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Division of Korea

On 10 August 1945 there was a meeting of commissions of the ministry of the exterior, the ministry war and the ministry of marines. As part of this meeting, the two young officer Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel were given the task to come up with a plan on how to divide the Korean peninsula. The time allocated for this undertaking was half an hour, the officers had little knowledge of the area and used a National Geographic map to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel.

The division of Korea along the 38th parallel was decided in America before the Korean people even knew about the capitulation of the Japanese empire. Japan officially capitulated on 15th August 1945.

Historical Background

The fact that Korea is still divided can be explained when looking at the historical background. Japan's imperialism plays an important role. Western countries recognized Japan as an equal partner or even rival. After the war between Russia and Japan in 1905 the American president Theodore Roosevelt "left" Korea to Japan and in return was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At first Korea was a protectorate, in 1910 it became a full scale colony. When the Pacific war turned to its end, many Koreans had great hope that they could become independent. It was thought that America could help achieving this goal.

In November 1943 Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek met at the Cairo Conference to discuss what should happen to Japan's colonies. They agreed that Japan should lose all the territories it conquered by force. In the declaration after this conference Korea was mentioned for the first time. The three powers declared that they intended to end Korea's subjugation and that the country should be free in due course. The people in Korea were happy to be mentioned, an achievement of Korea's exile government in Shanghai. On the other hand, the three words "in due course" caused uproar. The people could not understand why Korea should not gain independence at once.

The wording was FDR's work who was obsessed with the idea that the Asian countries needed to be educated before they could be led into independence. As a consequence Korea should be administered by the great powers until they reached "maturity". In December 1943 Roosevelt suggested to Stalin that 40 years might be enough to educate the countries.

On 8 August 1945 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, hoping to shorten the war. Soviet troops quickly occupied Manchuria and the north of Korea. When Japan announced that it would capitulate on 15 August, there was a need for quick decisions. The USA suggested to divide Korea along the 38th parallel to the Soviet Union who accepted. General MacArthur was in charge and on 2 September 1945 when Japan signed its capitulation, the division was enforced. All the Japanese forces north of the 38th parallel had to capitulate to Soviet troops, those in the south to American ones.

As part of Japan's colony, Korean people were excluded from important posts in the administration of the country. As a result, when the Japanese fled Korea, there was a power vacuum and the economy came to a standstill. Korea's economy was built to serve Japanese needs. The Koreans were not completely unprepared. The general Abe Nobuyuki, Japan's last governor to Korea, was in contact with a number of influential Koreans since the beginning of August 1945 to prepare the hand-over of power. On 15 August, Yo Un Hyong, a moderate left-wing politician agreed to take over. He was in charge of preparing the creation of a new country and worked hard to build governmental structures. On 6 September 1945 a congress of representatives took place in the capital Seoul, which by then was no longer called Keijo. The foundation of a modern Korean state took place just three weeks after Japan's capitulation. The government was clearly predominantly left-wing, caused in part by the many freedom fighters oriented towards communism.

In the South

By 7 September 1945 the Korean people realized that the USA had another vision. On that day general MacArthur announced that he was in charge and disposed of all the governmental power south of the 38th parallel. For this reason English was declared as the official language for all military matters. On 8 September lieutenant general John R. Hodge landed in Incheon with his troops. The Korean government sent a delegation with three interpreters, but Hodge refused even to see them.

During the rule of the American military between 1945 and 1948 showed little interest in Korea. The main focus was on the former enemies Germany and Japan. Whilst in Japan 2000 specially trained civil affairs officers took over government, in Korea it was military units. For civil matters many Japanese civil servants were kept in office. The Japanese governor was not dismissed until the middle of September and many Japanese officials stayed in office until 1946.

