According to an ancient Korean legend, a man named Dangun Wanggeom–known in the tale as the “grandson of heaven”–founded the kingdom of Gojoseon on and around the Korean Peninsula in the year 2333 B.C. As the story goes, Dangun’s father Hwanung, son of Hwanin (“Lord of Heaven”) yearned to live on earth. Hwanin granted this wish; Hwanung descended, and along with his ministers of clouds, rain and wind he brought laws, morals and knowledge of art, medicine and agriculture. Much excitement occurred, and, to make a long story short, Hwanung married a bear-woman. Together they had a son named Dangun, who founded the kingdom of Gogoseon and lived on earth as part of the kingdom until becoming a mountain god at the age of 1,908.
It’s a good story, but what’s the truth? According to archaeological evidence, the first sign of Gojoseon appeared at about 1500 B.C. Based on written records, historians believe Gojoseon developed into a powerful kingdom between the 7th and 4th centuries B.C. Any or all of these may be true. Whatever the case, Korea is old.
Korea is old, and its history is complex. There are lists upon lists of warring dynasties, each rising and eventually falling as it tried to maintain control of various stretches of land in Korea over the last fifteen hundred years. The final ancient Korean dynasty was that of Joseon, which lasted from 1392 until 1910. During the end of that era the Joseon Dynasty tried to stay removed from Chinese, Japanese and Western imperialism. This isolation earned it the nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.”
Ultimately Korea wasn’t able to stay out of the fray. Japanese colonization of Korea began formally in 1910 and lasted for thirty-five years, during which Japan suppressed Korean language and culture, required Koreans to take Japanese surnames (known as Sōshi-kaimei), conscripted five million Koreans into forced labor and perpetrated injustice after injustice. Koreans protested vociferously throughout Japanese rule but the occupation only ended with the Japanese defeat in World War II.
THE KOREAN WAR:
After Japan surrendered in 1945 the United Nations functionally split Korea in half, at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union being the trustee of the North and the United States administering the south. Neither nationalist South Korean leader Syngman Rhee or equally nationalist North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung wanted the Russian-U.S. trusteeship to continue; no one could stomach a repeat of Japanese occupation. Tension between North and South continued throughout 1948, especially as the North formally became the Communist-run Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the South became the anti-communist Republic of Korea. In 1950 the North, supported by Soviet Union artillery, crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded the South. Eventually the Chinese sent troops
in support of the North. The United Nations, though particularly the United States, sent troops to the South, and for the next three years the USSR, China and the United States fought the hottest battles of Cold War as a proxy war on Korean soil.
Three more years of brutal war devastated both North and South Korea. The fighting finally ended in an Armistice Agreement in 1953, creating a Military Demarcation Line that isn’t very different from the original dividing line, the 38th Parallel. The armistice was not a peace treaty; the North and South are still technically at war.
SOUTH KOREA’S BUMPY POST-WAR ROAD:
In the years after the end of the conflict Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian government maintained control of the South, The United States supported Rhee in his efforts to rapidly industrialize and modernize South Korea; the U.S. also said little in public about Rhee’s strong-arm tactics. Rhee eventually resigned and left Korea in 1960 after students protested his most recent rigged election. He fled to Hawaii on a CIA-owned plane.
After a short period of instability General Park Chung-hee seized power in a military coup, reigning as a dictator while simultaneously propelling the South through a period of rapid
economic development until his assassination in 1979. After a little more turmoil, there was another coup, this time led by General Chun Doo-hwan, who himself ruled despotically until protests in 1987 forced his resignation.
SOUTH KOREAN DEMOCRACY:
In 1987 Roh Tae-woo won the presidency and throughout his rule instituted democratic reforms. Roh pursued a policy called “Nordpolitik,” which expressed his intent to communicate with the North, eventually with the goal unifying the Koreas. Several years
later, President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” initiated further attempts to reconcile. Both policies failed.
