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From Separation to Unity: Effect of the Cold War on South Korea

Info: 4254 words (17 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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 When introduced to the word “war,” we immediately think of the conflict, violence, and death that stems from the disagreement formed between two groups.  Countries fight for their own ideals and enter into war with each other, usually leading to a conclusion with little to no profit in exchange for the loss of thousands, or even millions of lives. However, not all wars result in only death and ruin. The Cold War, which was the result of a conflict between two powerful countries, the Soviet Union and the United States, shows a perfect embodiment of a destructive war that also led to profit and unification. Although the Cold War and the events leading to the war have led to the separation and loss of numerous family members in both Korea and Japan, the war has also led to new relationships, economic and cultural, being formed. Therefore, the Cold War can be described as unifying, in addition to being called the war that split the world into two sides: communism and democracy.

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 My grandmother, Baek So Nam (백소남), was born on February 23, 1938 in Pusan, Korea. Born as the only child in her family, she was deeply loved by the family members around her. Growing up, her aunts and uncles would constantly spoil her with treats, and everyday life was fun and easygoing. However, as she entered her teenage years, she became busy learning how to cook, sew, clean, etc. In the past, women were expected to marry early on in their lives (before the age of twenty-five), as it was believed that a woman’s beauty diminishes with age. Like a fruit rots with age, a woman can also “become too old and fall off the tree”.1 However, the peaceful days soon came to an end, when a civil war broke out in Korea. “On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began when some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the pro-Western Republic of Korea to the south”.2 In the beginning, my grandmother’s family thought that nothing bad would happen and that the war would come to a swift end. However, as time quickly passed by with no sign of the North Koreans stopping their push southward, the family’s fear and worry became bigger, as they were afraid of their home being invaded. When the North Koreans reached the Pusan Perimeter on September 15, 1950, the family believed that the end was near for South Korea, and they loathed the North Koreans for splitting the country apart into two.

Luckily, the South Koreans were able to receive aid from the US before the North Koreans reached Pusan, my grandmother’s hometown. With the US’s aid, South Korea was able to push North Korea back past the 38th parallel. The United Nations intended to roll back communism in North Korea and nearly succeeded in doing so, but China entered the war fearing an invasion by the UN. The family, relieved by the help of the US, celebrated and held a party, but the family was still worried, as some of their relatives lived further up north, where the war had ravaged the lands. Although my grandmother heard news about the war going on further north, she never got to experience the war personally. She claims that she is glad that she didn’t have to see all the bloodshed that other Koreans had to experience growing up. After much fighting and death, the war finally came to an end when an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Initially, Rhee, the South Korean leader, and North Korea were against the idea of an armistice, as both sides still believed that unification was possible. Afterall, “Korea had been a unified country for more than a thousand years before its division in 1945. This was longer than the period most European countries had fixed international boundaries”3.  However, the US knew that reunification would not be possible again due to the vast differences in ideals between communism and democracy. Thus, after two years of negotiating for the armistice (the longest period of time to negotiate for an armistice), the armistice was signed putting an end to the Korean War. The armistice established a new border between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel, gave South Korea additional territory, and established a Demilitarized Zone between the two nations. The Korean War was a short, but bloody war that resulted in nearly five million people dead and many more injured.

 As my grandmother grew older, she took an interest into becoming a nurse. However, her family was against the idea of her studying and believed that she should focus on becoming a better spouse for her future husband. Thus, she reluctantly followed her parents directions and focused on learning to complete household chores. Then, sometime in 1962, when my grandmother was twenty-four years old, she was introduced to her future husband, Won Hee Joon (원히준). In the past, many families arranged their children’s marriage by having a matchmaker search for a bride or groom. After holding a celebratory party for the union of the couple, my grandmother was sent off to join her husband’s family. Shortly after, my grandmother became married to her husband. My grandmother always described her first husband as a kind man who let her pursue her passion of becoming a nurse. However, when she first entered into her husband’s household, she had little to no voice. Her husband’s mother controlled what happened in the household, and my grandmother had to obediently listen to her mother in law. Eventually, her mother in law’s grasp lessened and my grandmother was able to pursue her passion during her free time. Though, my grandmother’s pursuit for becoming a nurse soon came to a screeching halt, when she became pregnant with my mother, Won Hye Jung (원해정). On February 1, 1966, my grandmother gave birth to her one and only child. Although she was overjoyed by the birth of her daughter, my grandmother also felt upset that she could not pursue her passion. My grandmother decided that she would look over my mother for the first five years. After the five years were over, she would go back to studying medicine so that she could become a nurse. Due to her studies, my grandmother would often leave her daughter behind at home for her mother in law to take care of. However, when an unexpected illness overcame her husband, my grandmother’s life took an abrupt turn. The illness had claimed his life on May 8, 1975, and she was blamed for the death of her husband by her mother in law. Her mother in law claimed that my grandmother should have always been by her husband’s side, providing care for him. Grieving over the loss of her husband and with no place to go to, my grandmother knew that she had to do something to support herself and her daughter. Eventually, she found a job as a nurse at a local hospital and managed to provide for herself and her daughter. Due to her long hours at work, my grandmother would often have to send her daughter to academies or to the houses of friends or family. Although my grandmother was fine with the living conditions, she knew that there needed to be a change in order for her daughter to be able to afford an education in the future.

