When most Americans think about Korea the first thing they think about is North Korea, with its likely atomic bombs, definite missiles, and reputation for being governed by an evil genius. Second on the list is South Korea; few American households don't have at least one device made by Samsung (we have 2 that I know of). Third is probably the Korean War, a bit of cold war history that lingers until today because there are still U.S. troops in South Korea.
I knew very little about Korea six months ago beyond those basics. I began thinking about it when I outlined my The U.S. War Against Asia writing project. I wondered how the Korean War (we Americans call it that because it is the war in Korea we were involved in; Korea has been involved in many more) fit into the big picture. At our local Point Arena library I found a book on Korea that indicated the Korean independence movement was happy to see the Japanese go after World War II, but did not want the Russians, Americans, or Chinese to intervene. I am looking into what extent it is fair to say that the U.S. illegally invaded Korea after World War II. Preliminary results are that it is pretty darned fair to say that.
Knowing the past can give perspective on the current situation, but in itself almost never presents solutions. It appears that in the north of Korea there is a dictatorial, impoverished communist nation, but there is no foreign occupying power. North Korea has China and Russia for allies. Both are geographically close enough that they could send in troops to either aid or subvert the current regime on short notice. South Korea is still occupied by U.S. troops, but whatever the historical origin of that fact, most South Korean citizens don't want to be united by being subjugated to North Korea. South Korea is one of the world's more economically prosperous countries. But sacrifices have been made to achieve that. Friends who have traveled to Korea report levels of air pollution, for instance, that are considered unacceptable in the U.S. Dissidents in South Korea are not very happy with the government's subservience to industrial corporations and their western clients.
Self determination is a good process to fall back upon when not everyone can agree on exactly how things should be. But there are some points of agreement, I believe, among reasonable people in Korea and with those of us outside who care to take a position.
First of all, Korea is a nation. No nation should have to be involuntarily subjugated to some other nation. No nation should have to suffer military occupation or even military pressure.
Second, Korea's division into North and South Korea is artificial. It was created by the needs of cold war rivals, not by the needs of the Korean people.
Third, Korea has a right to self defense. Korea has been invaded in the past by Japan, China, the Mongols, Russia, and the United States. It has been pressured by other Western powers. A self-determined Korea should be able to choose to keep nuclear weapons for self defense as long as its traditional predators have them available.
I believe that most people do not like to live under a dictatorship. I also believe that most people don't want to be second-class economic citizens, even in a democracy.
So I think the ball is in the U.S. court. The first step to getting Korea to where it deserves to be would be the withdrawal of the U.S. military. Since we have bases nearby, in Japan and the Philippines, we would not be at any particular disadvantage compared to Japan, China, and Russia.
At that point we need to see the kind of process in North Korea that brought other communist dictatorships to an end, but without the corruption. Allowing South Korea's predatory capitalists to grab what is of value in North Korea is a bad idea.
Once Korea is a united, self-determining nation, I would hope that the Korean people would strive to be model global citizens, rather than ardent nationalists.
For more information on Korea try:
Basic Korea information at Wikipedia
South Korea (Republic of Korea) official site
North Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) official news site
Korean Friendship Society (adds insight even if you don't want to be friendly with the North Koreans)
III Publishing home page