North Korea: Origin Story

Most Americans don’t know how Korea came to be partitioned, which is an embarrassment given the political oppression and violence that both Koreas have experienced as a result.

One proposed territorial breakdown of control of Germany, 1945

It ought to go down in history along with the other great “arbitrary lines drawn on a map” – every one of which has been a political and humanitarian disaster: the partition of Palestine, The partition of Germany, the Partition of Vietnam and the partition of Korea. 1945 was when they partitioned Germany, and it probably seemed like a good idea, since the Red Army had a good head of steam up and was going to flatten everything until it got to Belgium, unless the US and UK did something to stop them without conflict. So the victorious powers met at Potsdam and divided up the country, as well as dividing up its colonial properties and conquests, which were substantial.


Germany was a mess, at the time, since it contained not only massive populations of internally displaced Germans, it had populations that had been moved there by the Nazis before the collapse – 8 million foreign displacees, including around 1/2 million prisoners from concentration camps or forced labor camps. Most of the world, post WWII, was in a similar situation: a great big mess, but a desire to stop the killing. So, the military status quo pretty rapidly became the new lines on the map. In the case of Germany, the lines on the map were not drawn with a ruler; they were established by the traditional method: soldiers with guns glaring at each other while sharing cigarettes and their hoarded supplies of sweets and alcohol. Eventually those lines became fences, then walls, then national borders.

Then there was 1947. 1947 was a bad year for partitioning: India (into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) and Palestine. In the case of Palestine/Israel, the United Nations drew lines on the map. These were adjustment lines reflecting the new political reality of Germany’s defeat which were complicated by the earlier adjustments following WWI and the final carving-up of the Ottoman Empire (which hadn’t worked too well). The partition of India was also complicated; initially it was simple: muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, but eventually Burma, Ceylon, and Bangladesh peeled away. Remember that Japan had threatened the underbelly of India, through its invasion from Singapore up into Burma. It is hard for us, who grew up after it happened, to understand how profoundly WWII attempted to re-draw the maps, “India” under the British covered everything from Baluchistan and Kashmir to Burma – it was not a unified ‘nation’ and it broke back apart more or less along lines similar to its pre-imperial constituencies. The way India was broken up was based on the “Mountbatten Plan” – basically, Louis Mountbatten, British viceroy (literally “stunt king”) broke imperial India up in to chunks along ethnic and religious lines to stop the whole thing from fragmenting violently into sectarian genocide. It wasn’t an easy process then and it isn’t sitting easily now – any more than the partitioning of the former Ottoman Empire or Palestine is sitting easily. For those of us who didn’t grow up in WWII it’s hard to understand what “1 million displaced people” means or looks like, but between 14 million and 20 million people displaced during the partition of India.

The other big chunk of imperial possessions that got carved up was China and Korea; Japan had conquered Korea in 1910 and had ruthlessly crushed any resistance, while trying to turn Korea into a virtual slave-state. The Japanese attempted to create a similar situation in Manchuria – a section of China that bumped up against Mongolia and the USSR at the top and Korea at the bottom. During WWII the Japanese further extended territorial conquests into China, but when the Japanese war effort began to collapse, as the Americans closed in across the Pacific, The Red Army turned a bit of its attention from Germany (which had since surrendered) re-deploying and preparing to start stomping its way down through Japanese-conquered territory.

The Red Army was, for all intents and purposes, unstoppable at that time, except for by a power with something like nuclear weapons.

