View of Seoul circa 1900.

Korea’s place in the world: the partition of Korea

This article is the second of a series of four. The following provide historical background: Part 1 on late 19th and early 20th century history, and Part 3 on the Korean War. Part 4 is an in-depth analysis that attempts to shed light on the part Korea plays in contemporary geopolitics and the shakeup of global power.

World War II and its aftermath repartitioned the world among international powers: nation states and their alliances. Thus was made a new world order of partners and contenders, hegemons, medium powers, and small nations. The world was divided into a new hierarchy of international blocs, confederations, and alliances that divided the planet’s territories between them. The ruling elites of each country or region joined the various camps either willingly or they were compelled to do so. This outcome depended on ideoligies of each nation state’s dominant leaders and their perceived group interests. Or, it was thrust upon the nation by force of arms, bribery, blackmail, and other means of coercion. These may or may not have been in the interests of the affected people, mostly they had no say in the matter as their leaders, historic conditions, and geopolitics decided on the outcome.

Korea was not in a condition for its leaders to make a sovereign decision without stern outside interference. The country had been under Japanese rule for well over three decades before the global war’s conclusion. Its people had been brutally colonised, oppressed, and deeply shamed. Survival for most, under Japanese rule, meant you had to keep your head down and forcibly accept imperial command. Even if it meant formally changing your name to a Japanese one, and living with the fact that the Korean language was barred from public education. This made small collaborators out of many, who had to deal with Japanese military presence in their massed forces, with bureaucrats, and with entrepreneurs. Effectively, many people had to deal with and interact with those occupiers in whom ultimate authority did rest.

Resistance within the peninsula was not unheard of, but it was aggressively repressed, with dire and life threatening consequence for those who took to it. Saboteurs could be executed and the consequences of resistance made public so that the people would know what to expect if they stood against their colonisation. Terror and humiliation were tools of domination, the scars of which are yet open in Korean society and memory.

Some Koreans went farther. They collaborated in great measure. These were the ruling elites and senior managers, many of them previous members of the then formally disbanded aristocracy. They kept power and were promoted in measure with their compliance with and enthusiastic support of Japanese rule, along with attempted redefinition of Korea and Koreanness. These were the people who commanded kill squads, administered the subjugation and integration of the local economy with that of the imperial one, set up and ran the secret police, infiltrated local collectives that were noncompliant in order to bag political prisoners or have these people murdered. They also organised the sexual slavery of many women, to serve the combating Japanese soldiers and their Korean auxilia. These women are euphemistically called ‘comfort women’.

Remember, war did not cease after the conquest of Korea. Japan was yet at war, and Korea, as a subject colony, was dragged along with it. Japan was fighting throughout East Asia, conquering chunks of China as well as colonies of Europe in Southeast Asia. The warfare in and subjugation of northeast China, Manchuria, had major impact on Korean history. This region held a significant number of Korean communities, along with communist and anti-colonial guerrillas.

The partition of Korea

Prior to the launching of and arrival of the Second World War to the region, East Asia was already fighting a protracted war between multiple parties. Japan was establishing an empire on the mainland. It had conquered Korea and was colonising it. Multiple parts of China were occupied or subject to new imperial authority, while war waged between the island country and the mainland giant. The giant, China, was in the midst of an intermittent civil. Korean anticolonial groups put up some political resistance, and their guerrillas based in northeastern China’s Manchuria fought militarily against occupation.

The embrace of that already enormous regional warfare into the theatre of World War meant that the US and Stalinist Soviet Union entered directly into the conflict. The two new entrants were officially allies1 against fascist enemy countries, and they together combated the Japanese Empire. The US formally declared war on Japan on 8 December 1941, and the Soviet Union did so on 9 August 1945. German surrender had been signed on 8 August 1945, and the US nuclear armed bombardments of Japan took place on 6 August (Hiroshima) and 9 August (Nagasaki).

Following German surrender, The focus of attention in global warfare could and did shift from Europe to East Asia. Japan officially surrendered on 2 September 1945 (a copy of an original document of surrender can be seen here).

