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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Korea North vs South

The only Korean I've ever know personally worked at an accounting firm with me and was pleasant and pretty and does not personify my observation that the Koreans are a fractious lot, except that her parents were 7th day Adventists and did not feel that their daughters should succumb to a western lifestyle and certainly should not feel free to choose their own husbands.
My earliest recollection of a radio newscast was about President Eisenhower agreeing to a truce settling the Korean conflict, and I remember the names of Syngman Rhee as leader of South Korea and Kim Il Sung as leader of the communist North Korea.
Later my sketchy knowledge of that episode was fleshed out slightly by fitting the conflict into the cold war strategy of containment defined by American senior diplomat George Kennan, as not fighting the Soviet Union, but opposing efforts to expand their influence.
At the end of WW II the Japanese withdrew from Korea which they had invaded and controlled from early in the 20th century. The Russians moved in and occupied the northern half and the US had moved in and occupied the southern half of the peninsula. Both the great powers installed their clients in positions of power, then withdrew. After Rhee, who had lived in the US for 33 years before returning to Korea after the war, established a South Korean state, rejecting a UN proposed peninsula wide plebiscite, an election Kim Il Sung thought he would have won, the North Koreans invaded the South in June 1950, quickly over running Seoul and pushing the South Korean forces, and a contingent of American troops into a tiny southernmost corner of the country, maybe a hundred square miles around the port city of Pusan. Being reinforced by American forces from Japan, the South Koreans held on to this enclave, while General Doug MacArthur devised and implemented a strategy of an American led invasion at Inchon, a couple hundred miles north, close to the overrun capital of Seoul.

Being counter attacked in the south by a growing United Nations force and threatened with being cut off by MacArthurs invasion force the weakened North Koreans fled back across the nominal border, the 38th parallel. MacArthur pursued them, invading the north and advancing nearly to the Yalu river, the North Korean border with China. In October of 1950 Chinese communist forces entered the conflict pushing the UN forces south and again taking the South Korean capital of Seoul in January 1951. The retreat of the American forces in the frigid winter and inhospitable mountainous terrain was disheartening and a torturous ordeal for the UN (mostly American) forces. The UN forces reorganized defenses south of Seoul and counterattacked, regaining the capital in March of 1951. The war continued for two more years, but combat was localized around the 38th parallel, each side losing thousands of soldiers in attacks on objectives providing tactical advantage, both sides using massive artillery barrages to support their infantry in the costly battles.

A truce was signed in June of 1953, but a peace treaty was never negotiated. leaving the two Koreas in a state of war for the last 57 years. Occasionally the North Koreans undertake some aggressive action, like the shelling of the islands last week.

It would seem the South has prospered during the last half century while the North has not. The South has industrialized and is a successful exporter while the North has imposed a communist style planned economy, struggling at times to feed its people, but investing heavily in its military and developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But political turmoil has continued in the South. Labor unions and students often engage in violent confrontations with the elected governments. Neither side seems really content or secure. Syngman Rhee was forced to resign in 1958, after alienating most of the country with autocratic policies that approached dictatorial government. Kim Il Sung held power until his death in 1994 and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, who is now reportedly ill and preparing to transfer power to his son.

The US and South Korean governments are not sure of how to deal with the North Koreans, mindful of the always present possibility of a million north Korean soldiers streaming across the border. They seem to be relying on the Chinese to exert some stabilizing influence, because the Chinese strategy is to achieve economic power and prefers stability to conflict. Also, in the event of war, the Chinese have to worry about a million North Koreans streaming across their border - not combatants but unwelcome starving refugees.

Why can't we all just get along?

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