Four things to know about North and South Korea


An expert sheds light on the history, culture and politics of the two Koreas.

A North Korean soldier looks at the South side at the truce village of Panmunjom in the de-militarised zone dividing the two Koreas on Jul 27, 2013. (Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je)

The US is ramping up joint military exercises with South Korea, and President Donald Trump has stated the threats may lead to a “major, major conflict”. South Koreans have elected a new president who may be open to talks with North Korea.

An expert Professor Lee Ji Young answers four questions to help us understand the Korean Peninsula. Here are four things to know:


Before there was a South and North Korea, the peninsula was ruled as a dynasty known as Chosŏn, which existed for more than five centuries, until 1910. This period, during which an independent Korea had diplomatic relations with China and Japan, ended with imperial Japan’s annexation of the peninsula. Japan’s colonial rule lasted 35 years.

When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, the Korean peninsula was split into two zones of occupation – the US-controlled South Korea and the Soviet-controlled North Korea. Amid the growing Cold War tensions between Moscow and Washington, in 1948, two separate governments were established in Pyongyang and Seoul. Kim Il Sung, leader of North Korea, was a former guerrilla who fought under Chinese and Russian command. Syngman Rhee, a Princeton University-educated staunch anti-communist, became the first leader of South Korea.

North and South Korean army soldiers face off at the border village of Panmunjom. (Photo: AFP)

In an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under his communist regime, Kim Il Sung invaded the South in June 1950 with Soviet aid. This brought South Korea and the US, backed by United Nations, to fight against the newly-founded People’s Republic of China and North Korea. An armistice agreement ended hostilities in the Korean War in 1953. Technically speaking, however, the two Koreas are still at war.


Koreans in the South and North have led separate lives for almost 70 years. Korean history and a collective memory of having been a unified, independent state for over a millennium, however, are a powerful reminder to Koreans that they have shared identity, culture and language.

North Korean women wearing traditional ‘hanbok’ dresses walk on Kim Il Sung square following a mass military parade in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015 (Photo: AFP/Ed Jones)

For example, in both Koreas, the history of having resisted Japanese colonialism is an important source of nationalism. Both North and South Korean students learn about the 1919 March 1st Independence Movement in school.

Consider, too, the Korean language. About 54 per cent of North Korean defectors in South Korea say that they have no major difficulty understanding Korean used in South Korea. Only 1 per cent responded that they cannot understand it at all.

However, the divergent politics of North and South Korea have shaped differences in Koreans’ outlook on life and the world since the split. South Korea’s vibrant democracy is a result of the mass movement of students, intellectuals and middle-class citizens. In North Korea, the state propaganda and ideology of Juche, or “self-reliance”, were used to consolidate the Kim family’s one-man rule, while reproducing a certain mode of thinking designed to help the regime survive.


As of September 2016, an estimated 29,830 North Korean defectors are living in South Korea. From them, we’ve learned the details of people’s everyday life in one of the world’s most closed societies. For example, despite crackdowns, more North Koreans are now watching South Korean TV dramas.

In North Korea, repression, surveillance and punishment are pervasive features of social life. The state relies heavily on coercion and terror as a means of sustaining the regime.

Still, not all North Koreans are interested in defecting. According to anthropologist Sandra Fahy, interviewees said they left the North reluctantly driven primarily by famine and economic reasons, rather than political reasons. A majority of them missed home in the North.

A picture of the Workers’ Party membership card holder. (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)

However, Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, believes that Kim Jong Un’s North Korea could face a popular uprising or elite defection as North Koreans have increasingly become disillusioned with the regime.


The purpose of the US-South Korea alliance has changed little since its formation in 1953. This has much to do with continuing threats from North Korea.

However, despite differences in their approach to North Korea, President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun took a major step toward transforming the Cold War alliance into a “comprehensive strategic alliance”.

Under President Barack Obama and South Korean Presidents Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye, many believed the US-South Korea alliance was at its best. Under their leadership, Washington and Seoul agreed to expand the alliance’s scope to cover non-traditional threats, like terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other global challenges like piracy and epidemic disease, while coordinating and standing firm against North Korea’s provocations.

Now, with Moon Jae In and Donald Trump as new presidents of South Korea and the United States, there is a greater degree of uncertainty. Among other things, Trump criticised the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, while insisting Seoul pay for THAAD, a US missile defense system deployed in South Korea. Moon, whose parents fled the North during the Korean War, is likely to put inter-Korean reconciliation as one of his top priorities. This may collide with the current US approach of imposing sanctions against North Korea.

Lee Ji Young is Assistant Professor at the American University School of International Service. This article first appeared in The Conversation. Read it here.

Source: CNA/sl

This entry was posted in Lịch sử - History, North Korea, South Korea and tagged by Trần Đình Hoành. Bookmark the permalink.

About Trần Đình Hoành

I am an attorney in the Washington DC area, with a Doctor of Law in the US, attended the master program at the National School of Administration of Việt Nam, and graduated from Sài Gòn University Law School. I aso studied philosophy at the School of Letters in Sài Gòn. I have worked as an anti-trust attorney for Federal Trade Commission and a litigator for a fortune-100 telecom company in Washington DC. I have taught law courses for legal professionals in Việt Nam and still counsel VN government agencies on legal matters. I have founded and managed businesses for me and my family, both law and non-law. I have published many articles on national newspapers and radio stations in Việt Nam. In 1989 I was one of the founding members of US-VN Trade Council, working to re-establish US-VN relationship. Since the early 90's, I have established and managed VNFORUM and VNBIZ forum on VN-related matters; these forums are the subject of a PhD thesis by Dr. Caroline Valverde at UC-Berkeley and her book Transnationalizing Viet Nam. I translate poetry and my translation of "A Request at Đồng Lộc Cemetery" is now engraved on a stone memorial at Đồng Lộc National Shrine in VN. I study and teach the Bible and Buddhism. In 2009 I founded and still manage on positive thinking and two other blogs on Buddhism. In 2015 a group of friends and I founded website CVD - Conversations on Vietnam Development ( I study the art of leadership with many friends who are religious, business and government leaders from many countries. In October 2011 Phu Nu Publishing House in Hanoi published my book "Positive Thinking to Change Your Life", in Vietnamese (TƯ DUY TÍCH CỰC Thay Đổi Cuộc Sống). In December 2013 Phu Nu Publishing House published my book "10 Core Values for Success". I practice Jiu Jitsu and Tai Chi for health, and play guitar as a hobby, usually accompanying my wife Trần Lê Túy Phượng, aka singer Linh Phượng.

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