On this day 74 years ago, the Republic of Korea was founded in Seoul. Exactly three years earlier, the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonial rule and divided into two occupation zones along the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union. The original plan was to quickly reunify the two parts of the country under a democratically legitimized all-Korean government. But this never came to pass. Instead, divided Korea became one of the early venues of the Cold War power poker. The United States and the Soviet Union established military governments in their occupation zones, each laying claim to the entire Korean peninsula and declaring that they would fight for it as well. In June 1950, North Korea followed words with action, crossing the 38th parallel with its troops. For three years the North and the South fought each other, supported by China, the Soviet Union and the USA. The Korean War cost the lives of nearly five million people, and completely devastated whole swaths of Korea. In the end, however, the peninsula remained divided at the 38th parallel.

Although proclaimed a republic, South Korea had a long, hard road to democracy. Its first president, Rhee Syng-man, had at least 100,000 suspected communist sympathizers murdered during his tenure, and kept himself in power by rigging elections. After Rhee was forced to resign and flee the country by mass protests in 1960, General Park Chung-hee staged a coup a year later and took power himself. Under Park, the citizens of South Korea experienced a rapid economic upswing, but also the reprisals of his autocratic military government. Park was followed by another military dictatorship, whose end was spurred by a series of mass protests in 1987. The true end of the military dictatorships and South Korea’s transformation into a modern democracy, however, was marked only by Kim Dae-Jung’s election in December 1997. The military dictatorships are still controversial today, especially Park’s: Some praise the massive economic boom and modernization of South Korea under his rule, while others criticize his authoritarian rule and the abandonment of civil rights for economic growth. Nevertheless, neither government has achieved unification of Korea.