What comes to your mind when you think of Korea? Kim Jong-un? Kimchi? Gangnam style? What else?
How about a nation whose history goes all the way back to 2333 BCE?
How about a culture that has endured the test of time?
How about a country that has been a pivotal piece of the political machinations of all its neighbours?
Korea is all this and more but most of us know so little about it all.
With that in mind, here’s a few things you should know about the Korean Peninsula.
Korea’s history is said to have begun during the period of Tan’gun, the founder of the first Korean kingdom. It is said that he was the son of a bear-woman and a heavenly prince. During his rule, Tan’gun brought about major developments in medicine and the arts. The technique of acupuncture is credited to him, and a term in the Korean martial art form, Taekwondo, is also named after him.
2000 years later, the one kingdom that Tan’gun founded, was expanded into China and Russia, to create the three Kingdoms of Korea— Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla. These kingdoms flourished for many centuries under various dynasties such as the Han Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty and Sui Dynasty. This is when the foundations of Korean culture, as we know it today were laid. In fact, the very name ‘Korea’, comes from the word ‘Goryeo’, which was another name for the kingdom of Goguryeo.
A statue of Tan'gun, Image source:flickr.com
Largely left to its own devices, Korea’s fate began to take a major diversion only during the mid 19th century. Given its geographic location of being surrounded by the world’s superpowers, China, Japan and Russia, it is no doubt that the region was influenced by its relationships with these nations. However, if it’s one country that emerged as the strongest influence on Korea, it is Japan.
The Japanese influence on the region can be traced back to 1910, when the Empire of Japan formally annexed Korea. Korea remained a Japanese colony until the defeat of the Axis Powers which signalled the end of World War II. Post-war, the Allied superpowers, the United States of America and the now defunct USSR or Soviet Union could not agree on one way to run the country. This led to Korea being divided into North Korea – supported by the Soviets, and South Korea which was supported by the USA.
Kim Jong-iI (left) with his father, Kim II-sung. Image source:dailytelegraph.com.au
After the division, Supreme Leader Kim II-sung (grandfather of Kim Jong-un) was appointed by the Soviet regime to head North Korea and in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in the hopes of unifying the Korean Peninsula using Soviet Communist forces. The war waged on until July 1953, when the two sides signed an armistice and made an agreement to stop fighting and look at other possible resolutions. After the armistice, the two regions were separated by a no man’s land— a demilitarised, heavily protected region of around 2.5 miles, known as the 38th Parallel.
A scene from the Korean War. Image source:www.army.mil
The 38th Parallel: the demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea. Image source:history.com
In the years after the Korean War, North Korea went back to being ruled by Kim II-sung, rapidly churning out advancements in the military industry and other heavy industries. But, the civilians were hit by severe poverty and did not benefit much from these developments. Due to this, the nation’s overall growth was in question. The same policy continued during the rule of Il-sung’s successor, Kim Jong-iI. However, a highlight for North Korea during this period was in 1966, when it reached the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup held in England, eliminating European superpower Italy in the process.
South Korea on the other hand, was doing pretty well for itself, especially under the rule of the controversial President, General Park Chung-hee. Though he was considered a tough military dictator, the nation grew to great heights under him. Development occurred on multiple spheres—economics, trade, infrastructure, technology, and so on. South Korea also saw great advancement in the decades that followed Chung-hee’s rule. However, the country’s ties with its northern counterpart were still very rocky.
The early 2000s saw a thawing of the relationship between the two Koreas. This period also marked the first Inter-Korean Summit. This was thanks to South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, which ensured unconditional support to North Korea. With this, North Korea started to see economic progress. The country even went pretty close to creating ties with the USA.
Then, it all went downhill.
In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that it signed with the USA and made its ambitions of becoming the global nuclear superpower quite clear to the entire world. It further went on to opt out of its 1992 agreement with South Korea— an agreement to keep nuclear weapons away from the Koreas. It conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006 and that was just the beginning. Nothing changed, despite the six-party talks involving Russia, the USA, Japan, China and South Korea of course. In fact, the bond between the North and the South grew sourer. While there were some reasons to smile, such as South Korea’s immediate response to North Korea’s appeal for aid during a flood in 2007, the world also saw several ugly events such as the sinking of the South Korean warship, Cheonan, in 2010. That event proved to be the last straw for South Korea, as it withdrew the Sunshine Policy the same year, cutting off all aid to its northern neighbour. The North Korean nuclear ambition continued even after Kim Jong-un stepped in to lead the country in 2011.
The unified Korean team at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018 . Image source:nbcsports.com
Tensions between the two Koreas continued into 2011, with North Korea reportedly abducting four South Korean military officials. The next three years narrated a similar story, with North Korea being held responsible for several cases of nuclear attacks and violence against its southern counterpart. In 2013, the North also declared its intentions to step away from the armistice of the Korean War. The world held its breath.
In what was to be a brief dawn of hope, New Year’s Day 2015 witnessed a landmark event, with Kim Jong-un expressing his intent to resume talks with the South. However, turmoil brewed again, due to North Korea’s unending missile firings, both on South Korea and at the 38th Parallel. In 2017, tensions escalated to an all-time high in modern Korea, with North Korea threatening to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile near the USA. They also tested a bomb that was a much bigger cousin of the one dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world feared the unthinkable: a nuclear war.
And then, when there seemed to be no hope for the Korean Peninsula, the year 2018 brought about several surprises. In February, the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang saw the participation of a unified Korean team, warming hearts across the globe. Later, the two back-to-back Inter-Korean Summits held in April and May seem to have convinced the world that Korean politics has turned a new leaf. The Summit in April marked the first time that a North Korean leader crossed the 38th Parallel since the Korean War! More recently, the historic rendezvous between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un at the North Korea-United States Summit in Singapore spoke volumes for itself, towards the improving relationship with South Korea and other countries. With all this positivity, let’s hope that there are only good times to come for the Korean Peninsula.
That’s it, folks. Have we missed any facts about the evolution of the Korean Peninsula? Leave us a comment below!