The History of the Split between North and South Korea

The allied leaders debated the issue of Korea’s future following Japan’s surrender in the war during the conflict, which led to the split of Korea with the defeat of Japan in World War II. The leaders came to an agreement that Korea would be freed from Japanese authority but placed under international trusteeship until it was determined that the people of Korea were prepared for self-government. The U.S. suggested using the 38th parallel as a dividing line to divide the Korean peninsula into two occupation zones in the last days of the conflict. The Soviet Union agreed to split Korea in accordance with their suggestion.

It was recognized that this separation was simply a short-term solution until the trusteeship could be put into place. A four-power trusteeship over Korea for up to five years was decided upon during the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers in December 1945. The negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding the implementation of the trusteeship failed over the course of the following two years due to the start of the Cold War and other domestic and international factors, including Korean opposition to the trusteeship, effectively nullifying the only framework for the restoration of an independent and unified Korean state. The long saga of the history of Korea involved so much powerplay which resulted in where it is today. The tale of the two cities ranged on in many actions and counteractions to establish a unified Korea. 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in northern Korea on September 9, 1948, immediately after the founding of that nation on August 15, 1948. Each government asserted sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula, with the United States supporting the South and the Soviet Union supporting the North. After years of tensions, North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 to bring the peninsula back under communist control. Korea is divided by the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) today because of the ensuing Korean War, which ranged from 1950 to 1953 and ended in a stalemate.

The World War II

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek agreed that Japan should cede all the countries it had occupied militarily at the Cairo Conference in November 1943, amid World War II. Roosevelt floated the idea of a trusteeship over Korea, but he did not win support from the other powers. At the conclusion of the conference, the three powers declared that they were “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea and determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” At the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt brought up the notion with Joseph Stalin. The latter did not object, but he suggested keeping the trusteeship brief.

Nine million Koreans were placed in the Soviet zone and sixteen million in the American zone because of the partition. Even though it was further north than US soldiers could reasonably travel, according to Rusk, “we believed it is vital to put the capital of Korea in the area of responsibility of American troops in the event of Soviet disagreement.” He stated that he was “confronted with the dearth of immediately available US soldiers, plus time and space limitations, which would make it difficult to travel very far north before Soviet troops could infiltrate the area.” The Soviet Union quickly accepted the separation, surprising the Americans. The agreement was included in General Order No. 1, which was approved on August 17, 1945, and which called for Japan’s capitulation.

By August 14, Soviet soldiers had started making amphibious landings in Korea. They quickly seized control of the country’s northeast, and on August 16, they made landfall at Wonsan. The Red Army finally made it to Pyongyang, the second-largest city on the Korean Peninsula after Seoul, on August 24.

The Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI), headed by the left-leaning politician Lyuh Woon-hyung, created people’s committee branches throughout the month of August. The brief People’s Republic of Korea was established on September 6, 1945, in Seoul by a congress of representatives. Conservative elder statesman Syngman Rhee, who was exiled in the US, was chosen as the nominee for president in the spirit of compromise.

The Soviet Occupation of Northern Korea

Soviet troops discovered a local chapter of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence running under the direction of seasoned nationalist Cho Man-sik when they arrived in Pyongyang. These “People’s Committees,” which supported the Soviet Union, were permitted to operate by the Soviet Army. The Soviet government released its own currency in September 1945, proclaiming that the “Red Army prevailed.” Colonel-General Terentii Shtykov assumed control of the administration in 1946 and started pleading with the Soviet leadership for money to help the faltering economy.

A provisional administration known as the Provisional People’s Committee was established in February 1946 under the leadership of Kim II-sung, who had spent the final years of the war in Manchuria training alongside Soviet troops. As various contenders maneuvered to secure positions of authority in the new government, conflicts and power struggles broke out at the highest echelons of government in Pyongyang. A comprehensive land reform program was launched by the provisional government in March 1946. Land owned by Japanese and collaborator landowners was divided and allocated to underprivileged farmers.

