Korea, from World War II

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Korea, from World War II

Japan's surrender to the Allied forces on August 15, 1945, left liberated Korea in an uncertain state. Though Koreans naturally anticipated full recovery of national independence, they were soon disillusioned. By September 1945 Korea was occupied once more, now by the armies of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), who soon agreed upon a joint trusteeship of Korea until the ushering in of self-rule. The line dividing the northern (USSR) and southern (U.S.) zones of occupation was set at the 38th parallel, running north of Seoul and splitting the peninsula roughly in half.

Recent scholarship has argued that Korea was ripe for civil war in the wake of Japan's defeat, in response to centuries of economic and political inequities that had been reinforced and perpetuated under Japanese colonial rule. While the Soviet Union used emerging leftist political organizations and figures in the creation of a functioning administration in the north, American military authorities in the south opted to rely largely upon more conservative Korean elements, many of whom had in fact served the Japanese colonial regime.

In the course of preparing Korea for self-rule then, the politics of the Soviet-backed north and American-backed south grew increasingly polarized. These Soviet-American tensions played a part in polarizing postwar Korean society as well, with many leftists fleeing north and conservatives and large landowners fleeing south. The end result of this confused state of affairs was a United Nations election in 1948—ostensibly to usher in a sovereign Korean state—that was boycotted in the north and by many in the south. From this election emerged the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the southern (American) zone. On August 15, 1948, American-backed Syngman Rhee (Yi Sung-man, 1875–1965) was inaugurated as the first president of the ROK. In response to this, in the north the Soviet-backed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was formed, with the Korean independence guerilla and Moscow-trained Kim Il Sung (Kim Il-sung, 1912–1994) at its head.

On June 15, 1950, the DPRK launched a massive attack across the 38th parallel in a bid at armed reunification. Though the origins of the resulting Korean War (1950–1953) are still hotly contested, scholarly consensus places the immediate cause of the conflict with Kim Il Sung. With United Nations and then Chinese Communist intervention on behalf of the ROK and DPRK respectively, the Korean War was fought to an armed truce in 1953, roughly along the same 38th parallel that had divided the ROK and DPRK prior to the war.

The Korean War had reverberations far afield, resulting in the strengthening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance and a hardening of the Cold War. Set at ideological loggerheads and in a continuous state of armed tension, the postwar fortunes of North Korea and South Korea were tightly bound to the Soviet Union and United States respectively. Following the Korea War, and in view of Communist advances in Europe and China, the American strategic vision of Korea took a radical shift as the ROK became a major recipient of U.S. military and economic aid. The DPRK likewise became heavily dependent upon Soviet aid and expertise.

In the North, drawing upon Korea's shameful colonial past, Kim Il Sung increasingly emphasized national "self-reliance" (juche) in all spheres, while painting the ROK as an American puppet state, playing upon opposition frustrations in the ROK that under American occupation the south had never properly dealt with former Japanese collaborators. Kim also instituted a personality cult unrivaled even by the China of Mao Zedong (1893–1976) or the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953).

In the wake of President Rhee's 1961 overthrow by a student movement violently opposed to his authoritarian politics, the ROK Army general Park Chung Hee (Pak Chong-hui, 1917–1979) seized power in South Korea. Park would go on to rule the ROK for eighteen years, his often repressive tenure overseeing the rapid industrialization of the ROK. Park also forged more intimate ties with Korea's former occupier, Japan, as well as with the United States, which Park saw as a vital source of the economic aid incumbent for development. In 1979 Park was assassinated by his intelligence chief in an ostensible bid to save South Korea from dictatorship. The result was a series of military leaders in the ROK before the ushering in of democracy there in the late 1980s.

Not all in South Korea were happy about the ROK-U.S. alliance. A rising and increasingly vocal populist movement in the 1980s perceived in the ROK's acquiescent stance toward the United States shadows of the traditional Chinese-Korean relationship, in which Korea was the tribute state. Such deference to the greater power is termed sadae (serving the great) in Korean, and this perceived Korean penchant for sadae-ism (toadyism) was seen as a historical source of Korea's weakness. Added to this was the frustration that under American tutelage Japanese collaborators had not only evaded prosecution but had been allowed to prosper. As a result, many leftists, and in particular the student activist movement, in South Korea revered North Korea's juche ideology in view of Korea's experience of colonization and division at the hands of foreign powers.

Though less apparent than the ROK-U.S. alliance, the DPRK under Kim Il Sung remained highly dependent upon the Soviet Union. However, Soviet subsidies to the DPRK came to an abrupt halt with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and from that time North Korea, since 1994 led by Kim Il Sung's son Kim Jong Il (Kim Chong-il, b. 1941), has languished under a deepening economic crisis. The DPRK ultimately remains a highly authoritarian and secretive state whose society revolves around the personality cults of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Since the 1990s, political dynamics on the Korean Peninsula continue to be volatile, if less predictable. Though the South Korean president Kim Dae Jung (Kim Tae-jung, b. 1925), who served from 1997 to 2002, initiated a "Sunshine Policy" regarding the DPRK that resulted in the first ever North-South summit in 2000, relations between the two Koreas continue to be characterized by tension and mistrust. The rise of the left-leaning opposition into national power in the ROK elections of 2002 has resulted in a resolve to finally deal with the issue of past Japanese collaboration, as well as more vocal debate regarding the costs and benefits of the ROK-U.S. alliance. However, though at times troubled, in the face of the continued perceived threat from North Korea, the ROK-U.S. alliance remains a mainstay of South Korean policy.

see also Occupations, East Asia.


Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 1997.

Jager, Sheila Miyoshi. Narratives of Nation Building in Korea: A Genealogy of Patriotism. Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2003.

Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997; New ed., New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Stueck, William Whitney. Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.