Korea – Like Two Brothers Separated at Birth

Korea North and South in Banknotes

As of January 18, 2018, North Koreans and South Koreans will be marching under one banner, together, in the 2018 Olympics.  I was asked if I was surprised.  “No”, I said.  It seemed to me to be entirely likely, for, you see, it seems to me that the Korean problem is a family problem.

North Korea 50 chron (1947) back
Korea (1947), front, 50 chon.
North Korea 5000 chron (1947) front
Korea (1947), back, 50 chon. 1 Korean won is divisible into 100 chon.

For five hundred years preceding the 20th century, Korea was one nation, united and independent.  Amid the rampant colonialization movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, Korea moved towards a policy of isolationism.  For a time, it refused to even trade with western nations, endeavoring to preserve its inherited culture.

But the advancing industrialization of nations left Korea increasingly behind. In the late 1800s Korea shifted to a policy called “eastern ethics, western technology”, to preserve its culture while modernizing.  But this policy was resisted by many Koreans, and political unrest ensued.  The Emporer sought outside aid from both Japan and from China, which consequently increased their influence within Korea.  And then, upon Japan’s defeat of China at the close of the century, Japanese influence began to dominate Korea. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea.  By the time of the beginning of WW2, the Korean peninsula was considered a part of the Japanese empire.

North Korea 20 chon (1947) back
Korea (1947), front, 20 chon.
North Korea 20 chon banknote (1947) front

Korea (1947), back, 20 chon. 1 Korean won is divisible into 100 chon.

The Japanese occupation began badly, and grew worse with time.  Japan sought to make the Korean territory into an efficient food supplier for a growing Japanese empire.  While building and modernizing Korean infrastructure, they were also destroying them as a people.

In the initial decade following the 1910 annexation, tens of thousands of Koreans were arrested for political reasons; and many were executed. Koreans call this decade “amhukki”, ‘the dark period’. In 1919, a peaceful independence protest was held.  The “March 1st Movement” as it became known, was inspired by the publication of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points following WW1. Two million people marched in fifteen hundred demonstrations. Thousands were massacred by the alarmed Japanese, and many more thousands wounded, and tens of thousands arrested. In the 1930s, the Japanese urged Koreans to adopt Japanese names. By 1938, children were prohibited from speaking Korean, and all school classes were taught in Japanese. During WW2, Korean men were drafted into the armed services, and Korean women were drafted as “comfort slaves” for Japanese soldiers. Koreans were even urged to adopt the religion of Japan, Shintosim, but without much success. The flourishing of Christianity during this period, appears to be, in part, a rebellion against Japan.

North Korea 15 chon banknote (1947) back
Korea, (1947), front, 15 chon.
North Korea 15 chon banknote (1947) front

As WW2 drew to a close, and Japan’s defeat anticipated, hopes of independence revived among Koreans.  The UN plan was for a brief trusteeship of the Korean territory, administrated by the victorious “Allies”, leading to full independence in five years or less.  Looking at a map the night before Japan’s surrender, two young army staffers proposed the 38th latitude as the arbitrary line of demarcation between a Soviet occupation and an American occupation. It was a hasty and convenient selection, although it “made no sense economically or geographically”.

Many Koreans wanted independence immediately; but others, most notably the Korean Communist Party, supported the idea of trusteeship.  The Korean Communist Party was founded in the second decade of, and in resistance to, the Japanese occupation.  Many were exiled to China, where, allying with a growing Chinese Communist Party, they performed many guerrilla operations against the Japanese during occupation.  The Soviet Union, having rapidly occupied the northern peninsula at the close of the war, began to rely extensively upon returning communist exiles, and emigres from the large Korean population in the USSR.  By the close of 1945, the North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea was established and led by Kim Il-sung.   Over the next five years, as the relationship between the major powers deteriorated, and the Cold War set in, the negotiations for unified Korean independence stalled.  In 1946, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech, and in 1949, USSR detonated its first atomic bomb.  The Korean brothers were separated.

North Korea 10 won banknote (1947) front
North Korea 10 won banknote (1947) back, featuring mountain

“The South hit first”, says the North; “The North hit first”, says the South.  Whatever the truth, in 1950 the Koreans began to fight.

The Soviet Union had been arming the North for several years. The UN was preoccupied with the security of Japan, and considered a non-communist Korea on its border to be important to that security. China, having just concluded the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, had border issues too; and was uncomfortable with a non-communist “allied” presence on its Korean border. It was a war which was never “declared”; out of this conflict the term “police action” entered the international lexicon; and it became known as the Korean War.

The North, with Soviet arms, rapidly overran the South, until just a small corner of the peninsula remained unoccupied. Then US backed UN forces entered the fray; and the South overran the North almost to the Chinese border. Then China sent troops across the northern border, and pushed back to south of the 38th; and then the South pushed back again.  The war front moved up and down the peninsula, Seoul changing hands four times, until it ended. The Korean War began and ended with pretty much the same boundary, the 38th parallel.  The brothers’ hope for united independence was gone; and the world had five million less people.

North Korea 5 won banknote (1947) back, featuring mountain
Korea, (1947), front, 5 won. The won became the currency of North Korea on December 6, 1947.
North Korea 5 won banknote  (1947) front

The next generation grew up separated, northerners from southerners, and with the memory of war.  The North, substantially sponsored by the Soviet Union, grew and prospered. The South, largely on its own in the world, languished and became impoverished. Both bore the memory of the recent war between them.  And then the subsequent generation came alone, and the brother’s fortunes began to switch, dramatically.

North Korea 1 won banknote (1947) back
Korea, (1947), front, 1 won. The won became the currency of North Korea on December 6, 1947.
North Korea 1 won banknote (1947) front, featuring 2 workers
Korea, (1947), back, 1 won. Illustration of a farmer and a worker.

South Korea , seeing the surging economic success of what was becoming known as “Japan Inc.”, began to emulate its neighbor’s activities.  In the next decades, they too began to realize economic success and burgeoning prosperity.  For this generation, the Korean war was little more than a history lesson in school. For them, the North was distant, and a little like a crazy brother across the border that occasionally popped off bombs, but had little effect on their growing prosperity.

Coincident with the South’s rising prosperity, the North began to decline.  The North’s chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, having grown increasingly bankrupt, finally dissolved at the end of 1989. With their dissolution, the primary sponsor of North Korea was gone. The North found itself essentially alone in the world.  With renewed determination, and new leadership, the North’s new generation renewed its focus on military development, the one thing it felt it could really excel in.

The present generation knows South Korea as one of the most prosperous and modern societies in the world, and North Korea as one of the very few nations with nuclear bombs.  And now what?


It is a curious thing to me, an American, and, I am guessing here, to many others too, that South Koreans appear far less concerned about North Korea than we do.  See this recent article.

I can’t help but think that this is a family affair; a family affair looking for a family solution.  The Koreans, who wanted to be left alone in the 19th century, and were torn apart in the 20th century, have little hope of being left alone now.  But, what if they could be, just for a little while, truly alone together, to work it out?

In my mind’s eye I see myriads of people; and amid a cacophony of conversations, I zoom in on one, and then another, and then another, all similar but completely unique…  “your father is from where? Really! Then that means we’re cousins!  ….. The story I heard about our family is…. and I heard that grandfather went to….. and what happened after that….., and …. how’s your mother?”