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In the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Korea which ended with Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel in accordance with a United Nations arrangement, to be administered by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. The history of North Korea formally begins with the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic in 1948.

Division of Korea

In August 1945, the Soviet Army established a Soviet Civil Authority to rule the country until a domestic regime, friendly to the USSR, could be established. The country was governed by the Provisional People's Committee for North Korea through 1948. After the Soviet forces' departure in 1948, the main agenda in the following years was unification of Korea from both sides until the consolidation of Syngman Rhee regime in the South with American military support and the suppression of the October 1948 insurrection ended hopes that the country could be reunified by way of Communist revolution in the South. In 1949, a military intervention into South Korea was considered by the Northern regime but failed to receive support from the Soviet Union, which had played a key role in the establishment of the country.

The withdrawal of most United States forces from the South in June dramatically weakened the Southern regime and encouraged Kim Il-sung to re-think an invasion plan against the South. The idea itself was first rejected by Joseph Stalin but with the development of Soviet nuclear weapons, Mao Zedong's victory in China and the Chinese indication that it would send troops and other support to North Korea, Stalin approved an invasion which led to the Korean War.

Korean War

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Kim Il Sung

North Korean war monument in Pyongyang.

Korean War Armistice Agreement

The Korean War was a war between North Korea and South Korea with major hostilities beginning on June 25, 1950, pausing with an armistice signed on July 27, 1953. The conflict arose from the division of Korea by the UN and the attempts of the two Korean powers to reunify Korea under their respective governments. The division led to full scale civil war with a cost of more than 2 million civilians and soldiers from both sides. The period immediately before the war was marked by escalating border conflicts at the 38th parallel and attempts to negotiate elections for the entirety of Korea.

These negotiations ended when the military of North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950. Under the aegis of the United Nations, nations allied with the United States intervened on behalf of South Korea. After rapid advances in a South Korean counterattack, North-allied Chinese forces intervened on behalf of North Korea, shifting the balance of the war and ultimately leading to an armistice that approximately restored the original boundaries between North and South Korea.

While some have referred to the conflict as a civil war, there were many other factors at play. The Korean War was also the first armed confrontation of the Cold War and set the standard for many later conflicts. It created the idea of a proxy war, where the two superpowers would fight in another country, forcing the people in that nation to suffer the bulk of the destruction and death involved in a war between such large nations. The superpowers avoided descending into an all-out war with one another, as well as the mutual use of nuclear weapons. It also expanded the Cold War, which to that point had mostly been concerned with Europe. A heavily guarded  on the 38th parallel continues to divide the peninsula today with anti-Communist and anti-North Korea sentiment still remaining in South Korea.

Since the ceasefire of the Korean War in 1953 the relations between the North Korean government and South Korea, the European Union, Canada, the United States, and Japan have remained tense. Fighting was halted in the ceasefire, but both Koreas are still technically at war. Both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration in 2000, in which both sides made promises to seek out a peaceful reunification. Additionally, on October 4, 2007, the leaders of North and South Korea pledged to hold summit talks to officially declare the war over and reaffirmed the principle of mutual non-aggression.

Korea War Museum in Pyongyang (US Tanks)

The Korean War (Facts from South Korea) 

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Under such circumstances early on the Sunday morning of June 25, 1950, without any warning or declaration of war, North Korean troops invaded the unprepared South across 38th parallel. It was a well-prepared, all-out attack. South Korea's troops fought bravely, but proved no match for the heavily armed Communists and the Russian T-3 tanks, who were not checked until they reached the Naktonggang river near Taegu.

The Republic of Korea appealed to the United Nations. In response, the Security Council passed a resolution ordering the Communists to withdraw to the 38th parallel and encouraged all member countries to give military support to the Republic. U.S. troops soon began to arrive, and were subsequently 1joined by those from 15 other nations: Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Colombia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The three Scandinavian countries sent hospitals along with medical personnel.

Under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Allied forces began to take the initiative, and after a surprise landing at Inch'aon, pushed the Communists out of South Korea and advanced into the North.

But in October the Communist Chinese intervened, throwing such large numbers of troops into battle that the U.N. forces were forced to retreat. Seoul once again fell into Communist hands on January 4, 1951. The U.N. forces regrouped and mounted a counterattack, retaking Seoul on March 12. A stalemate was reached roughly in the area along the 38th parallel, where the conflict had begun.

At this point the Soviet Union called for truce negotiations, which finally began at Kaesong in July of 1951, and were transferred to P'anmunjom in November that year. The talks dragged on for two years before an armistice agreement was reached on July 27, 1953.

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Democratic Revolution

In the aftermath of the Korean War, the country was beset with many problems - economic, social and political. The old patriot, Syngman Rhee, unable to see that he had outlived his usefulness, clung tenaciously to power. This refusal on the part of Rhee and his associates to let democratic processes take their normal course was at least partly responsible for the social and political unrest that followed the war.

