Historic Spotlight: A Crash Course on North Korea


UN forces round up North Korean prisoners-of-war. Photo Credit to the Naval Historical Center

Nicholas Silva, Layout Editor

These days talk of North Korea, impending nuclear war, and Kim Jong Un -a.k.a. “Rocket Man”-are commonplace. But the majority of people probably do not recognize the peninsula’s history, or the United States’ involvement in it.

In the country’s early history, it was primarily split up into tribal groups. However, it became unified over time. In the 1870’s, Japan deployed warships to press the largely reclusive country into a trade agreement. This Japanese involvement worried the Chinese, and they stationed troops on the peninsula. Later, China pressed the country into a trade agreement which opened the door to relationships with many other countries, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Following a war between Japan and Korea, a treaty was ratified in 1895 which granted Japan control of the country. Japan maintained this control, which was strengthened in 1905 after a war with Russia in which the peninsula was used for military operations. Japan imposed an increasingly militaristic rule over Korea, and with the outbreak of World War II, tried to obliterate its culture, imposing Japanese names and religion upon them. Soon, thousands of Koreans were drafted to serve in potentially hazardous jobs for the Japanese, such as mining and factory work.

After the Allied victory in WWII the country was split into the two states that exist today, separated by the famous 38th parallel, the demilitarized zone. This division ended the Japanese rule, and during the Cold War communist nations such as the USSR and China backed North Korea and the U.S. the south.

On June 25, 1950, almost 75,000 North Korean soldiers stormed over the 38th parallel, armed with Soviet-provided T-34/85 medium tanks and artillery. They surged past South Korean security and military forces, and soon took the capital of Seoul, before pushing on.

The afternoon of the 25th, the United Nations met in an emergency summit denouncing the attack and calling for an “immediate cessation of hostilities” and the North’s withdrawal. The North didn’t listen, and two days later President Harry S. Truman declared that he was sending naval assets to enforce the resolution and free the South.

In late November, U.N. forces managed to push remaining North Korean forces to the border of China. The Chinese, taking it as a sign of aggression, again positioned troops in the North, and launched a massive invasion force which slaughtered many of the advanced units positioned by the US and allies, and driving U.N. forces back to the 38th parallel.

The war was a bloodbath, with over a million deaths on all sides. It was a stalemate, and the peninsula is still divided, the 38th parallel dipped in eternal tension. The slightest spark could reignite the fires of the sixty-eight year old hostility.