contributor perspectives

Falling Into Old Habits at the 38th Parallel

Ian Morris
Board of Contributors
12 MINS READApr 18, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
South Korean soldiers stand on duty at the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel, the line distinguishing North Korea from South Korea.

South Korean soldiers stand on duty at the Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel. The history of the line separating North Korea from South Korea traces back much further than the Cold War.

(ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
  • After decades of lamenting the Korean Peninsula's division, South Koreans increasingly regard reunification as unnecessary and undesirable.
  • The split between North and South Korea along the 38th parallel, though seemingly arbitrary, follows approximately the same border that divided the peninsula's northern and southern kingdoms in antiquity.
  • The division reflects the reality of contemporary geopolitics, which suggests that if reunification does happen, it will more likely occur under Beijing's wing than under Washington's.

According to legend, a gaggle of junior young men from the U.S. Army and State Department divided Korea, armed with nothing more than a pencil and a wall map from National Geographic magazine. The day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, with Japan's surrender imminent, they got abrupt orders to split the Korean Peninsula into Soviet and American administrative zones until elections could be held for a new national government. For lack of a better idea, they simply drew a line along the 38th parallel.

Elections took place on either side of the line in the summer of 1948, but they produced two separate governments. That August, on the third anniversary of Japan's surrender, Gen. Douglas MacArthur told South Korea's National Assembly that "an artificial barrier has divided your land. This barrier must and shall be torn down." Yet 70 years on, the border has not budged. MacArthur's position officially remains the default assumption; Koreans from North and South alike regularly talk of minjok, their shared kinship. A "Basic Agreement" signed in Pyongyang and Seoul in 1991 defined Korea not as two separate states but as one going through a "special interim." The same year, a joint Korean team competed in the World Table Tennis Championships under a new national flag. The "June 15th North-South Joint Declaration" in 2000 spoke of "the noble will of the entire people who yearn for the peaceful reunification of the nation," and Jeong Se Hyun, South Korea's minister of unification between 2002 and 2006 and the engineer of the "Sunshine Policy" of North-South rapprochement, continues to insist that the "national division was a tragedy."

Today, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is much the same, despite the combined Korean women's hockey team that entered the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics this year under the united Korean flag. The only thing that seems to have changed is that now South Koreans are increasingly concluding that national division is anything but a tragedy. According to polls conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification, the 69 percent of South Koreans who favored reunification in 2014 has shrunk to 58 percent this year, and fully 72 percent of South Koreans in their 20s now feel that reunification is unnecessary.

After the Pyeongchang Games ended, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a call to "write a new history" of the peninsula's unification. I doubt that this column is what he had in mind, but a look at Korea's history over the long term does cast fresh light on its divisions — and seems to suggest that South Koreans know what they are talking about. The North-South divide is not, in fact, an artificial and interim arrangement. Rather, North-South divides have characterized Korea for most of the last 6,000 years. Geopolitics has always answered the questions of whether and where the Korean Peninsula would be divided.

An Early Lead for the North

Most of Korea's history has unfolded in China's shadow. Whenever China was dominant, the peninsula's center of gravity lay in the North, while the South — to varying degrees — formed an underdeveloped periphery. Only during the last six centuries, when Japan's gravitational force often rivaled that of China, was the peninsula pulled southward. The shift tended to erode the North's lead in development over the South between 1400 and 1900. But it wasn't until the mid-1970s that an unprecedented gap began to open between a developed South Korea and a backward North Korea. And in the 21st century, China's rising wealth and power are drawing South Korea back toward it, with profound effects on the peninsula's division. No one knows where matters will stand 20 or 30 years from now. Of one thing we can be certain, though: There is no sense in which either a unified Korea or a peninsula centered South of the Han River is "natural."

