camps were delivered to the South Korean government. From 4,167 containers of returned remains, forensic examination identified 4,219 individuals. Of these, 2,944 were identified as American and all but 416 were identified by name.

There were numerous atrocities and massacres of civilians throughout the Korean War committed by both the North and South Koreans that impacted the social landscape after the war. Many of them started on the first days of the war. South Korean President Syngman Rhee ordered what would be known as the Bodo League massacre in June 1950, initiating the killing of more than 100,000 suspected leftist sympathizers and their families by South Korean officials and right-wing groups. In occupied areas, North Korean Army political officers purged South Korean society of its intelligentsia by executing academics, government officials, and religious leaders who might lead resistance against the North. When the North Koreans retreated north in September 1950, they abducted tens of thousands of South Korean men. The reasons are not clear, but the intention might have been to acquire skilled professionals.

Large numbers of people were displaced as a result of the war and many families were divided by the reconstituted border. In 2007, it was estimated that around 750,000 people remained separated from immediate family members, and family reunions have long been a diplomatic priority.

The exact number of South Korean POWs who were detained in North Korea after the war is unknown, as is the number who still survive in North Korea. In its report to the legislature in October 2007, the South Korean Ministry of Defense reported that “a total of 41,971 South Korean soldiers were missing during the Korean War. 8,726 were repatriated through POW exchanges after the Armistice of 1953. Some 13,836 have been determined to have been killed based on other information. To date, the status of 19,409 soldiers has not been confirmed. Most of these unconfirmed were believed to have been unrepatriated POWs. Other estimates of South Korean POWs held by the North Koreans at the Armistice have been higher. Yi Hang-gu, a writer and North Korea expert currently in South Korea who served in the Korean People’s Army, has testified that he commanded former South Korean POWs who had been enlisted into the Korean People’s Army during the Korean War. He has estimated the number of South Korean POWs who survived in North Korea at the end of the fighting at about 50,000-60,000. The South Korean government estimates that 560 South Korean POWs still survive in North Korea.

After the war, a large number of mixed-race “G.I. babies” (offspring of American and other UN soldiers and Korean women) were filling up the country’s orphanages. Because Korean traditional society places significant weight on paternal family ties, bloodlines, and purity of race, children of mixed race or those without fathers are not easily accepted in South Korean society. International adoption of Korean children began in 1954. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1952 legalized the naturalization of non-whites as American citizens and made possible the entry of military spouses and children from South Korea after the Korean War.

After the war, the Chinese forces left, but U.S. forces remained in the South. Sporadic conflict continued between North and South Korea.
The opposing regimes aligned themselves with opposing sides in the Cold War. Both sides received recognition as the legitimate government of Korea from the opposing blocs. In 1953, the United States and South Korea signed a defense treaty and in 1958, the United States stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea. In 1961, North Korea signed mutual defense treaties with the USSR and China.

North Korea presented itself as a champion of orthodox Communism, distinct from the Soviet Union and China. The regime developed the doctrine of Juche or self-reliance, which included extreme military mobilization. In response to the threat of nuclear war, it constructed extensive facilities underground and in the mountains. The Pyongyang Metro opened in the 1970s with capacity to double as bomb shelter. Until the early 1970s, North Korea was economically the equal of the South.

Tensions between North and South escalated in the late 1960s with a series of low-level armed clashes known as the Korean DMZ Conflict. In 1968, North Korean commandos launched the Blue House Raid, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Shortly after, the U.S. spy ship Pueblo was captured by the North Korean navy. In 1969, North Korea shot down a US EC-121 spy plane over the Sea of Japan, killing all 31 crew on board, which constitutes the largest single loss of U.S. aircrew during the Cold War. In 1969, Korean Air Lines YS-11 was hijacked and flown to North Korea. Similarly, in 1970, the hijackers of Japan Airlines Flight 351 were given asylum in North Korea. In response to the Blue House Raid, the South Korean government set up a special unit to assassinate Kim Il-sung, but the mission was aborted in 1972. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer attempted to assassinate President Park and killed his wife, Yuk Young-soo.

