Division of Korea

Division of Korea
The Korean peninsula, first divided along the 38th parallel, later along the demarcation line
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The division of Korea into North Korea and South Korea stems from the 1945 Allied victory in World War II, ending Japan's 35-year colonial rule of Korea. In a proposal opposed by nearly all Koreans, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to temporarily occupy the country as a trusteeship with the zone of control demarcated along the 38th parallel. The purpose of this trusteeship was to establish a Korean provisional government which would become "free and independent in due course."[1] Though elections were scheduled, the Soviet Union refused to cooperate with United Nations plans to hold general and free elections in the two Koreas, and as a result, a Communist state was permanently established under Soviet auspices in the north and a pro-Western state was set up in the south.[2] The two superpowers backed different leaders and two states were effectively established, each of which claimed sovereignty over the whole Korean peninsula.

The Korean War (1950–53) left the two Koreas separated by the Korean Demilitarized Zone through the Cold War to the present day. North Korea is a communist state — though the last instances of the word Communism were removed from its constitution in 2009[3] — often described as Stalinist and isolationist. Its economy initially enjoyed substantial growth but collapsed in the 1990s, unlike that of its Communist neighbor People's Republic of China. South Korea emerged, after decades of authoritarian rule, as a capitalist liberal democracy.

Since the 1990s, with progressively liberal South Korean administrations, as well as the death of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, the two sides have taken small, symbolic steps towards a possible Korean reunification.[4]


Historical background

Korea under Japanese Rule (1910–45)

As the Russo-Japanese War ended in 1905, Korea became a nominal protectorate, and was annexed in 1910 by Japan.

End of World War II (1939–45)

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, and agreed that Japan should lose all the territories it had conquered by force. In the declaration after this conference, Korea was mentioned for the first time. The three powers declared that "mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea [we] are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”

For Korean nationalists who wanted immediate independence, the phrase "in due course" was cause for dismay. Roosevelt may have proposed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that three or four years elapse before full Korean independence; Stalin demurred, saying that a shorter period of time would be desirable.[citation needed] In any case, discussion of Korea among the Allies would not resume until victory over Japan was imminent.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

Regional movement of Soviet forces in 1945.

With the war's end in sight in August 1945, there was still no consensus on Korea's fate among Allied leaders. Many Koreans on the peninsula had made their own plans for the future of Korea, and few of these plans included the re-occupation of Korea by foreign forces. Following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Soviet soldiers invaded Manchuria, as per Stalin's agreement with Harry Truman at the Potsdam conference.[5]

However, American leaders worried that the whole peninsula might be occupied by the Soviet Union, and feared this might lead to a Soviet occupation of Japan.[citation needed] Soviet forces arrived in Korea first, but occupied only the northern half, stopping at the 38th parallel, per the agreement with the United States.

On August 10, 1945 two young officers – Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel – were assigned to define an American occupation zone. Working at extremely short notice and completely unprepared, they used a National Geographic map to decide on the 38th parallel. They chose it because it divided the country approximately in half but would leave the capital Seoul under American control. No experts on Korea were consulted. The two men were unaware that forty years previous, Japan and Russia had discussed sharing Korea along the same parallel. Rusk later said that had he known, he "almost surely" would have chosen a different line.[6] Regardless, the decision was hastily written into General Order No. 1 for the administration of postwar Japan.

General Abe Nobuyuki, the last Japanese Governor-General of Korea, had been in contact with a number of influential Koreans since the beginning of August 1945 to prepare the hand-over of power. On August 15, 1945, Lyuh Woon-Hyung, 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 September 6, 1945, a congress of representatives was convened in Seoul. The foundation of a modern Korean state took place just three weeks after Japan's capitulation. The government was predominantly left wing; many of those who had resisted Japanese rule identified with Communism's views on imperialism and colonialism.

After World War II

Sign welcoming Allied troops to Seoul, early October 1945. Photo courtesy Don O'Brien.

