Why is there a North and South Korea?
While the short answer is the Korean war, the reality is that seeds for the separate Republic of Korea and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea goes back much further and has to do with the late 19th century Chinese imperialism and the formation of different resistance factions to the early 20th century Japanese annexation of Korea.
North Korea is one of the most important news items of today.
But have you ever wondered: Why is there a North and a South Korea?
News from North and South Korea has been dominating our timelines, social media, and TV screens
for years (especially in light of the US's ongoing conflicts with North Korea).
But to fully understand the complexity of our current political moment it's important
that we stop to ask ourselves: why are North Korea and South Korea two separate nations
and how did this divide occur?
Most people focus on World War II and the Korean War, but to really understand this
question, we have to start further back.
By the tail end of the 19th century, imperialism had spread throughout the world as nations
looked to establish their economic and military might as well as their sovereignty, or complete
independence as a country.
At that time Korea was considered a tributary state of China (which is the term for a region
that is under the control of another nation).
The Chinese Qing Empire was dominant in the region, but the Japanese Empire was
working to establish itself and test its military strength.
Because Korea was directly bordered by China to the North and Japan to the south, it became
a significant legal battleground between the two countries during the first Sino-Japanese
War in 1894-1895.
When Japan defeated China, Japanese officials became instrumental in recognizing Korean
independence after the 1895 signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
But if Japan was trying to subsume and control Korea, why would Japanese officials want Korea
to first become independent?
In his book The Great Enterprise Professor Henry Em notes the beginning of Korean sovereignty
on January 7th 1895.
King Kojong of Joseon, ruler of Korea,
swore an "Oath of Independence"
at the behest of the Japanese.
All thought of dependence on China shall be put away so that the heritage of independence
may be secured.
This marked a shift from Chinese oversight as a tributary state, to a form of Westphalian
Sovereignty (or a polity/nation having complete legal authority and control over its own affairs).
But it's important to note that while this declaration of independence from China was
a shift in Korea's status as a nation, it wasn't without influence from the Japanese Empire.
In December of 1894, The Japanese envoy and minister to Korea, Inoue Kaoru
compelled King Gojong to make this speech of independence in order
to make western ideals of sovereignty more widespread in Korea because Japan was interested
in acquiring imperial control over its neighbor.
Professor Em argues that:
First, by declaring itself a sovereign country, Korea began publicly acting under western
law, decreasing aid and oversight from China's Qing Empire.
Second, now Japan could increase control over Korea through a series of treaties designed
to work in favor of Japanese economic interests.
King Gojong became Emperor in 1897 and while on the surface Korea gained a western model
of sovereignty through his declaration, other world powers continued to interfere.
Ok so we've set out some earlier dates for the establishment of Korean sovereignty in
the late 19th century.
But how did North Korea and South Korea emerge as two individual nations?
Well remember those treaties that I mentioned earlier?
They effectively worked to place Korea further and further under Japanese control and influence.
The 1905 Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty effectively eliminated Korea's sovereignty.
So we see the status of Korea shift from independent nation to a protected state within 8 years.
Interestingly, the 1905 treaty was rumored to be signed without the consent of the Korean government.
Gojong was forced to abdicate the throne in 1907 and independence movements spread throughout
And Japanese General Ito Hirobumi was assassinated by independence activist An Jung-geun in 1909.
Starting in with the Japan-Korea annexation treaty of 1910, until 1945 Japan ruled over
Korea, and through a series of harsh laws attempted to eradicate Korean cultural practices.
As a result this period was marked by intense conflict, as Korea sought to free itself from
One of the big moments was the March 1st Movement in 1919 where activist assembled in Souel
to read the Korean Declaration of Independence they had drafted.
After this the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was established as a resistance movement.
It's headquarters, were located in China to evade Japanese oversight.
But no resistance movement is ever unified.
There were other factions that supported different political models and strategies for economic recovery.
One of these was the communist
Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army,
who conducted raids on the
And one leader of this communist guerrilla force was Kim Il-sung, the future leader of
But then World War II happens and Japan joins the axis powers.
And because the Japanese still controlled Korea, thousands of Korean men were forcibly
enlisted in the Japanese army and thousands of Korean women were forced into sexual slavery
as "comfort women" for soldiers.
Japanese control over Korea continued until they surrendered to the Allied Forces in August
of 1945 at the conclusion of World War 2.
But the end of World War 2 left a lot of questions as to who would control what in the Pacific Theater.
Allied Forces were interested in occupying defeated regions as part of the terms of Japanese
So even though Japanese rule ended, Korea's status was altered again by agreements drawn
up by the US, Soviet Union, UK, and China.
Only this time we began to see a desire to demarcate the nation internally into two regions:
North and South.
Not unlike the division of Germany into East and West.
At the Moscow Conference in 1945 the US, UK, and Soviet Union agreed to establish the "Far
Eastern Commission and Allied Council for Japan" with the approval of China.
The aim of the commission was to control and "formulate the policies, principles, and
standards" in the region in line with the Japanese Terms of Surrender.
The language of this agreement was couched in the terms of "trusteeship" where the
Soviet Union and the US would assist in the eventual establishment of an independent
So Russia primarily took over the north of the country, with the US controlling the south
with a division along the 38th parallel.
But ultimately Cold War politics got a little...well hot.
As you would expect, the US centered it's occupation on capitalist economic policies
and the Soviet Union's occupation focused on communist policies.
And as the US and Soviet Union's conflicts increased, Korea was again in the middle.
The Korean People's Army lead by Kim Il-Sung, wan an armed force that was built out of a
guerilla movement that stood in opposition to Japanese rule.
They invaded the southern region of Korea in 1950.
When the KPA crossed the 38th parallel they began war with the Republic of Korea Army.
This sparked the onset of the Korean war which lasted until 1953.
Both the US and the Soviet Union continued their support of South and North Korea respectively.
After that, the division of the two nations became more and more concrete, leading to
the formation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea aka North Korea and the
Republic of Korea, aka South Korea although the official border has fluctuated.
So, how does it all add up?
It seems that the division of Korea into two separate countries has much less to do with
a natural division and more to do with international powers wrestling over the terms of nationhood,
imperialism, and independence at the turn of the century.
If we follow this rough timeline correctly Korea went from kingdom and tributary state,
to sovereign nation/empire, to protectorate, to annexed region, to falling under US and
Soviet influence in a trusteeship, to independence all within a few short decades.
That's an extremely rapid and varied change in status for a country to go through.
And most of these changes in status are centered around wars Korea wasn't directly waging
and economic negotiations between other larger nations.