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Chapter 10: Korea divided


On August 10, 1945, under pressure to produce a document as quickly as possible, two exhausted United States army colonels who were military planners in the Policy Section of the Strategy and Policy Group in United States War Department Operations Division, lacking adequate maps and working deep into the night, began to outline surrender procedures in General Order Nº 1, which General Douglas Mac Arthur (1880-1964) would transmit to the Japanese Government after its surrender. The first paragraph of the order specified the nations and commands that were to accept the surrender of Japanese forces throughout the Far East. The order outlined the terms of the Japanese surrender in World War II, terms that would shape the future of the Far East and set the stage for the Korean War and the Taiwan crisis.

The two colonels, Colonel Charles Hartwell Bonesteel (1909-1977), chief of the policy section, and Colonel David Dean Rusk (1909-1994), Oxford-educated and later Secretary of State under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during the early Vietnam war years, had thirty minutes in which to dictate Paragraph 1 to a secretary as the Joint Staff Planners and the State War Navy Coordinating Committee were impatiently awaiting the result of their work. Bonesteel and Rusk thus somewhat hastily decided who would accept the Japanese surrender. Their thoughts, with very slight revision, were incorporated into the final directive. Bonesteel's prime consideration was to establish a surrender line as far north as he thought the Soviets would accept. He knew that Soviet troops could reach the Southern tip of Korea before American troops could arrive. He knew also that the Soviets were on the verge of moving into Korea, or were already there.

The nearest American troops to Korea were in Okinawa, 600 miles away. Bonesteel's problem, therefore, was to compose a surrender arrangement, which, while acceptable to the Soviets, would at the same time prevent them from seizing all of Korea. If they refused to confine their advance to North Korea, the United States would be unable to stop them. Thus, the subsequent existence of South Korea was essentially the result of Soviet good will.

At first, Bonesteel had thought of surrender zones conforming the provincial boundary lines. However, the only map he had in his office was hardly adequate for this sort of distinction. The 38th Parallel, he noted, cut Korea approximately through the middle. If this line was agreeable to President Truman and to Soviet leader Generalissimo Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), it would place Seoul and a nearby prisoner of war camp in American hands. It would also leave enough land to be apportioned to the Chinese and the British if some sort of quadripartite administration became necessary.

They discussed possible surrender zones, the allocation of American, British, Chinese, and Soviet occupation troops to accept the surrender in the zone most convenient to them, the means of taking the surrender of the widely scattered Japanese military forces, and the position of the USSR in the Far East. They quickly decided to include both provisions for splitting up the entire Far East for the surrender and definitions of the geographical limits of those zones. They decided to use the 38th parallel as a hypothetical line dividing the zones within which Japanese forces in Korea would surrender to appointed American and Russian authorities. The 38th Parallel was not a good division. In fact, the colonels knew it was quite undesirable, but it did bisect the peninsula and it could keep the Soviets at bay—so they drew the line that would have devastating consequences.
Former Secretary of State David Dean Rusk wrote years later;
 "During a meeting on August 10, 1945, Colonel Charles Bone steel 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.... Using a National Geographic map, we looked just North of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographic line. We saw instead the 38th Parallel and decided to recommend that... (The State and War Departments) accepted it without too much haggling, and surprisingly, so did the Soviets.... (The) choice of 38th parallel, recommended by two tired colonels working late at night, proved fateful.”
The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff telegraphed the general order to General Douglas MacArthur on August 14 and directed that he furnish an estimated time schedule for the occupation of a port in Korea. Among the items it specified, General Order Nº 1 stated that Japanese forces north of the 38th Parallel in Korea would surrender to the Russian commander while those south of the parallel would surrender to the commanding general of the United States expeditionary forces.

As Washington waited for Moscow's reaction to President Truman's message, there was a short period of suspense. Russian troops had entered Korea three days before the President accepted the draft of General Order Nº 1. If the Russians failed to accept the proposal, and if Russian troops occupied Seoul, Brigadier General George A. Lincoln, chief of the strategy and policy group, suggested that American occupation forces move into Pusan. Stalin replied to Trumann on August 15, 1945; saying nothing specific about the 38th Parallel but he offered no objection to the substance of the president's message.