Southern Korea

On September 7, 1945, General MacArthur announced that Lieutenant General John R. Hodge was to administer Korean affairs, and Hodge landed in Incheon with his troops the next day. The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea sent a delegation with three interpreters, but he refused to meet with them. Thus, they refused to recognize the People's Republic of Korea or the Korean Provisional Government.[7] However, an anti-communist named Syngman Rhee, who moved back to Korea after decades of exile in the US, was considered an acceptable candidate to provisionally lead the country since he was considered friendly to the US. Under Rhee, the southern government conducted a number of military campaigns against left-wing insurgents who took up arms against the government and persecuted other political opponents. Over the course of the next few years, between 30,000[8] and 100,000 people would lose their lives during the war against the left-wing insurgents.[9]

In August 1948, Syngman Rhee became the first president of South Korea, and U.S. forces left the Korean peninsula.

Northern Korea

Throughout August Koreans organized the country into people committees branches for the "Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence" (CPKI, 조선건국준비위원회). The Soviet Army allowed for these committees to continue to function since they were friendly to the Soviet Union, but still established the Soviet Civil Authority to begin to centralize the independent committees. Further provisional committees were set up across the country putting Communists into key positions. In March 1946 land reform was instituted as the land from Japanese and collaborator land owners was divided and handed over to poor farmers. Kim Il-sung initiated a sweeping land reform program in 1946. Organizing the many poor civilians and agricultural laborers under the people's committees a nationwide mass campaign broke the control of the old landed classes. Landlords were allowed to keep only the same amount of land as poor civilians who had once rented their land, thereby making for a far more equal distribution of land. The North Korean land reform was achieved in a less violent way than that of the People's Republic of China or Vietnam. Official American sources stated, "From all accounts, the former village leaders were eliminated as a political force without resort to bloodshed, but extreme care was taken to preclude their return to power."[10] This was very popular with the farmers, but caused many collaborators and former landowners to flee to the south where some of them obtained positions in the new South Korean government. According to the U.S. military government, 400,000 northern Koreans went south as refugees.[11]

Key industries were nationalized. The economic situation was nearly as difficult in the north as it was in the south, as the Japanese had concentrated agriculture in the south and heavy industry in the north.

In February 1946 a provisional government called the North Korean Provisional People's Committee was formed under Kim Il-sung, who had spent the last years of the war training with Soviet troops in Manchuria. Conflicts and power struggles rose up at the top levels of government in Pyongyang as different aspirants maneuvered to gain positions of power in the new government. At the local levels, people's committees openly attacked collaborators and some landlords, confiscating much of their land and possessions. As a consequence many collaborators and others disappeared or were assassinated. It was out in the provinces and by working with these same people's committees that the eventual leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, was able to build a grassroots support system that would lift him to power over his political rivals who had stayed in Pyongyang. Soviet forces departed in 1948.[citation needed]

Establishment of two Koreas

With mistrust growing rapidly between the formerly allied United States and Soviet Union, no agreement was reached on how to reconcile the competing provisional governments. The U.S. brought the problem before the United Nations in the fall of 1947. The Soviet Union opposed UN involvement.

The UN passed a resolution on November 14, 1947, declaring that free elections should be held, foreign troops should be withdrawn, and an UN commission for Korea, the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea, should be created. The Soviet Union, although a member with veto powers, boycotted the voting and did not consider the resolution to be binding. In April 1948, a conference of organizations from the north and the south met in Pyongyang. This conference produced no results, and the Soviets boycotted the UN-supervised elections in the south. There was no UN supervision of elections in the north.

On May 10 the south held a general election. Syngman Rhee, who had called for partial elections in the south to consolidate his power as early as 1947, was elected, though left-wing parties boycotted the election.[citation needed][clarification needed] On August 15, the "Republic of Korea" formally took over power from the U.S. military. In the North, the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" was declared on September 9, with Kim Il-sung as prime minister.

Korean War

This division of Korea, after more than a millennium of being unified, was seen as unacceptable and temporary by both regimes. From 1948 until the start of the civil war on June 25, 1950, the armed forces of each side engaged in a series of bloody conflicts along the border. In 1950, these conflicts escalated dramatically when North Korean forces attacked South Korea, triggering the Korean War. An armistice[12] was signed three years later ending hostilities and effectively making the division permanent. The two sides agreed to create a four-kilometer wide buffer zone between the states, where nobody would enter. This area came to be known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.

