22 May, 2024


Lessons From The ‘Uniting’ Two Koreas; The Consequences Of Arbitrarily Drawn Borders!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

On 27th April 2018 , a world fatigued by leaders who promote phobias of all forms to divide humanity along racial and religious lines, was treated to some refreshing news for a change from a totally unexpected corner. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the demilitarized line and stepped into South Korean soil to meet the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. To a gaping millions who watched the ‘surprise’ visit on TV, it was unbelievable. Both leaders, setting aside their historic rivalries resolved to end the Korean war, 65 years after the armistice and also signed an agreement pledging to work towards the “common goal” of denuclearization of the peninsula, They also resolved to help unite families divided between North and South. Some analysts say Kim Jong-un’s visit to South Korea could have been driven by a plan to trade military assets for economic growth. Trump attempted to take all credit although other players/ geopolitical realities were responsible for this to happen. Perhaps, Trump forgot that it was the US which initially divided Korea along arbitrary lines.

For hundreds of years, Korea has been a battleground for competing nations and ideas, but the last century – possibly the darkest in the peninsula’s history – has seen it divided as never before. The legacy of that dark century has left South Korea’s security guaranteed by an American defence treaty, and North Korea tied to a military pact with China in the event of it being attacked. The Korean War (1950-53), which killed at least 2.5 million people, did little to resolve the question of which regime represented the “true” Korea. It did, however, firmly establish the USs as the permanent bête noire of North Korea, as the U.S. military bombed villages, towns and cities across the northern half of the peninsula. Just five days before Japan surrendered, U.S,  without consulting any Koreans,  arbitrarily decided to cut Korea roughly in half along the 38th parallel of latitude, ensuring that the capital city of Seoul would be in the American section. And so, a rushed decision made by junior US government officials in the heat and confusion of World War II’s final days has resulted in the seemingly permanent creation of two warring neighbours. More than sixty years and millions of lives later, the accidental division of North and South Korea continues to haunt the world, and the 38th parallel remains arguably the tensest border on Earth. The history of thousands of years of Korea as a unified nation will always be a reminder of its’ arbitrary division.

Thus, as optimistic signs emerge of a possible rapport being built between , let alone unification of North and South Korea, this ‘38th Parallel arbitrary line’ should serve as reminder of many such arbitrary lines of division drawn by the Colonial West in the countries colonized by them. Few examples will suffice. It’s another indication of the many ways that colonialism’s complicated legacy is still with us, and still shaping today’s world. Take Middle East as an example. A map marked with a crude chinagraph-pencil in the second decade of the 20th Century shows the ambition – and folly – of the 100-year old British-French plan that helped create the modern-day Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement marked the moment when Europeans drew artificial states and borders on a blank map of the Middle East, with little consideration given to local groups or facts on the ground; 

In 1916,Sykes, a British diplomat and Picot, a French lawyer and diplomat were assigned to draft a secret agreement during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since. Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure. It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them. Even the ISIS sought to undo the old borders. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, ISIS ‘Caliph’Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy”. A century after Sykes-Picot, the dual crises have stripped away the veneer of statehood imposed by the Europeans and have exposed the emptiness underneath.

According to Tarek Osman, Presenter: The Making of the Modern Arab World, ‘There were three problems with the geo-political order that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement. First, it was secret without any Arabic knowledge, and it negated the main promise that Britain had made to the Arabs in the 1910s – that if they rebelled against the Ottomans, the fall of that empire would bring them independence. The second problem lay in the tendency to draw straight lines. Sykes-Picot intended to divide the Levant on a sectarian basis. But the thinking behind Sykes-Picot did not translate into practice. That meant the newly created borders did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground. The third problem was that the state system that was created after the World War One has exacerbated the Arabs’ failure to address the crucial dilemma they have faced over the past century and half – the identity struggle between, on one hand nationalism and secularism, and on the other, Islamism…The wave of Arab uprisings that commenced in 2011 is this generation’s attempt at changing the consequences of the state order that began in the aftermath of World War One.’. However, it will not be fair to lay the full blame on this  arbitrary division according to the 1916 Agreement for all ME ills; there is also the militarization of ethnic and religious identities too which explains violence in the Middle East as per analysts. 