In the 1970s, both North and South began building up their military capacity. It was discovered that North Korea dug tunnels under the DMZ which could accommodate thousands of troops. Alarmed at the prospect of U.S. disengagement, South Korea began a secret nuclear weapons program which was strongly opposed by Washington. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter proposed the withdrawal of troops from South Korea. There was a widespread backlash in America and in South Korea and critics argued that this would allow the North to capture Seoul. Carter postponed the move and his successor Ronald Reagan reversed the policy, increasing troop numbers. After Reagan supplied the South with F-16 fighters and after Kim Il-sung visited Moscow in 1984, the USSR recommenced military aid and cooperation with the North.

Post-Cold War Relations

As the Cold War ended, North Korea lost the support of the Soviet Union and plunged into economic crisis. In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung initiated the Sunshine Policy, which aimed to foster better relations with the North. However, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush did not support the policy and in 2002 branded North Korea as a member of an “Axis of Evil.” The Sunshine Policy was formally abandoned by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak after his election in 2007. Meanwhile, in response to its increased isolation, North Korea redoubled its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 2006, North Korea announced it had successfully conducted its first nuclear test.

At the start of the 21st century, it was estimated that the concentration of firepower in the area between Pyongyang and Seoul was greater than that in central Europe during the Cold War. The North’s Korean People’s Army was numerically twice the size of South Korea’s military and had the capacity to devastate Seoul with artillery and missile bombardment. South Korea’s military, however, was assessed as technically superior. US forces remained in South Korea and carried out annual military exercises with South Korean forces. These have been routinely denounced by North Korea as acts of aggression. Between 1997 and 2016, the North Korea government accused other governments of declaring war against it 200 times. In 2013, amid tensions about its missile program, North Korea temporarily forced the shutdown of the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Region The zone was shut again in 2016. In 2016, amid controversy, South Korea decided to deploy the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system. After North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September 2016, it was reported that South Korea had developed a plan to raze Pyongyang if there were signs of an impending nuclear attack from the North.

The satellite image shows that South Korea is full of lights, while North Korea, on the other hand, is almost completely dark.

The Korean Peninsula at night, shown in a 2012 composite photograph from NASA.

According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 3% of South Koreans view North Korea’s influence positively, with 91% expressing a negative view, making South Korea, after Japan, the country with the most negative feelings about North Korea in the world. However, a 2014 government funded survey found only 13% of South Koreans viewed North Korea as hostile and 58% of South Koreans believed North Korea was a country they should cooperate with.

Communism in the DPRK

Following the idea of Juche or self-reliance, North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world, where an authoritarian political system has resulted in the destruction of the economy, complete control of the society, and extreme violations of human rights.

