Asia is a continent of contradictions; yin and yang often coexists in close proximity. Though it possesses some of the world’s oldest cultures, it also has peoples who have only recently achieved their own national and cultural identity. Information Age mingles uneasily with Iron Age in some places you can look out the door of an Internet café and watch farmers tilling a field with oxen as their ancestors did a thousand years ago.
After decades of domination by Japan, World War II left the Korean peninsula split between US and Soviet Union protectorates, divided at the legendary 38th parallel of latitude. Though these administrations were meant to be temporary, complications arose: a pro capitalism government grew in the US-controlled south while the Soviet-dominated northern half of the country instituted a communist society.
Neither regime achieved widespread popularity; most native Koreans regarded both as puppet governments established to promote foreign ideologies. Eventually, Korea agreed to determine its ruling party by public election-a deal that heavily favored the capitalist south, which had twice the population of the north. The Soviet-influenced northern bloc boycotted the elections, and the deadlock dragged on.
By late 1949, the capitalist government in the south was gaining enormous strength; the north turned to the Soviet Union for military intervention, but Stalin did not wish to provoke war against the United States. But in early January, the US Secretary of State made a telling public statement, implying the US did not consider Korea a defensive priority.
Two and a half weeks later, the Soviet Union promised to assist in reunifying the peninsula and began arming the north with guns, aircraft, and tanks. In June, 1950, North Korea marched on South Korea. Soon the Soviet Union and China had openly sided with North Korea, and the US and United Nations sided with South Korea; though the zones of control oscillated wildly, neither side seemed able to maintain an advantage for long: a ceasefire in 1953 ended major hostilities after just over three years, establishing a demilitarized zone closely resembling the original borderland at 38 degrees north.
Today, three generations have lived and died under a perpetual, if largely unfought, war. North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a nuclear-armed nation with the largest per-capita military in the world. The southern Republic of Korea practices universal conscription among males and is regarded as having some of the best military discipline in the world. Both the ROK and the DPRK have engaged in peace talks twice in the last decade, but each side accuses the other of dealing in poor faith and catering to foreign pressures; with North Korean resources growing scarce and South Korea’s allies committed elsewhere, the war may heat up again.