The Backdrop for the (Ongoing) Korean War


 The Korean War is heating up again.  The 1950-53 microcosm of the Cold War never truly ended, being resolved not with a peace treaty but with a cease fire. There have been several times over the years that things heated up, first under national founder Kim Il-Sung (The Great Leader), then under current national leader, Kim’s son Kim Jong-Il.

The original Korean War was set in a land with a complex history.  The Korean people had been united into a single kingdom for hundreds of years, with a rich, proud culture.  Most of those centuries had been spent as a vassal state to the Middle Kingdom, China.  Since antiquity, dynasties and empires had come and gone, but the Middle Kingdom always continued, and was indeed the center of the Asian world for millennia.

But seldom were the Korean people engulfed by their larger neighbor.  Of course, scholars and tradesmen all spoke, or even wrote, in Chinese.  But since the time of King Sejong, Koreans were no longer reliant upon the Chinese characters, having their own unique, simple alphabet.  The Korean people kept their own unique language (heavily influenced by Chinese), their own unique culture (also heavily influenced by China’s) and their own national identity (with laws modelled on those of, you guess it, China). 

Anyone familiar with Asian philosophies will recognize the Confucian relationships, which are so vital in understanding East Asian cultures, between Korea and China – that of a younger brother to an older brother.  Korea has always been pretty loyal to China, even if not always on speaking terms.  And China always reciprocated – sure, they occasionally lost their temper with their little brother, there was always a love present.

In similarity, Korea has always felt the big brother to their other major neighbor, Japan.  The baby of the family, all of the major culture and civilization which originated in China worked its way through Korea, to Japan.  Anyone going to Japan from anywhere in Asia would have to pass through, across or around the Korean peninsula.  The Japanese language was developed from Korean, back in antiquity.

But Japan has not been a loyal sibling to either of her big brothers, Korea and China.  Separated by the Sea of Japan (known in Korean as the East Sea), the island nation of Japan was seldom content to remain a kingdom.  Always with ambitions of Empire, the Japanese made numerous forays to expand their territories over the centuries.  And what was the primary target, each and every time, for the Japanese to expand their living room?  The dagger which pointed straight at her belly, elder brother Korea.

Baby sister Japan grew up resentful of her isolation in her islands, and as a sulky teenager had several times tried to infringe on her brother’s space.  Washing over the shores of Korea in ebbs and flows, the Land of the Rising Sun constantly tried to turn Korea Japanese.  The would even succeed for periods of time, advancing on to First Son China’s space, always to be repelled, back across the peninsula, to lick her wounds in her island retreat.

As far as Koreans are concerned, the worst period of Japanese infamy is still not closed.  As the 19th Century came to a close and passed into the 20th, Koreans watched their sister carefully, as another Emperor hungered for Korean lands.  In 1910, Japan annexed Korea.  (Koreans on both sides of the DMZ are still unhappy with the way that Japanese history teaches this annexation and subsequent actions.) 

During the period from 1910 to 1945, Korea was a district of the Japanese empire.  Its resources were literally raped and pillaged to fund the Empire’s growth into China.  Children were forced to attend Japanese schools, and the wounds are still fresh today, 100 years later.  There are many senior citizens in Korea and around the world, still living with the memories of Japanese rule.  More disconcerting to Koreans today is that there are undoubtedly just as many Japanese still alive today from that time, many of whom committed crimes against the Koreans’ own parents, siblings and other loved ones.

Crimes such as those of the so-called “comfort women” – Korean sex slaves forced to service hundreds of Japanese soldiers daily in humiliating torture. 

When the Allied forces defeated the Japanese in 1945, the Koreans were once again a freed people, released under their own recognizance.  After Imperialist ambitions in Europe and Asia were defeated, a new world order had affirmed itself by the US and the USSR.  The Cold War between the two actually started well before either the Japanese or Germans had been defeated – in fact, the US war against Communism began with the end of World War I. 

The new order saw both world powers, in themselves Empire-like in ways, squaring off.  But in contrast to prior ages, when an Empire might conquer the smaller nations around them and incorporate them into the Empire, the new superpowers recognized the advantages of eschewing a literal Empire, and instead creating virtual ones.

Much as Korea had been a vassal state to China through much of its history, both the US and USSR began forming alliances, with the two powers standing as the beneficial elders of the new families.  The world watched the two countries split up Germany – each propping up their half of the economy, military and loyalty of the defeated people.  Unlike an Empire, the “new vassal states” were allowed (to varying extents, based on whom you believe) their own governments, their own military forces, and their own economies.  Countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia epitomized these relationships in Eastern Europe.

(This article will not discuss the US role in creation of “vassal states”, in the interest of time.  Formulate your own judgments as you will.)

The point is, Korea watched the world split into three different camps: those siding with the US, those siding with communism, and those choosing their own “neutral” stance.  (Remember, for every peaceful Switzerland there’s region-centric Egypt AND a strife-ridden Uganda.)  And their immediate siblings were no different.

After the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was clear that Japan was defeated.  The US had retaliated for the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor and had humiliated the Japanese Emperor, demeaning him to a spiritual figurehead with no political or any other power whatsoever.  The new nation, rebuilt with money primarily from the US, again turned itself into a thriving nation.  The US kept a military presence there which exists until today (the subject of which has been a topic propaganda for both Koreas), handcuffing Japan from becoming a world power in its own right. Japan had seen the benefit in siding with the US, and in only 40 years, rose from a devastated pride-shattered country into the world’s second largest economy. 

China had thrown a monkey wrench into the mix, siding with communism while being clearly and definitively anti-USSR.  In fact, their own Cold War with China taxed the USSR almost as much as their Cold War with the US.  China was a silent, mysterious nation, until it opened up (somewhat) during Richard Nixon’s tenure as US President.  Chairman Mao was succeeding in feeding his people and staving off the Russians to his north (with China’s own tumultuous relationship with historic troublemaker Mongolia, not to mention vast expanses of empty, as a buffer).  Over the decades since China, through a very careful phasing from real communism over to a more capitalistic economy than Karl Marx or Mao Tse-Tung ever had nightmares about, China’s economy is now set to surpass that of Japan, as even the weakening US economy is no longer beyond reach.

So how did Korea choose?  There were factions on both sides, well supported with finances (and, of course, “advice”), each convinced they knew the right path for the Korean people. 

Now here we sit, 60 years after the fighting began between the two factions, and deaths are still occurring.  The War never ended, despite periods of relatively strong communication and cooperation.  As the millenium turned, from the 20th Century to the 21st, the world saw the South’s “Sunshine Policy” make great strides in inter-Korean relations.  There was real talk of reunification for the first time in decades.

Now less than a decade later, almost all of the advances made at the turn of the millenium have been erased.  Both sides are preparing for the War to reignite, as the present’s world powers are trying to take control of the situation.  Both sides have itchy trigger fingers and are prone to jump at shadows.

Come back tomorrow for an analysis of where this situation may be headed.


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