THE critical decision to divide Korea at the Thirty-eighth Parallel has never been fully explained and thus has been a subject of considerable curiosity and dispute during the past five years. Sufficient information is now available to refute definitely the erroneous but widespread impression that Korea's future was decided at Yalta.

Although one of the reasons why the Big Three met at Yalta in February 1945 was to secure definite assurances of Russian participation in the war against Japan and to fix its timing, the conference was not extensively concerned with the Far East[i] and gave almost no attention to Korea. The top secret document "Terms for the Entry of the Soviet Union into the War Against Japan" drawn up at Yalta did not contain a single reference to Korea, either explicitly or by implication.[ii]

The question of the future of Korea seems to have been touched on in the Yalta talks in two respects only and then quite inconclusively. At one point, the trusteeship plan, to replace the old League of Nations system of mandates which had been under development for some time, was brought up and passing mention was made of a multi-power trusteeship for Korea.[iii] The discussion of the trusteeship problem was concluded, however, with a formal agreement that the actual areas to be placed under trusteeship should be decided later.[iv] President Roosevelt and Stalin are also known to have agreed that foreign troops would not be stationed in Korea, an understanding which had absolutely no significance in view of the later occupation by both Russian and American forces.[v]

We now know that our military experts continuously overestimated Japan's potentialities as an enemy and that, even without the atomic bomb, Japan was very near the end of her industrial and military rope in August 1945.[vi] On the basis of mistaken intelligence, our leaders were led to believe that Russian participation in the Pacific war was vital as late as July 1945.[vii] Thus the real significance of the Yalta conference as far as Korea was concerned was that it secured Russian entry into the war and thereby made Russian activity in Korea virtually inevitable.

It was not until several months after Yalta that a trusteeship for Korea was definitely decided upon, although the way had been cleared for this decision by a prior exchange of ideas between Washington and Moscow and also London and Chungking. In May 1945, at President Truman's request, Harry Hopkins made his last trip to Moscow. On May 28, Hopkins cabled the President a summary of his conversations with Stalin, including a statement that the Russian leader had definitely agreed "that there should be a trusteeship for Korea under the United States, China, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union."[viii]

On July 26, 1945, President Truman, Prime Minister Attlee and Chiang Kai-shek announced the Potsdam Declaration which set forth the basis for the unconditional surrender of Japan and reaffirmed the Cairo Declaration of December 1943 to make Korea independent "in due course."[ix] A fortnight later, the Soviet Union, in its declaration of war against Japan dated August 8, 1945, indicated its adherence to the Potsdam Declaration, and thereby to the promise to grant Korea her independence.

The second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9, the day Russian troops first got into action in Manchuria. On August 10, the Japanese Government announced its willingness to accept unconditional surrender and asked for an armistice. Sometime within the next four days the decision was made to divide Korea at the Thirty-eighth Parallel. Occasionally this decision has been erroneously imputed to General MacArthur. As a matter of fact, it originated in Washington and was only communicated to MacArthur after being expressly approved by the President.[x]

On August 11, a draft of the instructions which MacArthur was to present to the Japanese concerning the procedure for the surrender of their armed forces was considered by the State-War-Navy Coördinating Committee. It was passed on to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for "review" and "revision as deemed necessary." From August 12 to 14 the draft was in the hands of the Joint Chiefs.

Meanwhile, Russian operations in Korea began on August 12 with amphibious landings at Unggi and Najin, two seaports in extreme northeastern Korea just a little over 100 miles from the main Russian base at Vladivostok. Enough information can now be pieced together from official and unofficial sources to say quite definitely that the decision to occupy Korea south of the Thirty-eighth Parallel with American troops originated with the Joint Chiefs and more specifically in the War Department.[xi]

What apparently happened was that certain staff officers in the War Department took note of the latest operations reports that Russian forces were already on the ground and realized that this precluded our accepting the surrender of all Japanese forces in Korea. It was then agreed that for tactical reasons we should occupy as much of Korea as was still feasible.[xii] During the period the surrender document was being readied, Russian forces made other amphibious landings at Wonsan, the port and oil refinery center on the east cost of Korea, much further to the south than the landings of August 12. Yet there was still the possibility of American forces getting possession of Seoul, which, besides being the capital, is by far the most populous city in Korea. Thus the line of 38° North Latitude which lay somewhat north of Seoul and south of the furthermost point of reported Russian operations was selected.