There is still a great deal of debate about when Japan accepted it was going to lose, and when it decided it was going to surrender, and how, but there is no doubt at all that the Japanese were factoring in how the US had treated the surrendered parts of Germany that it controlled, and how the USSR was likely to treat Japan if the Red Army came down through the Korean peninsula and had its way with Japan. Americans are raised with a pretty fiction that “we had to use nuclear weapons on Japan to get them to surrender” but that’s almost entirely a lie – the Japanese were already trying to surrender, and were (not being entirely stupid) looking with horror at how The Red Army was gearing up to deal with Manchuria – and, by extension, Korea and the Japanese mainland. There were 1.4 million Red Army soldiers squaring off against 700,000 tired and relatively poorly equipped Japanese; it was Bambi vs Godzilla. Japan was redeploying pieces of the Manchurian army (the “Kwangtung army”) to orient toward the Pacific theater – basically the remaining troops were going to have the unenviable mission of dying in place to slow the Red Army down. So, the 700,000 in Kwangtung (“Bambi”) was shrinking rapidly, while The Red Army (“Godzilla”) was building toward 2 million. Then, things happened relatively quickly – observe the sequence:

  1. August 6: The US destroys Hiroshima using a mysterious super-weapon
  2. August 8: The USSR declares war on Japan and ground forces invade Manchuria, while amphibious assaults are launched in the northern part of Korea
  3. August 9: The US destroys Nagasaki
  4. August 10: Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel are tasked with drawing the boundary of surrender in Korea: where will Japanese troops surrender to Russians and where will they surrender to Americans; they choose the 38th parallel
  5. August 15: The Japanese Empire surrenders unconditionally
  6. Sept 9: American amphibious landing at Incheon

Soviet ground movements into Manchuria, 1945

And the victors once again had to divide up the spoils. There had been various meetings in Yalta, Potsdam, etc., where the expected-to-be winners began the process of figuring out who got what, and – as in Germany – a lot of the decisions were based on practical “ground truth” – The Red Army at that time outnumbered the rest of the remaining forces in Europe and Asia by a factor of 3:1 and was occupying a great deal of real estate. The big decision, in most areas, was based on who surrendered to whom. In Manchuria and Korea, that meant there were big areas where Japanese troops were surrendering to The Red Army, effectively marking Soviet territorial gains. At meetings like Yalta and Potsdam, there were various proposals floated for various divisions, but the end-state of the war was not yet known – so the end-state of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria were also unknown until August, 1945.

At Yalta, the prevailing idea was that Korea would be put under a 4-nation protectorate until the Koreans could figure out what they wanted to do. By the time Japan surrendered, the ground truth was that the USSR had grabbed the northern part of Korea. Rusk and Bonesteel’s division of Korea becomes enshrined in General Order 1 for Japan – the first set of directives (published by Douglas MacArthur) for how Japan is to be administered following surrender. The division of Korea was a mix of practical and arbitrary: the USSR wasn’t going to give up any territory that The Red Army was occupying, and nobody wanted to re-ignite the war, so the dividing lines were drawn and soldiers glared at each other across them while sharing cigarettes and alcohol, as usual. Rusk and Bonesteel’s line conveniently placed the capital of Korea in the US area, but the Soviets rather clearly weren’t going anywhere. The US-assigned governor of Korea, Lt General John Hodge, landed an Army corps at Incheon in September 1945 and established the US’ “ground truth” presence to offset the Soviets’. Hodge’s September 1945 landing at Incheon is not to be confused with MacArthur’s September 1950 landing. “Hello, your new government is here” time to meet the new boss.

You have probably noticed that I didn’t mention anything about the Koreans being consulted in even the tiniest degree. That’s because they weren’t. Hodge, in fact, recruited a fair number of former Japanese military administrators to help him establish the new government in the south because, after all, they had experience running the place! Concerned by the level of support for communism in China and Korea, the US ‘democratically’ appointed an anti-communist, Syngman Rhee, who was a strong supporter of the US and US policies. Meanwhile the USSR set up anti-Japanese proto-communist/Stalinist Kim Il Sung, who was a major in The Red Army who had served in Manchuria. The idea of a trusteeship that would allow the Koreans self-determination evaporated; they were appointed a dictator in the north, and a dictator in the south.