Social disorder and hostility to the government complicated the already staggering problems created by the war. There were many thousands of war widows, more than 100,000 orphans, and tens of thousands of unemployed, whose ranks were swelled by farmers leaving their land to seek work in the cities. Exact statistics are not available, but in 1961 it was estimated that there were about 279,000 unemployed, of whom 72,000 were university graduates, and 51,000 discharged soldiers and laid-off workers. This provided a powder keg of anger and resentment that waited only for a spark to set it off.

The spark was provided by President Rhee and the Liberal Party in the course of the elections of 1960. Realizing its own unpopularity, the ruling regime used every means, legal or illegal, to rig the elections in its favor. Demonstrations broke out almost at once, especially among students. Protesting against government interference in schools, students rose up in Taegu on February 28, 1960. On March 15, election day, students demonstrated against the election, and police subsequently fired into the crowds. In early April, the discovery at Masan of the body of a student who had been killed by police was followed by a riot.

The most serious demonstrations were in Seoul. Responding to the Masan affair, practically all of the students in the capital poured into the streets. Again police fired on them as they neared the presidential residence and there was bloodshed. Martial law was imposed and troops dispersed the crowds.

Rhee had no choice but to step down. His desire for power had overcome his patriotism in the end. The students had led the people into the first successful democratic revolution in Korea's history, showing that Korean democracy was alive and healthy.

On July 15, 1960, an amendment to the Constitution was adopted by the incumbent Assembly providing for a cabinet system of government with a bicameral legislature. At the same time, the two houses of the newly elected Assembly in a joint session elected Yun Po-sun President of the Second Republic, and he was sworn in on August 15. President Yun nominated Dr. Chang Myon (John M. Chang) as Prime Minister, whose nomination was promptly confirmed by the House of Representatives. At this time, the Liberal Party was replaced by the Democratic Party as the majority party, and it immediately split into the New Democrats and the (Old) Democrats. The Prime Minister belonged to the former while the President belonged to the latter. Neither was strong enough constitutionally or personally to fill the gap created by the sudden ouster of the 12-year-old autocratic rule of President Syngman Rhee.

The new government was unable to cope with the situation in which it found itself. For one thing, most members of the new cabinet, while without question honest people, had little experience in government. The leaders, tasting the long-denied fruits of political power, began to wallow in its corrupting effect. The national economy had been brought to the brink of bankruptcy due to unfair tax collection practices coupled with waste and mismanagement of foreign aid and domestic resources under the Rhee administration. Prime Minister Chang's cabinet not only failed to muster the united support of the populace to cope with such problems, but helplessly stood by and watched daily demonstrations by students who thought they could sway national affairs by parading in the streets.

The North Korean Communists, having recovered from their disastrous adventure of 1950-1953, seized the opportunity of internal disorder in the South to subvert whatever effort the Chang administration could put forth. Elements of doubtful allegiance began urging "Peaceful Unification," a familiar line of propaganda emanating from Radio P'yongyang daily at that time.

 

Late 20th century

 
DPRK soldier pointing to the DMZ

The relative peace between the south and the north was punctuated by border skirmishes and assassination attempts. The North failed in several assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, most notably in 1968, 1974 and the Rangoon bombing in 1983; tunnels were frequently found under the DMZ and war nearly broke out over the Axe Murder Incident at Panmunjeom in 1976. In 1973, extremely secret, high-level contacts began to be conducted through the offices of the Red Cross, but ended after the Panmunjeom incident with little progress having been made and the idea that the two Koreas would join international organisations separately.

In the late 1990s, with the South having transitioned to democracy, the success of the Nordpolitik policy, and power in the North having been taken up by Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il, the two nations began to engage publicly for the first time, with the South declaring its Sunshine Policy.

USS PUEBLO 1968

21st century

In 2002, United States president George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" and an "outpost of tyranny". The highest-level contact the government has had with the United States was with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who made a visit to Pyongyang in 2000, but the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. By 2006, approximately 37,000 American soldiers remained in South Korea, although by June 2009 this number had fallen to around 30,000. Kim Jong-il has privately stated his acceptance of U.S. troops on the peninsula, even after a possible reunification.Publicly, North Korea strongly demands the removal of American troops from Korea.

On June 13, 2009, the Associated Press reported that in response to new UN sanctions, North Korea declared it would progress with its uranium enrichment program. This marked the first time the DPRK has publicly acknowledged that it is conducting a uranium enrichment program. In August 2009, former US president Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to secure the release of 2 US journalists, who had been sentenced for entering the country illegally.


Note: After the Korean War, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two separate countries.  Although both countries share a 5,000 year history together, they've been separated from each other for the last 50 years.   Therefore, the historical and cultural information about North Korea is similar to that of South Korea.

Korea's History

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