Learning Objectives

Describe how Communism looks in the DPRK today

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the Korean War, North Korea emphasized the ideology of Juche (self-reliance) to distinguish itself from both the Soviet Union and China. Recovery from the war was quick but reconstruction of the country depended on extensive Chinese and Soviet assistance. North Korea, like all the postwar communist states, undertook massive state investment in heavy industry, state infrastructure, and military strength, neglecting the production of consumer goods.
  • As late as the 1970s, North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was estimated to be equivalent to South Korea’s. By 1972, all children from age 5 to 16 were enrolled in school and over 200 universities and specialized colleges had been established. By the early 1980s, 60–70% of the population was urbanized.
  • In the 1970s, expansion of North Korea’s economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end. North Korea’s desire to lessen its dependence on aid from China and the Soviet Union prompted the expansion of its military power, and the government believed massive expenditures could be covered by foreign borrowing and increased sales of its mineral wealth on the international market. However, following the world 1973 oil crisis, the state began to default in 1974 and halted almost all repayments in 1985.
  • Gorbachev’s reforms and diplomatic initiatives, the Chinese economic reforms starting in 1979, and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc from 1989 to 1991 increased North Korea’s isolation. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived North Korea of its main source of economic aid, leaving China as the isolated regime’s only major ally. Without the Soviet aid, North Korea’s economy went into a free-fall.
  • Kim Il-sung died from a sudden heart attack in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, became the chairman of the National Defense Commission and thus North Korea’s de facto head of state in 1997. Meanwhile, the economy was in steep decline. In 1990-1995, foreign trade was cut in half, with the loss of subsidized Soviet oil particularly keenly felt. The crisis came to a head in 1995 with widespread flooding that destroyed crops and infrastructure, leading to a massive famine that lasted until 1998. Normalization of the relations with the West that began in the late 1990s failed and North Korea continued to develop its nuclear program.
  • International organizations have assessed human rights violations in North Korea as belonging to a category of their own, with no parallel in the contemporary world. North Koreans have been referred to as “some of the world’s most brutalized people” and a special UN commission has reported numerous cases of crimes against humanity.

Key Terms

  • Sunshine Policy: The foreign policy of South Korea towards North Korea from 1998 to 2008. Since its articulation by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, the policy resulted in greater political contact between the two states and some historic moments in inter-Korean relations, including two Korean summit meetings in Pyongyang (June 2000 and October 2007), several high-profile business ventures, and brief meetings of family members separated by the Korean War.
  • Juche: The official state ideology of North Korea, described by the regime as Kim Il-sung’s “contribution to national and international thought.” It claims that an individual is “the master of his destiny.” In practical terms, it calls for the economic self-reliance of North Korea.
  • August Faction Incident: A 1956 attempted removal of Kim Il-sung from power by leading North Korean figures from the Soviet-Korean faction and the Yan’an faction, with support from the Soviet Union and China.

North Korea after the Korean War

Following the 1956 August Faction Incident (an attempted removal of Kim Il-sung from power), Kim Il-sung successfully resisted efforts by the Soviet Union and China to depose him in favor of pro-Soviet Korean officials or the pro-Chinese Yan’an faction. The last Chinese troops withdrew from the country in 1958, but North Korea remained closely aligned with China and the Soviet Union and the Sino-Soviet split allowed Kim to play the powers off each other. At the same time, North Korea emphasized the ideology of Juche (self-reliance) to distinguish itself from both the Soviet Union and China.

Recovery from the war was quick — by 1957 industrial production reached 1949 levels — but reconstruction of the country depended on extensive Chinese and Soviet assistance. Koreans with experience in Japanese industries also played a significant part. Land was collectivized between 1953 and 1958. Resistance appears to have been minimal as landlords were eliminated by earlier reforms or during the war.

North Korea, like all the postwar communist states, undertook massive state investment in heavy industry, state infrastructure and military strength, neglecting the production of consumer goods. The country was placed on a semi-war footing, with equal emphasis being given to the civilian and military economies. At a special party conference in 1966, members of the leadership who opposed the military build-up were removed. Industry was fully nationalized by 1959. Taxation on agricultural income was abolished in 1966. As late as the 1970s, North Korea’s GDP per capita was estimated to be equivalent to South Korea’s. By 1972, all children from age 5 to 16 were enrolled in school and more than 200 universities and specialized colleges had been established. By the early 1980s, 60–70% of the population was urbanized.

Economic Decline

In the 1970s, expansion of North Korea’s economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end. North Korea’s desire to lessen its dependence on aid from China and the Soviet Union prompted the expansion of its military power, and the government believed massive expenditures could be covered by foreign borrowing and increased sales of its mineral wealth on the international market. North Korea invested heavily in its mining industries and purchased a large quantity of mineral extraction infrastructure from abroad. However, following the world 1973 oil crisis, international prices of many of North Korea’s native minerals fell, leaving the country with large debts, inability to pay them off, and an extensive network of social welfare benefits. The state began to default in 1974 and halted almost all repayments in 1985. Consequently, it was also unable to invest further in Western technology.