Near the end of World War II, bordering Soviet troops moved into northeastern China and were quickly defeating Japanese allied forces there. The US then decided upon a line demarcating the division of Korea between its own and a Soviet zone in order that an agreement could be made before developing facts on the ground decided matters for them. They drew the line along the 38th parallel, chosen thus because it geographically broke the country into two roughly equal halves while maintaining the capital city, Seoul, under US control. Joseph Stalin, leader of the USSR, promptly agreed to this division and each party sent in their troops to the section corresponding to their share. The country was supposed to be under a short trusteeship before it was granted independence as unified Korea. We know that this outcome didn’t come to pass.

The reconstitution of East Asia

Following the defeat of Japan and with the conclusion of World War II, a new division of territories began to take form along the lines of a fresh balance of powers.

Korea was divided into two zones, though this was supposed to have been a temporary period of trusteeship before unification under a single new government after no more than five years time 2.

The Empire of Japan was defeated and lost its conquered territories. The country itself was occupied by the US and run by the victor nation for about seven years, until 28 April 1952. The ruling elites of that country were not systematically dethroned though some individuals lost power or their lives due to execution after having been found guilty of war crimes.

Japanese war criminals are defined as those found guilty by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and in other trials of Class B and C defendants. A second grouping is more nebulous: those who had conspicuously criminal pasts or were suspected criminals held for a time by Allied authorities. Occupation authorities often detained members of this second group on the suspicion of crimes, sometimes with documented evidence, but in many cases did not indict the detainees. The reasons for this are varied and complex, but they relate less to legal considerations than to postwar geopolitics, a shortage of resources at the disposal of SCAP’s Legal Section, and domestic U.S. opinion, which was eager to move beyond the war years. As Cold War concerns drew the attention of American policymakers, targeting individuals for legal justice was set while the trail of evidence grew colder and potential defendants died. A final related category involves individuals who were members of organizations that became notorious for war crimes, such as the kenpeitai (the Japanese military police), or were influential people who worked closely with and supported the major war criminals found guilty of Class A war crimes. The majority of these people were not charged. In one way or another, the U.S. supported questionable postwar activities of Japanese in all three categories3.

This is relevant for numerous reasons. By maintaining the framework and keeping many of the individuals of an ultra-nationalist and imperialist Japan in power after that country’s reframing as a republic, Japan remains relatively isolated from some of the region’s politics due to a lack of trust on the part of past victims. The country then became and is still today used as a major US military outpost that houses many bases and over 50,000 military personnel4.

Though World War II had come to an end, conflict did not cease in the region. China’s civil war resumed once Japan was removed from the equation. It was waged between the Kuomintang government of the republic and the Communist Party of China. The imperial Qing dynasty that previously ruled over a united country had come to an end in 1912 and was replaced by a centrally weak republic whose regions and provinces were often ruled by nominally independent though formally subservient lords. Civil war erupted in 1927. There was a formal pause in active fighting during the war against Japanese occupation that lasted from 1937 to 1945. The civil war was picked up after that. By 1950, the communists won the mainland of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), while the Kuomintang maintained its last foothold in Taiwan. The government of Taiwan still claims sovereignty over the entirety of China, and is formally known as the Republic of China. The PRC also claims sovereignty over the island of Taiwan, seeing it as a rebel enclave. The civil war, therefore, is not yet over despite the earlier spread of revolution over the mainland.

The competing parties of Korea

The division of Korea into two zones, north and south, articulated geopolitical tensions between international powers as well as internal stresses within a weary and traumatised Korean domestic body. Two main forces emerged, that of the governments that today make up the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and the People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

What has become the governing body of the People’s Republic of Korea was established from the remnants of communist anti-colonial guerrilla fighters that struggled against Japanese occupation. Their persistent refusal to submit to colonisation, but also to fight for independence, won them a degree of respect among the broad populace. Their politics, meanwhile, were articulated in a promise to give land and wealth to the masses of structurally poor peasants (majority) and workers (much less in number but still large when compared to the wealthy). As mentioned in a previous article, struggles for a redistribution of land were not new to the region and had arisen before; namely that peasants would demand rights to small plots of land loosened from the backbreaking demands of their landed lords. Furthermore, their discipline as fighters and political collectivity as members of a communist party was an advantage. It gave them organisational structure, had provided them with valuable political experience, and helped the core members to form bonds of solidarity and trust between each other in the face of extremely dangerous situations.