In 1950, Kim Il Sung attempted to reunify Korea militarily, and the result was a whole lot of dead people: half a million Korean soldiers dead, 300,000+ Chinese soldiers dead, and (estimates vary) 900,000 South Korean civilians and 1.5 million North Korean civilians. The Americans still make a big deal of their ~40,000 dead, which is a rounding error compared to what the Koreans suffered.

I’ve done some procrustean simplifications of the history, but that’s the high-level view.

The way the US and USSR partitioned and established North and South Korea primed the situation for disaster – a situation that has had to continue because the empires involved in establishing the disaster (Japan, China, the US, and USSR) would have all have to cooperate to have prevented it. They would have had to respect the Koreans’ self-determination and help them decide on how they wanted to rule themselves.

American political ideology today says that there’s something wrong with those North Koreans and they’re crazy bad people. But they had no say in any of this, any more than the South Koreans did. The division categorically is not about communism VS capitalism, because – by the time the Japanese Empire surrendered, no political leader would have mistaken Stalin for a communist. The division was definitely not about democracy versus dictatorship, because both sides installed un-elected ideologically aligned leaders. There was no democracy on either side of the 38th Parallel.

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The “pretty fiction” nuclear weapons were necessary: The Kwangtung army that was redeploying to Japan was marshalling in the Kanto plain south of Tokyo, where the Japanese high command expected a US sea-borne invasion was most likely to land. The scenario was plausible: a D-Day style landing followed by a breakthrough/upward hooking maneuver to surround Tokyo, and flatten it. With complete control of the air, and the Japanese military economy on its knees, the end was inevitable, but US bombers completely ignored that important military target – preferring instead to strike cities full of civilians.

500,000 Japanese of the Kwangtung Army, that surrendered to the Soviets, wound up in Soviet labor camps. They were slowly repatriated over the following decades but a lot of them simply disappeared.

The Japanese forces in Manchuria experimented with biological weapons, using Chinese civilians as live subjects. Some of the Japanese officers involved in human experiments were granted immunity in return for their secrets, and wound up working for the US Government at Ft. Detrick Maryland, which was the US bioweapons research center.


  1. Ketil Tveiten says

    What’s that Danish-flag-but-the-left-bit-is-blue on the “proposed partition of Germany” map?

  2. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#1:
    What’s that Danish-flag-but-the-left-bit-is-blue on the “proposed partition of Germany” map?

    I believe that’s Luxembourg.

    That map is just one of several proposed carve-ups of Germany, that I dug up with a google image search and wikipedia, by searching for ‘Potsdam conference proposed germany partition” – as you can imagine, each of the about-to-be-winners had different ideas of what chunks of land were going to be managed by whom, and those ideas changed constantly and rapidly depending on the military situation at the time.

  3. Siobhan says

    A common thread, regardless of what country you were in and/or served: The little guy is eminently disposable to the Powers That Be.

  4. says

    Shorter nationalism: “might makes right.”

    WWII was a great big extended exercise demonstrating that none of the political powers believe anything else.
    It’s hard for me to imagine millions of dead, but the dead are pretty well-behaved and quiet. What I absolutely cannot imagine is millions of displaced persons. Before I started writing this piece I did not realize that there were ~8 million displaced non-Germans in Germany at the end of the war. And what happened in India – I don’t even have the vocabulary for that.

  5. bttb says

    Ketil Tveiten@#1, Marcus Ranum@#2
    Luxembourg has a flag that is almost identical to that of the Netherlands (horizontal bands of blue, white, and red). This flag I had never seen, so I went to look up and turns out the red/blue flag with a white cross shifted to hoist is the flag of the “Saar protectorate.” The protectorate was administered by France, and existed from 1947-1957.

  6. says

    The protectorate was administered by France, and existed from 1947-1957.

    Ah, right. France didn’t get out of the colonialism game until the mid-50s.

  7. bttb says

    Marcus Ranum@#6
    They still dabble.

