Division of Korea

    Story told by

  • Young Suh Kim
    Professor of Physics Emeritus
    University of Maryland
    College Park, Maryland 20742, USA.
    Home page.

  • After the end of the Pacific War (World War II), the Korean Peninsula was occupied by two different armies. The 24th Corps of the United States army in the south of the 38th parallel, and the Soviet army in the north. I do not know the name of the the Soviet army unit, but I know their soldiers were totally uncivilized. They robbed watches from Korean men, and they raped Korean women at open spaces. Koreans became scared, many of them moved to the South. My family came to the South in May of 1946.

    Russians are not bad people. They are Jesus-believing good people. However, the first Soviet army unit, which came to Korea, consisted of former prisoners. During the second world war, the Soviet Union had to construct many army units to fight against Hitler's German army, and some of them consisted of the former prisoners. Even these days, they are talking about private fighting groups in Russia consisting of former prisoners and jobless hoodlums.

  • Japan surrendered in August of 1945, and the Soviet troops moved into Korea in the same month. Americans came to Korea in September of 1945. The boundary line was the 38th Parallel. This line was only for military convenience. In December of 1945, the United States and Soviet Union had a meeting in Moscow in order to set up a joint US-Soviet Trusteeship for five years in order to guide Koreans to set up their own government.

    These two powerful countries formed a Joint Commission to work for five years to guide Koreans to set up a unified Korean government on the peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union had their first joint meeting in Seoul in 1945, the second meeting in Pyongyang in 1946. The third meeting took place in Seoul in 1947. However, those meetings produced no meaningful results.

  • In the meantime, the United States knew that those meetings were useless. At that time, the secretary of state was George Marshall.

    Marshall presented the Korean case to the United Nations, which adopted a resolution to arrange a general election in Korea to set up their government.

    The UN representatives came to Korea to arrange a nation-wide election, but the Soviet-controlled North Korean authorities refused to accept this UN resolution. Thus, the election was held only in the south of the 38th Parallel. The first election was held on May 10, 1948, and the government in the South was inaugurated on August 15, 1948.

    Korea used to be, and I still believe it is, one country. Do you know how the country was divided into two? I wrote many articles on this issue, and I decided to make a webpage based on those articles.
    (the first version made in 1994, webpaged in 2013, and updated in 2022.)

1. Where were you on August 15 (1945)?

  • I spent the first eleven years (1935-46) of my life in a farming/fishing village called Sorae. Click here to see what is so special about Sorae.

  • This village is near a beautiful beach called Kumipo, and there were many American houses, including the summer villa belonging to the family of Horace Underwood. Underwood came to Korea from the United States in 1885 as the first Presbyterian missionary to Korea. You may click here for a story told by his grandson.

    During the Pacific War (1941-45), Americans were not allowed to come back to the beach, and all the houses were empty. What happed to the furniture and appliances? Nothing happened for three years until Japanese authorities auctioned them off in 1945, and started building their military bunkers. They thought Americans would send their marines to the beach they are familiar with.

    The Koreans in Sorae were convinced that Americans would come back, and this is the reason why those villagers did not touch anything in those American houses. Toward the end of 1944, my maternal grandmother invited me to her room and showed me a photo of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She told me that Roosevelt would be the ruler of Korea within a year.

  • My grandmother told me I should go to the United States to study, not to Tokyo. Ten years later, in 1954, I became a freshman at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. She was right there, but she was only partially correct in saying that Roosevelt would be the ruler of Korea.

  • Soon after August 15 (1945), Soviet soldiers came to my part of Korea. I heard that those soldiers in Pyongyang were taking watches from Korean men, and they were doing something to Korean women. I was not old enough to understand what those soldier were doing to women.

    In October of 1945, the Red Army Command in Pyongyang sent ten trucks looking like this to our village and demanded grains.

    Our villagers were used to Japanese taking away grains, and but they did using a systematic method. Soviets were in their "Dawai" (give me everything immediately) style. Our village farmers gave them the cheapest and about-to-trash grains. Those Soviet grain collectors did not know much about grains. All they had to do was to load their trucks whatever they could get.

      from the North Korean propaganda literature.
    Their trucks were impressive with ten wheels. We did not think Russians were advanced enough to produce those trucks, and we assumed Russians took them from Germans. We did not know they were GMC trucks provided by Americans. How did this happen?