Another example was how the British drew arbitrary borders in India . Adil Najam, Dean, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University in an article in ‘The Conversation’ Online Journal describes this quite forcefully. ‘By 1947, the political, social, societal and religious complexities of the Indian subcontinent may have made partition inevitable, but the murderous mayhem that ensued was not. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India could have prevented  the mayhem; instead ended up inflaming the conditions that made partition the horror it became. To decide the fate of millions of Indians and draw lines of division on poorly made maps, Mountbatten brought in Cyril Radcliffe, a barrister who had never set foot in India before then, and would never return afterwards. Despite his protestations, Mountbatten gave him just five weeks to complete the job. Working feverishly, Radcliffe completed the partition maps days before the actual partition. Mountbatten, however, decided to keep them secret. On Mountbatten’s orders, the partition maps were kept under lock and key in the vice regal palace in Delhi. They were not to be shared with Indian leaders and administrators until two days after partition. Jaswant Singh, who later served as India’s minister of foreign affairs, defence and finance, writes that at their moment of birth, neither India nor Pakistan “knew where their borders ran, where was that dividing line across which Hindus and Muslims must now separate?” He adds that as feared and predicted, this had “disastrous consequences.” The uncertainty of exactly who would end up where fuelled confusion, wild rumours, and terror as corpses kept piling up’. 

Then again ,nowhere does the unfinished business of partition bleed more profusely than in the continuing conflict between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir. Caught between two regional superpowers who are even prepared to kill and die over a lifeless glacier, the original vision of Kashmir’s last maharajah’s seems ever more distant: an independent, neutral, prosperous and stable Kashmir.  According to historians , the root of this Kashmir conflict may also be found in the 1947 process by which the British divided its’ subcontinental empire into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. It was Lord Mountbatten who manipulated the process that created the boundary line which separated the  two nations and for effectively compelling the princely ruler of  Kashmir Maharajah Hari Singh to chose accession to rather than Pakistan, presumably due to Lord Mountbatten’s close connections with Jawaharlal Nehru. On January 1, 1949, the ceasefire negotiated by the UN created the line of division in Kashmir based on factual positions of the security forces of both India and Pakistan and redrawn on few subsequent occasions as well. This border dispute has led both countries to go to war on 3 occasions. 

Moving on to another continent,   Europe’s arbitrary post-colonial borders too left Africans bunched into countries that don’t represent their heritage, a contradiction that still troubles them today. Africa’s arbitrary borders have done much to foment strife and instability on the continent. Partitioning communities, the argument goes, has led to artificial borders, ethnic struggles, and spurred civil conflict and underdevelopment. Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister in 1906, demonstrated this arbitrary and under-informed approach at the signing of the Anglo-French convention on the Nigeria-Niger boundary in 1906, when he said: “We [the British and the French] have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod: we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediments that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” This statement helps us to understand how colonial powers designed artificial African boundaries without knowledge of the land and local communities. 

The former Prime Minister Cameron during a visit to Pakistan in 2011 expressed the view ‘Britain is responsible for many of the world’s historic problems, including the conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. However, Daisy Cooper, the director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, said: “This is typical of the UK’s schizophrenic relationship with former colonies where it is both proud and embarrassed about its past’. In Sri Lanka too, drawing of arbitrary boundaries in designating provinces has created many problems. Sri Lanka is an example of how the unequal distribution of wealth during colonial times, continues to affect ethnic relations even today.

As many historians say, over a hundred new nations were born during the process of de-colonization. Most of these new nations, however, … had not existed at all as nations before colonization, or they had not existed within the post-colonial borders. The practice of drawing arbitrary lines to  create nations, favouring one ethnic, religious, racial, or other cultural group over others in colonial society, or of giving them a higher status, helped to promote inter-group rivalries, and often contributed to the unequal distribution of resources. Favoured or privileged groups had access to, or control of, important resources that allowed them to enrich their members, at the expense of others. 

Thus ,as we witness the historic moment of the two Koreas resolving to come together, decades after US drew arbitrary lines of divisions between them, it is vital that those wishing to transform or resolve protracted conflict in their societies resulting from such arbitrary colonial action , acknowledge the past, and take into account the effects such past imperialist policies continue to have on today’s post-colonial  societies. The colonial powers should not only get involved in global efforts in  resolving these contentious issues, but also paying compensation for all the ills these countries have gone through because of their ill-designed strategies.  Besides, if arch rivals Koreas can unite , why cannot many other countries  particularly in the ME, Africa and South Asia which the colonial powers like British and the French divided along arbitrary lines also resolve amicably their differences?  

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Another 15 years and North Korea is going to look down on Sri Lanka and laugh, “those pathetic fools still fighting over ‘who’s shit smells better, Buddhist, Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Christian or dog?'”

  • 3

    Sri Lanka like Ireland is an island. Meaning it has a clearly defined landmass. The Korea’s Are connected to China. Indian did not exist until 1947 when its regions were drawn up. Neither did Tamil Nadu. This is not mean Tamils did not exist but the difference between say Tamil Nadu state and Kerala state was unknown until then. Lanka has no such ambiguity. There were the Natives defending their motherland against invaders. Since there are 80 Million Tamils in Tamil Nadu and no Sinhala to be found anywhere else – one can make one’s own mind about who came from Where !

