So if the two Koreas were once a united Korea, how and why did they separate? To better understand the separation of the two Koreas, I feel that it’s imperative to have at least a general understanding of Korea’s history. The information provided below are some of the historical facts that I’ve found interesting or have caught my attention.
History / Background information
A united North Korea and South Korea was once collectively called as “Korea”, a historical state in Northeast Asia, known as “Hanguk” (한국) by South Korea and “Chosun” (조선) by North Korea.
Prior to the emergence of Korea as a singular political entity, Korea existed as ‘The Three Kingdoms of Korea’ (삼국시대), referring to the three kingdoms of Baekje, Silla, and Goguryeo, later known as Goryeo (고려), from which the name Korea is derived. Goryeo eventually became known as Joseon in 1388, after an uprising led by General Yi Seong-gye.
The Joseon dynasty was marked by relative peaceful reign for many years until it caught the attention of the Empire of Japan. Korea was annexed by Japan from 1910 till the end of World War II in August 1945, and split into the North and South, with the North under Soviet occupation and the South under U.S. occupation.
The difference in ideologies between the Soviet and the U.S. and their inability to come to a mutual consensus over the governing of the two Koreas further perpetuated and exacerbated the division of the Korean Peninsula.
As such, Korea eventually became divided into two political entities: North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) and South Korea (formally known as the Republic of Korea, ROK).
Now that we know a little more about Korea’s history, let us take a look at the prominent leaders during the time of Korea’s separation.
Syngman Rhee, 이승만 (1875-1965)
- leader of ROK for 12 years, 1948-1960
- family lineage traced back to Kim Taejong of Joseon
- Austrian wife: Franziska Donner (see above picture)
- fluent in English
- staunch anti-communist
- authoritarian rule
- 1st President of ROK; won 1st presidential elections in 1950
- corruption and political repression
- forced to step down after chaotic April 19 Revolution / Movement (1960)
- flown out of South Korea by the CIA
- died in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii, 1965
Kim Il-Sung, 김일성 (1912-1994)
- leader of DPRK for 46 years, 1948-1994
- state ideology: Juche (주체); focus on Korean patriotism and self-reliance – replaced Marxism-Leninism and communism
- cult of personality; birthday is a public holiday and called ‘Day of the Sun’ in North Korea
- known affectionately as ‘The Great Leader’ (위대한 수량)
- started investing in nuclear power early 1994
- authorized invasion of South Korea in 1950
One thing is certain; the two leaders shared an earnest desire for the unification of the two Koreas, albeit resorting to different means and approaches to governance and ideology. Both leaders resented Japanese rule and despite their wish to unify the two Koreas, the interference of the United Nations (UN) and the United States (U.S.) further complicated things, making it rather unlikely for the two Koreas to unite.