Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and liberated in 1945 at the end of the second world war.
The US and the Soviet Union agreed to partition the Korean peninsula into two occupation zones. This division was meant to be temporary but cold war rivalry and ideological differences set the stage for a bloody conflict that ended in an armistice without a peace treaty.
In August 1945, two young US colonels arbitrarily partitioned the peninsula along the 38th parallel with a National Geographic map for reference. The Soviet Union agreed to the proposed demarcation line as a condition of the surrender of Japanese troops in Korea.
At the Moscow Conference for Foreign Ministers in December 1945, the Allies agreed to place Korea under a four-power trusteeship of up to five years until it became an independent state. After international efforts to achieve unification failed, two separate governments were established in 1948.
UNTCOK oversaw elections that were held only in the US-occupied southern half of the peninsula.
The American-backed Republic of Korea (South Korea) was founded on August 15, with Syngman Rhee elected as president.
Soon after, the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) was proclaimed on September 9, with Kim Il-sung (born Kim Song-ju) as leader. The Kim dynasty has remained in power since, promoting the official ideology known as Juche as “the sole guiding idea”.
The fundamental principles of Juche are independence in politics, the economy and national defence.
Juche ideology and the cult of personality surrounding the ruling Kim family is used as a mechanism to maintain isolationism and totalitarian rule.
How did the Korean war start?
The Korean war began when North Korea, with Soviet and Chinese backing, launched a large-scale invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950.
The Pentagon was caught off guard despite earlier predictions of a North Korean attack. North Korean troops, supplied with Soviet tanks and heavy artillery, quickly overwhelmed the opposition and advanced rapidly south but the tide was turned by UN and US intervention.
On June 27, 1950, the UN Security Council approved a resolution calling for member states to provide military assistance to South Korea. This was the first time the Security Council had ever approved the use of military force.
Of the 16 UN member countries that sent military troops to support South Korea, the US provided about 90 per cent of the personnel.
In October 1950, the Chinese Communist Party Politburo debated whether to send Chinese troops into Korea. Chinese leader Mao Zedong eventually secured Politburo approval for intervention after Chinese military commander Peng Dehuai made a case that the US would use its position on the Chinese border to subvert the state.
On October 25, 1950, the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army launched its “First Phase Offensive” and officially entered the Korean war.
The Korean war was the first “hot” war of the cold war. There were more than 4 million casualties, including at least 2 million civilians. The percentage of civilian casualties was higher than in the second world war or the Vietnam war.
Truce talks began on July 10, 1951, but were derailed over the issue of repatriation of prisoners of war on all sides. The fighting came to an end on July 27, 1953, when an armistice agreement was signed.
The Korean Armistice Agreement called for the creation of the demilitarised zone, the DMZ, which serves as a buffer zone between North Korea and South Korea. One of the most fortified borders in the world, the DMZ is heavily patrolled by both sides. For decades, loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda were a fixture on the DMZ.
More than 32,000 North Koreans have defected to South Korea but most escape by crossing the Chinese border, not the DMZ.
No peace treaty has been signed but there is a ceasefire in place. On April 27, 2018, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged to formally end the Korean war during a day-long summit.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.
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