In 1984, Kim visited Moscow during a grand tour of the USSR where he met Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. Soviet involvement in the North Korean economy increased, with bilateral trade reaching its peak at $2.8 billion in 1988. In 1986, Kim met the incoming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and received a pledge of support. However, Gorbachev’s reforms and diplomatic initiatives, the Chinese economic reforms starting in 1979, and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc from 1989 to 1991 increased North Korea’s isolation. The leadership in Pyongyang responded by proclaiming that the collapse of the Eastern Bloc demonstrated the correctness of the policy of Juche. Simultaneously, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived North Korea of its main source of economic aid, leaving China as the isolated regime’s only major ally. Without the Soviet aid, North Korea’s economy went into a free-fall.

Kim Jong-il’s Era

Kim Il-sung died from a sudden heart attack in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, who had already assumed key positions in the government, succeeded as General-Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party. At that time, North Korea had no secretary-general in the party nor a president. Although a new constitution appeared to end the war-time political system, it did not completely terminate the transitional military rule. Rather, it legitimized and institutionalized military rule by making the National Defense Commission (NDC) the most important state organization and its chairman the highest authority. After three years of consolidating his power, Kim Jong-il became Chairman of the NDC in 1997 and thus North Korea’s de facto head of state.

Meanwhile, the economy was in steep decline. In 1990-1995, foreign trade was cut in half, with the loss of subsidized Soviet oil particularly keenly felt. The crisis came to a head in 1995 with widespread flooding that destroyed crops and infrastructure, leading to a famine that lasted until 1998.
The North Korean government and its centrally planned system proved too inflexible to effectively curtail the disaster. Estimates of the death toll vary widely. Out of a total population of approximately 22 million, somewhere between 240,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses, with deaths peaking in 1997. Recent research suggests that the likely number of excess deaths between 1993 and 2000 was about 330,000.

In the late 1990s, North Korea began making attempts at normalizing relations with the West and continuously renegotiating disarmament deals with U.S. officials in exchange for economic aid. At the same time, South Korea began to engage with the North as part of its Sunshine Policy. The international environment changed with the election of U.S. president George W. Bush in 2001. His administration rejected South Korea’s Sunshine Policy and the U.S. government treated North Korea as a rogue state, while North Korea redoubled its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. In 2006, North Korea announced it had conducted its first nuclear weapons test.

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The Juche Tower in Pyongyang is dedicated to the Juche ideology, photo by Martyn Williams.

Juche’s core tenets are economic self-sufficiency, military self-reliance, and an independent foreign policy. The roots of Juche were made up of a complex mixture of factors, including the cult of personality centered on Kim Il-sung, the conflict with pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese dissenters, and Korea’s centuries-long struggle for independence.

In August 2009, former President Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to secure the release of two American journalists who were sentenced for entering the country illegally. Barack Obama’s position towards North Korea was to resist making deals with North Korea for the sake of defusing tension, a policy known as “strategic patience.”

Current Situation

In 2011, the supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-il died from a heart attack. His youngest son Kim Jong-un was announced as his successor. Over the following years, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear arsenal despite international condemnation. Notable tests were performed in 2013 and 2016 and UN sanctions have tightened. At the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2016, Kim Jong-Un further consolidated his control and power within the Workers’ Party of Korea and the country.

The DPRK officially describes itself as a self-reliant socialist state and formally holds elections. The unicameral Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) is the highest organ of state authority and holds the legislative power. Its 687 members are elected every five years by universal suffrage. Deputies formally elect the President, the vice presidents, and members of the Presidium and take part in the constitutionally appointed activities of the legislature: passing laws, establishing domestic and foreign policies, appointing members of the cabinet, reviewing and approving the state economic plan, among others. The SPA itself cannot initiate any legislation independently of party or state organs. It is unknown whether it has ever criticized or amended bills placed before it, and the elections are based around a single list of candidates who stand without opposition.

