Every now and then in the history of mankind, events of surpassing importance take place in little-known areas of the earth. And men and women in countries distant from those events whose lives turn into unexpected and unwanted channels because of them can but wonder how it all happened to come about. So it was with Korea in 1950. In this ancient land of high mountains and sparkling streams the United Nations fought its first war.
For decades it has been axiomatic in Far Eastern politics that Russia, China, and Japan could not be indifferent to what happened in Korea, and, to the extent that they were able, each consistently has tried to shape the destinies of that peninsula. For Korea lies at the point where the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese spheres meet—the apex of the three great power triangles in Asia. Korea, the ancient invasion route of Japan into the Asian continent, in turn has always been the dagger thrust at Japan from Asia.
Korea is a mountainous peninsula of the Asiatic land mass and has natural water boundaries for almost the entire distance on all sides. The Yalu and Tumen Rivers are on the north, the Sea of Japan on the east, the Korea Strait on the south, and the Yellow Sea on the west. The only countries of the Asiatic mainland having boundaries with Korea are China across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers for 500 miles and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for a distance of approximately eleven miles along the lower reaches of the Tumen River.
Korea embraces a little more than 85,000 square miles, is about the size of Utah, and in shape resembles Florida. It has more than 5,400 miles of coast line. High mountains come down abruptly to deep water on the east where there are few harbors, but on the south and west a heavily indented shoreline provides many. There is almost no tide on the east coast. On the west coast at Inchon the tidal reach of thirty-two feet is the second highest in the world.
Korea varies between 90 and 200 miles in width and 525 to 600 miles in length. The mountains are highest in the north, some reaching 8,500 feet.
The high Taebaek Range extends down the east coast like a great spine, gradually falling off in elevation to the south. Practically all of Korea south of the narrow waist from P’yongyang to Wonsan slopes westward from the high Taebaek Range. This determines the drainage basins and direction of flow of all sizable rivers within Korea—generally to the southwest.
Only about 20 percent of Korea is arable land, most of it in the south and west. But every little mountain valley throughout Korea is terraced, irrigated, and cultivated. The principal food crops are rice, barley, and soybeans, in that order. Most of the rice is raised in the south where the warm and long growing season permits two crops a year. In 1950 the country’s population of about 30,000,000 was divided between 21,000,000 south and 9,000,000 north of the 38th Parallel, with 70 percent engaged in agriculture.[N1-1KW] The population density of South Korea, 586 per square mile, was one of the highest in the world for an agricultural people. Although having less than one third of the population, North Korea in 1950 comprised more than half (58 percent) the country.
[N1-1KW: Central Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Survey (NIS). Korea, 1949, ch. 4, pp. 41-42, and ch. 6, pp. 61-66. Figures are from 1949 census.]
Despite the fact that Korea has the sea on three sides, in climate it is continental rather than oceanic. Summers are hot and humid with a monsoon season generally lasting from June to September. In winter, cold winds come from the interior of Asia.
The Hermit Kingdom or Chosen, the “Land of the Morning Calm,” has an ancient history. Its recorded history begins shortly before the time of Christ. An invasion from China, about one hundred years after the beginning of the Christian era, established a Chinese influence that has persisted to the present time. Many of China’s cultural and technical advances, however, were borrowed from early Korea.
In a short war of a few months’ duration in 1894-1895, known as the Sino-Japanese War, Japan ended Chinese political influence in Korea. Thereafter, Russian ambitions in Manchuria clashed with Japanese ambitions in Korea. This rivalry led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, which ended with Japan dominant in Korea. Despite the bitter opposition of the Korean people, Japan proceeded step by step to absorb Korea within her empire and in 1910 annexed it as a colony. During World War II, in 1942, Korea became an integral part of Japan and came under the control of the Home Ministry.
All the critical events which occurred in Korea after 1945 grew out of the joint occupation of the country at the end of World War II by the United States and the USSR. The boundary between the two occupation forces was the 38th Parallel.