    Jaffna and the Sinhala Heritage – Page 10
    E. T. Kannangara – 1984 –
    The King of Ceylon was always Tri Sinhala Adhisvara, Lord of the Three Sinhalas, a title which recalled the original division of the Island into three parts “

    The Early History of Ceylon and Its Relations with India and Other …
    G. C. Mendis – 1996
    The northern part of Ceylon was under the Sinhalese kings at least till the time of Parakramabahu the Great. It is not clear when it first became an independent kingdom

    From Coffee to Tea Cultivation in Ceylon, 1880-1900: .
    Roland Wenzlhuemer – 2008 – ‎
    Thus, the Sinhalese kingdom gradually relocated itself further to the south-west.Meanwhile, an independent Tamil kingdom had emerged in the north of Ceylon. During the previous centuries, many Tamil immigrants had settled in the Jaffna Peninsula and in other regions of northern Ceylon due to the proximity to their homelands

    The Last King Of Jaffna Was A Sinhala-Buddhist – Colombo Telegraph

    • 2

      As depicted in the Ajanta cave paintings of India (Simhala Avadana in Cave XVII). In this version, the prince who comes to the island is a merchant prince named Sinhala, who is the son of Sinha (“lion”). He and his 500 followers sail for the Ratnadeepa island, where they hope to find gems in the Sirisavatthu city. They get shipwrecked, but are saved by the Yakkhinis, who prey on the shipwrecked merchants. The Yakkhinis pretend to be the widows of the merchants who earlier visited the island. Sinhala marries the chief Yakkhini, but then discovers their true identity. He and 250 of his men escape from the island on a magical flying horse (Valahassa). The chief Yakkhini follows them to his paternal kingdom, and presents herself to his father Simha, as a woman wronged by the prince. Simha gives her shelter, but she devours him and the rest of his family, except the prince. She then returns to Ratnadeepa, where she devours the remaining 250 of Sinhala’s followers. Sinhala succeeds his father as the king, and leads a military expedition to Ratnadeepa. He defeats the Yakkhinis, and establishes the kingdom of the Sinhalese.

      Within Sri Lanka, the legend of Vijaya is a common political rhetoric used to explain the origin of the Sinhalese, and is often treated as a factual account of historical events. Sinhalese scholars such as K. M. de Silva have used the legend to propose an Indo-Aryan origin for the Sinhalese, thus distinguishing them from the Dravidian Tamils.

      The various genetic studies on Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils have offered differing conclusions. R.L. Kirk (1976), for example, concluded that the Sinhalese are genetically closest to the Bengali population of Bengal. N. Saha (1988), however, disagreed with Kirk’s findings and concluded that the Sinhalese display a close genetic affinity with the Tamils.

      So some idiot politicians and uneducated monks create a story about a non-existent race of Sinhalese to keep people busy fighting each other instead of fighting together against the real thieves(politicians and religions) that are robbing the country dry, and you all shiv it down your throat.

      It doesn’t matter whos grandfather used to shit on the road 100 or 10,000 years ago everyone has the right to live in the country they were born

    • 2

      Lack of education in Sri Lanka clearly evident.

      “Sri Lanka like Ireland is an island. Meaning it has a clearly defined landmass”

      Ever heard of tectonic plates, erosion of beaches, spontaneous island formation?
      Or people traveling from ships? people procreating with foreigners? gifted and shared lands? unclaimed land? ocean and sea borders?
      unknown history before the fairy-tale of Vijaya?

      oh yeah our great made up history is the only proof you need to be a retard.

  • 0

    ‘Unity’ of the Koreas?
    “One swallow does not summer make” they say. The ‘hunters’ (who hunt for pleasure and profit) know when and where to remove the hoods off the falcons!
    By the way Lukman Harees, have you forgotten 08 January 2015? We thought corruption will be bridled.

  • 2

    Mr. Harees, if Trump did not dig his heels in and threaten to go to war if N.K did not stop nuclear program, if he did not impose sanctions, you would not be writing this letter!

    • 2

      hahahaa, Trump is a joke. No world leader gives a rats ass about him. Trump had nothing t do here.

    • 0

      China factor and the geo political realities were easily responsible. As the author rightly points out . Besides, aim of this article seems to be not taking about trump s achievements. But to point out the disasters these so called powers have done in drawing arbitrary lines across nations.

  • 2

    It is not easy to reunite Korea as long as the US has power over South Korea.
    The present healthy climate was assisted by the fall of Park Geun-hye and the underlying desire of the people to reunite, the way it was in Vietnam.
    The division of Korea was done by the US to ensure that the whole country did not go communist.
    The US intervened militarily and imposed a puppet regime in the South and used the boycott of the Security Council by the USSR at the time to wage war on N Korea in the name of the US.
    Officially the war is not over.
    Whatever the outcome of the North-South talks, North Korea has well and truly trumped Donald. But then the US establishment will do anything to have its evil way.
    Thus there is no cause for joy, but there is room for optimism.

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