Executive power is vested in the Cabinet of North Korea, which is headed by Premier Pak Pong-ju. The Premier represents the government and functions independently. His authority extends over two vice premiers, 30 ministers, two cabinet commission chairmen, the cabinet chief secretary, the president of the Central Bank, the director of the Central Statistics Bureau, and the president of the Academy of Sciences. A 31st ministry, the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, is under the jurisdiction of the National Defense Commission.

Critics regard North Korea as a totalitarian dictatorship. Various outlets have called it Stalinist, particularly noting the elaborate cult of personality around Kim Il-sung and his family. The Workers’ Party of Korea, led by a member of the ruling family, holds power in the state and leads the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. North Korea is the country with the highest number of military and paramilitary personnel, with a total of 9,495,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel. Its active duty army of 1.21 million is the fourth largest in the world, after China, the U.S., and India. North Korea is an atheist state with no official religion and where public display of religion is discouraged.

The North Korean government exercises control over many aspects of the nation’s culture, and this control is used to perpetuate a cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Kim Il-sung is still officially revered as the nation’s “Eternal President.” Several landmarks in North Korea are named for Kim Il-sung, including Kim Il-sung University, Kim Il-sung Stadium, and Kim Il-sung Square. Defectors have been quoted as saying that North Korean schools deify both father and son. The extent of the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung was demonstrated in 2012, when a 14-year-old North Korean schoolgirl drowned while attempting to rescue portraits of the two from a flood.

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North Koreans bowing in front of statues of Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il, April 2012, photo by J.A. de Roo.

The North Korean government exercises control over many aspects of the nation’s culture, and this control is used to perpetuate a cult of personality surrounding Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. While visiting North Korea in 1979, journalist Bradley Martin wrote that nearly all music, art, and sculpture that he observed glorified “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, whose personality cult was then being extended to his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Martin reported that there is even widespread belief that Kim Il-sung “created the world” and Kim Jong-il could “control the weather.”

Human Rights Violations

International organizations have assessed human rights violations in North Korea as belonging to a category of their own, with no parallel in the contemporary world. North Koreans have been referred to as “some of the world’s most brutalized people” by Human Rights Watch because of the severe restrictions placed on their political and economic freedoms. The North Korean population is strictly managed by the state and all aspects of daily life are subordinated to party and state planning. Employment is managed by the party on the basis of political reliability and travel is tightly controlled by the Ministry of People’s Security. Amnesty International reports of severe restrictions on the freedom of association, expression and movement, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment resulting in death, and executions. North Korea applies capital punishment, including public executions. Human rights organizations estimate that 1,193 executions had been carried out in the country as of 2009.

In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Commission is mandated to investigate the systematic, widespread, and grave violations of human rights in North Korea. The Commission dealt with matters relating to crimes against humanity on the basis of definitions set out by customary international criminal law and in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The 2014 Report by the commission concluded, “the body of testimony and other information [the Commission] received establishes that crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State… These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. The commission further finds that crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.” Additionally, the commission found that crimes against humanity have been committed against starving populations, particularly during the 1990s, and against persons from other countries who were systematically abducted or denied repatriation in order to gain labor and other skills.

South Korea’s Economic Growth

Although South Korea emerged from the Korean War as one of the poorest countries in the world and despite a series of authoritarian regimes lasting until the late 1980s, the South Korean economy has been one of the fastest-growing and most stable in the world since the 1960s.