Korea's early history was largely about finding ways to deal with what came its way from the bigger, more sophisticated worlds to its north and east. People in China's Yellow and Yangtze river valleys began domesticating rice and millet around 7500 B.C. and were giving up their mobile, foraging lifestyles to reside in permanent, settled villages by 5500 B.C. By contrast, rice didn't reach the Korean periphery until about 4400 B.C., and millet not until 3600 B.C. Even then, Koreans became farmers only slowly. Permanent villages started appearing in the North around 2000 B.C. and spread south of the Han River only after 1500 B.C., possibly thanks to Manchurian immigrants who also imported from China the first metal weapons and tools that Koreans had seen.

The biggest villages and richest graves remained in northern Korea, and Chinese texts tell us that by about 400 B.C., some sort of organized government was forming in the North. This state, Gojoseon — better known by the older transliteration of Chosun — had its capital at what is now Pyongyang. We know little about its archaeology, but it apparently fell to a Chinese kingdom called Yan, based around modern Beijing, only to break away in 195 B.C. under the leadership of a Chinese rebel before the Han Dynasty reconquered it and turned it into a cluster of provinces in 109 B.C. Throughout this back-and-forth, two facts dominate: Northern Korea was consistently richer, more populous and more developed than southern Korea, and it was in every way a Chinese satellite. Burials from Pyongyang, such as the sumptuous Soganni Tomb 212, are stuffed with Chinese silk, lacquer and jewelry that came from as far afield as Sichuan. Southern Korean tombs are not. Korea was as deeply divided 2,000 years ago as it is today. But in antiquity it was the North that was developed and the South that was backward.

Korea's early history was largely about finding ways to deal with what came its way from the bigger, more sophisticated worlds to its north and east.

In and out of China's Sphere of Influence

Northern Korea remained part of the Chinese cultural sphere even after the Han Dynasty fell in A.D. 220, but it managed to free itself from direct Chinese rule. The empire's former Korean provinces reconstituted themselves as the independent kingdom of Goguryeo. From its capital at Pyongyang, Goguryeo took over most of the peninsula and much of Manchuria, too, by the 470s, eventually posing such a threat that China's Sui Dynasty bankrupted itself to launch massive but unsuccessful invasions between 612 and 614. Goguryeo had arrived as a great power in East Asia.

Yet even in the kingdom's moment of glory, geopolitical shifts were overtaking the Pyongyang elite. In Japan, a new kingdom called Yamato unified most of the archipelago and opened itself to China, and southern Koreans grew rich trading with it. Copying the sophisticated ways of northern Korea, they formed their own states and rebelled against Pyongyang's rule. In 676, one of these new states — Silla, with its capital at Gyeongju in the far southeast — overthrew Goguryeo completely.

The South enjoyed a golden age in the eighth and ninth centuries, catching up quickly on the North's lead in development. Then as now, however, geopolitics was a delicate business. If Silla could exploit its central position cleverly, it could hold the balance of power between Japan and China. On the other hand, if it lost control, it might be crushed between these bigger states. This is precisely what happened in the early 10th century, when a breakaway northern state called Goryeo — from which the modern name "Korea" comes — allied itself with Japan. Sandwiched between two rivals, Silla abruptly collapsed.

Goryeo built a capital at Gaegyeong (traditionally transliterated as Kaesong), almost exactly halfway up Korea's west coast, just north of the modern Demilitarized Zone. The location was a good choice: Silla's success had left the peninsula more united and integrated than ever before, and a centrally located capital now made more sense than one at Pyongyang. Goryeo flourished after 1100, becoming famous for its lacquer and celadon pottery. Choe Yun Ui built the world's first printing press with movable type there, 200 years before Gutenberg's press in Europe, and Korean scientists carried out precocious experiments with gunpowder weapons.

But despite these triumphs, Goryeo's rulers had little more joy than Silla's leaders did at balancing China and Japan. Sometimes China was the scarier neighbor, and in 1271, Goryeo's Prince Wonjong formally submitted to Kublai Khan, the Mongol warlord who had become China's emperor. For the next 80 years, Korea once again paid tribute to the Chinese Empire, as it had done under the Han Dynasty more than a millennium earlier. This time, though, when the empire fell apart in the 1350s, Goryeo broke free — only to find itself immediately exposed to devastating raids from Japanese pirates. Gunpowder weapons eventually gave Korean fleets the edge, but Japan was beginning to matter more than China. When a coup overthrew Goryeo's King U in 1392, the new Joseon Dynasty recognized this reality by moving its capital south to Hanyang (modern-day Seoul), closer to where the action was.