In 2002, Roh Moo-hyun became president with the passionate votes of younger Koreans and civil society groups who supported his ideas about increasing citizens’ engagement the the political process through participatory democracy. In May 23, 2009, soon after having left office after several years of intense feuds with the political opposition, Roh, facing corruption charges which he vehemently denied, took his own life.
Today South Korea, as of this writing under the leadership of Lee Myung-Bak, continues as an economic powerhouse and one of the most committed democracies in Asia. The capital, Seoul, is one of the world’s most computerized, highly wired cities; the country
literally buzzes with possibility. Despite these rapid-fire advances, decades of dictatorship are not far in the past. Every time tensions flare up with the North (especially with Lee’s less-than-conciliatory approach to relations with Pyonyang), generations of South Koreans very likely recall their recent struggles with occupation, authoritarianism and war.
NORTH KOREA’S TOTALITARIAN RULE:
South Koreans who lived through difficult times must have great sympathy for the North Korean people who have continued under totalitarian rule since the end of the war. The North Korean people face such intense political control, such ubiquitous spying by secret police and seemingly endless, debilitating famine, that they are unable to express dissent.
Or are they unwilling? The few Westerners who have been able to visit the world’s most insular nation report a population so completely brainwashed by the North Korean regime that they truly believe in the infallibility–even in the divinity–of “Eternal President” Kim Il-Sung, the current “Great Leader,” Kim Jong-Il, and eventually in Kim’s recently anointed successor, his son, “The Brilliant Comrade” Kim Jong-un. For example the documentary “A State of Mind,” follows two young gymnasts who train unquestioningly for months to
perform a routine in an event called the Mass Games for the sole purpose of honoring their supreme leader, Kim Jong-Il. (Never seen the Mass Games? They’re unreal. [Okay, not too different from a Super Bowl halftime show. But still….]) Are the girls true believers in the perfection of the regime, or are they just too miserable to speak their mind?
Even beyond North Korea’s thorough implementation of Socialist economic and political policies, the most salient, and, to outsiders, unfathomable feature of North Korean society is the cult of personality that has developed around Kim Il-Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Il.
Kim Il-Sung (born Kim Sŏng-ju–“Kim Il-sung” means “become the sun”), was born to a middle-class Presbyterian family in a small town in what is now North Korea, but fled to China in 1920 to avoid Japanese rule. Both the unofficial and the propagandistically-enhanced accounts of his early life agree Kim was a Communist organizer and led a brigade in Korea’s anti-Japanese resistance. (The accounts vary greatly in his degree of heroism.) When Kim returned to Korea in 1945 after 26 years in China he spoke little Korean and had little power in the Communist Party. He rose quickly in the Party both because of his reputation as a resistance fighter and because, by the end of World War II, few actual resistance leaders remained who the Soviets could mold in their image. Kim embraced his role as authoritarian leader with vigor and began to position himself as a man above the people. In 1949 he became known as “the Great Leader” and began erecting statues in his own honor.
Kim himself made the decision in 1950 for North Korea to invade the South. Stalin believed the U.S. would never intervene in South Korea and supported Kim’s Army with ample implements of war. During and after the fight with South Korea, Kim consolidated his power by ruthlessly pursing his political enemies. After several rounds of purges few in North Korea dared express dissent.
After the war, when Kim realized support from both the Soviets and the Chinese was tenuous at best, he embarked on a policy called Juche, which means “self-reliance.” In practical terms, Juche cut North Korea off from all international trade. This isolation led to the rehashing of the nickname, “the hermit kingdom.”
Kim Il-sung died in 1994 of a sudden heart attack. His son and chosen successor, Kim Jong-Il, declared a ten day mourning period and held a public funeral in the capital, Pyongyang, which hundreds of thousands of wailing mourners attended. Like other Communist leaders Kim Il-Sung’s corpse was embalmed, cased in glass, and put on public display. Today there are still 500 statues of Kim Il-sung in North Korea to honor the “Eternal Leader.” His image hangs in almost every private and public space. Despite his death, in North Korea Kim Il-sung still rules.