Undoubtedly the Thirty-eighth Parallel was chosen in the light of the most limited tactical considerations only, for the boundary had virtually nothing to commend it. The line cuts across Korea where the country approaches its greatest breadth and at one point on the west coast it intersects and isolates from the rest of South Korea an important peninsular area which extends southward. On this peninsula, and elsewhere as well, several important towns were precariously close to the border. It was in one such town in 1948 that the first American soldier was killed in combat with North Koreans when his patrol was ambushed while on routine duty. The untenable economic situation which the line created has been discussed many times.

There can be no doubt that the Soviet Union would have been most pleased to occupy all of Korea. The record of demands and concessions at Yalta indicates that, while Korea was not discussed, the Soviet Union was interested in regaining at least as favorable a position in the Far East as that which prevailed before Russia's defeat by Japan in 1905. Following the declaration of war on August 8, 1945, Soviet forces moved very rapidly to occupy the Japanese territories in which the primacy of Russian interests was now recognized. Soviet airborne troops parachuted to effect the occupation of Dairen, Port Arthur and the Kuriles, and Soviet amphibious forces swept across the island of Sakhalin, all in a matter of days.

It should be added that Russia's territorial gains in the Far East in 1945 were not exclusively the result of the American desire for Soviet participation in the Pacific war. The United States was also responding to Chiang Kaishek's expressed wish to improve his relations with the U.S.S.R. Chiang wanted the United States to work out some agreement with Russia which would clarify the status of the controversial areas in the Far East before the war ended, and was apparently willing to make important concessions in the hope that this would minimize the difficulties he would face after the war.[xiii]

From 1896 to 1898 the Korean Government was strongly susceptible to Russian influence. During this period the Korean king took refuge in the Russian legation from the Japanese who had kept him a virtual prisoner in his own palace.[xiv] The immoderate character of subsequent Russian demands alienated the Koreans and this influence was lost. Again, immediately before the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Russian representations in Korea were intensified and important concessions were sought, including the port of Yongampo at the mouth of the Yalu River, timber rights in the Yalu valley, and ports on Korea's south coast. If, in 1945, Russian foreign policy still reacted to its "inner drives" of the era before 1905, Korea was certain not to be overlooked.

There were, incidentally, two occasions before 1905 when the Thirty-eighth Parallel line had more than geodetic significance. In 1896, General Yamagata Aritomo, the builder of the modern Japanese army and one of the chief architects of an aggressive Japanese foreign policy, proposed to the Russian Government that Korea be divided into Russian and Japanese spheres of influence north and south of the Thirty-eighth Parallel respectively. Russia rejected this offer because she still hoped to get control of all of Korea.[xv] In January 1904, just shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, Russia instructed her Far Eastern commander that any Japanese penetration north of the Thirty-eighth Parallel should be met with force.[xvi] Since 1945 the historical significance of the Thirty-eighth Parallel has been commented on in a number of places,[xvii] but our military planners in the Pentagon were no doubt unaware of these precedents when they made their "purely ad hoc military decision." It is also ironic to note that while our decision to occupy Korea was a purely military one--that is, made by military men--it was the Department of Defense which maintained for a year or more before the Korean war began that the country lay outside our perimeter of defense in the Western Pacific.[xviii] The State Department's task of explaining American commitments to Korea before Congress was made much more difficult because of the position taken by the Defense Department.

