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The Two Junior US Government Employees Who Divided Korea

For most of our lives, there have been two Koreas: North and South. But, until the years after World War Two, this had never been the case. It was a single country that consumed the entire Korean peninsula, and though there were regional differences among its people, they shared a common history, language, and culture.

However, in the 20th-century, a handful of western powers took it upon themselves to draw borders as they saw fit, and Korea was no different. 

It was split into the two countries that we know today, along the 38th parallel.

Borders are important, and you may assume that the decision to divide Korea along this line was based on thorough research of historical and cultural significance. But that wasn’t the case. In fact, the two men who divided Korea had no background knowledge of the country or its history. Today, we’re going to explore Korea’s division, the men who drew the line, and this often problematic practice of uninformed westerns creating borders where they see fit.

One Korea

At the turn of the 20th-century, Korea was one unified country that had stood for over one thousand years, but they were no match for a bubbling superpower to the east, the rising sun of Japan. Japan had ambitions of domination throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and Korea was a central part of their plans to expand to the Asian mainland and eventually move into China.

This process began decades before the second world war, with the Russo-Japanese war. Both Russia and Japan had their sights set on Korea and Manchuria, the region in northeast China. Japan recognized that Russia was a formidable rival in the area and attempted to negotiate by offering them Manchuria in exchange for the Japanese control of Korea, but Russia refused. They countered by offering Japan all of the lands south of the 39th parallel.

Instead of negotiating further, Japan declared war on Russia, kicking off the Russo-Japanese War. The fighting lasted from 1904-1905 and ended with Russia’s defeat and the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Many Korean nationalist and radical groups attempted to overthrow their Japanese rulers but to no avail. Korea remained under the grip of the Rising Sun until the Japanese Empire’s fall following World War 2.

Two Koreas

Midway through World War 2, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek met to discuss plans for after the war. The three agreed that Japan would be required to cede all of the lands they had conquered outside of the country’s historical borders, including Korea.

FDR and Joseph Stalin also met on several occasions to discuss Korea’s division, with each country hoping to impose their ideology on the Asian nation. Two days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Russia called upon the Korean people to rise up against their imperial conquerors. Soviet troops moved into the Korean peninsula, forcing the United States to quickly put together a plan for the country.

So, two young officers—Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel (pronounced Bon-uh-steel)— were placed in charge of dividing the country. During the war, Rusk fought in southeast Asia and returned to the US in early 1945 to work for the war department. Bonesteel, meanwhile, spent World War Two in both America and Europe. 

Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel
Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel

It’s unclear why these two particular men were chosen for the job. Both later admitted that they were working on short notice and entirely unprepared for their task, but they did the job to the best of their limited abilities. 

Rusk and Bonesteel found a National Geographic map of Korea, and, after looking over it for some time, determined to place the border between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. This line would divide Korea almost perfectly in half while still keeping the capital and largest city, Seoul, in the Americans’ possession. This gave South Korea a population of about 16 million, and North Korea about 9 million.

The new border also happened to be about 69 miles south of where Russia had proposed dividing the country 40 years earlier. When asked about the similarity to the Russo-Japanese plans, both officers replied that they hadn’t known this relevant history and that they would’ve probably done it differently had they known.

Still, the plan was drawn up and sent to President Harry Truman, who approved it and sent it off to Stalin. Truman reportedly expected some pushback from Stalin but was surprised when the Soviet leader almost immediately agreed. So, the new border was approved in August of 1945 after Japan’s surrender and was officially established in 1948 with the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

The Korean War and the DMZ

Despite Rusk’s and Bonesteel’s hard work, the new border did not last long. Tensions were high throughout the two Koreas, especially since most of the peninsula’s residents preferred unification. Militias from both sides occasionally engaged in small firefights until, on 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army crossed the parallel and invaded South Korea. This sparked a United Nations resolution against the aggression and the Korean War, with United Nations troops (mostly Americans) defending South Korea.

The Korean War was a strange, seesawing affair. At the outset, North Korea drove back southern forces and took over 90% of South Korea’s territory. The South responded by pushing back the Northerners and taking 90% of the peninsula. The North Koreans then launched a counter-attack, which reached a stalemate around the 38th parallel. 

The Americans still wanted to push up to Pyongyang, but all other parties, including the UN, seemed resigned to allowing the border to rest along the jagged line that loosely resembled the original boundary. The Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, and it established a 4-kilometre-wide (2.5-mile) buffer zone between the two nations. 

