Why Is Korea Divided Into North And South?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

Japan fought wars to conquer Korea, but after the second world war, Japan lost all power over it, after which the US and the Soviets divided it along the 38th parallel.

Korea was split into North and South Korea when Japan was forced to surrender all of its colonies to the Soviets and the United States after losing WWII.

The question is, how did the Japanese conquer Korea? And, more importantly, why?

north and south korea divide
Korea split in two. (Photo Credits: Flickr)

Kim Jong-un is probably the first name that comes to mind when you think about North Korea, whereas BTS (The Bangtan Boys) is likely the first iconic name that arises when thinking about South Korea.

Let’s admit it: both of these names have polar effects on most of the population, but why is that the case? Why is there such a vast divide between North and South Korea? What caused the drift?


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When Japan Conquered Korea

The story begins with the First Sino-Japanese War, which was fought between Japanese and Chinese forces for influence over Korea from 1894 to 1895.

Interestingly, this war had three other names:

  • In Japan, it was known as the ‘War of Jiawu’.
  • In China, it was known as the ‘Japan-Qing War’.
  • In Korea, it was called the ‘Qing-Japan War’.
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The Japanese and Chinese troops mid-battle. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1870, Korea was China’s most substantial client state, abundant in coal and iron, and located opposite to the Japanese islands. This proximity and resource richness caught Japan’s interest. In 1875, it adopted revolutionary Western technology and forced Korea to abandon its foreign relations with China.

Japan helped modernize Korea, cultivating some pro-Japanese reformers who tried to overthrow the Korean government. However, the king was rescued by Yuan Shikai, a Chinese general who killed many Japanese legation guards in 1884. This enraged both Japan and China, but war was prevented by both countries signing the Li-Itō Convention, but the peace would not last long.

While Japan was busy expanding its kingdom and modernizing its programs a decade later, China was busy plotting revenge.

Now, remember those pro-Japanese revolts? They were led by Kim Ok-Kyun, who was then murdered in Shanghai by the agents of none other than Yuan Shikai. War was declared on August 1, 1894, and by March of 1895, the Japanese troops had overthrown the Chinese forces.

Finally, China learned its lesson and recognized Korea as being independent of its assistance by signing the ‘Treaty of Shimonoseki.’

World War Zero

In 1870, Korea was China’s largest client state, rich in coal and iron, and situated opposite the Japanese islands. This proximity and resource abundance drew Japan’s attention. In 1875, Japan adopted advanced Western technology and forced Korea to sever its foreign relations with China.

Japan helped modernize Korea, which led to some pro-Japanese reformers attempting to overthrow the Korean government. However, the king was saved by Yuan Shikai, a Chinese general, who killed several Japanese legation guards in 1884. This outraged both Japan and China, but war was averted when both countries signed the Li-Itō Convention, although peace didn’t last long.

A decade later, while Japan was expanding its empire and modernizing its programs, China was plotting revenge.

Remember those pro-Japanese rebellions? They were led by Kim Ok-Kyun, who was later murdered in Shanghai by agents of none other than Yuan Shikai. War was declared on August 1, 1894, and by March 1895, Japanese troops had defeated the Chinese forces.

Finally, China realized its mistake and recognized Korea’s independence by signing the ‘Treaty of Shimonoseki.’

Ships burning at Port Arthur. (Photo Credit: Torajirō Kasai/Wikimedia Commons)

This conflict was followed by ‘The Battle of Liaoyang,’ wars in Manchuria and Korea, and was finally concluded by ‘The Treaty of Portsmouth.’

Japan won this war but stirred up turmoil in many other countries, partially sparking and fanning the flames that would ruin empires in World War I and World War II.

For some historians, this is therefore considered World War 0.

The Division Of Korea

As all things do, the balance came back full circle. Japan was defeated in the Second World War and forced to give up all of its colonies, including Korea, to the victorious Allied countries.

So, 35 years later, Korea was no longer under Japan’s control, but the freedom did not last long. The Soviet Union invaded Korea the very same day the Japanese left.

Soviet soldiers marched along the streets of Korea. (Photo Credit: North Korean media/Wikimedia Commons)

The Soviets occupied the North, and the United States occupied the South, both regions generally separated by the 38th parallel. This helped divide the country into two halves running from east to west along the 38 degrees north.

By the beginning of the Cold War, it was clearly impossible to unite the country again. In 1948, two radically different states were created: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North and the Republic of Korea in the South.

Peace could not be maintained for long.

On June 25th, 1950, North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to spread communism. The UN and US forces came to the aid of South Korea, pushing the invading forces back across the border.

In October 1950, those forces advanced to complete the war but were stopped by Chinese troops who had come to their neighbor’s aid.

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The fighting finally ended on July 27, 1953, when an agreement to end hostilities was signed.

However, the damage had already been done; more than 2 million people had been killed, and both countries began to evolve in their own very different directions.

It is also important to note that the war was never officially declared over; the 38th parallel was simply recognized as a ‘demilitarized zone.’

Also Read: What’s The Story Of The Berlin Wall?

The Aftermath

Today, these two regions of the same peninsula might be two different countries.

The regional language continues to be Korean (though the North speaks a more orthodox version), and they observe the same holidays, love spicy food, and respect their elders. The differences between the countries undoubtedly overshadow any commonality.

A dictatorship runs North Korea and has been ruled by the Kim dynasty since 1948. The country is also 50 years behind the global standards of infrastructural development and has over one million men in the military (thanks to forced conscription).

On the other hand, South Korea believes in democracy, freedom of speech, and KOREAN POP! After the war, South Korea transformed itself from an agricultural economy into a business-leaning nation, with Seoul being ranked as the world’s ‘leading digital city.’ At the same time, South Korea as a whole is considered ‘the tech capital of the world.’

Gwangan bridge in South Korea.
Gwangan Bridge in South Korea. (Photo Credits: Goodfreephotos)

While relations between these two dynamic ends of the same country have been strained for years, do you think the first ‘inter-Korean summit’ might be able to make this old division less distinct? Only time will tell!

Also Read: So What’s The Deal With North Korean Leaders?

Last Updated By: Ashish Tiwari

References (click to expand)
  1. Korea Divided - COTF.
  2. Treaty of Portsmouth and the Russo-Japanese War.
  3. Jervis, R. (1980, December). The Impact of the Korean War on the Cold War. Journal of Conflict Resolution. SAGE Publications.
  4. Korean War and Japan's Recovery.
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