      Americans sent 8,000 of those GMC trucks to Europe during the World War II. After Germany's surrender in May of 1945, all of these trucks were given to Russians for their possible operation against Japan.

  • In January of 1946, we heard a disturbing news that Korea would be governed by a joint US-USSR trusteeship (called Shintak Tongchi). In February of 1946, we heard that there would be a mail exchange program between the North and South. This was a bad news to us. Why do we need mail exchanges in the same country? This was the first sign that the country was divided.

  • On March 1 (1946), we had a big celebration of the 3.1 Independence day, but people were not happy. On March 5, the North Korean Provisional Council of People announced the land reform. All farming farming lands would be confiscated from the landlords, and those lands would go to those farmers working on them.

  • On May 1, they had a big Mayday celebration. This is a holiday for factory workers, and there were not many those workers in Korea because there were not many factories. The only manual workers were kitchen workers in noodle houses. Indeed, those noodle workers became the first group of communists, and they led the Mayday celebration.

    Because those noodle workers left their kitchens, the noodles lost their taste, and the Pyongyang noodle became tasteless. When I was in Shenyang (China) in 2011, I went to one of the Pyongyang restaurants and ordered the Pyongyang noodle plate, called Jaengban. It appears that North Koreans did some hard work to restore the taste.

  • On May 12, 1946, my family left the Sorae village and came to Seoul on May 15. At that time, the great news was the arrest warrant issued against Park Hun-Young for printing money illegally. I was confused. How could communists could be so active in the South?

  • Since then, I have been continuing my research on how Korea was divided and how the country can be reunified.

  • In spite of a not-so-good impression of Soviet combat troops who came to Korea in 1945, I become very happy when I meet Russian soldiers these days. You may be interested in this webpage for my photos with Russian soldiers

    I also note that Russians suffered more than Koreans during the World War II, which they call the "Great Patriotic War."

2. American Explanation of the 38th Parallel

      Charles Bonesteel (top),
      Dean Rusk.

      These two colonels told Stalin to stop at the 38 parallel. Was Stalin going to obey their order?
  • On August 6, 1945, one American B-29 bomber dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, and the second bomb on Nagasaki three days later. Soviet authorities realized the war was going to end end shortly, and declared war against Japan on August 9. The Soviet army then launched three-pronged attacks against Manchurian cities of Harbin and Jangchoon. Harbin was initially built by Russians, and Jangchoon was developed as the capital city of Manshu-Koku by Japanese imperialists.

    In late night of August 10, the Pentagon (American military command center) was empty, except two nighty-duty officers. One was Colonel Charles Bonesteel, and the other was Col. Dean Rusk. They were watching the situation during the night.

    Bonesteel was a West Point graduate, and he in Europe during the World War II primarily as a staff officer. He had became geopolitician by when he reached his rank of Colonel. During the period (1966-69), he served as the commander of the U.S. Forces in Korea. He was a four-star general then.

    Dean Rusk became a military officer through the ROTC program during his college years, and received his law degree from the UC Berkeley in 1940. He served in the Army as a staff officer in the South the Burma and southern China front. In January of 1945, still in uniform, joined the State Department. He was one of the liaison officers between the Pentagon and the State Department. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1961-69), he was the secretary of state.

    Dean Rusk used to appear on TV to explain how the 38 the parallel was drawn on the map of Korea. Here is his explanation.

    After the Soviet Union's declaration war, the advancement of the Soviet army in Manchuria was so shift, they could occupy the Korean peninsula within a week, and could even come to the mainland of Japan, while U.S. forces were not prepared to advance beyond Okinawa.

  • Thus Rusk and Bonesteel made their hasty decision. On August 10 (late night), they looked at the map and the 38th parallel was north of the capital city of Seoul. They thought that Soviets would agree to stop there if they told so. Even if we take into account time differences (time difference between the Baikal time and the Washington time, and the difference between AM and PM), their decision was made only 40 hours after the Soviet army units launched their attacks.

    They then decided to contact the Soviet liaison office stationed in the Pentagon. The Soviet Union was an ally of the United States against Hitler's Germany.

    Yes, they did the great job for their country, but Americans do not talk about their contribution. Why?

  • Even a greater mystery is why the Soviet Union obeyed their order to stop at the 38th parallel. They were army colonels, and low-ranking officials of the U.S. government. Dean Rusk did not explain why? Joseph Stalin was not under the command of Bonesteel or Rusk.

