The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Korea was divided and why the aftershocks still haunt us today

The American decision that split a country and still affects how Koreans think about the United States.

A North Korean soldier marches at the truce village at the Demilitarized Zone on June 20, 2018. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

New missile tests in North Korea have put the region back in the spotlight. The tests portend trouble ahead for President Trump’s extremely ambitious Korean agenda no matter how much confidence he has in Kim Jung Un. This agenda includes forging a new relationship with North Korea in return for denuclearization, while also contentiously renegotiating the United States’ economic and security relationship with South Korea, a longtime ally.

Both goals are fraught with risk, including war with North Korea, and both are attempts to deal directly with the bitter legacy of a divided Korean Peninsula. Given the cascading negative consequences resulting from that decision, it is worth asking why Korea was divided in the first place — and how much the United States is responsible for that division.

Americans, including those in government, have been asking this question for a long time. In June 1949, John Vorys, an Ohio congressman and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wanted an explanation. His committee was being asked to support a $150 million aid package for South Korea, but representatives of the Truman administration appearing before his committee could not answer this simple question.

“I would like the State Department and the War Department, [and] the Department of the Army, to get together and tell who dreamed up this 38th parallel idea,” he fumed at the Truman administration officials. “The general [Charles Helmick] says it was not done in the field. We have been told here that it came from the War Department. I think it came from Yalta. I would like to know where that 38th parallel agreement was decided and by whom.”

The mention of Yalta suggested something of a conspiracy, a secret agreement struck between the U.S. and Great Britain on one side and Soviet Union on the other to divide the world. But that goes too far: Dean Rusk, one of the colonels who actually drew the line, explained the decision in his memoirs not as a compromise between the Soviet Union and the United States but one between the State Department, which wanted as much of Korea as possible, and the War Department, which wanted none.

But why did the State Department care about Korea at all? To answer that question, Vorys should have turned to his congressional colleagues, who in the summer of 1945 put a full-court press on the State Department to do something to guarantee Korea’s independence post-World War II.

The congressional push for Korean independence in 1945, which would ironically lead to the country’s division, emerged from a lobbying campaign spearheaded by Syngman Rhee, a Harvard- and Princeton-educated Korean exile and future president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea’s official name). Educated by American missionaries in Korea, Rhee became a keen observer of American exceptionalism, especially the version popular among missionaries that held the United States had a special destiny to spread Christianity and be a positive moral force in the world. Like many Korean Christians at the time, Rhee put great stock in the moral power and integrity of the United States.

When Japan began to colonize Korea in 1904, Rhee was sent to the United States to invoke the first clause of the 1882 Korean American Treaty, which many Koreans mistakenly believed obligated the United States to defend them. Not only had they misread the treaty, but they had also misread American policy under Theodore Roosevelt, which had taken a decidedly pro-Japanese turn. Rhee actually secured a meeting with Roosevelt and, perhaps charmed by the president’s kind words, was slow to realize American aid would not be forthcoming.

Rather than having his faith in the United States shattered, Rhee did something very American. He spent the next 40 years praising the virtues of small-town, average Americans, damning the incompetency and immorality of the federal government and extolling Americans to demand their government honor their commitments in the 1882 treaty by supporting the Korean independence movement. Doing so would be proof that Americans were the exceptional people they believed themselves to be.

Before Pearl Harbor, Rhee’s lobbying resulted in some minor gains. A grass-roots organization called the League of Friends of Korea claimed 25,000 members in 14 branches across the United States. Between 1919 and 1922 over 8,000 newspaper articles highlighted Koreans’ plight under Japanese colonialism. During the fight to ratify the Versailles Treaty, a reservation to the treaty calling on the United States to recognize Korea’s independence fell just seven votes short of passing. But all of this work foundered on the American desire to avoid a war with Japan.

In 1940 Rhee suspected the U.S. and Japan were on a collision course. With an impeccable sense of timing, he warned Americans of the coming conflict in a book titled “Japan Inside Out,” published just before Pearl Harbor. The subsequent attack turned Rhee into a minor prophet. With the United States now at war with Japan, Americans were more susceptible than ever to his one-sided account of how the United States government had betrayed Korea and unleashed Japanese militarism on East Asia. They were also susceptible to his arguments that recognizing the Korean Provisional Government (of which he was a part) in exile in China would bring 22 million new Korean allies into the war against Japan.

Such claims, combined with a natural gift for saying what Americans wanted to hear, transformed Rhee into a wartime celebrity. He lectured at universities and churches, appeared on national radio, chatted with Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House and was a special guest at the red-carpet premiere of the 1944 film “Wilson” (winner of five Academy Awards)

Rhee used every bit of his fame to pressure the U.S. government to do something for Korea. He stalked the halls of Congress and ensured that members’ offices were inundated with letters from Americans demanding justice be done for Korea. In the summer of 1945, Rep. Paul Shafer and Sens. William Langer and Wayne Morse, among others, demanded action on Korea from the House and Senate floor while singer Bing Crosby, as a representative of Catholics for Korea, demanded that Korea be made independent after the war. All parties warned of dire consequences — both strategic and moral — for the United States and the postwar order if Korea was allowed to slip into the Soviet sphere of influence unchallenged, as Poland had.

Under pressure from many quarters, but aware that the Soviets were already in position militarily to occupy all of Korea, Truman’s State Department urged the temporary partition of Korea against the preferences of American military leaders. The decision horrified Rhee and everyone else in his movement. They had never advocated bisecting Korea. While this division was never intended to be permanent, it was undeniably an American idea.

Knowing the history of Korea’s division is essential to understanding the narratives that have sprung up around it. North Korean propaganda has twisted this story into one of American imperialism and racial aggression, albeit one based on the grain of truth that the division was an American idea.

At the same time, the sense of grievance that Rhee articulated over the perceived American violations of the 1882 Korean American Treaty and American tacit support for Japanese colonialism continues in South Korea to this day. Rhee’s movement was meant to address those grievances, but ended up only adding another to the list: the division of Korea. The withdrawal of American forces from Korea in 1949, in what many South Koreans still view as an open invitation to the North to invade, made matters worse. That the United States came to South Korea’s defense in 1950 did not negate this history, as the war was made possible by this division.

Because of this history, a thread of anti-Americanism runs through South Korean society. Massive anti-American protests rocked South Korea in 2002 after the accidental killing of two Korean school girls by American soldiers on exercises and in 2008 over the importation of American beef. While Korean public opinion on the United States fluctuates widely, and most Koreans still support the American presence in Korea, the vast majority of them wish this presence had never been necessary in the first place. Those who would accuse the Koreans of “free-riding” on American security would do well to remember how Americans ended up in Korea in the first place.

Understanding who divided Korea will not magically produce solutions to that division. But it will at least allow Americans to understand how Koreans on both sides of the DMZ regard themselves, to some extent, as victims of American foreign policy.