UN intervention and the formation of separate governments

In September 1947, the US brought the issue before the UN after the Joint Commission was unable to advance. The Soviet Union was against joining the UN. On November 14, 1947, the UN adopted a resolution stating that free elections should be held, foreign forces should leave Korea, and the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) should be established. The Soviet Union abstained from voting and refused to accept the resolution as binding, claiming that the UN was unable to ensure free and fair elections. Elections would only be held in the south under UN supervision in the absence of Soviet cooperation. This was a defiance of the commission chairman K’s report, who is P. S. Menon had advocated against holding a separate election. Some UNTCOK delegates believed that right-wing candidates in the south received an unfair edge, but they were overruled.

Many Koreans disapproved of the decision to have separate elections because they correctly perceived it as the beginning of the country’s irreversible separation. In February 1948, massive strikes were launched in opposition to the choice. Jeju islanders protested the impending country’s partition in April. To put down the insurrection, South Korean troops were dispatched. According to one estimate, the South Korean army torched 70% of the settlements, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of islanders. When the Korean War started, the insurrection erupted once more. You may learn more about Jeju island in South Korea with its deep history and involvement to retain a unified country. 

A general election was conducted in the South on May 10, 1948. It happened during massive intimidation and violence, as well as a boycott by Syngman Rhee’s detractors. With Syngman Rhee serving as its first president, the “Republic of Korea” (Daehan Minguk) legally seized control from the American military on August 15. The “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” was established in the North on September 9 with Kim II-sung serving as its head of state.

The UN General Assembly accepted the UNTCOK report and recognized the Republic of Korea as the “sole legitimate government in Korea” on December 12, 1948. However, none of the UNTCOK members believed that a legal national parliament had been created because of the election. Regarding the election, the Australian government, which sent a representative to the commission, stated that it was “far from satisfied.”

In the South, unrest persisted. When the Jeju revolt was put down in October 1948, some troops rebelled against the government in the Yeosu-Suncheon rebellion. The Bodo League was founded in 1949 by the Syngman Rhee administration to monitor its political rivals. Many of the innocent farmers and citizens who joined the Bodo League were coerced into doing so. At the start of the Korean War, the registered members or their families were executed. On December 24, 1949, the South Korean Army murdered residents of Mungyeong who were thought to be communist sympathizers or their relatives and blamed the communists.

The Korean War

Both governments viewed the separation of Korea, which occurred after more than a millennium of unification, as problematic and transient. The armed forces of either side fought a series of brutal battles along the border from 1948 until the start of the civil war on June 25, 1950. The Korean War began in 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea, substantially escalating these hostilities. To defend the South, the UN sent a force commanded by the US. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea attempted to unify Korea as it seized the south by nationalizing industry, enacting land reform, and reinstating the People’s Committees.

Both sides started thinking about an armistice in 1951 as the front line stabilized near the 38th parallel. Rhee, however, insisted that the conflict go on until Korea was united under his rule. The Communist side favored an armistice line based on the 38th parallel, whereas the UN favored a line based on the areas that each side controlled and was therefore capable of being defended militarily. The Americans’ formulation of the UN position ran counter to the prevailing opinion before the negotiations. The Americans initially suggested a path that went through Pyongyang, which was considerably north of the front line. After much debate, China and North Korea decided to establish their boundary at the military line of contact rather than the 38th parallel lengthy negotiation procedure.

Post-armistice relations

Korea has been split along the DMZ ever since the war. The struggle between the North and South has persisted, with both opposing regimes staking claim to being the rightful rulers of the entire nation. Sporadic talks haven’t led to any real advancements in reunification.

Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, and Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, met on April 27, 2018, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Both leaders agreed to the Panmunjom Declaration, which called for the cessation of long-standing military exercises close to the border and the unification of Korea.

To help assure the conclusion of hostilities on land, sea, and air, buffer zones were established throughout the DMZ on November 1st, 2018. In the West Sea, the buffer zones extend from Deokjeok Island to Cho Island, while in the East (Yellow) Sea, they run from Sokcho City to Tongchon County. Furthermore, no no-fly zones were created.

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