This sample history essay explores one of Asia’s most significant conflicts and describes the nature of the war between communism and democracy during the Cold War. This paper focuses on the Korean War and the subsequent split of the peninsula into ideologically opposed halves. A document like this is common to history and political science essay assignments.
The Korean War
In the new millennium, one of the flashpoints in the world that worry most people is the belligerence of North Korea. South Korea’s success, as a democratic nation and as an economic powerhouse has placed the confrontation between the two sides of a divided nation in a unique light, as pitting a rational, well-position people, the South Koreans, against a poverty-stricken, isolated and brainwashed population essentially held prisoner by the very young head of a personality cult, the new “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-un, grandson of the founder of the North Korean regime, and son of the recently demised Kim Jong-il. Sixty years after the Korean War, two sides of a conflict could not be more different, yet so close, sharing thousands of years of the same race and culture.
Three examples of the conflict between communism and the Western world present themselves as a complete range of possibilities. Germany was separated after World War II into East and West Germany, the West becoming a thriving and democratic nation, and the East an isolated communist dictatorship within the control of the Soviet Union kept behind a wall, and from information and freedom of movement. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was reunited and has become today one of the world’s most successful democratic countries and economies.
What role does Vietnam play?
Vietnam, separated into the Communist North, and the free South, was the focal point of the Vietnam War between the East and the West, and when the South fell, the whole of Vietnam was plunged into fifty years of darkness under the North Vietnamese communist system, only to be more recently opened to the world, following China’s opening, becoming increasingly less communist and more capitalist, but remaining a dictatorship bereft of most freedoms and rights enjoyed by democratic nations.
After the Korean War, what was the unified nation of Korea before the Japanese colonial period, together for 1,300 years, was separated into North and South Korea, the north a communist enclave eventually kept under the tight control of the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, the hand-picked dictator of Stalin to run what had always been known as the “Hermit Kingdom” up north, and the South, a democratic nation which today has become one of the most powerful economies in the world. The differences in the daily lives of the North and South Koreans today could not be starker.
Three countries, three possible outcomes. Reunited as democracy, reunited as a communist dictatorship, and remaining divided. To understand how Korea got here, we might have to go back and examine the period after World War II, when Korea was divided by the antagonistic super powers, and the Korean War itself, to understand how 25 million North Koreans have been held captive by a single family for over sixty years.
Korea and the aftermath of World War II
From the Seventh Century to the end of the Nineteenth Century, Korea was a unified country, albeit under repeated assault from its neighbors, China, Russia, and Japan, and the subject of adventurism from the West as well, forming alliances and making treaties to protect itself, often with both sides of a conflict. Japan occupied Korea from 1905 as colonial dictator until the end of World War II, and its heavy-handed colonization and occupation, along with Japan’s long history of aggression towards the Korean people, produced enmity by Koreans that persists even today. Although Korea was unified before the end of World War II, two distinct points of view existed, those aligned with the Soviets and communism, and those opposed to the Soviets and any foreign interference.
As World War II was in its final weeks, the Soviets began moving troops down into the north of Korea, and it was at this moment the United States realized what was afoot. According to Oberdorfer, (2001), without any plan for Korea, without any real understanding of the situation inside the country, or even the logistics or political realities inside Korea, the Americans were forced to come up with a proposal for dividing Korea, so as to prevent the Soviets from taking over the entire country. The Americans arbitrarily chose the already existing 38th parallel, the demarcation line chosen by the Japanese forty years earlier, as the dividing point, and so it came to be.
Additional Reading: The Cold War and Containment
For this arbitrary division of a nation physically and culturally unified for 1300 years, and for the tumultuous result of the division, the Americans and Soviets must bear full responsibility. For fifty million South Koreans today, there must be some hesitant appreciation for the fact they were saved by the Americans from the same fate as their North Korean brothers who were rendered by the Soviets and the Chinese communists (Korea had always looked to China as a buffer against the hated aggressive Japanese) into a prison-like compound of a country, bereft of freedom, human rights, even dignity, and today starved and brainwashed with the full assent and protection of Beijing.
The Soviets selected Kim Il Sung as the leader of the North Koreans, and he established a northern nation, ironically called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, though totally bereft of democracy. Kim built himself a cult, and it has persisted today in his descendants, perhaps no different than as though the Kims were emperors with absolute power, only now, with nuclear capabilities. The Americans selected Syngman Rhee, educated in the United States at Harvard and Princeton, and a committed anti-communist. But South Korea did not become a democratic nation until 1987.
The start of the Korean War
With both sides of the divided Korea rabidly committed to reunifying the other side under its own banner, and with Soviet and Chinese support, in 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. While North Korea has persistently portrayed itself as having been the victim of invasion by the aggression of the South Koreans and Americans, documents unearthed in Soviet Union archives after the fall of the Soviet Union have now make it clear that Kim implored Stalin to support the invasion beginning in early 1949, and continuing until early 1950 when he got the green light. The invasion was undertaken at the behest of Kim, and with the full support of Stalin and Beijing.6 Oberdorfer notes that even to this day we do not know why Stalin changed his mind, and there have been several different factors suggested, including the victory of the Chinese communists in 1949, the Soviet’s development of its atomic bomb, the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, or America’s apparent decision to exclude South Korea from its defense considerations.7
As for the precise moment the war started, there has been controversy over this since that day, a question of who fired the first shot.8,9 Nevertheless, on the same day:
“The United Nations Security Council responded to the attack by adopting (by a 9-0 vote) a resolution that condemned the invasion as a ‘breach of the peace.’”10 (“US Enters Korean Conflict”).