This buffer zone was called the Korean Demilitarized Zone and has held firm as the dividing line between the two countries since its establishment. The partition runs for 248 kilometers (154 mi) across Korea and is still commonly referred to in the south as the Sampalseon, which means 38th-parallel. 

Since its establishment, the DMZ has been one of the strangest borders in the world. It became a symbol of the North and the South’s differences, as the Northern side utilizes low-tech communications equipment, and the South uses state-of-the-art technology. A regimen of Northern troops hold a small military ceremony each day, perhaps in an attempt to intimidate their neighbors.

moon jae-in 12th president of south korea
Moon Jae-in President of South Korea.By Jeon Han, is
licensed under CC-BY-SA

In recent years, though, this border has begun to change. In late 2018, a dialog between North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in led to a slight easing in tensions between the countries, culminating with President Moon stepping across the border into North Korea, a symbolic gesture of good faith. The two leaders also agreed to eventually allow civilians to cross the border and build a road between their nations. Of course, follow-through on these plans has been limited, as border crossings are rare, and the road between the two countries has yet to connect to an accessible route.

While it seems that the location of the border is now firmly set just off of the line drawn by those two officers all those decades ago, there’s no question that it remains a potential hotspot for developments, positive or negative. Both countries have taken steps to reduce the military presence near the DMZ, and, if relations continue to improve, perhaps border crossings will become routine. Who knows, maybe the day will come when the border is erased, and the two Koreas become one again.

Western Borders in Eastern Countries

While the division of Korea remains a somewhat puzzling tale, it isn’t incredibly unique. Throughout the 20th-century, western countries developed a bad habit of assigning dramatically underqualified diplomats or military officers to draw borders across territories they knew almost nothing about. More often than not, these ill-informed boundaries led to increased tensions or even open conflict.

One of the most famous examples is the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the United Kingdom and France. Two diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes of England and François-Edouard Picot of France, divided the post-Ottoman Middle East with a shocking disregard for the region’s realities. The two men drew a straight “line in the sand,” giving the territory above the line to the French, who sought Mediterranean ports, and the area south of the line to the English, who prioritized oil-rich lands.

This line would become the border between Iraq and Syria, an area that has been rife with conflict and devoid of security for decades. Unlike the heavily guarded Korean border, the line drawn by Sykes and Picot helped create the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State, who thrived in the empty vacuum of that border. Tensions in the region have gone relatively cold, but many local people still feel the repercussions of that line in the sand.

Another horrendously drawn border lies between India and Pakistan, two countries that, like Korea, had once been one. The job of creating the divide was given to a man named Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who never set foot in India before his assignment. Radcliffe was given five weeks to prepare for his decision, so he hurried off to the distant country only to discover that he absolutely detested it.

Radcliffe’s eventual border clearly revealed his lack of knowledge of the country, as it ultimately failed to accomplish its goal of cleanly separating the region into a predominantly Hindu country (India) and a strictly Muslim state (Pakistan). His border cut through neighborhoods and towns that shared a common identity and religion and placed so many people on the wrong side that 14-million people crossed his divide in the months following his decision.

Radcliffe allowed Kashmir to determine which country they would eventually join, apparently too wary of making his own informed choice on the matter. Of course, had he done so, he probably would’ve gotten it wrong somehow. Since Radcliffe’s line was drawn, the Pakistanis and Indians have gone to war several times, primarily due to disagreements over the border.

Radcliffe admitted that he could’ve worked harder to find a proper border, 

and he even refused to accept any payment for his time spent on the job. He claimed that someone would’ve been unhappy no matter where he placed the boundary, which is probably true but seems like a weak excuse for a job so poorly done.

Those are just two of the most infamous examples, but illogical borders abound throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. While the circumstances differ between many of the stories, one common theme remains. Many of the world’s most tense regions seem to fall along borders drawn by white men with little knowledge of the people whose lives they were affecting.


What do you think? Was the division of Korea a terrible decision that led to the current dire circumstances? Or was it a best-case scenario for a peninsula that was bound to be fought over by the Cold War powers of the USA and USSR?

What about the parallels between the Korean situation and the rest of the world’s poorly placed boundaries? Is there something to the argument that these arbitrary borders actually lead to conflict? Or is it the fact that they tend to be drawn in countries recovering from decades, if not centuries, of colonial rule?

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