The leaders of North Korea did have a further thing going for them: that their opponent’s leaders had tainted reputations. The first leaders of what became the Republic of Korea in the south were in great part made up of the most ardent and powerful of Korean collaborators to Japanese colonial rule. Despite the fact that the particular status of aristocrat no longer existed, these same southern leaders also tended to be descendants of this feudal class, and they still possessed much of the land and wealth of their predecessors.

At the time, South Korea was under US occupation and direction, following which there were periods of dictatorship pressed by drives for liberal democratisation. Today, South Korea is a parliamentary democracy, and it has attempted (and was pushed into by popular rage) to confront the atrocities of its past by undergoing a process to recognise and shed light on the massacres of tens of thousands of civilians along with a practice of terror that was imposed on a population in order for the ruling elites to maintain and extend their control. These once aristocrats, once collaborators of Japanese imperialism, then US imposed and supported leaders of South Korea had primarily two problems to face down. One was the communist North Korean successes in forming what was at that time a genuinely popular government that encompassed half of the country’s land-mass. The second issue was that the south itself was populated by people who expected or hoped for something decent to come in these changing times. Leadership for the south was thus challenged by separate but sizable peoples, peasants and workers committees (which had no relation with parties to the north). These groups sometimes ignored their government’s mandate and governed workplaces, towns or regions according to their own volition. At the least, they constituted the threat of a parallel political force that contested the shaky authority of South Korea’s official leadership at that time.

The South Korean government mandated Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRCK) was launched in 2005. It investigated the mass murder and summary execution of citizens by its founding government and its allies, reviewed events surrounding the far smaller dead as a result of North Korean aggression in the early years of the post World War II period, highlighted the deliberate mass destruction of towns and villages in the south by US aerial bombardment during the Korean War, and noted that the majority of the US empowered South Korean leadership were composed of the same Korean oppressors who had actively participated in Japan’s brutally imposed colonisation of the country. In fact, as a historian of Korean history, Bruce Cumings has put it, estimates indicate “that upward of 90 percent of the pre-1990 South Korea elite had ties to collaborationist families or individuals”5.

To quote a former standing commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Kim Dong-choon:

More than 2 million people were killed during the Korean War. […] Few are aware that the Korean authorities as well as US and allied forces massacred hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilians at the dawn of the Korean War on June 25, 1950. The official records of government, military and police, as well as survivor testimonies, reveal that mass killings committed by South Korean and U.N forces occurred before and during the Korean War (June 1950 to July 1953).

Despite the damning nature of its findings, the Commission was a compromise solution with “built in limitations”. Kim Dong-choon writes the following in an overview and assessment document:

These limitations grew in large part from the Framework Act’s origin as a political compromise between the conservative and liberal parties in the National Assembly in May 2005. The conservative Grand National Party (GNP), which generally represented the offenders’ position and interests, fiercely opposed the bill when it was introduced, and thus the liberal Uri Party had to agree to the creation of the TRCK with a restricted mandate in order to secure enough votes to pass the Assembly. In other words, the conservatives, who had directly or indirectly benefited from the past authoritarian rule and thus could potentially suffer negative consequences from the TRCK’s work, opposed the Framework Act itself and forced a deep compromise on the ruling Uri Party. This compromise was likewise reflected in the selection and composition of the commissioners.

These are important observations to take note of, because then it becomes clear that the division of Korea is an ongoing civil war that has lasted decades, and that has become a matter of international significance thanks to the involvement of world powers.

North Korea’s early years cemented the existing leading cadre in power. The head of state has been in the hands of the same family for three generations, starting with Kim Il-sung, and passed down from father to son. This period of hereditary rule is not written into any law, but it is a living and existing practice. The core of the political leadership have maintained their positions of power as individuals and as families, often intermarrying within an inner circle. Many of these core leaders were former guerrilla fighters, who notably fought fierce battles against the Empire of Japan in Manchuria. They also fought against Japan’s top Korean accomplices, a significant number of whom later entered into the senior leadership of what became South Korea. Therefore, North Korea’s on average very old of age leadership has had long and direct memory as well as experience with a likewise informally hereditary counterpart to the south.

