This conflict has roots that go back a century when Japan occupied the Korean Empire and used it as an industrialized colony. The Japanese tried to follow a policy of cultural assimilation by banning the use of the Korean language, literature and culture and replacing it with Japanese. Koreans were even required to use Japanese names, and by 1938 forced labor conscription also began which ultimately led to conscription in the Japanese Imperial army.
During World War II, Korea was stripped of its food, livestock and metal resources to fuel the war and around 25 percent of those who died in the atomic bomb attacks were Koreans. At the Cairo conference, China, USA and the UK decided that they would free Korea in due course after Japan was defeated but politics as usual got the better of that decision. In order to get the Soviet Union on its side, the US offered a large slice of the northern Korean peninsula to them if they waged war against Japan. As per the agreement, in August 1945 the Soviet Union took over the area leading up to the division point, which was called the 38th parallel. This decision to divide the Korean peninsula into Soviet and American areas of influence was made in thirty minutes by two American colonels, and that decision haunts the two divided nations to this day.
The Potsdam conference saw the Allied forces dividing the Korean peninsula into two without Korean consultation. This was totally in contradiction to the Cairo conference but that is how imperialist forces function. Koreans had no say in the functioning of their country and the division of its resources, which caused widespread violent protests and struggles in which thousands lost their lives. The Koreans had just gotten rid of a foreign occupier, only to be divided and ruled by more foreign forces.
The northern part of Korea, controlled by the Soviets, developed strong communist ideologies under the leadership of Kim II-sung and aligned itself closely with communist China. In anti-communist South Korea, the American-educated and backed Syngman Rhee took power. The short attention and foreign policy span of the US resulted in a withdrawal of forces from the territory in 1949 leaving the South with an ill-equipped army, an aggressive neighbor and squandered resources. It is not surprising then that less than a year after the withdrawal North Korea invaded the south in an attempt to fulfill its nationalist agenda of reuniting the Korean peninsula.
What followed is the same as what happens in any war. Thousands of soldiers and civilians died, the US got involved in support of South Korea, China entered the conflict on the opposing side and the UN tried unsuccessfully to control the situation. The fighting ended at the 38th parallel and the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land 248x4 km, now divides the two countries. Even so, skirmishes, incursions, and incidents between the combatants have continued since the Armistice was signed.
The Korean Peninsula got caught up in the first proxy war of the Cold War. It was a pawn in the larger political landscape at that time with imperialist countries vying for supremacy and using ideologies such as Communism to either further themselves or demonize the other. In post-war years the South has developed into a modern free market economy with a much higher GDP and per capital income than the North. Much of nuclear-armed North Korea remains undeveloped with economic disruptions, sanctions and political repressions being its mainstay.
In the spring of this year a South Korean warship sank for which the North is blamed. The North is threatening a “merciless blow” in response to the war games taking place between the US and South Korea. Each move on the part of the other is deemed as suspicious and there seems no end to this warmongering.
It is a tragedy for the people of these nations. They stand divided in an area that is entirely theirs but they cannot access half of it. Families are divided on both sides of the man-made border, and people still live in fear of invasion or counterterrorism tactics. Many people are still persecuted by being conveniently labeled as a sympathizer of the North or vice versa. They share the same language and aspirations, and their traditional culture regarded as one of the oldest in the world, is shared by both states. They dance the same way, to the same music, love their art and tea, dress similarly and have the same beliefs but they are forced to develop a nationalist identity that is intrinsically North or South Korean. Such an identity is constructed. You cannot separate people from their soil just on the basis of ideology. Communist or anti-communist, the Korean peninsula belongs to all people residing in the area. Had it not been for imperialist agendas and foreign influences, we would be talking just of Korea right now.