Learning Objectives

Explain the policies enacted by the South Korean government to promote economic growth

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the armistice that ended the Korean War fighting, South Korea experienced political turmoil under the autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee. Throughout his rule, Rhee sought to take additional steps to cement his control of government. Under his rule, the country was in a dire economic situation and he was finally forced to resign and flee in 1960, following the April Revolution.
  • A period of political instability followed, broken by General Park Chung-hee’s May 16 coup against the weak and ineffectual government the next year. Park took over as president, overseeing rapid export-led economic growth as well as implementing political repression. He was heavily criticized as a ruthless military dictator.
  • Park was assassinated in 1979, initiating another period of political turmoil, as the previously suppressed opposition leaders all campaigned to run for president in the sudden political void. In 1979, there came the Coup d’état of December Twelfth led by General Chun Doo-hwan. Chun and his government held South Korea under a despotic rule until 1987, when the June Democracy Movement forced the ruling government to hold elections and institute other democratic reforms.
  • Sweeping economic reforms were initiated under Park’s administration that announced its five-year economic development plan based on an export-oriented industrialization policy. Top priority was placed on the growth of a self-reliant economy and modernization. The economy grew rapidly with vast improvements in industrial structure. Capital was needed for such developments, so the Park regime used the influx of foreign aid from Japan and the United States to provide loans to export businesses, with preferential treatment in obtaining low-interest bank loans and tax benefits.
  • Despite the immense economic growth, the standard of living for city laborers and farmers was still low. Laborers were working for low wages to increase the price competitiveness for the export-oriented economy plan, and farmers were in near poverty as the government controlled prices. As the rural economy steadily lost ground and caused dissent among the farmers, however, the government decided to implement measures to increase farm productivity and income.
  • In the first half of the 1990s, in already democratic South Korea, the economy continued a stable and strong growth. Things changed quickly in 1997 with the Asian Financial Crisis. Following the recovery, in the 2000s, Korea’s economy moved away from the centrally planned, government-directed investment model toward a more market-oriented one. South Korea today is the most industrialized member of the OECDE with a high-income economy and massive investments in education that have taken the country from mass illiteracy to a major international technological powerhouse.

Key Terms

  • June 29 Declaration: A speech by Roh Tae-woo, presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Justice Party of South Korea, on June 29, 1987. Roh promised significant concessions to opponents of the incumbent authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan who had been pressing for democracy. Roh went on to win the open presidential elections that were held that year, the first for at least 15 years since 1972.
  • June Democracy Movement: A nationwide democracy movement in South Korea that generated mass protests from June 10 to June 29, 1987. The demonstrations forced the ruling government to hold elections and institute other democratic reforms, which led to the establishment of the Sixth Republic, the present-day government of South Korea.
  • May 16 coup: A military coup d’état in South Korea in 1961, organized and carried out by Park Chung-hee and his allies who formed the Military Revolutionary Committee. The coup rendered powerless the democratically elected government of Yun Bo-seon and ended the Second Republic, installing a reformist military Supreme Council for National Reconstruction effectively led by Park, who took over as Chairman after General Chang’s arrest.
  • Coup d’état of December Twelfth: A military coup d’état which took place on December 12, 1979, in South Korea. Republic of Korea Army Major General Chun Doo-hwan, commander of the Security Command, acting without authorization from Acting President Choi Kyu-ha, ordered the arrest of General Jeong Seung-hwa, ROK Army Chief of Staff, on allegations of involvement in the assassination of President Park Chung Hee.
  • Miracle on the Han River: A phrase that refers to the period of rapid economic growth in South Korea following the Korean War (1950-1953), during which South Korea transformed from a poor developing country to a developed country.
  • April Revolution: A popular uprising in April 1960 led by labor and student groups, which overthrew the autocratic First Republic of South Korea under Syngman Rhee. It led to the resignation of Rhee and the transition to the Second Republic of South Korea. The events were touched off by the discovery in Masan Harbor of the body of a student killed by a tear-gas shell in demonstrations against the elections of March 1960.