At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the Americans, led by President Truman, and the Soviets divided Korea politically at the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea (South), with Syngman Rhee as President, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North), a communist government. Both North Korea and South Korea claimed the whole of Korea. Japan officially surrendered to the Allies on 15 August 1945.

38th parallel

The new dividing line, about 190 miles across the peninsula, sliced across Korea without regard for political boundaries, geographical features, waterways, or paths of commerce. The 38th Parallel cut through more than 75 streams and 12 rivers, intersected many high ridges at variant angles, severed 181 small cart roads, 104 country roads, 15 provincial all-weather roads, eight better-class highways, and six north-south rail lines. It was, in fact, an arbitrary separation, symbolic of the unnatural notion of two Koreas. 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.

South of the 38th parallel, the American zone covered 37.000 square miles and held some 21.000.000 people. North of the line, the USSR zone totaled 48.000 square miles and had about 9 million people. Of the 20 principal Korean cities, 12 lay within the American zone, including Seoul, the largest, with a population of nearly 2 million. The American zone included six of Korea's 13 provinces in their entirety, the major part of two more, and a small part of another. The two areas, North and South Korea, complemented each other both agriculturally and industrially.

South Korea was mainly a farming area, where fully two-thirds of the inhabitants worked the land. It possessed three times as much irrigated rice land as the northern area and furnished food for the north. North Korea furnished the fertilizer for the southern rice fields, and the largest nitrogenous fertilizer plant in the Far East was in Hungnam. Although North Korea also had a high level or agricultural production, it was deficient in some crops. The political barrier imposed serious adverse effects on the natural symbiosis of the divided zones.

In 1940, South Korea produced about 74 percent of Korea's light consumer goods and processed products. Its industry consisted of some large and many small plants producing textiles, rubber products, hardware, and ceramics. Many of these plants had been built to process raw materials from North Korea.

North Korea, a largely mountainous region contains valuable mineral deposits, especially coal. Excellent hydroelectric plants, constructed during the last 10 years of Japanese domination, ranked with the largest and best in the world. Because of its power resources, North Korea housed almost all of Korea' heavy industry, including several rolling mills and a highly developed chemical industry. In 1940, North Korea produced 86 percent of Korea's heavy manufactured goods. The only petroleum processing plant in the country, a major installation designed to serve all of Korea, was in the north, as were seven of eight cement plants. Almost all the electrical power used by South Korea came from the north, as did iron, steel, wood pulp, and industrial chemicals needed by South Korea's light industry.

Sharp differences between North and South had traditionally been part of the Korean scene. South Koreans considered their northern neighbors crude and culturally backward. North Koreans viewed southerners as lazy schemers. During the Japanese occupation, Koreans in the north had been much less tractable than those in the south. Differences in farming accounted for some of the social differences in the two zones. A dry-field type of farming in the North opposed a rice-culture area in the South to produce marked variations in points of view. In the South were more small farms and a high tenancy rate, while in the North larger farms and more owner-farmers prevailed. All of those economic and cultural differences the 38th Parallel promised to exacerbate.

The United States has been present in Korea and an influence in Korean society and politics since its military forces first landed at Inchon on September 8, 1945. Following the Potsdam Conference, the United States quickly imported a Korean puppet from the United States, Syngman Rhee, to be the president of South Korea. Between 1945 and 1950, the United States oversaw a systematic cleansing of the popular movement of Koreans who desperately desired their independence from any outside forces and was vehemently opposed to the United States occupation. A civil war developed between the wealthy Koreans and the United States supported police/military apparatus, which supported the continuation of an oligarchy, and most Koreans who wanted genuine independence and democracy.

The brutal repression of Korean dialogue and aspirations for independence led to the Korea War. Following the end of the war, from 1953 to the present, the United States has continued its occupation. Over the decades, Korea has received huge amounts of United States aid.

After WWII and the end of the brutal Japanese occupation, Korea went through a period of cultural revitalization. During this process, the martial arts, which were banned by the occupying forces, found a new resurgence. The Korean people, who never swore to be overpowered again, embraced the proliferation of the martial arts throughout the nation. From this, came the birth of the modern Korean martial arts. Various groups emerged, each claiming its own version of prowess. Most of the Korean martial arts at the time were predominantly extracted from the Japanese arts, with some derivatives of Chinese and Korean.