 Overwhelmed by work and the need to care for her daughter, my grandmother decided that a change needed to take place in her life. Thus, after much time and thinking, she decided that she would move to Japan with her daughter. Before her daughter entered into middle school, the two took the few belongings that they had and moved to Japan on August 1978. My grandma claimed that she went to Japan seeking some hope in the rapidly growing country. However, finding a job was harsh in the beginning, as neither her nor her daughter knew how to speak or write in Japanese. Eventually, after watching the television daily and reading whatever she could find, my grandmother learned the language with the help of her daughter, who learned Japanese in school. Soon, my grandmother was able to settle down and work as a part timer in a hospital as a nurse and in a restaurant as a server. During this time period, it was unusual for a Korean to decide to move to Japan or vice-versa, as the two countries had a deep feeling of anti-sentiment towards each other, stemming from Japanese colonial rule during the late 19th century. However, relations between the two countries were improving due to efforts made by the US to unite the two countries. Because the two countries were “unified” under the US, the two countries were able to grow economically, culturally, technologically, politically, etc., at an extremely rapid pace. However, despite similarities in “political values, economic systems and cultural backgrounds, the two sides have found it difficult to get beyond their troubled history to focus on their common security challenges and visions for a more prosperous future”4. Japan has tried multiple times to reconcile with South Korea, but the trust between the two countries is currently so fragile that it is nearly impossible for the two nations to agree on anything. In order for the two nations to rebuild their relationship, the two nations need to rebuild their trust from the beginning.

 My grandfather, Yano Hayashi (やの はやし), was born on November 19, 1927 in Yokohama, Japan. My grandfather disliked fighting and was artist, who preferred peace. Thus, when World War II came about, when he was around eleven years old, he did everything in his power in order to avoid having to fight in the war. At the time, he was too young to fight in the war, but the Japanese soon started to draft people as young as fifteen years old. My grandfather’s older brother fought for the sake of his country, but my grandfather came up with excuses, such as being injured or having an illness, in order to avoid being drafted. This was highly unusual, as most Japanese during this time were patriotic and would fight to their death if necessary. Afterall, the Japanese’s unrelenting attitude was what ultimately led the US to make the decision on dropping the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although my grandfather and his younger brother did not partake in World War II, my grandfather states that his younger brother most likely would have joined in the war effort if his younger brother were older at the time.

When my grandfather’s family first heard about the news of the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he and his family were traumatized and in terror. They were eating breakfast and listening to the radio, when they heard about the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. My grandfather remembers the whole family stopping in their tracks, just listening to the radio when the daily announced the dropping of the bomb. Shortly after the first bomb was dropped, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Although many Japanese people still wanted to continue on with the fight, my grandfather’s family felt tired of the war and wanted it to stop. Somehow, their wishes became true when Japan announced their surrender. After much disagreement within the Japanese Supreme Court, the Emperor finally decided that the war should come to an end and that the Japanese should stop fighting. Imperial Japan announced their surrender on August 15, 1945, and an official treaty was signed on September 2, 1945. With the end of World War II, the US and its allies came into Japan to disarm them, stabilize the economy, and prevent the remilitarization of the state in the future.

 With the end of WWII, Japan was devastated and left in shambles, with most of the large cities destroyed. The Allied Powers, led by General Douglas MacArthur, created multiple reforms for the Japanese people in order to help restore the economy and prevent further wars from happening due to the Japanese. During this period of time, the Allied Powers held war crime trials to punish criminals for their acts in war. Many military officers committed suicide after the Japanese surrender, as they preferred to die by their own hands rather than by the hands of the enemy. The emperor lost all political and military power and was there solely as the symbol of Japan. In addition, Japan was forbidden from leading a war or maintaining an army. Because the cooperation between the Japanese and the Allied Powers was relatively flawless, a peace treaty was signed on September 8, 1951, and the Allied Powers occupation of Japan came to an end on April 28, 1952.