While all the influences operating on the decision to divide Korea for purposes of accepting the surrender of the Japanese forces there at the end of World War II cannot here be explored, it appears that American military consideration of an army boundary line in Korea began at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. One day during the conference, General of the Army George C. Marshall called in Lieutenant General John E. Hull, then Chief of the Operations Division, U.S. Army, and a member of the U.S. military delegation, and told him to be prepared to move troops into Korea. General Hull and some of his planning staff studied a map of Korea trying to decide where to draw a line for an army boundary between U.S. and Soviet forces. They decided that at least two major ports should be included in the U.S. zone. This led to the decision to draw a line north of Seoul which would include the port of Inchon. Pusan, the chief port of Korea, was at the southeastern tip of the country. This line north of Seoul, drawn at Potsdam by the military planners, was not on the 38th Parallel but was near it and, generally, along it. The American and Russian delegates, however, did not discuss a proposed boundary in the military meetings of the Potsdam Conference.
[N1-2KW: Interv, author with General John E. Hull, Vice CofS, USA, 1 Aug 52. Dept of State Pub 4266, The Conflict in Korea, gives the diplomatic and legal background of U.S. commitments on Korea. A detailed discussion of the division of Korea at the 38th Parallel will be found in Lieutenant Colonel James F. Schnabel, Theater Command: June 1950-July 1951, a forthcoming volume in the series UNITED STATES ARMY IN THE KOREAN WAR. TERMINAL Conference: Papers and Minutes of Meetings (July, 1945), U.S. Secy CCS, 1945, pp. 320-21 (hereafter cited, TERMINAL Conf: Papers and Min.]
The matter lay dormant, apparently, in the immense rush of events following hard on the heels of the Potsdam Conference, which terminated 26 July—the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the first part of August, the Russian declaration of war against Japan on 8 August, and the Japanese offer of surrender on 10 August. The latter event brought the question of a demarcation line in Korea to the fore. It was settled in General Order 1, approved by President Harry S. Truman on 15 August 1945 and subsequently cleared with the British and Soviet Governments. It provided that U.S. forces would receive the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea south of the 38th Parallel; Soviet forces would receive the surrender of Japanese forces north of the Parallel. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur issued General Order 1 on 2 September as the directive under which Japanese forces throughout the Far East would surrender after the Japanese signed the Instrument of Surrender that day at Tokyo Bay in obedience to the Imperial Rescript by Emperor Hirohito.
It seems that the Soviet Army reached the 38th Parallel in Korea on 26 August. On 3 September, just as XXIV Corps was loading at Okinawa 600 miles away for its movement to Korea, Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, commander of XXIV Corps and designated U.S. Commander in Korea, received a radio message from Lieutenant General Yoshio Kozuki, commander of the Japanese 17th Area Army in Korea, reporting that Soviet forces had advanced south of the 38th Parallel only in the Kaesong area. They evacuated the town on 8 September, evidently in anticipation of an early American entry.
Two weeks after he had accepted the surrender of the Japanese south of the 38th Parallel in Seoul on 9 September 1945, General Hodge reported to General MacArthur in Tokyo, “Dissatisfaction with the division of the country grows.” The 38th Parallel had nothing to commend it as a military or political boundary. It crossed Korea at the country’s widest part without respect to terrain features; it came close to several important towns; and it cut off the Ongjin Peninsula in the west from the rest of Korea south of the Parallel.
For a few days at least after the American landing at Inchon on 8 September 1945 the Koreans lived in a dream world. They thought this was the end of fifty years of bondage and the beginning of an era of peace, plenty, and freedom from interference by foreign peoples in their lives.
And for the Americans, too, who experienced those memorable September days in Korea there was little at the moment to suggest the disillusionment that onrushing events of the next few years would bring. A composite company, made up of elements of each rifle company of the 7th Infantry Division, paraded proudly and happily out of the courtyard at the Government House in Seoul at the conclusion of the ceremonies attending the Japanese surrender. The wide thoroughfare outside was so densely packed with the throng there was scarcely room for it to pass. These men had fought across the Pacific from Attu to Okinawa.4 They thought that war was behind them for the rest of their lives. Five years later this same division was to assault this same capital city of Seoul where many of its men were to fall in the streets.
