The Genesis of a Divided Korea

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

With the Trump Administration regularly sabre-rattling against North Korea, it is a good time to take a look at a brief history of the Korean Peninsula and how its geopolitical history was largely framed by foreign powers, most particularly the United States and the Soviet Union after the end of the Second World War.

As you may or may not be aware, the war over the Korean Peninsula began on June 25, 1950 and ended on July 27, 1953 when the two adversaries signed an armistice which divided the peninsula near the 38th parallel.  The war, the first of the new Cold War era, actually had its origins several years earlier when the Second World War ended and the Americans and Soviets ended up “inheriting” the Korean Peninsula which had been part of the Japanese Empire since the early part of the 20th century.  Korea had long been the target of its neighbours, Japan and the Soviet Union /Russia.  Japan defeated China in 1895 (Sino-Japanese war) and then defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 1905), hostilities which eventually resulted in Japan’s formal annexation of the entire peninsula in 1910.  Japan treated Korea as a conquered land, taking over many of Korea’s vital internal functions including foreign relations, its military, banking and communications sectors.  Japan also forced Koreans to worship at Shinto shrines in a move to assimilate the Koreans.  As well, between 700,000 and 800,000 Koreans were forced to migrate to Japan, particularly over the years between 1939 and 1945 to assist Japan in its war effort.  It is estimated that, by the end of the Second World War, there were approximately 2 million Koreans living in Japan with over 200,000 fighting for Japan.  Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, an estimated 1.0 to 1.4 million Koreans left Japan to return to the Korean Peninsula.  Given Japan’s defeat, the Korean Peninsula was part of the spoils of war “inherited” by the Allies, particularly the United States and the Soviet Union which used Korea as a pawn in their decades-long battle between communism and democracy/capitalism.  In August 1945, Colonel Dean Rusk, future Secretary of State under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Colonel Charles Bonesteel where charged with indentifying a line of control between the south and north parts of the Korean Peninsula that both the United States and USSR could agree upon.  The Americans were very concerned that the Soviets would move quickly to occupy the entire peninsula, a scenario that was not unlikely given that the nearest U.S. forces were over 600 miles away on Okinawa.

Here’s what Rusk had to say about how the Korean Peninsula was divided in 1945:

During a meeting on August 14, 1945, the same day as the Japanese surrender, [Bonesteel] and I retired to an adjacent room late at night and studied intently a map of the Korean peninsula. Working in haste and under great pressure, we had a formidable task: to pick a zone for the American occupation. Neither Tic nor I was a Korea expert, but it seemed to us that Seoul, the capital, should be in the American sector. We also knew that the U.S. Army opposed an extensive area of occupation. Using a National Geographic map, we looked just north of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographical line. We saw instead the thirty-eighth parallel and decided to recommend that … [Our commanders] accepted it without too much haggling, and surprisingly, so did the Soviets.”

Even though the Korean Peninsula had been unified since 688 AD, the Americans felt that the Korean Peninsula should be divided with Seoul on the south side as the capital of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Pyongyang on the north side of the border as the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  As stated above, even though it made no sense economically or geographically, the two aforementioned gentlemen picked the 38th parallel as the dividing line, a division that was considered to be only temporary at the time as it was hoped that reunification would take place relatively quickly.

Over the next years, both the Soviet Union and the United States built up regimes on their respective sides of the 38th parallel with the Americans supporting Syngman Rhee, an ardent Korean nationalist who was educated in the United States and who spent 30 years living in Hawaii, being elected president of the Korean Provisional Government in 1919.  He also lived in Washington, D.C.; becoming the only well known Korean leader in the United States.  He campaigned for a policy of independence and unification of the Korean Peninsula and became president of South Korea in 1948 in an election held under United Nations auspices.  As an aside and just in case we think that the North Koreans have the lock on brutality, in June 1950 just after the invasion, President Rhee ordered the execution of at least 100,000 people who were seen to be allied with the communists.   The Soviet Union supported Kim Il-sung, a Korean guerrilla fighter who had fought alongside Chinese communist forces to expel the Americans from North Korea.  Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, is now the leader of North Korea .

In 1949, President Truman approved National Security Council Paper 8/2 which outlined the steps necessary for the creation of a South Korea that was independent of the United States, a nation that would be capable of achieving economic, military and political independence and providing for its own survival with American diplomatic and financial support as shown on this page from the paper:

the genesis of a divided korea

It was the intention of the Truman Administration to withdraw from South Korea as “early as practicable”.  Paper 8/2 also warned that the Soviet Union intended to dominate the entire Korean Peninsula.  Congress, however, saw the Korean situation as untenable, refusing to pass a Korean aid bill that would have seen the United States provide economic assistance to Korea for three additional years.  Rather than the three year period that the Truman Administration wanted, they had to settle for the continuation of temporary economic assistance to South Korea which was due to expire on February 15, 1950. 

On January 12th, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington on the Far East.  In that speech, he stated the following:

In the first place, the defeat and the disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan so long as that is required, both in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area and, in all honor, in the interest of Japanese security. We have American—and there are Australia—troops in Japan. I am not in a position to speak for the Australians, but I can assure you that there is not intention of any sort of abandoning or weakening the defenses of Japan and that whatever arrangements are to be made either through permanent settlement or otherwise, that defense must and shall be maintained.

The defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold. In the interest of the population of the Ryukyu Islands, we will at an appropriate time offer to hold these islands under trusteeship of the United Nations. But they are essential parts of the defensive perimeter of the Pacific, and they must and will be held.

So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Should such an attack occur—one hesitates to say where such an armed attack could come from—the initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations which so far has not proved a weak reed to lean on by any people who are determined to protect their independence against outside aggression.But it is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations. Important as they are, there are other problems that press, and these other problems are not capable of solution through military means. These other problems arise out of the susceptibility of many areas, and many countries in the Pacific area, to subversion and penetration. That cannot be stopped military means.” (my bold)

You will notice that the American defensive perimeter described in Acheson’s speech does not include a guarantee of U.S. military protection to the Republic of Korea (i.e. South Korea) or for Taiwan for that matter.  He makes it quite clear that the military security of regions outside of the area defined by the Aleutian Islands, Japan and Ryukyus (a chain of Japanese islands to the south of the main islands) including Okinawa and other islands as shown on this map:  

the genesis of a divided korea

…are the responsibility of their own governments and upon the world, under the Charter of the United Nations.

While the intent of Acheson’s speech was to convince the American public and Congress that further aid to Korea was necessary, scholars and politicians focussed on the “defensive perimeter” aspect of the speech, making it appear as though the United States would not come to the aid of the South Koreans in any future conflict over the Korean Peninsula.  Critics and many South Koreans also felt that Acheson’s speech gave Pyongyang the message that it could pursue forcible reunification of the peninsula without reprisal from American armed forces.  Less than six months after Acheson’s speech, on June 25th, 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea as shown on this map which shows how North Korea overran most of South Korea:

the genesis of a divided korea

It is always an interesting exercise to look back in history and see how the geopolitical agendas of conquering nations often have strongly negative consequences when they are put into practice, particularly when it comes to carving up territory.  In the case of the Korean Peninsula, the use of the Korean Peninsula as a proxy for the Cold War by both the United States and the Soviet Union led to millions of deaths and divided a nation that had been unified for centuries.  The current issues with North Korea have their genesis in a meeting held on August 14, 1945 when two gentlemen drew a line on a National Geographic map of Korea.  Since then, the Korean Peninsula has existed as one of the world’s longest-lasting hostilities.

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