History of Korea Essay

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North/South Korea + Korean-Americans

The Two Koreas:

South Korea is known today as one of the rising economic giants of the industrialized world. The nation is a respected U.S. ally, and a center for fashion and technology, not to mention other industries. While South Korea's "star" is on a constant rise, its neighbor, North Korea, continues to live in a tightly closed society, with restrictive and degrading practices, whereby its citizens are almost like robots, not allowed to think for themselves, to eat properly, or to explore their world. The different between the two countries is stark, and in order to even begin to understand South Korea's ability to progress so much, one must analyze its history. However, for the purposes of this paper, three main questions will be analyzed in order to begin to understand the two countries in an initial phase:

South Korea's path of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s will be described,

North Korea's policies in the 1990s will also be described, and,

3. Lastly, the paper will describe the Korean diaspora with a focus on America.

South Korea Democratization in the 1990s

Korea was "supposed to be" a mix of "cheap and disciplined labor, talented technocrats," high GNP, equal distribution of wealth, and citizens who "never said Yankee, go home," according to Bruce Cummings who writes about the phenomenon in his book Korea's Place in the Sun, upon which the following paragraphs are based. However, according to Cummings, this model did not quite work out. Until 1992, every single Korean republic, in the South, was ended by either a coup or a massive uprising. In order to illustrate this, the author has separated the period from the 1960's to 1992 in two segments:

The first period is from 1961-1979, ruled by Park Chung Hee, and known as the Third Republic. This period ended due to a coup that eventually resulted in Park's murder "at the hands of his own intelligence chief," according to the author.

The second period is from 1980-1987, under Chun Doo Hwan, and this was the next longest period in Korean history. It began and ended with popular rebellions, "that shook the foundations of the system," according to Cummings.

In the late 1980's, however, things began to change, which will lead to a more stable period, beginning in 1992 under Kim Young Sam. However, before this could happen, the leader of the Fifth Republic, mentioned above, had a few loose ends to tie up. Despite the "nationwide distance for Chun's" government, states Cummings, "in 1987 he determined to handpick his successor and continue to hold power behind the scenes." The tight control the government maintained over society was evident in every way, and is reminiscent through that of North Korea today.

According to Cummings, the Chun regime entered a crisis that would eventually lead towards a democracy, and this was much the same way that it happened in the rest of the world (i.e. Latin America or Eastern Europe). For example, there is a resurgence of political parties that had heretofore been stifled, or there is a more urgent press for democratization and revolution. Furthermore, the sudden appearance of books and magazines, "long suppressed by censorship," is another way in which the revolution began to happen, according to the author. Then, there was a conversion of "older institutions, such as trade unions, professional association and universities" from agents controlled by the government into instruments for expression of ideas that went against the regime. And lastly, there was the emergence of grass roots organizations arguing for freedoms repressed by the authoritarian rule that had previously governed the country.

Cummings notes that the tipping point for all the growing frustration was the torturing and killing of a student who was a dissident, in 1987. Coupled with the phenomena sparked above, this event, and its eventual cover-up sparked a nationwide demonstrations pro-human rights. It was then that "a mass movement for democracy, embracing students, workers, and many in the middle class, finally brought a democratic breakthrough in Korea," according to the author.

The period that followed was a bit unstable, but saw increase in union membership, and a vast improvement in living and working conditions for most of the South Korean population. When the 1992 elections did happen, the military was retired, and the new President brought former dissidents back and placed them in his new cabinet. Finally, South Korea saw its emergence as a new, democratic nation that would prosper in a booming era for humankind. As aforementioned, the South Korea of today is prospering, and is a respected, even enviable travel destination. Despite some media portrayals, the country remains open to Americans, and Westerners in general; in fact, as recently as 2002, the country has called upon America to support North-South reconciliation, and move military bases outside of Seoul.

North Korea Policies in the 1990s

North Korea though somewhat similar to its southern counterpart in its autocratic tendencies is certainly quite different when compared to South Korea today. Cummings calls the territory, formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (though this reference is ironic given the current circumstances in the nation), "a singular and puzzling nation that resists easy description […] Because its leadership is secretive and unyielding to foreign attentions, many basic facts about the country are unknown." In fact, if one were to watch the National Geographic documentary on the country, one would be quite puzzled at what he or she would see.

Perhaps the most astonishing elements of how the country operates are that even its most basic human interaction is closely monitored to the point where one does not know where reality actually begins. It seems that the country is under a spell of a fantasy like world where backwardness and ignorance, cult of personality and pure and sadistic lies all mix into a hodge-podge of utter confusion that helps nobody.

Kim Il-sung was the nation's first leader, and is still considered its Eternal Leader; however, power rests in his son's autocratic hands: Kim Jong Il, who took the seat when his father died in 1994. Kim had long before been trained to take the hereditary "throne," with an appointment in 1980 by his father at the highest office, presiding over the Politburo, the Secretariat of the Central Committee, and the Military Commission, according to Cummings. When Kim Il-sung died, there was such an outpour of grief that the West found it incomprehensible that millions of people would be so incredibly hysteric (tearing their hair out and beating the ground), for such a renegade dictator, states Cummings to further cement this point.

Today, Korea is still as incomprehensible. Since the death of the Eternal Leader, the North "has faced one terrible crisis after another," adds Cummings. These events include two years of floods, a collapse of its energy system, a summer drought, and a famine that claimed the lives of more than half a million people. Cummings continues, "this is a textbook example of the calamities that are supposed to mark the end of the Confucian dynastic cycle, and North Korean citizens must wonder how much more suffering they will endure before the economy returns to anything like the relatively stable situations […] observed in the 1980s."

Sadly, nothing has changed or is changing in North Korea, at least not under Kim Jong Il's reign. The situation is so dire, that nobody even known the true population of the country, how many have died of famine and other calamities, or how people are truly treated behind the scenes, especially in work camps (which are reserved for dissidents and those trying to escape the country). Cummings can only add, "predictions based on the idea that this regime draws deeply from the well of Korean tradition and anticolonial nationalism, and will therefore have staying power in the post-Cold War world, have so far been correct."

One can only hope that things may change, even if only a little, with the current leader's death and his imminent succession by his son, who is already being groomed for the position. Given North Korea's rise to fame, especially through its nuclear program, it is not only necessary, but imperative, that the country is transparent; which it in no case is today, and it will not be so under Kim Jong Il, who has, as seen above, shown what he is capable of; thus, one can only hope that the next leader will change something.

The Korean Diaspora: America's Koreans

The section begins with a quote that, in my opinion, can characterize many of the facts that follow it. This quote, given by Elaine Kim states,

"Korean-Americans know themselves to be individuals with roots and context, people with rich and complex histories, thoughts, feelings, and flamboyant dreams. But most American see us primarily through the lens of race; they see us all alike and caring only about ourselves."

This quotes, Cummings continues, symbolizes the tension felt by Koreans between identity and perception. The…[continue]

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