General MacArthur

By September 7, 1945, the Korean people realized that the United States 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. English was declared the official language for all military matters. On September 8, 1945, Lieutenant General John Reed Hodge (1893-1963) landed in Inchon with his troops. Hundreds of black-coated armed Japanese police on horseback, still under the direction of Japanese Governor-General Abe Nobuyuki (1875-1953), kept Korean crowds away from the disembarking soldiers. "The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea" sent a delegation with three interpreters, but Hodge refused to meet with them. Hodge had become known for his aggressive warfare in battles at Guadalcanal, Leyte, Bougainville, and the "last battle" at Okinawa, earning him the reputation as "the Patton of the Pacific." George Smith Patton Jr. (1885-1945) had been nicknamed "old blood and guts" for his tank actions in World War I, and his later exploits during War II in Italy, North Africa, France, and Germany.

The American military authorities in the Far East did not prioritize Korean affairs. The main focus was on the former enemies, Germany, and Japan. While in Japan, 2000 specially trained civil affairs officers took over the government, Korea was placed under the direct administration of military units. Little changed in the administration of the country, officials then serving under the Japanese authorities remained in their positions.

Provisions of the occupation, including ordinances issued by the Military Governor of Korea, were to be enforced by a "Military Occupation Court." On September 12, 1945, West Point graduate and artillery expert Major General Archibald V. Arnold (1889-1973), was named the United States Military Governor to replace Japanese Governor-General Nobuyuki Abe. Most of the existing administrative and police personnel were retained.

Arnold was later replaced as Military Governor by Major General William F. Dean (1899-1981), a highly decorated World War II veteran of battles in France, Germany, and Austria. Interestingly, when the Korean War started in June 1950, Dean became the commander of the United States 24th Division and was captured on August 25, 1950, in Taejon, and was imprisoned as a prisoner of war for 37 and a half months. He was the highest-ranking United States officer ever captured by the North Koreans.

The United States occupation authorities in southern Korea viewed the self-proclaimed government as a communist insurgency and refused to recognize the "Provisional Government." The United States considered a virulent anti-communist named Syngman Rhee who had moved to Korea from the United States an acceptable candidate to rule the country. In August 1948, the United Nations held an election, but the Soviet Union refused to allow participation in their occupied zone. Syngman Rhee became the first president of South Korea, though some observers considered the election unfair or even fraudulent.

Meanwhile, the economic situation deteriorated. On August 31, 1946, an editorial in a leading Korean newspaper Chosun Ibo wrote in an open letter to Hodge complaining that the Korean people were now suffered more than at any time under Japanese rule. This was due to strategic evaluations made by the United States of projected post-war plans of its wartime Soviet ally who was feared and mistrusted by the West since the Bolshevik revolution first articulated its socialist philosophies in 1917.


Historical details of events after the invasion by Soviet troops on August 8 and 9, 1945 are incomplete outside of North Korea. The Soviets took their position of power before their American counterparts because they arrived a month earlier and there were a great number of Soviet troops that were of Korean descent. These people had fled from Japanese colonization and became citizens in the Soviet Union. There were a few thousand of them operating in the North, many of them officials and political operatives with experience. The Soviet Union chose to operate in the background since they had a large number of followers there and was far less resistance than the United States was in the south.

In August 1945, the Soviet Red Army established the Soviet Civil Authority to rule the country until a domestic regime that was friendly to the USSR could be established. They set up provisional committees across the country, putting communists into key positions. In March 1946, land reform was instituted as the land from Japanese landowners was divided and handed over to poor farmers; most prior landowners fled to the south. Quickly key industries were nationalized. The economic situation was as 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 of the country.

In February 1946, a provisional government called the North Korean Provisional People's Committee was formed under Kim Il Sung (1912-1994). In November 1946, the provisional government was elected under the Soviet control. Conflicts and power struggles were mostly hidden in the north, in stark contrast to the south where this all happened in public. Many unfavorable people in the north either disappeared or were assassinated. A Stalinist order was soon established, meaning that there were no open riots in the north. As the hostilities increased, the Korean peninsula was drawn into a civil war.

After World War II ended and before the Korean War started, there was a break in hostilities and a time to rekindle some Korean traditions. Interest in resurrecting Taekkyon began to arise which led to the development of taekwondo.

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