 After WWII was over, my grandfather was in an interesting position. Yokohama was severely damaged by Allied air raids in 1945, during WWII, and many families were left homeless with little to no food to eat. Luckily, my grandfather’s family was fortunate enough that their home wasn’t destroyed by the air raids, and they had ample amounts of food to eat. Since Yokohama was a major port city, the US took occupation in the city, as it was a central hub for trading. However, the attempt to restore the economy through occupation only served to slow down reconstruction. The US had entered into the Cold War with the USSR shortly after the end of WWII. Japan’s reconstruction came to a halt when the fight between communism and democracy found its way to Korea. During the Korean War, the Allied Power’s occupation of Japan played a huge role in the US and South Korea succeeding in pushing back North Korea. Japan served as a supply depot for the US during the Korean War, which greatly benefited Japan’s economy. Although the Korean War may have temporarily halted the reconstruction of the nation, Japan was greatly benefited by the war, and the Korean War ultimately led to the rise of Japan’s economy and its development into a world power. The American occupation of Japan also made my grandfather’s family, along with many other Japanese, feel uncomfortable, as the Americans had recently been their enemies, who had bombed two of their major cities. Tensions slowly died down amongst the Japanese people, and eventually, when the Allies left Japan in 1952, Japan was able to rapidly restore its economy.

  After moving to Japan, my grandmother was luckily able to find a means of earning money. However, she knew that she couldn’t keep going on the route that she was taking if she was going to pay for her daughter’s future education. Luckily, around this time, my grandmother was able to meet my grandfather while she worked at her part-time job as a nurse. My grandfather had gotten his leg injured in a car accident when he was in his forties and visited the hospital frequently to get medication and treatment. My grandmother was treating my grandfather, when he told her that he had no caretaker, as he was still unmarried with no children at the time. Although my grandmother was reluctant at first to become a caretaker, she thought about the benefits that would come with becoming a caretaker. Due to my grandfather’s interest in art, he had multiple paintings and sculptures, which he could sell for large sums of money, and he was also generally well off. Thus, acknowledging that the benefits outweighed any costs, my grandmother, along with her daughter, moved into my grandfather’s house in exchange for her providing aid for my grandfather. My grandfather’s older brother was against the idea of a Korean woman looking after his younger brother, so he tried everything he could to try and influence my grandfather to choose someone else to aid him. However, when my grandfather rejected his older brother’s ideas and denied listening to his family, the two got into a big fight. Ever since then, the two have not been on speaking terms, even until this day. My grandfather’s younger brother did not really care about my grandfather’s decisions, but he has also offered little to no assistance to his brother after my grandmother entered into my grandfather’s life. My grandmother decided that she would marry my grandfather sometime in 1982. With my grandfather now in the care of my grandmother, the two have lived happily together in Japan.

 Life today for my grandparents is very different from their lives in the past. They always tell my sister and me that it is a wonderful time to be living right now. For practically the entirety of his life, my grandfather has stayed in Japan due to his leg injury. He would come to the US every so often to visit his grandchildren, but more than often, his grandchildren would go to visit him in Japan. Throughout her life, my grandmother constantly moved back and forth from Korea to Japan. She mostly went to Korea to see her old friends and to receive medication, as she personally believed that medicine was better in South Korea than the medicine in Japan. My grandmother has also visited the US more often than my grandfather, as she is still healthy and strong. However, my grandparents no longer need to worry about seeing their grandchildren, as they have moved to the US on February 22, 2019. Although they have moved to the US very recently, my grandfather enjoys being in the US, as he is able to go outside whenever he wants. In Japan, the summers and winters are very different from the seasons in California. In Japan, the summers tend to be very hot and humid, and the winters tend to be very cold and rainy (sometimes even snowy). In California, it is sunny throughout the year with very occasional rain. My grandmother, on the other hand, still feels a bit reluctant to be in America. She doesn’t know how to speak English, so she feels very lost. There are times when she wants to go out and shop, eat, etc. However, due to her inability to speak English, she feels intimidated to go outside. Perhaps this is due to age or due to English being completely different from Korean or Japanese, but there was once a time when she had to learn a completely new language in order to survive in Japan. In addition, because my grandmother does not have any friends in America, unlike in Korea and Japan, she feels very lonely at times.

