Academic journal article International Journal on World Peace

The U.S. and the 1945 Division of Korea: Mismanaging the 'Big Decisions'

Academic journal article International Journal on World Peace

The U.S. and the 1945 Division of Korea: Mismanaging the 'Big Decisions'

Article excerpt

The dividing line between the two Koreas was considered a temporary military expediency 67 years ago. It never disappeared, even after reshaped by battle after the Korean War. This 1945 division of Korea reflects little United States forethought about Korea's strategic position and low regard for the Korean people's ability to self-govern as an independent nation. America's designation of occupation zones in Korea was poorly handled, with enormous consequences for the Korean people. It arguably was part of a legacy of mismanaging a series of "big decisions" affecting Korea that continue to this day. The lesson of history for the U.S. is to be better informed and prepared to fulfill its responsibility toward the Korean peninsula; as a signatory to the Armistice it must be a participant in a permanent peace agreement.

The Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel in August 1945. Once the guns fell silent in the Korean War with the July 1953 Armistice, the military demarcation line (MDL) in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) roughly hewed to the 38th parallel. The 1945 division of Korea, considered a temporary military expediency to denote a line above and below which Soviet and American forces were to accept the surrender of Japanese troops, was portentous. The dividing line remains 67 years later, even after having been reshaped by battle. No one could have dreamed in 1945 that a temporary American designation of surrender zones would become permanent, now a relic of both World War II and the Cold War.

It is understood that, had the United States not proposed a division of Korea, Soviet forces would eventually have occupied the entire peninsula, and Korea would have become a Soviet satellite and base to threaten the security of Japan. This paper, however, argues that the division of Korea reflected little forethought by the United States about Korea's strategic position and low regard for the Korean people's ability to self-govern if it became an independent nation. The American designation of occupation zones in Korea was poorly handled, with enormous consequences for Korea's people. It arguably was part of a legacy of the U.S. mismanaging a series of "big decisions" affecting Korea that continues to this day.1

As Allied victory gradually became more certain during World War II, the plight of Korea slowly came to be addressed by the West. By 1943, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration advocated international trusteeship for postwar Korea to protect the interests of the nations directly concerned with the peninsula and to forestall potential conflict. It was thought a neutral Korea would best serve peace and stability in Asia and require SovietChinese consent.2 At the Cairo Conference in December 1943, the U.S., United Kingdom, and China proclaimed:

The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course [emphasis added] Korea shall become free and independent.3

Britain had opposed mention of Korea at all, preferring to use it as a potential bargaining chip, and the American draft had stated "at the proper moment after the downfall of Japan, [Korea] shall become a free and independent country."4 The compromise draft suggested by the British included the phrase "in due course," which later angered Korean exiles who wanted immediate independence and wished to avoid Chinese tutelage. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin gave his approval to the Cairo communiqué on the Far East at the Tehran conference.

A general outlook prevailed among the Allies that 35 years of Japanese colonialism outweighed Korea's long history of independent self-government. A State Department expert on the Far East wrote as early as February 1942 that, for at least a generation, Koreans would have to be guided by the great powers, and Roosevelt himself claimed (apparently incorrectly) that Stalin envisioned a 40-year tutelage.5 By 1944, the State Department began formulating concrete plans for Korea's occupation and administration. …

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