On August 15, 1945, after the directive on the Japanese surrender had been "reviewed" and "revised" by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and approved by the State-War-Navy Coördinating Committee and the President, it was communicated to MacArthur in Manila and to the Russian and British Governments. Stalin requested amendments to the order and these were subsequently made, but he made no reference to the Thirty-eighth Parallel.[xix]

As it happened, American forces did not reach Korea until September 8, almost a month after the Japanese had first agreed to surrender. The Soviet forces had already penetrated as far south as Seoul but withdrew north of the Thirty-eighth Parallel when the U. S. troops arrived. Informed American military opinion believes that the Soviet Union could have overrun the entire peninsula before the American occupation forces arrived from Okinawa, since Japanese resistance had virtually ceased on September 2.[xx]

Why, then, did Russia accept without question the Thirty-eighth Parallel demarcation line? While a conclusive explanation cannot, of course, be given, several possible reasons can be suggested as to why this was the most practicable course for the Kremlin to follow.

On August 15, Russian troops were still encountering stiff resistance from the crack Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria and in North Korea. The Soviet leaders had no way of knowing how long the Japanese troops would try to hold out--how long it would be before they complied with their Emperor's order for them to lay down their arms. Moreover, it was hardly possible on that date to judge the actual timing of the American arrival in Korea. The large American outpost on Okinawa is only about 600 air miles from Pusan, the largest port on Korea's southern coast, and 850 air miles from Inchon on the west coast near Seoul, where our troops actually landed. Thus the Kremlin would appear to have had no assurance that our forces would not be in Korea before Soviet columns could cross the Thirty-eighth Parallel.

The strength of the American resolve to occupy part of Korea was problematical. To have pressed for an all-Russian occupation would have aroused American suspicions, perhaps, without yielding any changes in the final surrender instructions dispatched to General MacArthur. Furthermore, the creation of an open breach in Allied solidarity at this time could have jeopardized the heavy concessions already won. It was of the utmost importance to the Russian leaders that they be represented on the veranda deck of the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrender was formally accepted.

The fact that one temporarily secret program of concessions--the Terms for the Entry of the Soviet Union into the War Against Japan--was negotiated at Yalta proved to be sufficient ground for the frequently repeated but never substantiated charges that concessions were also made concerning Korea. Months before the secret agreement with the Soviet Union on the Far East was made public, Syngman Rhee, now the president of Korea, made the charge that Korea had been handed over to the Russians at Yalta. These assertions persisted even after the publication of the document and in the absence of any evidence.

Another source of confusion has been a failure to distinguish the decision to divide Korea for the purposes of a joint occupation from the trusteeship issue. Trusteeship was a favorite idea of President Roosevelt, and, as early as March 1943, he suggested a trusteeship for Korea to Anthony Eden while the latter was in Washington.[xxi] Both Eden and Churchill expressed distaste for the whole trusteeship idea, but, appreciating Roosevelt's attachment to the scheme, committed themselves in principle to the incorporation of a trusteeship plan in the future United Nations Charter.

Trusteeship for Korea, in particular, proved to be a failure for several reasons. It would have demanded a much greater degree of coöperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two principal trustees (China and the United Kingdom were the others), than the tenuous solidarity which prevailed during World War II. The negotiations between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the two years preceding American reference of the Korean problem to the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1947 were an early demonstration that, in the absence of any underlying community of interest, such coöperation was not possible.

Trusteeship invited both Russia and the United States to stir in the Korean pot and the results indicate that the Koreans surely would not have done worse if left strictly alone. The Koreans, having struggled for 40 years to win their independence from Japan, were openly hostile to the trusteeship plan making this independence conditional. Even the Communist-dominated political groups at first joined in the demonstrations against trusteeship when it was outlined by the Council of Foreign Ministers in Moscow in December 1945.

Contrary to the charge that American policy followed a plan laid down at Yalta, the evidence is that there was remarkably little advance agreement concerning Korea before the defeat of Japan. As was indicated above, trusteeship for Korea was still indefinite at the time of Roosevelt's death in April 1945 and was not formally established until the Moscow meeting more than three months after Korea was occupied. Unlike the Allied occupation of Germany,[xxii] which was preceded by considerable discussion and agreement, at Yalta and elsewhere, the future of Korea was left to a military decision rendered on the eve of the Japanese surrender. Roosevelt's death preceded both the genesis and execution of this decision.