    The key to this answer is the Japanese army in Manchuria called

        Kwandong-Goon headquarters in Jangchoon, capital city of Manchu.
    1. Kwantung Army in English writings
    2. Gwantung-Jin in Chinese
    3. Kanto-Goon in Japanese
    4. Kantonsky Army in Russian
    5. Kwandong-Goon in Korean.

    Since most of the readers of this page would be Koreans, let us call this army "Kwandong-Goon."

3. Rise and Fall of Kwandong-Goon

  • The point is that Stalin was aware of how hopeless the Kantonsky Army became after the Nomonhan incident of 1939, while it was a formidable military unit to Roosevelt according to Tojo's propaganda. When they met at the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, the person with a more accurate intelligence information became the winner.

  • As a consequence, Roosevelt gave 8000 GMC trucks to Soviets. On those trucks, Soviet troops came to Manchuria and to Korea without firing a single shot.

  • In my opinion, this was the worst foreign policy disaster for the United States. Please continue reading to see how this happened.

4. Yalta Conference

Before August of 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had three meetings in order to discuss how to run (or divide up) the world after the elimination of Hitler's Germany and the Empire of Japan. They were

      Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill at in Tehran (November 1943);
      Atlee, Truman, and Stalin in Potsdam (July 1945).

  • Tehran Conference (November 1943). Roosevelt asked Stalin to attack Japan from Siberia. Stalin promised to do so after getting rid of Hitler in Germany.

  • Yalta Conference (February 1945). Roosevelt asked Stalin again to attack Japan. By this time, both the United States and the Soviet Union had their concrete plans, but Stalin was still busy with his troops fighting against Germany.

  • Potsdam Conference (July 1945). This conference was held after the surrender of Germany in May. Roosevelt was dead and Truman went there. Churchill went there, but he lost the election during the conference. Clement Atlee became as the new prime minister of Britain, and he replaced Churchill at the conference. Here they demanded an unconditional surrender from Japan.

Among those three conferences, the division of Korea was decided at the Yalta Conference. Let us see how this happened.

  • In July of 1944, Japan lost the crucial battle on the Pacific island of Saipan, and the fate of the war was decided. Japan was going to lose the war, but Japanese soldiers would never surrender. American war planners had to consider how many American soldiers would be killed to conquer the mainland of Japan.

    1. Japanese war planners also knew they were going to lose. They had to consolidate their military posture to defend the main land. As for their troops in Korea, they moved most of their troops to southern provinces and placed under the command of their 17th Regional Army with its headquarters in Seoul. This unit, called Ju-hichi Homei-goon (Sipchil Bangmyun-goon in Korean), was a component of the Japanese mainland defense force.

    2. On August 5, 1945, Stalin declared that he would not honor the Soviet-Japanese non-agression, even though it would not expire until April of 1946. In spite of their bitterness from the Nomonhan incident of 1939, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a five year non-aggression treaty. Japanese and Soviets needed this treaty in order to take care of their own urgent battle fronts in the Pacific arena and against Hitler's army respectively.

      Click here for a detailed explanation
      of this map.

    3. Even before August of 1945, Japan had a plan for their Kwandong-goon troops and Japanese nationals retreating from Manchuria. Pyongyang was designated as the processing place center them. Thus, Pyongyang was a important logistic base for Kwandong-Goon, viewed from the Soviet Union.

    4. It is quite safe to say that Stalin was aware of this distribution of Japanese troops in Korea. There were two different Japanese military centers in Korea. One in Pyongyang (for Kwandong-Goon) and the other in Seoul (for the 17th Regional Army). He also knew that Kwandong-goon was sufficiently weak, while the 17th Regional Army consisted of never-surrounding Japanese soldiers determined to safeguard their homeland.

    5. Americans are not known for gathering accurate intelligence information. Manchuria was like the back of the moon. American war planners believed in Tojo's propaganda version of the Kwandong-Goon, an invincible army. They assumed that Japan would recall all those Kwandong-goon troops to the mainland during the forthcoming battle on the beaches of the mainland.

  • When Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met at the Livadia Palace near Yalta (Ukraine), Churchill was obsessed with Poland. He was only interested in keeping Poland out of the Soviet influence. Thus, one night, Roosevelt asked Stalin to meet without Churchill. They met, and Roosevelt asked Stalin again to attack Manchuria from Siberia.

