American University News
Editor’s note: Ahead of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, School of International Service Professor Ji-Young Lee of American University answers five questions to help put issues related to North and South Korea and their cooperation with the US into context.
Why is there a North and a South Korea?
Before there was a North and South Korea, the peninsula was ruled as a dynasty known as Chosŏn, which existed for more than five centuries, until 1910. This period, during which an independent Korea had diplomatic
relations with China and Japan, ended with imperial Japan’s annexation of the peninsula. Japan’s colonial rule lasted 35 years.
When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the Korean peninsula was split into two zones of occupation – the U.S.-controlled South Korea and the Soviet-controlled North Korea. Amid the growing Cold War tensions between Moscow and Washington, in 1948, two separate governments were established in Pyongyang and Seoul. Kim Il-Sung, leader of North Korea, was a former guerrilla
who fought under Chinese and Russian command.
Syngman Rhee, a Princeton University-educated staunch anti-communist, became the first leader of South Korea.
In an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under his communist regime,
Kim Il-Sung invaded the South in June 1950 with Soviet aid. This brought South Korea and the United States, backed by United Nations, to fight against the newly founded People’s Republic of China and North Korea. An armistice agreement ended hostilities in the Korean War in 1953. Technically speaking, however, the two Koreas are still at war.
Beyond the political divide, are Koreans in the North and South all that culturally different? If so, how?
Koreans in the South and North have led separate lives for almost 70 years. Korean history and a collective memory of having been a unified, independent state for over a millennium, however, are a powerful reminder to Koreans that they have shared identity, …