    France was allowed to extract coal from the Warndt coal deposit until 1981, as “compensation” for the return of the Saar to West-Germany. The Saar had to keep teaching French as a second language. The Moselle needed some major canalisation, to lower shipping costs for French industry. All that didn’t stop them from delaying the return for a couple years, in the hope of getting some more control over the Saar’s economy.

    Somehow France (and I expect many other colonial powers) seem to be good at extracting money and resources even after they (nominally) cease to be in control.

  8. Raucous Indignation says

    Well, that’s about as ghastly a tale as you’d expect from the 1940s.

  9. Timberwoof says

    France got pieces of the British and American Zones in Germany because they cried. Britain and Germany had to give up their colonies, but France got to keep theirs in Southeast Asia, paving the way for the Viet Nam war.
    I had not known of the 7 million non-Germans in Germany that you cite, and I’m not sure where they came from. That number is suspiciously like the 7 million ethnic Germans who got kicked out of Eastern Europe and had to go to Germany. They were probably the reason that under German law, anyone “German” can become a German citizen.
    What’s interesting is that Austria was similarly but did not remain partitioned.
    And now what do we do? Shall we redraw the borders to some earlier state? No. That would only cause more displacement. How far back would you go? How would you decide who goes where? Shall we give England back to the Picts, and Germany back to the Kelts? Hey, all you Goths! (I mean Visi- and Ostro-.) Get out of Italy or wherever you ended up and go back to Gothland!
    I think the best we can do is admit when our ancestors were assholes to your ancestors and not do that any more, and somehow get the current set of assholes to stop it. Easier said than done.

  10. says

    Raucous Indignation@#8:
    Well, that’s about as ghastly a tale as you’d expect from the 1940s.

    Because: freedom!!

    It does make me pause to shake my head when Trump says that China needs to help rein in North Korea, given that China was pretty much the only regional power that had nothing to do with creating the Korea crisis. Oh, wait, no, the only regional power that had no say in what happened to Korea was: Korea.

  11. says

    And now what do we do? Shall we redraw the borders to some earlier state? No.

    Well, rather obviously, that wouldn’t help anything. I’m not suggesting anything like that.

    If I have one suggestion from all of this, it would be to stop making current and future policy decisions contingent on a mistake. With respect to Korea, the partition was artificial and was predicated on US/Soviet power politics. Since then, the US’ response to North Korea has been entirely predicated on enshrining its earlier actions as right. We ought to be ratcheting down the militarism and telling the Koreans, “hey, you know, this whole thing was a great big cold war era mistake and maybe we can all step back and you can figure out how you want to handle this.”

    How would you decide who goes where?

    I think the very framing of your question illustrates the problem: it’s not for me to decide who goes where. It’s for the people in the various areas to decide who goes where. This “who goes where” idea is rooted in nationalism and is a part of a system of oppression humans have been living under for a very long time. What’s frustrating is that we humans generally seem to understand that territorial aggression is a bad thing because it’s inherently unfair. If I were asked to describe an ideal political system it would be post-nationalist, so asking me to fix problems with nationalism doesn’t compute.

    I think the best we can do is admit when our ancestors were assholes to your ancestors and not do that any more, and somehow get the current set of assholes to stop it. Easier said than done.

    Yes, that’s the problem with politics in general: there seems to always be someone who wants to step forward and be the supreme asshole in chief, with a whole management structure of assholes, and they won’t stop assholing unless the rest of us rise up and out-asshole them.

  12. says

    Somehow France (and I expect many other colonial powers) seem to be good at extracting money and resources even after they (nominally) cease to be in control.

    The US has made vast amounts of money off S. Korea and Japan.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    1947 … India (into India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh)…

    Nope, just India & Pakistan. The Bangladeshis declared their own partitioning in 1971, with a great deal of dissent from (what was then the rest of) Pakistan.

    James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War has an eye-opening section on how Teddy Roosevelt, well before World Unpleasantness # 1, conned the then Kingdom of Korea into trusting the US and then sold them out to Japan’s (non)mercies.