 Although the Cold War was destructive in many ways, the Cold War has also left both Korea and Japan in a beneficial position. Although Korea was battered and split into two as a result of the Korean War, South Korea was able to undergo rapid economic development due to the “policy reforms aimed at opening the country to foreign markets”,5 transforming the country from an impoverished, agricultural state to a prosperous, industrial society. Japan was also battered by WWII and the Cold War, but the nation was able to undertake rapid economic development with the aid of the US. The Korean War especially helped Japan turn from economic depression to recovery. The United Nations used Japan as a base for their fights in the Korea War, which enabled Japan to profit, as the Japanese were tasked with procuring goods and services for the UN’s army. After Japan regained its independence in 1952, the economy flourished even more with “agricultural yields [rising] as improved strains of crops and modern technology were introduced, as household appliances appeared in remote villages, and as the changing patterns of urban food consumption provided an expanded market for cash crops, fruits and vegetables, and meat products”.6 Both my grandparents were able to experience the ruin and rise of their country. My grandmother saw a civil war rising up in Korea and experienced the economic development of South Korea before she left for Japan. My grandfather experienced both WWII and the Cold War and saw how the patriotic nation was devastated by the two atomic bombs. He also got to experience what it felt like to live under the control of American soldiers, when they took over the ports of Yokohama. In addition, he got to see the rapid growth of the nation after the UN’s departure from Japan.

 War has always been a part of human history that has greatly affected the lives of the people involved. Most of the time, the effects of war are detrimental and lead to the loss of multiple lives and property. Soldiers undergo many stressful situations on the battlefield, and family members also experience hardships when their loved ones are sent into combat. However, war does not always lead solely to loss and destruction. The Cold War, which claimed the lives of many throughout the world, has also helped many countries develop into the wealthy and powerful nations that they are today. Both South Korea and Japan came out of WWII and the Cold War in ruins, yet they were able to reconstruct themselves into superpowers, with the help of the US. The reunification of the two nations has also helped the relationship between my grandmother and grandfather to be formed. Thus, while wars can be seen as harmful during the actual event, people should move on to the future and think of all the new possibilities that arise after the end of war.


  1. Helie Lee, Still life with rice: a young American woman discovers the life and legacy of her Korean grandmother, (New York, Scribner, 1996), 11.
  2. History.com Editors, “Korean War”, (A&E Television Networks, 2009).
  3. Bong K. Lee, Unfinished War – Korea, (New York, Algora Publishing, 2003), 215.
  4. Scott W. Harold, How Can Japan Improve Relations with South Korea?, (Asia-Pacific Review, 2015), 125-126.
  5. Ana Maria Santacreu, “How Did South Korea’s Economy Develop So Quickly?” (St. Louis, St. Louis Fed, 2018).
  6. Masamoto, Kitajima, and Akira Watanabe. “Japan.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019).


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Harold, Scott W. How Can Japan Improve Relations with South Korea?. Asia-Pacific Review,              2015. Vol. 22, No. 1, 124–147, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13439006.2015.1038886

History.com Editors. “Korean War.” HISTORY. November 09, 2009. Accessed April 24, 2019.              https://www.history.com/topics/korea/korean-war.

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Lee, Helie. 1996. Still life with rice: a young American woman discovers the life and legacy of herKorean grandmother. New York: Scribner.

Masamoto, Kitajima, and Akira Watanabe. “Japan.” Encyclopædia Britannica. May 02, 2019.              Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan/Economic


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Santacreu, Ana Maria. “How Did South Korea’s Economy Develop So Quickly?” St. Louis Fed.              March 19, 2018. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.stlouisfed.org/on-the              economy/2018/march/how-south-korea-economy-develop-quickly.

Schaller, Michael. “Japan and the Cold War, 1960–1991.” Chapter. In The Cambridge History ofthe Cold War, edited by Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, 3:156–80. The              Cambridge History of the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.              doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521837217.009.

Sungjoo, Han. “South Korea and the United States: The Alliance Survives.” Asian Survey 20, no.              11 (1980): 1075-086. doi:10.2307/2643910.

WEBSTER, TIMOTHY. “The Price of Settlement: World War II Reparations in China, Japan and              Korea” 51, no. 2 (Winter 2019): 301–84. http://0              search.ebscohost.com.pacificatclassic.pacific.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eoh&AN              EP135205488&site=eds-live&scope=site.


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