NOTE: An updated version of this timeline can be found here.
The UN Security Council has condemned North Korea and vowed new sanctions against the country after its latest rocket launch. This comes just weeks after the DPRK’s latest nuclear test, in which state media claimed they have developed a hydrogen bomb. But how did the Korean peninsula become dominated by conflict? Here is a timeline of Korean modern history to explain how Korea became divided and why it remains so to this day…
- 1905: Korea had existed as a unified empire since 1392, known as the ‘Kingdom of Joeson’. After the Joeson dynasty left Chinese influence in 1897, the state was renamed to the ‘Korean Empire’ and was an absolute monarchy. However, this was short-lived, as after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Korea became a protectorate under Japan.
- 1907: Korea was stripped of the administration of internal affairs through the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1907.
- 1910: Only five years after becoming a protectorate, Korea was annexed into the Empire of Japan. What followed was the repression of Korean traditions and culture, with the removal of the Joseon dynasty, and the almost complete destruction of their royal palace, the ‘Gyeongbokgung’.
- 1937: During the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Japanese continued to repress Korean culture. The Korean language was banned, worship at Japanese Shinto shrines was made compulsory and Korean cultural artifects were either eradicated or taken to Japan. Koreans were forced to support the war effort, with roughly 200,000 girls and women compelled into sexual services. The issue of ‘comfort women’ during World War II remains a contentious issue between the two Koreas, China and Japan to this day.
- 1943: In the Cairo Conference in November 1943, it was decided that, following its surrender, Japan will be ‘stripped of all the islands in the Pacific that she has seized since 1914’, restore all stolen Chinese territories to the Republic of China, and ‘in due course, Korea shall become free and independent’. Although attended by the UK, US and China, the USSR did not participate in the Conference due to a neutrality pact with the Japanese.
- 1945: The United States drops two nuclear weapons on Japan to force their surrender on the 6th and 9th of August. Also on the 9th, the Soviet Union began to occupy northern Korea, meeting little resistance. Japan surrendered six days later. On September 8th, the Korean peninsula was ‘temporarily’ divided along the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union controlling the northern occupation zone, and the United States the south.
- 1948: Talks between the USSR and the US reach a stalemate and hopes of a unified Korea evaporate as the Cold War begins. Two Korean nations are established; the communist ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ (DPRK, North Korea) and the capitalist ‘Republic of Korea’ (ROK, South Korea). The United Nations recognises the South Korean government as the sole legal government of the Korean peninsula in December.
- 1950-1953: Tensions in Korea result in a war, after North Korea invades the South. Despite UN and later Chinese intervention, the war reaches a stalemate and an armistice is signed in 1953, establishing a ‘Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)’ between the two countries.
- 1954-1990: Skirmishes continued throughout the Cold War between the two Korean nations, with North Korea attempting to assassinate South Korea’s President in 1968, capturing a US spy ship in the same year, and shooting down a US spy plane over the Sea of Japan, killing 31 crew. The 1980s saw South Korea become a democracy after decades of dictatorial rule under Park Chung-hee, and overtake the north in GDP. By the end of the Cold War, North Korea had been placed on the US’ list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
- 1991: Both North and South Korea became members of the United Nations, although both still do not recognise each other as states. In the same year, the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged North Korea into an economic crisis, followed by the death of President Kim il-Sung in 1994. Hopes emerged that the government of North Korea could collapse and lead to Korean reunification, but this did not take place. Conflict between the two continued, with border skirmishes in the Northern Limit Line of the Yellow Sea in 1999 and 2002.
- 2002: In his State of the Union Address, US President George W. Bush describes North Korea as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’, alongside Iran and Iraq.
- 2003-2006: Six-party talks are held with South Korea, North Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan, after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
- 2006: North Korea conducts its first nuclear test on October 9th, leading to international condemnation and the implementation of sanctions. It is estimated that the explosion from a 1 kiloton nuclear device.
- 2006-2009: Six-party talks resume, with North Korea agreeing to shut down its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel aid and steps towards normalising relations with the US and Japan. However, condemnation of a North Korean satellite launch in 2009 saw the DPRK withdraw from talks and restart its nuclear facilities.
- 2009: North Korea conducts a second nuclear test, more powerful than their first, on May 25th. The device was estimated to a be larger 2.35 kiloton nuclear weapon.
- 2010: 2010 saw an escalation in conflict on the peninsula which saw it drawn close to another war. North Korea torpedoed and sunk the South Korean naval vessel, ROKS Cheonan in March. In November, the DPRK shelled a South Korean island in the Battle of Yeongpyeong, killing two South Korean civilians.
- 2011: Kim Jong-il, leader of North Korea dies, and is succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un. Hopes that a thaw in tensions may take place are soon quashed.
- 2013: North Korea conducts its third nuclear test in February. Estimates suggest the explosion was from a 9 kiloton device. This is followed by a series of missile tests in May. North Korea also announces a ‘state of war’ between them and South Korea, saying for the sixth time that it will no longer abide by the terms of the 1953 armistice; having previously said this in 1994, 1996, 2003, 2006 and 2009.
- 2016: North Korea conducts its fourth nuclear test, which state media claim was the successful test of a hydrogen bomb. This is yet to be confirmed by independent experts. The weapon was estimated to be a 7 kiloton device. The test was widely condemned, even by neighbours and allies China, who opposed ‘actions that would make the situation worse’.