  14. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#13:
    James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War has an eye-opening section on how Teddy Roosevelt, well before World Unpleasantness # 1, conned the then Kingdom of Korea into trusting the US and then sold them out to Japan’s (non)mercies.

    I have a copy of that somewhere and haven’t read it. I need to. I put it aside because I encountered some other historian who was very dismissive of it as revisionist history – and I wasn’t sure who to believe and (to be frank) didn’t feel like doing the research. I’m fairly aware of some of the substance of the book, and it does sound like the US really mucked up its diplomacy and helped make things much worse. There was a great deal of shock from the established European powers to see the Japanese suddenly pop up and give the Russians a black eye – remembering that Europe’s leaders were inter-related and still clung to some vague idea that they were special because of their old noble blood – there was a definite element of racism involved in Europe’s reaction to Japan. Also, I think that book makes some fascinating arguments about the US and Europe’s economic war on Japan (I refer to that some in [stderr]) I think that’s all substantiated.

    Nope, just India & Pakistan. The Bangladeshis declared their own partitioning in 1971, with a great deal of dissent from (what was then the rest of) Pakistan.

    Yes, you are correct. I was aware that Bangladesh didn’t secede until the 70s, but I knew it was set up during the displacement and where people settled and how, so I accidentally rolled that into the India partitioning (which, really, did set it up, it just didn’t happen when I said it did) I’ll leave my mistake in the text and stand corrected in the comments.

  15. Timberwoof says

    “I’m not suggesting anything like that. … It’s not for me to decide who goes where.”
    Nope, you (Marcus) aren’t, and it’s not for you (Marcus), any more than it is for me. Apologies for the misunderstanding; I ran afoul of the ambigyouity. In mixing up we and you I wasn’t clear that I meant the general you, and specifically those people who want others to go back where they came from.
    “An ideal political system … would be post-nationalist.” Well said, sir! I come from a country that overdid the nationalism thing and thus caused a lot of suffering. I’m not keen on nationalism; it doesn’t seem to solve many problems.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    This sort of problem surely goes back way before anything we’d call a map.

    Someday maybe I’ll go check up on the story behind an upper Midwestern lake supposedly called in the local tongue “You fish your side, we fish our side, nobody fish in the middle”.

    • Territory distribution problems occur in direct proportion to population, sfaict: competition on a group level, compounded by stochastic historical legacies and competing hierarchies. Politics just adds another level to on-going Darwinian pressures, red in tooth and claw.

    • Feminists spreading birth control probably prevent more warfare than all the nominal peace movement combined. Conversely, anti-contraception/abortion/&c blocs – you know the names – have added immeasurably to the bloodshed of the last century or so.

    • Outside meddlers typically make things worse, but locally-decided borders were also delineated mostly by knocking in of heads. Where the locals came to accept these, the calls to arms died down (until something else felt worthy of fighting over came along). That’s invaluable, but still doesn’t yield optimal organization (e.g., divided language/culture groups/watersheds/biozones however defined).

    • The French Revolution’s experiment in erasing traditional lines and sorting things out by natural geography seems to have succeeded; the North American “bioregionalism” movement of the ’80s didn’t last, alas. (Or perhaps we have competing wikis out there now; I don’t have time to search for ’em.)

    • Imagine trying to sort it all out by good ol’ democratic voting instead: very time-consuming, but with only background-level casualty rates…

  17. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#17:
    Sen. Lindsay Graham says North Korea war almost inevitable:

    Yup. I don’t know if he’s noticed but the US is in no position to point to other countries and say they are run by a madman.

    Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham believes the US has military options to take out North Korea’s nuclear program, but a strike shouldn’t just stop there.

    In a Tuesday interview on The Today Show, Graham said the US should not only take out the country’s nukes, but “North Korea itself.”

