The Ruins of Korea

As someone who is interested in Korean culture from its rich history of dynasties, traditional clothing, and music to the more modern culture in the form of technology, and the entertainment industry. (While I am not too fond of the food albeit this may be due to my own history of being a picky eater.) I wanted to connect what I have learned so far in Humanities Core to my interest in Korea. So I began to wonder how a country with a deep history of war between neighboring countries such as China and being colonized by the Japanese in 1910, and being destroyed at the start of the cold war, became the thriving country that it is today. I have many questions about how a nation so decimated, and with such lost could ever rebuild into what it is today. South Korea did not only rebuild but over time they surpassed the country that they used to be and became a more powerful nation.

I deem that a brief history of Korea is necessary. Korea was a ruin left behind by the Japanese empire after it was defeated in World War 2. “Japan annexed and then colonized Korea in 1910” (Han, 2015)

Groundbreaking ceremony of Gyeongbu Line at Busan, 1901
Opening of railway from Seoul to Busan

This led to the brutal colonization of Korea by the Japanese, in 1930 and early 1940’s women were taken as sex slaves and men forced into labor. The Japanese then forced their own culture onto the Korean peninsula, forcing Koreans to take Japanese names, worship at Japanese styled temples and more. (Tudor, 2012) After Japan’s rule and eventual defeat by the United States, Korea was torn apart by war, North against South, Democracy against Communism, West against East, the United States against the Soviet Union. Korea was a ruin left by empires but was able to have a swift economic development in less than half a century. (Han, 2015)

A woman and child wander among debris in Pyongyang, North Korea, after an air raid by U.S. planes, circa 1950. The war began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean People's Army crossed the 38th parallel and easily overwhelmed South Korean forces in a surprise attack.
A woman and child wander among debris in Pyongyang, North Korea after air raids by U.S.

What sets South Korea apart from other countries destroyed by war that made it possible for the nation to be able to bounce back from its ruins and into a state that is worthy on the playing fields of other world powers?

Could this bounce back be the cause of pity for a destroyed nation? Orientalism? The United States fight for democracy over communism? Or the will of the South Korean people? While I am very sure that any South Korean person will assure you and I that it was the will of the South Korean people that brought them to where they are today; but it would be nice to explore all options.

Is it possible that the United States (the occident) felt the need to assist South Korea during the Korean war was mainly based on keeping communism out of the whole of Korea, the southern part of Korea? Or was this intervention a way to have control over a part of the Orient. Could there be underlying reasons like how the occident views and perceives the orient? “Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the orient.” (Said, pg 3) The United States intervened, fought in and showed dominance in the Korean War.

The 1st Cavalry in Korea, July 1950.
24th “Victory” Division

This can be connected to how it shows an imbalance of power between the orient and the occident. The occident has the mindset that they need to intervene and show the orient the “way” which at the time was democracy. In the western world democracy is deemed right and communism as evil, or even seen as barbaric, evil and backward while democracy is forward and modern. South Korea was seen as a county, an orient country that needed guidance or else it would fall into the grasp of the communist like the North did.

While this is only a small bit of what can be explored, there is so much more to explore in the case of South Korea and it’s rise to success in economic development, technological advances, and military power. It is a shame to end this here but hopefully, I am able to connect and explore empire and its ruins in not only Korea but other East Asian countries as well.

Sources Used:

Jong-Woo, Han. “Introduction.” In Power, Place, and State-Society Relations in Korea: Neo-Confucian and Geomantic Reconstruction of Developmental State and Democratization. Lexington Books, 2015. Kindle edition.

Said, Edward. “Introduction.” In Orientalism. Pantheon, 1978.

Tudor, Daniel. Korea: The Impossible Country. Boston: Tuttle Pub, 2012.

Images Used:

Mydans, Carl. “First U.S. infantry outfit to shed blood in the Korean war was the 24th “Victory” Division.” LIFE. 1950. LIFE Picture Collection.

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