Korea: How did it get where it is?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2013

power point presentation


This is a presentation on how Korea ended up in its curious current state: A divided nation with both halves pursuing radically different ways of developing their nation and lifestyle. The interesting part, the mystery, is that ways are quite different, but both are stable.


Imagine you're at SLCC (Salt Lake Community College). Imagine you're taking a class. All of a sudden the ground shakes and rumbles and a huge whoosh sound comes from outside the building!

You run outside and see a giant flying saucer -- a city block wide -- hovering over SLCC Redwood campus. A tinny sounding speaker on the flying saucer announces, "We mean no harm to your planet... we mean no harm to your planet..."

Aliens from outer space have come to SLCC!


Now here's the question to think about for next class: What do you do...

o When you first see the saucer?

o A week later? (presuming it's still there, and you have survived too)

o A year later?


Believe it or not, this relates to Korea and its current situation.




1839-42 First Opium War which sets the stage. British high tech trashes the Chinese military response. Opportunity knocking???

1854 Commodore Matthew Perry of America visits Tokyo Harbor in Japan with a high tech fleet of warships and opens Japan.

1864 China's response: "Blaaagh! We panic!" Taiping Rebellion

1868 - 1912 Japan's response: "We can adapt." Meiji Restoration ends Tokugawa Shogunate.

1866 Korea's response: "Strong National Will will protect us." General Sherman incident

1899 Open Door Policy which opens China to all. This is different than India, Korea, Indonesia and other places which get just one colonial master. ‪

1894-95 First Sino-Japanese War More humiliation for China, starts Japan's colonization of Korea, leads to China's 1911 revolution (Sun Yat-Sen)

1910 - 1945 Japan Annexes Korea "We're all Japanese now."

1937 - 1945 Second Sino-Japanese War The Big One, becomes part of WWII

1945 Historic accident: Japan's surrender and The division of Korea

1950 - 1953 The Korean War making the accident permanent "The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy" -- Gen. Omar Bradley

1953 - 2013 Life evolves in the Koreas -- the two sides of the experiment continue

o Southern evolution: accommodate the world -- military dictatorship to democracy and globalizing

o Northern evolution: isolate from the world -- military dictatorship to Juche and values preserved

1994 Enter Roger's Unsolved Mystery: Kim Il-Sung dies, Kim Jong-Il takes over... and that's it! No unrest, no ousting of the son and replacing him with a different government style.

2011 Now "No Surprise Here" -- Kim Jong-Un succeeds Kim Jong-Il in a smooth succession.



Setting the stage

Starting in the mid-1850's a huge challenge faced the nations and cultures of East Asia. The Europeans who previously had come to trade in sailing ships started showing up in high tech steam ships carrying big, effective guns. And this was just the beginning of the new strangeness. They were also bringing new marvelous products, and talking about the new ways the products were being made back in Europe.

The Question of the Century for China, Korea and Japan was, "How do we deal with this change in our relation with the Europeans?" (For these cultures, this was the equivalent of high tech aliens coming to Earth at SLCC.)

There were basically three choices.

o Plan A: Pay attention to the change and respect it. Assume that this was something valuable to learn about, and work hard at integrating the new products and new ideas into the existing culture.

o Plan B: Pay attention to the change and strongly regulate it. In the process try to resist much of the change as dangerous to the existing culture.

o Plan C: Do nothing meaningful about it. There are other issues far more important for the leadership to concern itself with.

There were proponents of all three choices in all three cultures. But each ended up choosing a different response and destiny.

The Japanese pick Plan A. They pay attention, adopt and adapt. This started with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Restoration ended the Shogunate government which was filled with people who chose Plan B.

The Koreans pick Plan B. The Chosun (Joseun) dynasty has been ruling Korea stably since the 1400's, and implemented Silhak a policy of strict control starting in the 1600's. But this high tech alien invasion of Europeans was something new, and it wasn't clear that the old ways would keep working. At one point as the crisis builds the Plan A folk stage a coup, but stay in power for only two days before the Plan B folk stage a counter coup. ‪Heungseon Daewongun‬, the regent during the 1860's, leads the Plan B'ers back into power.

The Chinese pick Plan C. The government, the Manchu Dynasty (also called the Qing Dynasty), is in the process of losing The Mandate of Heaven and dissolving. The Manchu government is corrupt and ineffectual. But the first big challenge to it in this crisis era, the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860's, is even more so. The rebellion starts strong in the south and gains enough support to capture Nanking, the southern capital. But after this success it loses focus and does not move on Beijing, the northern capital. The rebellion sputters and the Manchus survive for another five decades... sort of. What really survives is a chaos similar to modern day Somalia, with local war lords picking up a lot of power, and the various European nations carving trading zones out of the chaos. This carving up is called the Open Door Policy and makes the fate of China different than the fate of India, Indonesia and French Indo-China.