In an effort to reunite the country and to end the ever-mounting hostilities between the two parts of divided Korea, the General Assembly of the United Nations in November 1947 voted to establish a nine-nation United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNCOK) to be present in Korea and to supervise elections of representatives to a National Assembly which would establish a national government. But the Soviet Union denied the U.N. Commission permission to enter North Korea, thus preventing that part of the country from participation in the free election.
South Korea held an election on 10 May 1948 under the auspices of the United Nations, sending 200 representatives to the National Assembly. The National Assembly held its first meeting on 31 May, and elected Syngman Rhee Chairman. On 12 July the Assembly adopted the Constitution of the Republic of Korea and formally proclaimed it the next day. Three days later the Assembly elected Syngman Rhee President.
On 15 August 1948 the government of the Republic of Korea was formally inaugurated and the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea terminated. President Rhee and General Hodge on 24 August signed an interim military agreement to be in effect until such time as the United States withdrew its troops. The withdrawal of these troops began about three weeks later on 15 September. The United States recognized the new Republic of Korea on New Year’s Day, 1949. Mr. John J. Muccio, special representative of the United States to the new government of South Korea since 12 August 1948, became the first U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea on 21 March 1949.
[N1-5KWDS: Text of agreement in Dept of State Pub 3305, Korea: 1945-1948, Annex 26, pp. 103-04; Ibid., Annex 23, pp. 100-101; George M. McCune, Korea Today (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950), p. 231, n. 25.]
Meanwhile, events in North Korea took a course which seems to have been guided by a deliberately planned political purpose. On 10 July 1948 the North Korean People’s Council adopted a draft resolution and set 25 August as the date for an election of members of the Supreme People’s Assembly of Korea. This assembly on 8 September adopted a constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, the next day, claimed for this government jurisdiction over all Korea. Kim Il Sung took office 10 September as Premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Thus, three years after U.S. military authorities accepted the surrender of the Japanese south of the 38th Parallel there were two Korean governments in the land, each hostile to the other and each claiming jurisdiction over the whole country. Behind North Korea stood the Soviet Union; behind South Korea stood the United States and the U.N. Temporary Commission on Korea.
The General Assembly of the United Nations on 12 December 1948 recognized the lawful nature of the government of the Republic of Korea and recommended that the occupying powers withdraw their forces from Korea “as early as practicable.” Russia announced on 25 December that all her occupation forces had left the country. But North Korea never allowed the U.N. Commission to enter North Korea to verify this claim. On 23 March 1949 President Truman approved the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops from Korea, a regiment of the 7th Infantry Division. Ambassador Muccio notified the U.N. Commission on 8 July 1949 that the United States had completed withdrawal of its forces on 29 June and that the U.S. Army Forces in Korea (USAFIK) had been deactivated as of midnight 30 June.
While these events were taking place, internal troubles increased in South Korea. After the establishment of the Syngman Rhee government in the summer of 1948, civil disorder spread below the 38th Parallel. There began a campaign of internal disorders directed from North Korea designed to overthrow the Rhee government and replace it by a Communist one. Armed incidents along the 38th Parallel, in which both sides were the aggressors and crossed the boundary, became frequent.
North Korea did not stop at inciting revolt within South Korea and taking military action against the border, it made threats as well against the United Nations. On 14 October 1949 the Foreign Minister of North Korea sent a letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations denying the legality of U.N. activity in Korea and declaring that the U.N. Commission in Korea would be driven out of the country. Eight days later the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to continue the Commission and charged it with investigating matters that might lead to military action in Korea. The United Nations supplemented this action on 4 March 1950 by the Secretary General’s announcement that eight military observers would be assigned to observe incidents along the 38th Parallel.
During the month there were rumors of an impending invasion of South Korea and, in one week alone, 3-10 March, there occurred twenty-nine guerrilla attacks in South Korea and eighteen incidents along the Parallel. Beginning in May 1950, incidents along the Parallel, and guerrilla activity in the interior, dropped off sharply. It was the lull preceding the storm.
SOURCE: South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu; BY: Colonel Roy E. Appleman (United States Army Center of Military History)