Political Regime After the Korean War

Following the armistice that ended the Korean War fighting, South Korea experienced political turmoil under the autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee. Throughout his rule, Rhee took additional steps to cement his control of government. In 1952, still in the midst of the Korean War, he pushed through constitutional amendments, which made the presidency a directly elected position. To do this, he declared martial law, arresting opposing members of parliament, demonstrators, and anti-government groups. He was subsequently elected by a wide margin. In the 1954 elections, Rhee regained control of parliament and thereupon pushed through an amendment to exempt himself from the eight-year term limit and was once again re-elected in 1956. Soon after, his administration arrested members of the opposing party and executed its leader after accusing him of being a North Korean spy.

The administration became increasingly repressive while dominating the political arena and in 1958, sought to amend the National Security Law to tighten government control over all levels of administration, including the local units. These measures caused much outrage among the people, but despite public outcry, Rhee’s administration rigged the 1960 presidential elections and won by a landslide. On the election day, however, protests by students and citizens against the irregularities of the election burst out in the city of Masan. Initially these protests were quelled with force by local police, but when the body of a student was found floating in the harbor of Masan, the whole country was enraged and protests spread nationwide. On April 19, students from various universities and schools rallied and marched in protest in the Seoul streets in what would be called the April Revolution. The government declared martial law, called in the army, and suppressed the crowds with open fire. Subsequent protests throughout the country shook the government and after an escalated protest, Rhee submitted his official resignation and fled into exile.

A period of political instability followed, broken by General Park Chung-hee’s May 16 coup against the weak and ineffectual government the next year. Park took over as president, overseeing rapid export-led economic growth as well as implementing political repression. He was heavily criticized as a ruthless military dictator, who in 1972 extended his rule by creating a new constitution that gave the president sweeping (almost dictatorial) powers and permitted him to run for an unlimited number of six-year terms.

Park was assassinated in 1979, re-introducing political turmoil as the previously suppressed opposition leaders all campaigned to run for president in the sudden political void. In 1979 came the Coup d’état of December Twelfth led by General Chun Doo-hwan. Following the coup d’état, Chun Doo-hwan planned to rise to power through several measures. On May 17, he forced the Cabinet to expand martial law to the whole country (it had previously not applied to the island of Jejudo). The expanded martial law closed universities, banned political activities, and further curtailed the press. Chun’s assumption of the presidency triggered nationwide protests demanding democracy.

Chun and his government held South Korea under a despotic rule until 1987, when a Seoul National University student, Park Jong-chul, was tortured to death. On June 10, the Catholic Priests Association for Justice revealed the incident, igniting the June Democracy Movement around the country. Eventually, Chun’s party, the Democratic Justice Party, and its leader, Roh Tae-woo announced the June 29 Declaration, which included the direct election of the president. Roh went on to win the election by a narrow margin. Since then South Korea has engaged in consistent democratization efforts.

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May 16 coup, Major General Park Chung-hee (right), author unknown. : Park was one of a group of military leaders pushing for the depoliticization of the military. Under Park’s authoritarian rule, the South Korean economy began its miraculous growth.

Economic Growth

Following the Korean War, South Korea remained one of the poorest countries in the world for over a decade. In 1960, its gross domestic product per capita was $79, lower than that of some sub-Saharan countries. At the beginning of the 1960s,
the government formulated a five-year economic development plan, although it was unable to act on it prior to the April Revolution. The hwan (South Korean currency) lost half of its value against the dollar between fall 1960 and spring 1961.

Park’s administration started by announcing its five-year economic development plan based on an export-oriented industrialization policy. Top priority was placed on the growth of a self-reliant economy and modernization. “Development First, Unification Later” became the slogan of the times and the economy grew rapidly with vast improvements in industrial structure, especially in the basic and heavy chemical industries. Capital was needed for such developments, so the Park regime used the influx of foreign aid from Japan and the United States to provide loans to export businesses, with preferential treatment in obtaining low-interest bank loans and tax benefits. Cooperating with the government, these businesses would later become chaebols, business conglomerates that are typically global multinationals and own numerous international enterprises controlled by a chairman with power over all the operations.