And Korea suffers a different fate as well. It becomes the first colony of a Far East nation following in these European footsteps. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 Japan takes on Korea as a protectorate, and in 1910 Japan annexes Korea. "We're all Japanese now." becomes the formal policy, and Japan starts pushing Korea hard down the Plan A road.

Ah Well... so much for Plan B, it seems.

But Plan A is not inevitable or smooth sailing. After 1905 Japan is on something of a sugar high: They have defeated both the Chinese and the Russians. But there's still a lot of uncertainty and controversy within Japan and its newly acquired colonies: Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan (then called Formosa). Not everybody is winning and there is terrorist violence.

This controversy and uncertainty leads to a Fascist-style government running Japan. It's as ruthless and full of propaganda as its European counterparts. But, like them, there's a lot of optimism supporting this revolutionary government. Part of this optimism comes across as trying to assimilate Korea and make it fully Japanese. This bright-eyed enthusiasm brings just as much controversy to the Koreans -- some love it, some hate it.

Then all this starry-eyed enthusiasm leads the Japanese government a step too far: They renew their war with China with the intent of making all of China as enthusiastic about these new ways as the Japanese are. This starts the 1937 2nd Sino-Japanese War which merges into World War Two.

It's a big undertaking... too big... and the Japanese surrender in August of 1945.

The Beginning of Two Koreas

And now historic accident begins its twist of Korean history. The question of late August 1945 for the Japanese armed forces was, "Who do we surrender to?" This became an issue because just ten days before the Japanese surrender the Russians had declared war and blitzkregged through most of Manchuria. Manchuria and the north half of Korea surrendered to the Russians. Taiwan and the Chinese areas surrendered to the Nationalist Chinese. Japan and the south half of Korea surrendered to the Americans of the Pacific fleet. A famous formal surrender signing took place in Tokyo Bay on board the aircraft carrier Enterprise.

This should have been a mostly administrative matter, but the Cold War was getting ready to launch. What happened instead of unifying Korea was the establishment of two governments -- the north under Kim Il-Sung and the south under ‪Syngman Rhee‬.

Ouch! What was happening here wasn't happening according to anyone's plan!

After five years of trying to deal with this deep confusion, Kim Il-Sung, with Stalin's blessing and tanks, took the bull by the horns and invaded South Korea as a way of unifying the country.

Surprise! More historic accident. The United States, instead of rolling over and accepting this as it had done in East Europe and China, convinces the UN to condemn this and sends a bunch of troops to vigorously defend the south. But the North Koreans are well prepared for this campaign, and they keep advancing. The UN forces are repeatedly defeated until they are hanging on by their fingernails in a small area around Busan (Pusan) at the south end of the peninsula.

More surprise! General Mac Arthur, commanding UN troops, invades Inchon harbor and captures Seoul, cutting the North Korean's supply line and retreat line!

More surprise! Mac Arthur heads north! Way north! He gets all the way to the Korean border with Manchuria. This is pretty much Game Over for the North Koreans.

More surprise! The Chinese Communists do what the Soviets aren't willing to do. They send in ground troops. Lots of them. The UN has "The Great Bug Out" and hastily retreats from the northern border to south of Seoul.

More surprise! Mac Arthur is relived of command by President Truman. Truman has General Ridgeway, his replacement, advance the UN forces to roughly the North-South border before the war started, the 38th parallel, then stop. (Seoul changes hands four times in this war.)

A final surprise! The war at this point changes its nature completely. It becomes a Chinese versus UN slugout, a proxy war, and it gets quite boring from a military stand point. It becomes much like WWI with trenches, tunnels, and lots of shooting but no moving. (Roger's theory on why the Chinese were willing to do this is that Mao and the Chinese Communists needed a final blood-letting to consolidate their win in mainland China of the year before. Big social revolutions need one.)

A year later the fighting winds down slowly. In 1953 an armistice is signed, but no peace treaty follows. Instead the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) remains the most heavily fortified and militarized border in the world to this day. All through the 1950's and into the 60's there was a lot of small scale violence back and forth across it.

Two Cultures Evolve: Plan A and Plan B are back!

Over the six decades since the Korean War wound down, the DMZ has remained an icon of the Cold War. Panmunjom, the negotiating point, is a popular tourist destination, and pictures of the DMZ being high fenced and patrolled by vigilant South Korean soldiers are a cultural icon in South Korea to this day. (here are my pictures) Both North and South Korea have maintained strong militaries. The Chinese went home, just north of the border, but the US has maintained roughly 30,000 troops in Korea over these many decades.

And away from the DMZ the two Koreas have been developing their cultures in dramatically different ways.

The History Twisting continues: Plan A and Plan B are revived and the experiment as to which is better has been running for six decades now.

In this version of the experiment South Korea has been pursuing Plan A. They have embraced dealing with the outside world and have looked to Japan's success as an exporting nation as a model. The results have been impressive. South Korea is now considered a developed nation, and can produce both smart phones and Gangnam Style videos. Its government has moved from military dictatorship to democracy. And its economy from a Chaebol-based handful of companies to broad based with many small and medium-sized enterprises as well.