Kim Jong-Il took his father’s cult of personality and amplified it beyond belief. For example, as relayed by Wikipedia, (which may or may not be accurate, but in such a secretive regime, who knows?):
— Kim’s biography claims that his birth was “foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens.”
— North Korea’s constitution was amended to refer to Kim as the “Supreme Leader,” the “Dear Leader,” “Our Father,” “the General” and “Generalissimo.”
— Many North Koreans believe that he has the magical ability to control the weather based on his mood
— The song “No Motherland Without You,” sung by the State Merited Choir, was created especially for Kim in 1992 and is one of the most popular tunes in the country
— Kim has a fear of flying and has always traveled by private armored train for state visits to Russia and China. While traveling Kim has live lobsters air-lifted to the train every day.
— Kim, a huge film fan, owns a collection of more than 20,000 video tapes and DVDs. His reported favorite movie franchises include Friday the 13th, Rambo, Godzilla, and Hong Kong action cinema, and any movie starring Elizabeth Taylor…. He is the author of the book On the Art of the Cinema.
— In 1978, on Kim’s orders, South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee were kidnapped in order to build a North Korean film industry.
— Kim’s official biography claims Kim has composed six operas and enjoys staging elaborate musicals.
— Kim also refers to himself as an Internet expert. Kim Jong-Il…”The Supreme Geek?”
To be serious, Kim’s rule has been unpredictable and to an outsider could seem erratic. Record-breaking floods in 1995 and 1996 and severe drought in 1997 led to massive famine and veritably destroyed the North Korean economy. In response, the extremely socialist government dabbled in allowing small-scale commerce, though it has since reigned in some of these reforms. While an occasional dissenter does escape, Kim has kept North Koreans very much under control. Kim continues to threaten the world with North Korea’s increasing nuclear arsenal, but also enters and exists “six-party” negotiations (with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) seemingly at will. North Korea has also committed acts of military aggression against South Korea; it seems to be taunting the South Korean government, or at least testing it.
Over the last several years Kim has been in poor health. There are many rumors about his degree and category of illness, but he’s definitely sick enough to plan for what happens next.
[NOTE: This text about Kin Jong-Un comes from what seems to be a distant past when he was just becoming leader of North Korea. We know a whole lot more about him today, though he is certainly still an unpredictable figure. Updates will happen eventually.)
So who exactly is Kim Jong-Un? Few outside observers really know much about Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son and chosen successor. They do know he was educated in Switzerland. They know he is now a four star general in the North Korean Army but never trained or served. They know he looks very uncomfortable in a blue suit. No one knows yet whether Kim Jong-un will take charge before his father passes on, or whether his succession will literally happen overnight. They do suggest we be ready for North Korea to take abrupt action to mark Kim Jong-un’s ascendance. In other words, prepare for the
(Why didn’t Kim Jong-Il choose his oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, to succeed him? This article may give you a good idea.)
TODAY AND BEYOND:
Every day since the end of active hostilities in 1953 North and South Korean troops literally stare at each other across the border, waiting, like the rest of us, to see what will happen next. There are 37,000 U.S. troops still in South Korea. That sounds like a lot, but North Korea has over a million soldiers on active duty and almost five million in its reserves. As mentioned above, various South Korean governments have the idea of unification a close look. Is North Korea thinking the same thing? No one could possibly know.
Wikipedia on South Korea | Wikipedia on North Korea | The legend of Dangun (Tan-Gun) | Most Americans know all we know about the Korean War from M*A*S*H. Shouldn’t we know more? | Korean names are backwards…or are ours? | Look inside North Korea yourself, or at least through a documentary’s lens | All about the two thousand year old Korean martial art, Taekwondo