[i] Only the 12th and 21st of the 24 meetings of the conference dealt with the Far East. See "Summary of the Major Diplomatic Meetings at the Yalta Conference," in Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., "Roosevelt and the Russians." New York: Doubleday, 1949, p. 327-330.

[ii] Ibid., p. 351-52.

[iii] See George M. McCune with the collaboration of the present writer, "Korea Today." Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950, p. 43.

[iv] "Protocol of the Proceedings of the Crimea Conference," section on territorial trusteeship, Stettinius, op. cit., p. 343.

[v] Robert E. Sherwood, "Roosevelt and Hopkins." New York: Harper, 1948, p. 868.

[vi] Jerome Cohen, "Japan's Economy in War and Reconstruction." Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1949, p. 48-49.

[vii] Stettinius, op. cit., 96. Also see Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, "On Active Service in Peace and War." New York: Harper, 1948, p. 618-619.

[viii] Sherwood, op. cit., p. 903.

[ix] In the Cairo Declaration, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang stated that their governments, "mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent." The Potsdam Declaration stated that "The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out . . ."

[x] For this statement and much of the discussion that follows see Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 81st Congress, 1st Sess., Hearings on H.R. 5330, "Korean Aid." U. S. Govt. Printing Office, Washington, D. C., June 8-23, 1949, especially p. 118-119. The Committee members expressed a good deal of interest in how the Thirty-eighth Parallel demarcation line originated. Under Secretary of State James Webb yielded to this interest and furnished the members with a heretofore confidential explanation of the matter. This was the first time that a fairly complete official account of the decision was made public.

[xi] John M. Allison, Deputy Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs, Department of State, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, op. cit., p. 40, that the boundary was selected by the "State-War-Navy Coördinating Committee acting on War Department recommendation."

[xii] For some time after the Japanese surrender it was officially maintained in Washington that American troops entered Korea only to facilitate the surrender of Japanese troops, and indeed this was the nominal reason. During the year preceding the Communist invasion, however, military spokesmen showed a willingness to explain the occupation as the "best" that could be done under the circumstances to prevent Russia from taking all of Korea.

[xiii] See J. Patrick White, "New Light on Yalta," Far Eastern Survey, May 31, 1950, especially p. 108-109. Mr. White's conclusions are based largely upon the Department of State white paper, "United States Relations with China," 1949, 1054 p. It should be noted, of course, that, while the Chinese attitude encouraged the drawing up of the Far Eastern agreement, the document unfortunately remained a secret from the Chinese Government for fear of security leaks at Chungking to Japan, and that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill in effect bound their governments to enforce upon China an agreement to which she was not a party.

[xiv] A detailed account of Russia's attempts to influence the Korean Government is given in M. Frederick Nelson, "Korea and the Old Orders in Eastern Asia." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1945, p. 232 ff.

[xv] William L. Langer, "The Diplomacy of Imperialism." New York: Knopf, 1934, vol. 1, p. 406.

[xvi] This incident is discussed in Malozemoff, "The Origins of the Russo-Japanese War 1894-1904," an unpublshed M.A. thesis on file in the University of California Library, Berkeley, 1934, p. 112.

[xvii] See especially Shanon McCune, "The Thirty-eighth Parallel in Korea," World Politics, January 1949, p. 225.

[xviii] Our line of defense in the Western Pacific was declared to extend south from the Aleutians through Japan, the Ryukyus (Okinawa), and the Philippines.

[xix] House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "Korean Aid," op. cit., p. 118.

[xx] Ibid., p. 46. Testimony of Brig. Gen. Charles G. Helmick.

[xxi] "The Memoirs of Cordell Hull." New York: Macmillan, 1948, p. 1596.

[xxii] See Philip E. Mosely, "The Occupation of Germany: New Light on How the Zones Were Drawn," Foreign Affairs, July 1950, p. 580-604.

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