North Korea has been pursuing Plan B. They embraced growing "Strong National Will" (my term) as the heart of their development, and vigorously control contact with the outside world. Kim Il-Sung developed a philosophy of self-reliance called Juche which has been the philosophic center of the North's development. The culture depends on a lot of self-delusion in the form of teaching the people that the rest of the world envies North Korea's prowess and progress.

For three and a half decades the Soviet Union subsidized Kim and the North Koreans. They paid for Kim to have a strong military, and engage in periodic saber-rattling to keep America and Western Europe on edge. (They also paid Cuba and various Eastern European states.) During this time Kim developed a leadership style that was a mix of Soviet Communism and the Japanese Fascism that Korea had been subjected to during the colony years.

Then in 1989... crisis! The Soviet Union went bankrupt. It dissolved! The Russian nation that took its place said, "Sorry folks, we are no longer going to be Sugar Daddy. You are on your own."

Cuba and North Korea both adapted to this harsh new reality, but it wasn't easy.

North Korea adapted by transforming its saber-rattling into extortion. It got the US and China into the habit of paying it off to end its temper tantrums. This is why nuke developing has been so important to the government.

Kim Il-Sung dies: Enter the Roger Mystery

Kim Il-Sung died in July 1994. I remember the day well. I was mid-way through my first year of teaching English in Korea. I was on a weekend day trip to some caves in the center of South Korea, and I had been befriended by a Korean family. We were taking a taxi from one cave to another when the father of the family announced, "The news on the radio just said Kim Il-Sung has died."

My first thought was, "Whoa! Here I am in Korea and the dictator just two hundred miles north has croaked? Where's my plane ticket!!!"

What gave this thought even more conviction was that in the years just prior, Marcos of the Philippines, Papa Doc of Haiti, Ceausescu of Romania, and the whole Soviet Union had all been replaced by new styles of government. Was this about to happen in North Korea? Would this newby, Kim Jong-Il, last a year or so, maybe, and then get ousted?

I decided to risk staying. ...But I held my breath and watched the news carefully. I predicted regime change!

And... nothing happened! Kim Jong-il came in smoothly and stayed smoothly! Whoa again! How could this "nothing" have happened? I now had a Roger Unsolved Mystery to think about.

This was way off pattern. The typical pattern -- followed by every other famous WWII national leader -- was the tyrant/strongman would die, be succeeded by a short-lived tyrant wannabe, who would not succeed, and then be replaced by a much blander leader backed by an even blander committee that would succeed. Stalin, Mao, Ho Che Min, Churchill, all followed this pattern. Churchill didn't die but was voted out immediately after the hostilities ceased. Roosevelt died, but his successor, Truman, proved himself such an able conventional leader, that he survived -- but it was a surprise that he did.

The answer to this mystery of why tyrant successfully followed tyrant in North Korea came with time. Clues popped up in surprising places: I read a North Korea travel guide which talked about how proud the North Koreans were of their "genuine Korean culture", and I learned more about Korean history as I taught English to my students and traveled the countryside.

The result was a new insight.

New Insight

One of the distinctive parts of Korean culture is that it is nestled between China and Japan. And when either China or Japan is "feeling their oats" they look at the other as a fertile field to conquer. And to get there they have to go through Korea! The result is that Korea gets invaded twice as often as its neighbors, and resisting invasion is always high on the national priority list.

The consistent way to fend off invasion is to appear unified and strong. The result of this is that Koreans have learned to do their political arguing behind closed doors. If they appeal to China or Japan for help in solving an internal issue, they are inviting long-term intervention.

This keeping the dirty laundry covered is why North Korean successions go so smoothly! They are keeping up appearances of being strong and unified. They know, and they are repeatedly taught, that they are surrounded by aggressive foreign powers who are ready, willing and able to bring on Colonization 2 if the Koreans show weakness. In their eyes the South sold out and are already in Colonization 2. They have been running dog lackeys of the American Imperialists since the Japanese left.

So these days the North survives on self-sufficiency and the extortion proceeds it gets from the impressive Saber-Rattling Theater it conducts. This has proved a stable combination from the 1990's through the present.

When will it change?

All leaders, even tyrants, are leading with the consent of the opinion controlling elements of their community. A company president rules with the consent of the board of directors, and elected politician rules with the consent of the voters, a tyrant rules with the consent of the leaders of the ruling faction. North Korea is no exception.

North Korea will change its governing style when the influential people of North Korea decide that this fascist, self-deluding style is no longer serving them and their children well. Predicting when this will happen is clearly difficult. But when they decide that keeping a "pure" culture is not really working, and that saber rattling has become too risky and is not producing enough income, and that they aren't going to get colonized if they start arguing in public, they will change.

And the world will then be in for more surprises from Korea.


Update: Here is some more speculation on my part in the April 2013 Cyreenik Says on the North Korean situation.


--The End--