The Americans denied all attempts by Koreans to govern their land themselves. The only exception was Rhee Syngman who moved to Korea from the USA. His open anti-communism was music in the ears of the Americans. Meanwhile the economic situation deteriorated. On 31 August 1946 the newspaper Choson Ilbo wrote in an open letter to Hodge that at that time the Korean people suffered more than at any time under Japanese rule. In August 1948 Rhee Syngman became the first president of South Korea.

In the North

Historical details of events after the invasion by Soviet troops on 8 August 1945 are incomplete outside North Korea. The Soviets used their position of power quicker than their American counterparts. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, they had about one more month time at their hand. Secondly there was a great number of Soviet troops that were of Korean descent. These people have fled from Japanese colonization and became citizens in the Soviet Union. There was about 30'000 of them, many officials and operatives with experience. There was even two Soviet divisions consisting purely of Korean troops. Thirdly, the Soviet Union chose to operate in the background. This was probably the case because there was a large number of followers. As a consequence there was by far less resistance than in the south.

As early as in August 1945 the Soviets handed over administration to Koreans. In the background they attempted to push as many communists into key positions. In March 1946 there was a land reform. The land from Japanese land owners was divided and handed over to poor farmers. This was very popular with the farmers, but most prior land owners fled to the south. Quickly key industries were nationalized.The economic situation was difficult in the north as it was in the south. One reason was that Japan concentrated agriculture in the south and heavy industries in the north. As a result, there was a deficit in both halves.

In February 1946 a provisional government was formed under Kim Il Sung. In November 1946 there were votes where the provisional government was supported by a suspicious "100 per cent". Conflicts and power struggles were mostly hidden in the north, in stark contrast to the south where this all happened in public. As a consequence many unfavorable people were disappeared or killed in assassinations. A stalinist order was soon established, meaning that there was no open riots in the north.

Uniting the Two Halves

Whilst in the north and in the south of Korea completely different processes were under way, the allied forces still attempted to solve the Korea problem in 1945. The foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, the United States and United Kingdom met in December 1945 in Moscow to discuss the matter. It was decided that a common government for the whole of the peninsula should be established. The USA and the Soviet Union agreed to admister the country together. The USA wanted 10 years, but the Soviet Union insisted on 5 years.

The Americans hoped to prevent a completely communist Korea. The Korean people were outraged. In the north the protest soon waned and the government depicted the result as a victory of the Soviet Union. In the south people could not understand how such an agreement could be reached without consulting the Korean people first. Eventually the left-wing parties decided to support the agreement, whilst right-wing politicians in the south opposed this, appealing to Korean patriotism.

This was a difficult situation for the USA. Exactly the right-wing politicians they sought opposed their decision. The Americans arrested hundreds of communists after they banned demonstrations in favour of the agreement.

The first two meetings of the joint commission in 1946 and 1947 ended without result. Both sides started to accuse each other. Mistrust grew between the allied administrators of Korea. The USA saw their south endangered and brought the Korea problem before the United Nations in autumns 1947. The Soviet Union opposed this undertaking because they previously agreed that the joint commission was in charge in Korea.

The USA achieved a UN resolution on 14 November 1947. This resolution foresaw free elections the part of Korea controlled by the UN, the withdrawal of foreign troops and the creation of a UN commission for Korea. At the time the UN was favouring the USA in order to stem the spread of communism. The Soviet Union boycotted the voting and did not consider the resolutions binding.

In April 1948 there was a conference of organizations from the north and the south in Pyongyang concerned with the unification of Korea. This conference failed to produce any result. On 10 May 1948 the elections took place in the south. Rhee Syngman, who called for partial elections in the south to consolidate his power as early as 1947, was voted as the first president, this after left-wing parties boycotted the election. On 15 August 1948 he formally took over power from the US military. As a response, in the north the People's Democratic Republic of Korea was declared on 9 September 1948. Kim Il Sung became prime minister.

Many historians agree that the involvement of the United Nations accelerated the division of Korea, because it allowed two separate votes to take place. Only three years after the liberation from Japan there were two completely different political systems established in Korea. This division led to the Korean War which cemented the division.

See also