    “[President Donald Trump] is not going to allow the ability of this madman to have a missile to hit America,” Graham said. “If there is going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there. If thousands die, they are going to die there, they’re not going to die here.”

    I’m not sure what he means by “take out the country itself” – I assume he means another genocidal bombing campaign like we already inflicted on them in 1954.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 18: … what he means … another genocidal bombing campaign like we already inflicted on them …

    Maybe he means something not that much alike – the majority of Koreans did survive that one…

    As for the “die there not here” concept, tell it to the visitors to the Vietnam Wall, and watch them caper and dance.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Morales @ # 20 – I haven’t seen whatever maps civilians get to see, but have the impression that NK has lots and lots of severely hardened artillery sites deep within hills in range of Seoul and all land invasion routes from the south. Whether the existing MOAB arsenal could take them all out, I dunno – but surely our valiant defenders in the Pentagon have an exciting array of nuclear options to choose among if/when the Balloon goes Up.

    And relatively few compunctions about applying the same utensils to military facilities across NK, including those in population centers. Top theater generals probably practice with mirrors to deliver the proper firm-jawed regrets for unavoidable collateral damage.

    The US now has about half as many troops cannon fodder Heroic! Warriors! in South Korea as it has names on the VN Wall – but if these pawns Brave Patriots™ should happen to go to that great army base in the sky once those cannons in the hills light up, rest assured no Real Americans® will protest whatever Our Generals want to do to avenge them and Protect US Allies (including sending twice as many more soldiers and nukes).

    Our peerless Commander in Chief has no fear of big numbers, and seems unlikely to accept a body count in the mere Truman/MacArthur range.

  20. John Morales says

    Pierce, your impression coincides with mine, but the issue is whether the systematic destruction of pretty much all infrastructure (including civilian) during that bombing campaign could reasonably be called a “genocidal bombing campaign”. I think so.

    Think NK has forgotten that experience?

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    John Morales @ # 22: Think NK has forgotten that experience?

    It seems unlikely – though I suspect the Pyongyang propaganda apparatus has reshaped it in odd ways (whatever they think will motivate their audience to resist loyally forever).

    Mostly, I fret that US military doctrine in this case involves going to the maximum immediately. No mere 59 Tomahawk missiles to “send a message” but attempts to fully obliterate all “offensive” capabilities against S. Korea or Japan by land, sea or air, simultaneously.

    In WWII, US planners emphasized not carrying out decapitation strikes so that the anticipated orders to surrender would be widely received, recognized, and obeyed. I doubt similar foresight still prevails today.

  22. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#24:
    In WWII, US planners emphasized not carrying out decapitation strikes

    “kings do not make war on kings” – i.e.: professional courtesy among oligarchs.

    Mostly, I fret that US military doctrine in this case involves going to the maximum immediately.

    It’d have to. Actually, pretty much any state that adopts an entrenched defensive posture with retaliation capability, will require a total effort to defeat. That’s why they did it that way. I hope the US’ leaders are sensible and don’t attack – our military is the most expensive in the world but that doesn’t make it ideally suited for holding a country the size of North Korea. Fucking North Korea up is probably doable but actually defeating them would be a good bit harder than Afghanistan. In a lot of ways the terrain is approximately similar, except the locals are way way better armed, though they have a less stellar history of insurgent fighting, they’d learn fast enough.

  23. says

    John Morales@#23:
    When I was a child in Spain I was taught about the nastiness and infamy of the most recent French invasion of Spain.

    Since Napoleon, being invaded by the French has been a Bad Thing. One of Napoleon’s great logistical innovations was to have his armies live off the countryside; basically, they would take whatever they wanted. The French were particularly horrible in Spain, which is saying something.

  24. Dunc says

    One of Napoleon’s great logistical innovations was to have his armies live off the countryside; basically, they would take whatever they wanted.

    Hmmm… Until the modern period, that’s basically how all armies functioned, so I don’t really think I’d describe this as an innovation.