From 1910 up until the end of World War II in 1945, Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula. As the war came to and end, Japan agreed to surrender their hold on Korea, leaving it to be divided among the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was to take North Korea (to be called The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) while the United States took the South (to be called The Republic of Korea). As a detail of importance, the United States was very adamant on having the country’s capital–Seoul–in it’s territory. This was intended to be a temporary occupation on the part of both the USSR and the U.S., with the eventual goal of reunifying Korea once the countries could agree upon a way to jointly govern or put under an international trusteeship. It was officially divided on August 15th, 1945, with a line commonly referred to as the 38th Parallel.
Three years later in 1948, the United Nations held a democratic election in Korea for a new government, but the Soviet Union refused to participate. This led to the UN recognizing South Korea alone as a legitimate government. The Republic of Korea was officially born on August 13th, 1948 with the election of Rhee Syngman. Shortly after, on September 9th, 1948, North Korea’s DPRK was created with the official election of Kim Il-sung.
Directly following this was the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953 and ultimately led to the permanent division of North and South Korea with the Armistice Agreement (meaning that the two countries are still technically at war today). They are still divided by the 38th Parallel by a heavily armed Demilitarized Zone spanning 155 miles long and around 2 and a half miles wide.
South Korea began to see extreme economic growth in the years following the division, but tolerated several authoritarian or even dictatorial presidents in order to achieve this. At the same time, however, it was a necessity in order to fend off the potential attacks of the North Koreans, who attempted to assassinate several North Korean presidents and were found to have dug tunnels under the DMZ.
Today, the two countries are extremely different. South Korea is one of four “economic dragons” in Eastern Asia, and has achieved modernization in a startlingly short amount of time. They are one of the most technologically connected countries in the world, and their culture and products are widely spread globally. In contrast, North Korea is one of the world’s most secluded countries. Little is known about their government, and access in and out of the country both physically and technologically is extremely limited and closely monitored by the North Korean government. There is little hope of reunification, barring currently unforeseen large events, so for now the two countries remain divided.