Last Tuesday marked the 72nd anniversary of the end of the Pacific. That same day, August 15, 1945, has been celebrated ever since by both South Korea and North Korea as Liberation Day. The two Koreas, however, have long been divided. Can they ever be united again?
The Liberation of Korea
The Korean Peninsula was basically under Japanese rule from 1905 until the end of the Pacific War. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) was fought between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. One spinoff of Japan’s victory in that war was the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, which made Korea a protectorate of Imperial Japan.
Then with the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea and the latter was completely under Japan’s control until August 1945. With Japan’s defeat, Korea was finally freed from Japanese rule.
It is not surprising that August 15 is celebrated as Liberation Day in what soon became two Koreas.
The Division of Korea
Provisional military governments were set up in Korea after the peninsula’s liberation from Japan. Korea north of the 38th parallel fell under Russian control, the U.S. had command of Korea south of that line of demarcation.
Since no agreement could be reached on establishing a unified government, two nations emerged. After the May 1948 elections in the south, on August 15 the Republic of Korea formally took over power from the U.S. military, with Syngman Rhee as the first president.
In September 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the north. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current “supreme leader” of North Korea, became premier.
The Reunification of Korea?
Kim Il-sung began the Korean War in 1950 in an attempt to reunify the entire peninsula—and we know how that turned out. An armistice was signed in July 1953 but no peace treaty was ever signed—so the two Koreas are technically still at war.
Among Koreans, perhaps especially among Korean Christians, there has long been a dream for the reunification of the two countries. This past Sunday (Aug. 13) the World Council of Churches was joined by the World Evangelical Alliance in a “Sunday of Prayer for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
Fervent prayers for reunification were very prevalent twenty years ago. I remember being in Korea in 1997, at a time when there were strong prayers for, and the hope of, reunification in the “Jubilee Year,” the fiftieth year after the division of 1948.
Sadly, such unification seems less likely now than it did twenty years ago.
Kim Jong-un would doubtlessly agree to unification if he were allowed to be the head of the unified country. But there is no way South Korea would accept Kim’s remaining in power over all of Korea.
Similarly, there is no way Kim would give up power in order for there to be a unified Korea.
So, no, it doesn’t seem that the unification of Korea is possible short of a regime change in North Korea—but more than anything else the fear of such an attempt is fueling Kim’s frantic attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
Kim’s fear of being attacked is likely far greater than most fears in this country of being attacked by North Korea.
The U.S. strategy toward North Korea should focus on containment, on negotiation, as well on financial and technical aid for producing more food and services for the North Korean people—anything but “fire and fury.”