The history of North Korean tensions

Mt. Hood instructors from the history, and political science departments described the historical factors behind North Korea’s aggressive foreign policy and its push for a nuclear arsenal, during the most recent Historian’s Roundtable event, held Oct. 25.

History instructor Pat Casey started off with a brief history about the tiny peninsula that shares borders with China and a minuscule part of Russia. “Geography always has a role to play in history,” he said. “Korea has spent thousands of years on the edge of China. If you are a smaller society on the edge of a big one, there’s going to be impact.”

Casey said that while there’s proof the Korean civilization goes back thousands of years, the 20th century brought major changes. Japan colonized Korea, against its will. The Japanese went on “an empire-building campaign” to such a point that “the United States is going to see fit to go to war with them” in World War II, he said.

The Japanese treated the Koreans as second-class citizens, and the Koreans rebelled, Casey said. At the time,“You do have freedom fighters – people fighting for Korean independence, but you don’t really have a functioning Korean government in exile or anything like that,” he noted.

After Japan surrendered to the U.S., Korea was liberated. “The game plan was that Korea would be given its independence,” said Casey. The nation originally was supposed to be temporarily divided between the U.S. and Russia. “We were allies with the Russians at the time, and so the theory going in was: The Soviets would temporarily get the northern piece of the country, the Americans the southern piece,” he said. Eventually, there would be a re-integration.

That did not happen, however. And the current, dangerous tensions come as a result.

As WWII died down, the alliance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. drifted toward animosity. “The Americans and the Soviets end up creating separate government(s) in their part(s) of Korea.” Both sides installed leaders that were against the Japanese. The U.S. put Syngman Rhee as head of South Korea (whose main qualification was that he spoke English); the Soviets put Kim Il Sung in charge of North Korea.

“The Soviets were playing a little more of a hardball” game, said Casey. They modeled North Korea’s political system after their own.

What’s more, “Both of these guys (Rhee and Kim Il Sung) are under the impression that they have the means and the capacity to conquer all of Korea” and make it either entirely communist, or non-communist, he said.

The Soviets armed the North Koreans, while the U.S. neglected to offer any serious aid to the South. While the Soviets were reluctant to go with Kim Il Sung’s plan to conquer all of the peninsular, the dictator went forward with his plan, said Casey – kicking off the Korean War.

“The Americans respond, they make a (United Nations-backed) effort,” said Casey. The U.S. rushes in troops from Japan, the South Koreans are beefed up, the UN sends other troops “and that makes for a pretty quick North Korean retreat,” he said.

The U.S. made the mistake of getting too close to the Chinese border, and China responded by sending one million troops to fend the Americans off, Casey noted. All parties involved end up at a stalemate, said Casey. “Because everybody already suffered so many losses, the decision had arrived that it wasn’t worth the effort.”

Six decades after the 1953 cease-fire was called, a simmering “cold” war is still going on because no treaties were signed and no one surrendered, Casey said. As a result, Japan, Americans and others remain under threats made currently by Kim Jong Un, grandson of the original North Korea leader, under the varying influence of a wary China.

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