North and South Korean flags
The North and South Korean flags (Image from The Guardian)

After over two weeks of competition on the ice and in the snow, the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang shall draw to a close today. Innumerable highlights bedazzle these past two weeks, with one in particular receiving a considerable amount of news coverage in the beginning: the unification of North Korean and South Korean athletes into a unified Korean team.

In past Olympics, the two Korean teams marched under the same flag, but the 2018 Winter Olympics marks the first games in which North and South both marched under the same flag and competed in the same team.

The unified flag of Korea (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

I am writing this post not to applaud or criticize this unification, but rather to explore the history behind the disunity.

In the first millennia, Korea faltered under numerous dynasties marked by warfare, rebellions, and uprisings – the usual Asian fare. After power struggles with Mongol invaders in the 13th and 14th centuries, General Yi Songgye, or T’aejo, founded the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), Korea’s longest. Under the Choson Dynasty, Korea strengthened politically, militarily, economically, and culturally. Neo-Confucian ideas influenced the bureaucracy.

In the late 1600s, a belligerent and unified Japan, led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, invaded an unsuspecting, ill-prepared Seoul, followed by the Manchus to the north, leaders of the Qing Dynasty in China. Bitterness toward Japan and the Qing Dynasty brewed for generations in Korea.

Korea maintained a policy of isolationism until international pressure in the late 19th century, as the world globalized and revolutionized. The Kanghwa Treaty (1876) with Japan and Korean-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1882) with the United States, one signed to avoid war and the other to find an ally against Japanese and Russian threats.

Uniforms from the late Choson (Photo from

Worldwide, more nations took a growing interest in Korea. King Gojong held the throne, but his wife Queen Min, backed by Chinese supporters, really pulled the strings of the government. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) between China and Japan ended with the expulsion of Chinese power and the augmentation of Japanese influence. Through the Kabo Reforms (1894-1896), Japan tightened its hold on Korea.

The fall of the Choson Dynasty ultimately came not from domestic conflicts, but the pawn-moving of foreign powers. Fierce rivalry between Russia and Japan erupted into the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) over Manchuria and Korea that ended with the American-negotiated Portsmouth Treaty that recognized Japan’s rights to Korea. To protect the new U.S. territory the Philippines, President Roosevelt signed the Taft-Katsura Agreement that gave Japan free reign in Korea so long as they did not bother the Philippines.

A Korean wedding in about 1900 (Photo from News Dog Media)

In 1910, after brave but futile resistance on the Koreans’ part, the Japanese overthrew the Choson Dynasty.

Japan ruled Korea from 1910 through World War II. They sought to create submissive subjects of the Koreans, and oppressed the people by blocking education, banning study of the Korean language, and lessening their political power. Japan dug its own grave when, in 1941, it attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, bringing the United States into the world war they had until then avoided joining.

The major Allied Power leaders met at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945 to discuss the post-war world. In the resultant treaty, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union 444px-flag_map_of_divided_korea_281945_-_195029agreed to war against Japan, driving them out of Korea. To avoid a complete Soviet occupation of the Korean peninsula, the United States negotiated with Stalin to split the peninsula along the 38th parallel, giving the Soviets temporary control of the northern part; Americans, of the southern part.

The Moscow Conference in December 1945 issued a declaration that established a joint U.S.-Soviet commission of Korea to plan a single-government Korea. Turmoil met this arrangement. Politics in Korea polarized with nationalists in the south and communists in the north. The leaders of these parties were Kim Il Sung, a famous guerrilla fighter, and Dr. Syngman Rhee, a passionate patriot. To appease the Soviets, General Hodge of the U.S. State Department proposed a coalition government, but the Koreans would have none of it.


Finally, the United Nations organized commissions to oversee national elections in Korea. As a result, Dr. Rhee took control of the government in South Korea, calling it the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Kim Il Sung took control of the government in North Korea, calling it the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Soviets and Americans withdrew.

Naturally, both Rhee and Kim Il Sung believed themselves and their governments the rightful rulers of the Korean peninsula. After repeated requests for support from Joseph Stalin, North Korea had the manpower to attack South Korea and, hopefully, unify the country under Kim Il Sung’s rule. Thus began the Korean War (1950-53). While North Korea had the Soviet Union and China at its side, South Korea rallied the United States and other members of the United Nations. Peace negotiations began in the summer of 1951, but the war didn’t end until July 1953.

The three-year-long war that the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers left the main combatants in practically the same territories as before, with the addition of a three-mile-long demilitarization zone (DMZ).

Korea has been divided ever since then.

The demilitarization zone (Photo from
Conner, Mary E. The Koreas: A Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. Print.
Malkasian, Carter. The Korean War 1950-1953. Chicago: Osprey Publishing Limited, 2001. Print.