Here is an excerpt from a North Korean newspaper article for the sixth party congress (1980):

Kim Il Sung is… the great father of our people… possessed of greatest love for the people. Long is the history of the word father used as a word representing love and reverence… expressing the unbreakable blood ties between the people and the leader. Father. This familiar word represents our people’s single heart of boundless respect and loyalty… The love shown by the Great Leader for our people is love of kinship… Our respected and beloved Leader is the tender-hearted father of all the people… Love of paternity… is the noblest ideological sentiment possessed only by our people, which cannot be explained by any theory or principle or fathomed by anything6.

This patriarchal model is here said to supersede all other political models, theories, or principles. This approach has strong similarities to that of a monarchy, even if informal, or more precisely to a mystified extension of a patriarchal family whose members must show devotion to an ordained father figure.

The state and social structure that has there been developed is a moral and moralising one whose principles of self-reliance and self-determination are responses to region’s history of colonialism and to the political economic struggles of the majority peasant populations that were present at the foundation of North Korea (peasants constituted about 75% of the population at that time7).

Family lineage and the inherited political power that that engenders within the top tier of ruling elites generates a particular form of social being along with a particular social consciousness. A dynastic and patriarchal set of relations is vulnerable to the moral character of the ruling individuals involved. In this sense, the country can hardly be called a communist one, if by that we understand to include the social, political andeconomic empowerment of the people in all dimensions. The question remains, has the highly secretive North Korean state developed a rather corporatist neo-Confucian model, thus the family ties and reliance on morality. If so, it is in keeping with some form of old traditions.

North Korea did, however break with tradition in some very important ways. It did away with many of the practical and structural modes of economic servitude that governed the lives of the vast majority of people at the time of that state’s foundation. Land was fundamentally redistributed, breaking the hold of the landed class. In 1946, peasants received titles of ownership to the land and homes they inhabited and worked. These titles could be passed down the generations of the family but it was not permitted for them to be sold on a real estate market8). The prohibition on such sales was made to prevent the loss of title over time and the progressive concentration of land in the hands of a new landed class.

So, we can see here the establishment of two very different major power blocs, in the south and in the north. They were fundamentally antagonistic with one another, and the likelihood of an open civil war was therefore rather high. The (anti)colonial war, then, was likely to extend itself past the defeat of the Empire of Japan. In fact, it did just that. That civil war was joined by others from the outside, and developed into what is today called the Korean War.

This article is the second of a series of four. The following provide historical background: Part 1 on late 19th and early 20th century history, and Part 3 on the Korean War. Part 4 is an in-depth analysis that attempts to shed light on the part Korea plays in contemporary geopolitics and the shakeup of global power.


For in-depth historical and cultural background on Korea, read Bruce Cumings’ books: The Korean War: A HistoryKorea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, and North Korea: Another Country. Also see US major general William F. Dean’s account of his impressions while in North Korean captivity during war with that people, written in the book, General Dean’s Story.

1. See these US government commissioned films on the reasons for alliance with the Soviet Union, Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia Part 1 and Part 2. See also another part of this series of films for another interesting piece of propaganda, Why We Fight: The Battle of China.

2. See section III of a 27 December 1945 Soviet-Anglo-American Communique on that and related subjects.

3. Michael Petersen, The Intelligence That Wasn’t: CIA Name Files, the U.S. Army, and Intelligence Gathering in Occupied Japan, National Archives and Records Administration for the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, 2006, p. 199. (accessed 24 May 2018).

4. The greatest concentration of bases is on the island of Okinawa. For example, see a 2011 report by the Okinawa Prefectural Government.

5. Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History. (Random House Publishing Group: 2010) Chapter 2: The Party of Memory, para. 33

6. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country. (New Press: 2003) Chapter 5: The World’s First Postmodern Dictator, para. 34

7. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country. (New Press: 2003) Chapter 4: Daily Life in North Korea, para. 6

8. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country. (New Press: 2003) Chapter 4: Daily Life in North Korea, para. 6

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