Relations with Japan were normalized by the Korea-Japan treaty ratified in 1965. The treaty brought Japanese funds in the form of loans and compensation for the damages suffered during the colonial era without an official apology from the Japanese government, sparking much protest across the nation. The government also kept close ties with the United States and continued to receive large amounts of aid. A status of forces agreement was concluded in 1966. Soon thereafter, Korea joined the Vietnam War. Economic and technological growth during this period improved the standard of living, which expanded opportunities for education. Workers with higher education were absorbed by the rapidly growing industrial and commercial sectors, and urban population surged. Construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway was completed and linked Seoul to the nation’s southeastern region and the port cities of Incheon and Busan.

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South Korean citizens perform a card stunt for President Park Chung-hee on South Korean Army day, October 1, 1973. Photo by Baek Jong-sik.

Unlike in most other countries, the incredible economic growth in South Korean did not go hand in hand with democratization. Despite the authoritarian regime, South Korea’s tiger economy soared at an annual average of 10% for over 30 years in a period of rapid transformation called the Miracle on the Han River. A long legacy of openness and focus in innovation made it successful.

Despite the immense economic growth, however, the standard of living for city laborers and farmers was still low. Laborers were working for low wages to increase the price competitiveness for the export-oriented economy plan and farmers were in near poverty as the government controlled prices. As the rural economy steadily lost ground and caused dissent among the farmers, however, the government decided to implement measures to increase farm productivity and income by instituting the Saemauel Movement (“New Village Movement”) in 1971. The movement’s goal was to improve the quality of rural life, modernize both rural and urban societies, and narrow the income gap between them.

Despite social and political unrest, the economy continued to flourish under the authoritarian rule with the export-based industrialization policy. The first two five-year economic development plans were successful and the 3rd and 4th five-year plans focused on expanding the heavy and chemical industries, raising the capability for steel production and oil refining. As most of the development had come from foreign capital, most of the profit went back to repaying the loans and interests. In the 1980s, tight monetary laws and low interest rates contributed to price stability and helped the economy boom with notable growth in the electronics, semi-conductor, and automobile industries. The country opened up to foreign investments and GDP rose as Korean exports increased. This rapid economic growth, however, widened the gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural regions, and also exacerbated inter-regional conflicts. These dissensions, added to the hard-line measures taken against opposition to the government, fed intense rural and student movements, which had grown since the beginning of the republic.

In the first half of the 1990s, in already democratic South Korea, the economy continued a stable and strong growth. Things changed quickly in 1997 with the Asian Financial Crisis. By 1997, the IMF had approved a USD $21 billion loan, that would be part of a USD $58.4 billion bailout plan. By January 1998, the government had shut down a third of Korea’s merchant banks. Actions by the South Korean government and debt swaps by international lenders contained the country’s financial problems. Much of South Korea’s recovery from the Asian Financial Crisis can be attributed to labor adjustments (i.e. a dynamic and productive labor market with flexible wage rates) and alternative funding sources.

The Miracle on the Han River

In the 2000s, Korea’s economy moved away from the centrally planned, government-directed investment model toward a more market-oriented one. These economic reforms helped it maintain one of Asia’s few expanding economies. South Korea’s mixed economy ranks 11th nominal and 13th purchasing power parity GDP in the world, identifying it as one of the G-20 major economies. South Korea is the most industrialized member of the OECDE with a high-income economy and massive investments in education bringing the country from mass illiteracy to a major international technological powerhouse. The country’s national economy benefits from a highly skilled workforce, and South Koreans are among the most educated societies in the world with one of the highest percentage of individuals holding a tertiary education degree. The South Korean economy continues to be heavily dependent on international trade and in 2014, the country was the 5th largest exporter and 7th largest importer in the world. The incredible economic development from the early 1960s to the late 1990s and becoming  one of the fastest-growing developed countries in the 2000s has compelled South Koreans to refer to this growth as the Miracle on the Han River. South Korea was also one of the few developed countries that were able to avoid a recession during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.