Why and by whom was Korea divided in North and South

Korea was divided into North and South following the end of World War II in 1945. The division occurred as a result of the geopolitical developments and agreements made by the major powers at the time.

Jul 27, 2023 - 19:57
Why and by whom was Korea divided in North and South
Image by Library of the US Congress

Before World War II, Korea was a single country under Japanese colonial rule. However, after Japan's surrender in 1945, the Korean peninsula became a focal point for the emerging Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

At the Yalta Conference, held in February 1945, the leaders of the Allied powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom) discussed the post-war division of territories previously occupied by Japan. It was agreed that Korea would be temporarily divided along the 38th parallel into two occupation zones. The Soviet Union was to administer the northern part, while the United States would oversee the southern part.

Following Japan's surrender in August 1945, Korean independence was declared. However, the division of the country into Soviet and American zones was implemented, leading to the establishment of two separate administrations: one in the North (under Soviet influence) and one in the South (under American influence).

In 1948, both the northern zone (North Korea) and the southern zone (South Korea) established separate governments. North Korea established a communist government under Kim Il-sung, who later became its leader. South Korea established a more pro-Western government under Syngman Rhee.

The division of Korea was intended to be temporary, with the plan to hold nationwide elections to create a unified Korean government. However, due to the escalating Cold War tensions and the inability to reach an agreement on the elections, separate governments were established in the North and the South.

The Korean War (1950-1953)

The Korean War occurred during the broader context of the Cold War, a period of heightened tensions between the United States and its allies (the Western bloc) and the Soviet Union and its allies (the Eastern bloc). 

Tensions between North and South Korea escalated, leading to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The U.S. was following a policy of containment, aiming to prevent the spread of communism and Soviet influence. The invasion of South Korea by the communist North Korea was seen as a challenge to this policy.

The U.S. saw the invasion of South Korea as a threat to the stability of the region and a potential escalation of communist aggression. The U.S. government and its allies believed that defending South Korea was crucial to preventing the further spread of communism in Asia.

Korea held strategic importance for the United States in its efforts to maintain influence in Asia. Control of the Korean Peninsula could potentially impact access to resources and trade routes in the region.

The U.S. government was concerned that allowing North Korea's invasion of South Korea to succeed could embolden communist powers elsewhere to pursue aggressive actions, potentially leading to further conflicts and challenges to the U.S. and its allies.

President Harry S. Truman's administration was committed to opposing communist expansion and saw the defense of South Korea as a vital test of American resolve in the face of communist aggression.

The Korean War, which lasted from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953, resulted in a significant loss of life on all sides involved in the conflict. Determining the exact number of deaths is challenging due to varying estimates and limited access to accurate records, especially from North Korea. Additionally, the war involved multiple countries, including China, which further complicates casualty calculations.

Here are some estimated figures for the number of deaths during the Korean War:

  • Military Deaths:

    • South Korea: It is estimated that South Korea suffered around 137,899 military deaths.
    • United States: The U.S. Department of Defense reports approximately 36,516 military deaths of U.S. service members during the Korean War.
    • Other United Nations Forces: Various UN forces, including those from countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, and others, also suffered significant military casualties.
  • Civilian Deaths:

    • South Korea: Civilian deaths in South Korea are estimated to be around 415,000.
    • North Korea: Due to limited information and restricted access, estimating civilian deaths in North Korea is more challenging. Some estimates suggest that North Korea may have suffered hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
  • Chinese People's Volunteer Army: China, which entered the war in support of North Korea, is believed to have had tens of thousands of military deaths.

The total number of casualties, including military and civilian deaths from all sides, is estimated to be in the millions. The war was marked by intense and brutal fighting, including major battles and offensives that resulted in heavy casualties.

These figures are approximations and may vary among different sources. The Korean War's human toll serves as a somber reminder of the devastating impact of armed conflicts and the lasting scars they leave on nations and communities.

The war ended in an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty, and as a result, North and South Korea technically remain in a state of war. The division of Korea into North and South has persisted to this day, with both countries taking different political and economic paths and maintaining separate political systems. The Korean Peninsula remains one of the world's most contentious regions, and reunification remains a complex and challenging goal.

Janet Bluesky Member of EA Coordination Team