Over the next 400 years, a unified Korean state ruled from Seoul worked out how to play China and Japan off each other. At the same time, a sense of Korean identity grew on the peninsula. Korean bureaucrats even abandoned the Chinese script in 1446 in favor of the native hangul alphabet. But the delicate balance broke down in 1592. Japan's chancellor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, invaded Korea after uniting the Japanese archipelago, as a prelude to conquering China itself. Korea hung on only by renewing its tributary relationship with China.

When Hideyoshi died in 1598, his successors abandoned his aggressive policies, and as the 17th century wore on all three Northeast Asian powers accepted a regional equilibrium in which none tried to resolve its problems through violence. Each promoted internal unity and increasingly closed its borders. Korea probably was more unified and peaceful in the 18th century than ever before.

Shifting the Balance

How long this equilibrium could have lasted in the absence of external shocks is anyone's guess. As it was, however, the biggest geostrategic upheaval of all — the intrusion of the West — blew it apart in the 19th century. Though the three Northeast Asian countries each took measures to keep Western merchants and missionaries off their territory — Korea went furthest of all, earning the nickname "Hermit Kingdom" — Westerners turned to force in the mid-19th century. In 1840, Britain shot its way into China, and the United States opened Japan 14 years later by threatening to do the same. Korea held out the longest, sinking an American gunboat at Pyongyang and killing its crew in 1866. But the same year, a French force raided Ganghwa Island to punish Korea for massacring Christians. Recognizing the strategic importance of the island, which controlled access up the Han River to Seoul, Americans assaulted it again in 1871, killing hundreds of defenders for the loss of just three attackers. Japan, meanwhile, launched its own attack on Ganghwa in 1876, having responded to the arrival of U.S. forces with a crash modernization program. Unable to resist, Korea opened its ports to Japanese trade and admitted Americans too in 1882.

The biggest geostrategic upheaval of all — the intrusion of the West — blew Korea's equilibrium apart in the 19th century.

China made a last big push to keep Korea in its orbit in the 1880s, but Japan had already shifted the geostrategic balance too far. In 1894-95, Tokyo's modernized fleets and armies smashed those of Beijing, which had merely grafted a few Western steamboats and cannons onto their antiquated organizations. The resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki formally ended Korea's status as a vassal of Beijing. When Russia tried to step into China's shoes, Japan defeated it, too, in 1905. Japan turned Korea into a protectorate and then annexed it outright in 1910, submerging it into a colonial empire that grew to include Manchuria in 1931 and much of coastal China after 1937.

In the 1930s, Northeast Asia looked rather like what Hideyoshi had hoped for in the 1590s, with its center of gravity in Tokyo. Not even Japan's total defeat in 1945 entirely erased the pattern, thanks to Washington's eagerness to rebuild Japan as a bulwark against Soviet communism.

An Indelible Line

Dividing Korea along the 38th parallel ended a millennium of unity but was in a sense just the latest version of the geostrategic balance that emerged as early as 1400. Korea once again was caught between China and the rising force of Japan. The growing involvement of Russia and the United States since the late 19th century enlarged the stage on which Korea's story played out but did not change the fundamental fact that the peninsula's fate depends on the balance between the continental powers to its northeast and the maritime ones to its southwest. A division at the 38th parallel made a lot of sense during the Cold War, and North Korean leaders were right to worry after their Soviet patron's collapse in 1991 that the peninsula might be reunited on American terms. Had it not been for China's resurgence in the 1990s, that might very well have happened.

Looking at the long term suggests that the 20-something South Koreans who see no need for unification are right: The division of Korea — in roughly the same place as the North-South boundary in antiquity — reflects the reality of contemporary geopolitics. And that same reality suggests that if reunification does happen, it is more likely to be under Beijing's wing than under Washington's.

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