For many centuries Korea remained united, first brought together in the seventh century by Silla Dynasty. For over 1,500 years the Korean peninsula remained one ‘country’ united by a common language and by common cultural ties. This lasted until the end of World War II when the fragmentation of the Japanese kingdom divided the country into North and South Korea.
In 1910, Japan managed to annex Korea after years of war by concluding the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1910, signed by the Korean monarch Sunjong. From 1910 to 1945 Korea remained a protectorate of the Empire of Japan. In this period, the Japanese administration had waged a war against Korean culture. Korean language, history, and cultural practices were denounced and forced labor was extracted from the Koreans. Hundreds of thousands of Korean women were taken as sexual slaves by the Japanese. By the time World War II broke out, anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea had reached a crescendo.
Towards the end of World War II (in August 1945), as the Empire of Japan was unravelling, the United States and the Soviet Army decided to divide control over Korea with the creation of two occupation zones. The latitude 38˚ N was decided (arbitrarily) to be the line of division between the two. North Korea was now under Soviet occupation and South Korea was administered by the US. This division was made without the consultation or agreement of Koreans and their leaders. It also put a major strain on the economy of Korea with most of the industries going to the North and most of the agricultural resources to the South.
With the end of World War II, the US supported Syngman Rhee, a known anti-communist leader, who went on to become the first president of South Korea after it declared itself a sovereign state in 1948. Meanwhile in the North, Kim Il-sung took over as the Soviet-backed dictator in September 1948. While the constitution of North Korea promises that the country will be administered in accordance with democratic principles, Kim Il-sung established a totalitarian dictatorship that controls almost every aspect of the citizens’ lives.
In June 1950, even as the Cold War between the US and the USSR was heating up, North Korea invaded South Korea. Though victorious at first, North Korean troops were soon driven back by South Korea with help from the US and United Nations troops. By 1951 the troops came to a stalemate despite military action from both sides. Peace talks finally came to fruition in 1953 and armistice was signed. The Korean War had been a very costly one with over 620000 troops from both countries and 1.6 million civilians having lost their lives.
The two countries are still divided along the 38th parallel with a 44-yard demilitarized zone between the two states. North Korea is often regarded as the most isolated country in the world. This is a result of the dictatorial policies followed by Supreme Commander Kim Il-Sung and his successors. The state propaganda machinery is a very strong one and freedom of speech or press is almost unheard of. International media and the Internet are forbidden in the country. Tourists are only allowed to visit certain sanitized neighborhoods in the capital that show the Communist Party and the Supreme Commander in the best light. The common people are forbidden from interacting with foreigners. This policy of isolation has further driven a wedge between North Korea and South Korea.
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