Korea is a peninsula east of China. It became part of the Chinese Empire in 1637 and did not receive its independence until 1895 (Treaty of Shimonoseli).
In the early 20th century Russia and Japan both tried to gain control of Korea. This resulted in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). On 8th February, 1904, the Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur.
The Russian Navy fought two major battles to try and relieve Port Arthur. At both Liao-Yang and Sha Ho, the Russians were defeated and were forced to withdraw. On 2nd January, 1905, the Japanese finally captured Port Arthur. The Russian Army also suffered 90,000 causalities in its failed attempt to Mukden (February, 1905).
In May, 1905, the Russian Navy was attacked at Tsushima. Twenty Russian ships were sunk and another five were captured. Only four Russian ships managed to reach safety at Vladivostok.
These defeats led to criticism of the Russian government. Bloody Sunday and the Potemkin Mutiny were both partly caused by the unpopularity of the war. The increase in revolutionary activity in Russia convinced Nicholas II that he needed to bring an end to the conflict and accepted the offer of President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate between the two countries.
Sergi Witte led the Russian delegation at the peace conference held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in August, 1905. Under the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth: (i) The Liaotung Peninsula and the South Manchurian Railway went to Japan; (ii) Russia recognized Korea as a Japanese sphere of influence; (iii) The island of Sakhalin was divided into two; (iv) The Northern Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway remained under Russian control.
In November 1905 Japan took control of Korea and began settling Japanese families in the country. By 1932 Kim Il-Sung had become leader of a guerrilla group based in Korea. Over the next ten years he launched a series of attacks against the Japanese. During the Second World War the Japanese Army arrived in Korea in large numbers and Kim was forced to go and live in the Soviet Union.
The Yalta Conference in 1945 agreed that Soviet and American troops would occupy Korea after the war.The country was divided at the 38th parallel and in 1948 the Soviet Union set up a People's Democratic Republic in North Korea. At the same time the United States helped establish the Republic of South Korea.
After the war Syngman Rhee emerged as the main right-wing politician in South Korea and in 1947 he received the unofficial support of the United States government. In 1948 Rhee became the first president of South Korea. He soon developed a reputation for authoritarian rule and his political opponents were quickly silenced.
In June 1949 the United States Army began to withdraw from South Korea. Statements made by General Douglas MacArthur and Dean Acheson suggested that the United States did not see the area as being of prime importance. Acheson argued that if South Korea was attacked: "The initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations."
Kim Il-Sung, the communist dictator of North Korea, became convinced that the people in the south would welcome being ruled by his government. At dawn on 25th June 1950, the North Koreans launched a surprise attack on South Korea. Three days later, communist forces captured the South Korean capital, Seoul.
The Security Council of the United Nations recommended that troops should be sent to defend South Korea. As the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council at the time, it was unable to veto this decision. Fifteen nations sent troops to Korea, where they were organized under the command of Douglas MacArthur.
The surprise character of the attack enabled the North Koreans to occupy all the South, except for the area around the port of Pusan. On 15th September, 1950, Douglas MacArthur landed American and South Korean marines at Inchon, 200 miles behind the North Korean lines. The following day he launched a counter-attack on the North Koreans. When they retreated, MacArthur's forces carried the war northwards, reaching the Yalu River, the frontier between Korea and China on 24th October, 1950.
Harry S. Truman and Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, told MacArthur to limit the war to Korea. MacArthur disagreed, favoring an attack on Chinese forces. Unwilling to accept the views of Truman and Acheson, MacArthur began to make inflammatory statements indicating his disagreements with the United States government.
MacArthur gained support from right-wing members of the Senate such as Joe McCarthy who led the attack on Truman's administration: "With half a million Communists in Korea killing American men, Acheson says, 'Now let's be calm, let's do nothing'. It is like advising a man whose family is being killed not to take hasty action for fear he might alienate the affection of the murders."
In April 1951, Harry S. Truman removed MacArthur from his command of the United Nations forces in Korea. McCarthy now called for Truman to be impeached and suggested that the president was drunk when he made the decision to fire MacArthur: "Truman is surrounded by the Jessups, the Achesons, the old Hiss crowd. Most of the tragic things are done at 1.30 and 2 o'clock in the morning when they've had time to get the President cheerful."
While this conflict was taking place in the United States, the Chinese government sent 180,000 men to North Korea. This back-up enabled North Korean forces to take Seoul for a second time in January 1951. U.N. troops eventually managed to halt the invasion sixty miles south of the 38th parallel. A counter-offensive at the end of January gradually recovered lost ground.
Once in control of South Korea, representatives of the United Nations began peace talks with the North Korean government on 8th July 1951. An armistice agreement, maintaining the divided Korea, was signed at Panmunjom on 27th July 1953. Over 25,600 American troops were killed during the war and other U.N. contingents lost 17,000 men. It is estimated that including civilians, the Korean War cost the lives of around 4 million people.
After the war Kim Il-Sung established an authoritarian dictatorship. To reinforce his rule he succeeded in constructing a cult of personality with himself as the main icon for adoration. North Korea was also a major arms supplier to Libya, Iran and Syria.
Syngman Rhee remained in power in South Korea. Over the years his regime was seen as authoritarian, corrupt and inefficient. He was re-elected in 1956 and 1960 by large majorities. However, few believed the elections had been fair and gave rise to widespread anti-government demonstrations. A student uprising toppled Rhee's government in April 1960.
The following year a military coup brought to power Major-General Pak Cheng-hi, who became president on 22nd March 1962. He subsequently won elections in 1963, 1967, 1971 and 1972. In July 1972 representatives from the governments of both South and North Korea pledged themselves to seek unification of the peninsula by peaceful means.
The United States became increasingly concerned about the possibility that North Korea was trying to develop an atom bomb. In June 1994 President Jimmy Carter persuaded Kim IL Sung to freeze his nuclear development programme in exchange for an ease in international sanctions.