Geneva Conference and NNSC

As dictated by the terms of the Korean Armistice a Geneva Conference was held in 1954 on the Korean question. Despite efforts by many of the nations involved the conference ended without a declaration for a unified Korea.

The Armistice established a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) which was tasked to monitor the Armistice. Since 1953, members of the Swiss[13] and Swedish[14] Armed Forces have been members of the NNSC stationed near the DMZ.

Post Korean War infiltrations, incursions and incidents

Since the division of Korea, there have been numerous instances of infiltration and incursions across the border largely by North Korean agents, although the North Korean government never acknowledges direct responsibility for any of these incidents. A total of 3,693 armed North Korean agents have infiltrated into South Korea between 1954 to 1992, with 20% of these occurring between 1967 and 1968.[15] According to the 5 January 2011 Korea Herald, since July 1953 North Korea has violated the armistice 221 times, including 26 military attacks.[16] Some instances include:

Land border incidents

Between 1966 and 1969, a series of land border and DMZ incidents occurred. Other incidents after 1969 include the following:

  • April 1970: Three North Korean infiltrators were killed and five South Korean soldiers wounded at an encounter in Kumchon, Gyeonggi-do.[17]
  • November 1974: The first of what would be a series of North Korean infiltration tunnels under the DMZ was discovered.
  • March 1975: A second North Korean infiltration tunnel was discovered.
  • June 1976: Three North Korean infiltrators and six South Korean soldiers were killed in the eastern sector south of the DMZ. Another six South Korean soldiers were injured.
  • 18 August 1976: The Axe Murder Incident resulted in the death of two U.S. soldiers and injuries to another four U.S. soldiers and five South Korean soldiers in a neutral zone of the Joint Security Area.
  • October 1978: The third North Korean infiltration tunnel was discovered.
  • October 1979: Three North Korean agents attempting to infiltrate the eastern sector of the DMZ were intercepted, killing one of the agents.
  • March 1980: Three North Korean infiltrators were killed attempting to enter the south across the estuary of the Han River.
  • March 1981: Three North Korean infiltrators spotted at Kumhwa, Gangwon-do, one was killed.
  • July 1981: Three North Korean infiltrators were killed in the upper stream of Imjin River.
  • May 1982: Two North Korean infiltrators were spotted on the east coast, one was killed.
  • March 1990: The fourth North Korean infiltration tunnel was discovered, in what may be a total of 17 tunnels in all.
  • May 1992: Three North Korean infiltrators dressed in South Korean uniforms were killed at Cheorwon, Gangwon-do. Three South Koreans were also wounded.
  • October 1995: Two North Korean infiltrators were intercepted at Imjin River. One was killed, the other escaped.
  • April 1996: Several hundred North Korean armed troops entered the Joint Security Area and elsewhere on three occasions in violation of the Korean armistice agreement.
  • May 1996: Seven North Korean soldiers crossed the DMZ but withdrew when fired upon by South Korean troops.
  • April 1997: Five North Korean soldiers cross the military demarcation line's Cheorwon sector and fired at South Korean positions.
  • July 1997: Fourteen North Korean soldiers crossed the military demarcation line, causing a 23-minute exchange of heavy gunfire.
  • May 2006 - Two North Korean soldiers enter the DMZ and cross into South Korea. They return after South fires warning shots.
  • October 2006 - South Korea fires warning shots after North Korean soldiers cross briefly into their side of the border.
  • 23 November 2010: After a Northern warning to cease planned military drills near the island of Yeonpyeong, the South commenced the drill. The North then bombarded the island with heavy artillery in response to the firings related to the South's readiness-exercise and the South returned fire with air force jets and howitzers. On Yeonpyeong, 4 were killed (including 2 civilians) and 15 injured.[18]