  • Roosevelt was obsessed the the Kwandong-goon troops who would come from Manchuria to fight against Americans during the landing operations on the beaches of the Japanese mainland.

    Roosevelt at that time was thinking of the bloody Iwojima landing which was going to take place two weeks later. Almost all of 20,000 Japanese soldiers died, and 8,000 Americans died and 2,700 were wounded there.

    Thus, the best way was to let Soviets clean up those Kwandong-Goon troops in Manchuria before the landing operations in the Japanese mainland. In so asking, Roosevelt did not know Kwandong-Goon did not exist as a military unit.

    Stalin was wiser, and he knew Roosevelt was desperate. For his military operation against Japan, Stalin demanded a huge amount of military supplies from the United States, including 8000 GMC trucks. To Americans, it was nothing. During the war, the General Motors Corporation produced more than 500,000 GMC trucks.

    1. For European operations, GMC produced truck looking like this.

    2. For Pacific operations against Japan, the company (later) produced trucks looking like these. They were also used during the Korean war.

    3. Soviet troops came to Manchuria and to Korea without any Japanese resistance on those American GMC trucks looking like these. They were given to Stalin by Roosevelt at the Yalta conference. I saw those trucks in Korea before coming to the South in May of 1946. I assume Americans gave their trucks in Europe to Soviets after Germany surrendered in May of 1945. They looked like those GMC trucks produced for European operations.

  • Let us summarize the result of the Yalta conference. Stalin and Roosevelt talked. They wanted to let the other side do the dirtiest job. As a result, Soviets would take care of Kwandong-Goon with its logistic base in Pyongyang, and Americans would take care of the Japanese mainland defense force including the 17th Regional Army with its headquarters in Seoul.

    1. This was Stalin's understanding, but it is not clear whether Roosevelt was aware of these two distinct Japanese military units in Korea. He was a sick person. He died in April, two months after the Yalta meeting with Stalin. Perhaps he did not have time to give his briefings to appropriate officials of the U.S. government. This could be the reason why Dean Rusks never mentioned the Yalta conference when he was talking about the 38th parallel.

    2. This is precisely the reason why Stalin agreed to order his troops to stop at the 38th parallel, when asked by Rusk. Rusk's suggestion was coincidentally consistent with Stalin's agreement with Roosevelt at the Yalta conference.

    3. Rusk was a freshman at the State Department in 1945. If he did not know what happened in Yalta at that time, it is understandable. However, if he still did not know it after spending eight years (1961-69) as the Secretary of State, there was a problem with him, or with the State Department.

How do I know all these, while Dean Rusk did not?

  • The reason is very simple. I lived near the 38th parallel while Rusk was far away. My home village is about 12 km north of the 38th parallel, near the Kumipo beach where American missionaries were maintaining about 100 summer houses. Here is a photo of the mountain behind the beach taken from the Paeknyon Island (south of NLL). I was able to see the Island from the top of that mountain.

    Furthermore, my home village called "Sorae" is the place where Koreans built their first Presbyterian church in 1984. I was infant-baptized in this church, and I can tell you many interesting stories about this church which no one else can tell. Click here for some of my stories.

    Japanese military planners thought American would send their troops and tanks to this beach, and started building there bunkers and gun positions. This operation was conducted by the 17th Regional Army. There was a big welcoming ceremony when the commander of this army (lieutenant general) came to the village to encourage his troops. I remember seeing him. He had a white mustache.

      at Berlin's Brandenburg gate (2010). Needless to say, I was thinking about the Division of Korea in 1945.

  • According to Stalin's understanding, Americans should have come here. In fact, I once heard the village elders saying this. I assume they heard this from Soviet officers. Those Soviet troops left their home bases two days before the 38th parallel was mentioned at the Pentagon. Thus, they only received the order to wipe out the Kantonsky troops, but not to touch the Yaponsky (Japanese) belonging to the 17th Regional Army.

    Unfortunately, the 38th parallel was only an approximate dividing line, and it pushed my village to the Soviet side.

    The division of Korea was the most tragic event for Koreans in the 20th Century. I seems to be in a unique position to tell the details of how the 38th parallel was created.

  • This division resulted in the tragic Korean War which lasted from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953.
    Click here for a comprehensive review of this tragic war.