Likely based on similar considerations to Stalin’s decision to give the green light to the North’s invasion, and with tremendous pressure back home from those vehemently opposed to the spread of communism, and perhaps eager to prove anti-communist credentials, the United States President turned the nation’s attention from merely worrying about the spread of communism in Europe to concern over Asia to the Korean flashpoint pitting the Soviets and Chinese communists against the U.S.11
In what appears to have been one of the first of America’s underestimations of the ability of indigenous and guerrilla forces to mount a defense in their own country (as with America’s poor decisions in Iraq to some extent), a “police action” was ordered by the U.S. President, Truman, under the auspices of the United Nations, with 15 countries participating. Douglas MacArthur was appointed commander of the U.N. forces, and initially portrayed the conflict as something that could be completed in a few weeks.12
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The consequences of the Korean War
Three years later, the DMZ remained the same, both sides had experienced devastating destruction, and the casualties were enormous. By some estimates, 900,000 Chinese soldiers, 520,000 North Korean soldiers, 280,000 South Korean soldiers, 120,000 U.N. soldiers, and 36,000 American soldiers died in the conflict.13 In addition, 3 million civilians from both sides were estimated to have been killed, with some 5 million left homeless. Unification was not achieved by either side, but neither side gave up control of their respective areas. Soviet expansion was thwarted, but not defeated. The U.S. would lock horns with China in years to come, as Beijing sought to expand its influence throughout Southeast Asia.14 These stressful relations are still present, as seen with the situation with the Cold War.
Very different paths for the North and South
While some have romanticized the Korean conflict as a war by agrarianism (the North) against industrialization and commercialization (the South)15, clearly the outcome for each side speaks for itself (and other attempts to establish agrarian communist states resulted in disaster for the people too, such as in Cambodia some twenty or so years later). Deane has this to say about the North’s motives for invading the South:
“The three-month northern occupation of much of the south was strongly revolutionary and, until chaotic defeat set in, relatively tolerant and forebearing. Along with unification, Pyongyang had two priority tasks in the south – restoration of the people’s committees which the American occupation has eliminated in 1945 and a thorough land reform.”16
Deane does not discuss how fortunate the South Koreans were that the North was eventually repulsed, and forced to return to the north of the 38th parallel. Some sixty years later, the respective well-being of the peoples of the North and South speaks volumes about the North’s ill-conceived and less than altruistic plans. Since the communist threats during the Cold War, the Kim dictatorship in North Korea is viewed as among the worst and most dangerous regimes in the world.17 Human Rights Watch has this to say about North Korea:
“North Korea systematically violates the basic rights of its population. [I]t allows no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, for which it enslaves hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children.”18 (Ibid).
On the other hand, South Korea is viewed as one of the most successful democratic stories of the past 60 years.19 Freedom House has this to say about South Korea:
[After the Korean War], South Korea implemented an export-led industrialization drive that transformed the poor, agrarian country into one of the world’s leading economies…. South Korea is an electoral democracy….Political pluralism is robust, with multiple parties competing for power. Despite the overall health of the political system, bribery, influence peddling, and extortion have not been eradicated from politics, business, and everyday life….The news media are free and competitive.
Newspapers are privately owned and report fairly aggressively on government policies and alleged official and corporate wrongdoing….The government generally respects citizens’ right to privacy. South Korea respects freedom of assembly…. Human rights groups, social welfare organizations, and other NGOs are active and for the most part operate freely….South Korea’s judiciary is generally considered to be independent.”20
Most South Koreans would not wish to become part of the North under virtually any circumstances. Most North Koreans could not decide this issue because the Hermit Kingdom restricts the information that flows inside North Korea, and most of its population is ignorant of the outside world, brainwashed and starving.
Connecting the Korean War with the modern status
The Korean War resulted in the loss of a horrendous number of lives, and destruction of millions of homes, causing over five million people to become refugees. Today, these losses cannot be measured, except to concede that no war should ever be necessary. Nevertheless, people who believe in freedom and human rights, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect them often cannot choose the time and place when evil people with evil plans will choose to fight to impose their will on the defenseless. Tragic and pivotal events like these are one of the reasons that the study of history is so essential and why students are asked to research and write essays about them.
Deane, H. (1999). The Korean War 1945-1953. San Francisco: China Books.
“Historian Debunks Claim that South Started Korean War.” (2006, June 23). The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea – Retrieved March 9, 2013, from http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_
Oberdorfer, D. (1997). The two Koreas: a contemporary history. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
South Korea | Freedom House. (2012). Freedom House. Retrieved March 9, 2013, from http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2012/south-korea
“US Enters the Korean Conflict.” (n.d.). National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved March 9, 2013, from http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/korean-conflict/
World Report 2012: North Korea | Human Rights Watch. (2012). Human Rights Watch | Defending Human Rights Worldwide. Retrieved March 9, 2013, from http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-north-korea