Incidents in other areas

  • June 1969: North Korean agent reached Huksan Island, resulting in 15 killed.
  • August 1975: Two North Korean infiltrators intercepted at Gochang County, Jeollabuk-do kills one infiltrator, two South Korean soldiers and wounds another two South Korean soldiers.
  • November 1978: Three North Korean agents killed two South Korean civilians in Hongseong, one civilian in Gongju, Chungcheongnam-do and another civilian at Osan, Gyeonggi-do.
  • November 1980: Three North Korean infiltrators and one South Korean civilian were killed at Whenggando, Jeollanam-do. Six others were wounded.
  • December 1980: Three North Korean infiltrators and two South Korean soldiers were killed off the southern coast of Gyeongsangnam-do. Two other South Korean soldiers were wounded.
  • September 1984: A North Korean infiltrator killed two civilians and wounded another at Daegu before committing suicide.
  • October 1995: Two North Korean infiltrators were intercepted at Buyeo County. One was killed, the other captured.
  • 17 September 1996: 26 North Korean military personnel landed on the east coast near Jeongdongjin, 20 kilometres south-east of Gangneung, Gangwon-do from a disabled North Korean submarine. Out of these, 11 were killed by North Korean commandos from the submarine presumably in a bid to save the rest. 13 were killed by South Korean soldiers as they tried to make their way back over the DMZ over the next 49 days, one was captured and one escaped. 13 South Korean soldiers and 4 civilians were killed,[19] and five others wounded, including an off-duty ROK soldier strangled by the escaping infiltrators. North Korea threatened to retaliate over the incident, and in October 1996, a South Korean diplomat, Choi Duk Keun, was found poisoned in Vladivostok by a substance similar to that carried on the submarine. By 29 December, however, the North issued an official statement expressing "deep regret" over the submarine incident, although it did not issue a direct apology. In return, the South Korean government returned the cremated remains of the infiltrators to the North via Panmunjom on 30 December. The beached submarine remains at Jeongdongjin, where it has since been turned into an outdoor exhibit. Investigations in the South over the intrusion resulted in twenty ROK officers and soldiers punished for "negligence of duty" and the dismissal of a lieutenant general and a major general. A taxi driver who first spotted the intruders and alerted the authorities was given a hefty reward.[20]

Maritime incidents

  • June 1981: A North Korean spy boat was sunk off Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do, with nine agents killed, 91 injured and one captured.
  • October 1985: A North Korean spy ship was sunk by the South Korean navy off the coast of Busan.
  • May 1996: Five North Korean naval patrol craft entered South Korean waters in the west coast and withdrew after a four-hour confrontation with Southern forces. Another incident in June 1996 saw three North Korean naval patrol craft intruding for three-hours in the same area.
  • June 1997: Three North Korean patrol boats entered South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea, firing at South Korean patrol boats.
  • 22 June 1998: A North Korean Yugo class submarine was found caught in fishing nets in South Korean waters 18 km off the coast from Sokcho. South Korean fishermen observed the crew trying to untangle the submarine from the fishing nets and notified the South Korean navy. The submarine was subsequently towed by a South Korean corvette to a navy base near Sokcho. It was believed that 5 or 6 crewmen were alive inside and the South Koreans used louspeakers to try to convince the crew to come out, but they received no response. When the submarine was eventually opened all nine crew were found dead in an apparent group suicide.[21] North Korea criticized the South for causing the death of the crew and demanded the return of the bodies and submarine on 27 June. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung asked for the North to "admit responsibility and take reasonable measures" in response.
  • July 1998: A dead North Korean frogman was found with paraphernalia on a beach south of the DMZ.
  • November 1998: A North Korean spy boat entered South Korean waters near Ganghwa Island but escaped upon detection.
  • 17–18 December 1998: In the Battle of Yosu, a North Korean semisubmersible boat was sunk near Yeosu after an exchange with the South Korean navy. A North Korean frogman's body was found near the site.
  • June 1999: A nine-day confrontation was sparked when several North Korean ships intruded into disputed waters near the Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea. A firefight erupted on 15 June 1999, sinking a North Korean torpedo boat and damaging five others. Two South Korean vessels were lightly damaged. North Korea issued a warning that violent exchanges would continue if the disputed waters were to continue being intruded by South Korea or the United States.
  • 9 April 2001: North Korean patrol boats entered South Korean waters briefly over the Northern Limit Line but retreated when challenged by the South Korean Navy. Similar incidents were reported on February 5, March 3 and April 10. 12 maritime intrusions were reported in total in 2001.
  • 5 January 2002: North Korean patrol boats continued to infiltrate into South Korean waters, with another craft spotted off Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.
  • 29 June 2002: North Korean patrol boats crossed the Northern Limit Line and fired at a South Korean patrol boat, provoking a firefight which killed four South Korean military personnel and an unknown number of North Koreans.
  • 11 November 2009: North Korean patrol ship was set on fire after attacking a South Korean ship in the Yellow Sea. Newspaper article on the incident
  • 26 March 2010: The South Korean warship Cheonan sinks, with 46 sailors dying. On 19 May 2010 an investigation said a North Korean submarine caused the sinking.[22]

