668 A.D: Ancient Korea
People have been living on the Korean peninsula since prehistoric times, slowly developing their own distinct culture and civilization. The Korean people were first united by the Silla Dynasty in 668 A.D. Since then, Korea has had to contend with the expansionist ambitions of its neighbors.
1910: Japan Colonizes Korea
In 1910, the Chosun Dynasty ended with Japan’s annexation and colonization of Korea. Koreans remember the Japanese colonial rule as a brutal experience. Resistance groups formed in Korea and China, mostly adopting leftist politics in reaction to the right-wing Japanese administration. Memories of the Japanese Imperial Administration’s oppression continue to haunt relations between the people of both Koreas and Japan today. Korea also began to modernize during this period, and the city of Pyongyang in particular became a vibrant center for Christianity and western culture.
1945: The Division of the Korean People
Following Japan’s defeat in 1945 the Soviet Union and United States agreed to split the post-war control of the Korean peninsula between themselves. On August 10, 1945 two young U.S. military officers drew up a line demarcating the U.S. and Soviet occupation zones at the 38th parallel. The divide should have been temporary, a mere footnote in Korea’s long history, but the emergence of the Cold War made this a seminal event. Seeking to ensure the maintenance of their respective influences in Korea, the U.S. and USSR installed leaders sympathetic to their own cause, while mistrust on both sides prevented cooperation on elections that were supposed to choose a leader for the entire peninsula. The United States handed control over the southern half of the peninsula to Syngman Rhee, while the Soviet Union gave Kim Il-sung power over the north. In 1948, both sides claimed to be the legitimate government and representative of the entire Korean people.
August 15, 1948
Syngman Rhee declares the formation of the Republic of Korea in Seoul, claiming jurisdiction over all of Korea..
September 8, 1948
Kim Il-sung declares the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Pyongyang, also claiming jurisdiction over all of Korea.
1950: The Korean War Begins June 25, 1950
In 1950, Kim Il-sung attempted to unify Korea under his rule through military force, starting the Korean War. By far the most destructive and divisive event in Korean history, the war altered the life of almost every Korean person. Some historians claim that the U.S. military dropped more napalm on urban centers in Korea than Vietnam. The bombing campaigns reduced Pyongyang to rubble, and North Korea’s population was reduced by 10%.
June 27, 1953
Both sides eventually signed the armistice ending major hostilities in 1953. The DMZ (demilitarized zone) was established at almost the same position as the border before war broke out, separating millions of families caught on opposite sides of the border.
1953-1970s: Building a Stalinist State
From 1953 to the 1970s North Korea was considered by some outside observers to be a successful state. During this period, many North Koreans were actually better off than their southern brethren.
Kim Il-sung remodeled North Korean society along the lines of Juche—North Korea’s radically nationalistic ideology promoting Korean autonomy. The state-seized control of all private property and organizations. Officially, everything in the country, from businesses to the clothes on one’s back, belonged to the North Korean state. The regime rebuilt Pyongyang as a socialist capital and erected numerous monuments to Kim Il-sung, part of nationwide efforts to build a cult of personality to secure obedience by the people. The state took control of all media and restricted international travel. Kim Il-sung also worked constantly to centralize power under the Workers’ Party of Korea under his rule, and implemented a perpetual purge to rid the country of potential internal opponents to his rule.