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Korea: a history of division

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North Korea is facing threats from the West over its recent nuclear testing. Owen Miller looks at the history of a country torn apart by the superpowers
Issue 2023
Map of Korea

Korea’s liberation from 36 years of Japanese colonial rule in August 1945 was, from the very start, contradictory. The 15 August is still celebrated in both North and South Korea as Liberation Day, but the reality was that the end of Japanese imperialism only marked the beginning of the country’s domination by the US and Russia.

These were the two emerging superpowers who had sat down with Britain earlier in the year at the Yalta conference to carve up the world between them.

The US had not made detailed plans for the occupation of East Asia, and when the Japanese surrendered after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US was not yet ready to occupy Korea.

The Russians, who had only just joined the Pacific War, were eager to have a foothold on the peninsula and rushed to occupy the northern half.

The Russian leader Joseph Stalin also knew, however, that he would have to compromise with the US if he wanted to enjoy the spoils of war in East Asia as well as eastern Europe. So he held his forces back at a hastily agreed line dividing the country in half – the infamous 38th parallel.

The years between 1945 and the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 were tumultuous ones in both halves of the peninsula.

In both of the emerging Korean states there were movements by ordinary people, peasants and workers, to take control of their own lives in ways that they had only imagined might be possible during the dark years of Japan’s colonial rule.

Immediately after liberation workers in both the North and South began to take control of factories formerly owned by Japanese capitalists. Throughout the country new organs of democracy sprang up – the people’s committees. There was a short lived flourishing of democratic politics, as Koreans enjoyed their new-found freedom.

In August and September of 1945 a People’s Republic of Korea was declared in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, as a provisional government based on the numerous people’s committees formed in every part of the country.

Soon both the US and Russia clamped down on any expressions of real popular democracy and began the process of establishing client states in their zones of occupation.


In the South, the US ruthlessly suppressed the people’s committees and shut down the People’s Republic. It fostered right wing leaders, including South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee, who would soon be using terror tactics to crush popular uprisings and eliminate their rivals.

Refugees during the Korean War

Refugees during the Korean War

In the North, the Russians turned the people’s committees into tame rubber stamping bodies, enforced “order” in the factories and brutally suppressed any opposition to their occupation. They moved to install their protégé, Kim Il Sung as the “safe pair of hands” for the emerging North Korean state.

Neither of the leaders chosen by the superpowers turned out to be simply puppets who would do whatever they were told. Both Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee had a burning desire to conquer the other half of the divided peninsula and put it under their control.

The Korean War began when North Korean troops swept into the South on the 25 June 1950. Stalin approved the attack earlier that year. In the three years that followed, some four million Koreans would lose their lives as Russia and the US tested each others’ strength on this small but strategic corner of the Asian continent.

It was civilians who suffered the most, and atrocities were perpetrated by both sides. But the callous disregard for civilians shown by the US government and its commanders during the war offers a clue to understanding the current confrontation and the mindset of North Korea’s leaders.

The Korean War was, as historian Bruce Cumings has pointed out, a wonderful opportunity for the US military to test out its latest technology.

US airpower was used to firebomb many North Korean towns and cities out of existence, with more napalm used in the three year war than was dropped on Vietnam during the ten years of that conflict.

Knowing that the Russian nuclear capability at the time was minimal, US president Harry Truman rattled his nuclear sabre in the early stages of the war.

General Douglas MacArthur, who led the United Nations forces against North Korea, privately suggested laying down a line of 30 to 50 atomic bombs across the top of the peninsula, leaving a band of lingering radioactivity that would prevent an invasion of Korea by the “Reds” for at least another 60 years.

The Korean War was fought to a stalemate, and a new demilitarised zone separating the two countries was fixed, close to the previous dividing line.

In both countries the same autocratic rulers remained in power, and they now set about rebuilding their devastated infrastructure and industry. In the North, recovery from almost total destruction was achieved at breakneck speed, with economic growth rates in the late 1950s reaching almost world record levels.

Following the state capitalist path already taken in 1930s Russia, living standards were suppressed as growth was focused almost entirely on heavy industry, while workers were forced to work themselves to the bone through incessant mass mobilisation campaigns.

Although achieved at great human cost, the North’s programme of rapid capital accumulation was no doubt successful in its own terms. The North’s economy remained ahead of the South’s until the late 1970s or perhaps even the early 1980s.

With its successful recovery from the horrors of the Korean War and faced with the growing rift between Russia and China, the North began to take a more independent political stance in the late 1950s.

Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality reached extremes barely seen in Stalin’s Russia. At the ideological level there was a new, heavily nationalist emphasis on self-reliance, expressed most clearly in the supposed “philosophy” called Juche.

The North was able to maintain its relative independence from the Eastern bloc by playing Russia and China off against one another during the course of the 1960s, all the while proclaiming its ideals of Juche and “Korean style socialism”.


This piece of Korea’s history offers another insight into current events on the peninsula. We can locate the origins of the regime’s current isolationism, paranoia and fierce nationalism in the manoeuvrings of a small country attempting to assert some degree of autonomy in the Cold War era of superpower rivalry.

In the South, the industrial take off did not come until the late 1960s, under the dictatorial regime of Park Chung Hee, a general who had seized power in a coup against a democratically elected government in 1961.

As in the North, workers were forced to make huge sacrifices for the sake of rapid capital accumulation – the so-called “miracle of the Han river” – but there were a number of other factors in the South’s later emergence as an “Asian tiger”.

To begin with, South Korea was the recipient of large amounts of US aid. Between 1950 and 1975, the country received some $6.5 billion in military aid alone. South Korea also came to be used as an offshore manufacturing base for Japanese companies seeking cheap labour.

Another factor that is sometimes overlooked is the role of the state. Park Chung Hee’s regime took close control of the economy, planning its growth. Although industry was dominated by the private conglomerates – companies like Hyundai and Samsung that are now familiar to us – their leadership was closely entwined with that of the state.

North Korea’s economic decline started in the 1970s as the oil price rises made it difficult to pay its debts and the emergence of neoliberal globalisation began to cause problems for economies that clung to the state capitalist model.

The economy stagnated through the 1980s and then suffered a crushing blow when Russian support ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s.

Since then, the North has lurched from one crisis to another, industry has all but ground to a halt and famines and natural disasters have taken a terrible toll in human life.

Despite this and the endless predictions of Western pundits, the regime headed by Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong-il has shown little sign of collapsing, and the dangerous confrontation across the border has continued.

Now, more than 50 years after the end of the Korean War, there is still no proper peace agreement and nearly 40,000 US troops remain stationed in the South.

George Bush’s administration has opted for a policy of slowly strangling North Korea in the hope that its government will collapse. This has once again placed the people of the Korean peninsula on top of one of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical fault lines.

Owen Miller researches Korean politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His writings on north east Asian politics can be read at

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