Air incidents

  • 19 February 2003: A North Korean fighter jet entered South Korean airspace over the Yellow Sea, the first since 1983. Six South Korean fighter planes responded, and the North Korean plane departed after two minutes.[citation needed]
  • 17 June 2011: South Korean soldiers mistakenly fired on an Asiana commercial airplane with small-arms fire; they believed it to be North Korea's military aircraft.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Savada, Andrea Matles; Shaw, William, eds. (1990), "World War II and Korea", South Korea: A Country Study, GPO, Washington, DC: Library of Congress, http://countrystudies.us/south-korea/8.htm .
  2. ^ http://www.onwar.com/aced/chrono/c1900s/yr50/fkorean1950.htm
  3. ^ Jon Herskovitz and Christine Kim (28 September 2009). "North Korea drops communism, boosts "Dear Leader"". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/09/28/idUSSEO253213. 
  4. ^ Feffer, John (June 9, 2005). "Korea's slow-motion reunification". Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/06/09/koreas_slow_motion_reunification/. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  5. ^ Walker, J Samuel, Prompt and Utter Destruction, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press .
  6. ^ Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas. Basic Books, p. 6.
  7. ^ Hart-Landsberg, Martin (1998). Korea: Division, Reunification, & U.S. Foreign Policy. Monthly Review Press. pp. 71–77. 
  8. ^ Arthur Millet, The War for Korea, 1945-1950 (2005).
  9. ^ Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Korea: The Unknown War, Viking Press, 1988, ISBN 0-670-81903-4.
  10. ^ Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947. Princeton University Press, 1981, 607 pages, ISBN 0691093830.
  11. ^ Allan R. Millet, The War for Korea: 1945-1950 (2005) p. 59.
  12. ^ http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Korean_Armistice_Agreement
  13. ^ Swiss Armed Forces "NNSC in Korea" 2011
  14. ^ Swedish Armed Forces "NNSC - Korea
  15. ^ North Korea: Chronology of Provocations, 1950 - 2003. Retrieved 2010-01-15.
  16. ^ Korea Herald, "N.K. Commits 221 Provocations Since 1953", 5 January 2011.
  17. ^ http://www.koreandmz.org/incursions
  18. ^ "North Korean artillery hits South Korean island‎". BBC News. 23 November 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11818005. 
  19. ^ Interview with Spy Sub Incident Survivor. Retrieved 2010-01-15.
  20. ^ 나오미 in Korea. Retrieved 2010-01-15.
  21. ^ Efron, Sonni (1998-06-23). "S. Korea Seizes Another Northern Sub Off Coast". los Angeles Times. http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jun/23/news/mn-62680. 
  22. ^ (Cheonan attack) (News Focus) S. Korea working on diplomatic, military options against N. Korea
  23. ^ Shim, Sung-won (June 18, 2011). "South Korean troops shoot at civilian airliner by mistake". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/18/us-korea-plane-idUSTRE75H0GH20110618. Retrieved 2011-11-13. 


  • Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas : A Contemporary History. Addison-Wesley, 1997, 472 pages, ISBN 0-201-40927-5
  • Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947. Princeton University Press, 1981, 607 pages, ISBN 0691093830

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