Korea: Past and Present

Korea past and present

I recently had an online conversation about the escalating tensions between Korea and the United States, and this led to a request for more knowledge about the historic and modern variables behind the division of North and South Korea. The amount of detail and background I received was so comprehensive, I thought it should be shared here. In the hopes of building a broader understanding of the North and South Korean people, here are “Vipper‘s” observations on the background of the Korean civilization:

“Traditionally the Koreans have not been a “nation” in the Western sense of the word. In their many expressions of statehood throughout their long history, they’ve gone under many names. Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, Joseon, Goryeo (Where the Western exonym “Korea” comes from) among others. The first time Koreans picked a unified name for their ethnic group (Han 韓, not to be confused with Han Chinese which is spelled 漢) was at the turn of the 20th century, with the first incarnation of what would become modern day South Korea.


Daehan Jeguk flag 1987-1910

Daehan Jeguk flag 1987-1910

The Korean empire of 1897-1910, (In Korean: 大韓帝國 Daehan Jeguk) was a vassal state of the Japanese empire until it was eventually fully annexed. After liberation by the Americans, the name “Han” stuck and went on to become the Republic of Korea (Korean: 大韓民國 Daehan Minguk). Now, why is this important at all, you may ask? Well, the North Korean state rejects the name “Han”, effectively rejecting the idea of a unified people.

1392–1897 Joseon flag

The North Korean state officially calls itself after Joseon (朝鮮), one of the historical Korean states, and its people – “Joseon-in” (朝鮮人). This puts the Korean civilization where it has been before—divided by different rulers and called under different names. As such there is no actual national solidarity between the two populations. North Korean defectors are rarely welcomed in the South as brothers and often live on the fringes of society, ridiculed for their peculiar accents and mannerisms unique to the North and sometimes even derided for their tendency to require government assistance.

This gap between the North and South isn’t just a question of state, socioeconomics or differences in political systems, but of a deep cultural divide. It isn’t like East Germany versus West Germany at all, as some people try to frame it. This makes the scenario of a peaceful or even semi-peaceful reunification with the North Korean regime stepping down voluntarily impossible. Both states believe their own version of Korea (Han and Joseon respectively) is to be the “Korea” if that makes sense.”

On the topic of the current tensions in the region, here is what Vipper has to say:

“The Americans need to be careful with what they’re doing because the two sides don’t really see themselves as one nation divided by politics like Germany did when it was divided. They won’t hesitate to go to war again and they’re waiting to see who will fire the first shot. The South is tired of being extorted by the North under constant threat of nuclear annihilation if it fails to meet demands and the North is led by a man with delusions of grandeur who is probably “not all there” in terms of sanity, to put it lightly. Though crazy, the North aren’t fools. They know they can’t propagate their forces very far outside of their own border, so they have their arsenal pointed at large cities in the South, effectively holding the civilian populations there hostage as a deterrent against a preemptive strike. Should South Korea or the Americans strike first and the North actually follows through on its threats, millions of civilians could be bombed, gassed or even nuked without warning. In reality this is what’s been keeping the stalemate going on for so long. The armistice was both a blessing and a curse in that regard, because it let the North regroup and entrench itself in a way that it could extort the South by threatening its people with little more than conventional artillery cannons and grad rockets.

It is unknown what exactly a strike by the Americans against North Korea’s nuclear facilities would do because no one can predict what the regime will do in response. With any luck they’ll back down and stop producing nukes, but we all know that they’re gonna do something crazy in response that will end up costing lives, civilian and military ones alike.”

North Korean DPRK flag

“Vipper’s” rundown of past and present Korea describes a culturally divided group whose present nuclear standoff has the world’s attention. Recognizing the division of cultures could go a long way in terms of opening lines of communication, but the lock down of opposing arguments has got the two sides in a stalemate. Now China has agreed to go with American coal, thus shutting off a major revenue stream for its neighbor. This might be lauded by the die-hard Trump crowd as a great economic and unifying deal for America and China, and it is, but the other side of this is a further destabilization of a nuclear armed hot-zone. Obviously there are no immediate answers in this nuclear equation, but opening up lines of dialogue can only lead to understanding of both sides. Hopefully a sane compromise will occur before its too late for talking.