Korea: Post-WWII Partition

Posted on June 23, 2011
By Jongsoo James Lee
  • 1392 The Founding of Choson Dynasty (1392–1910).
  • 1910 Korea annexed by Japan.
  • 1941 (December) Japan attacks Pearl Harbor.
  • 1943 (November) At the Cairo Conference, the United States, Britain, and China declare future Korean independence “in due course”; at the subsequent Tehran Conference, Stalin agrees.
  • 1945 (August 8 ) The USSR declares war on Japan; (August 12) The United States proposes to the USSR the 38th parallel as the line of demarcation for accepting the surrender of Japanese troops in Korea: the USSR agrees; (August 15) Japan surrenders; (December) At the Moscow Conference of Foreign Ministers, the USA, Britain and the USSR agree to place Korea under a four-power United Nations trusteeship for a period of up to 5 years.
  • 1946 (March–May) The First U.S.-USSR Joint Commission to implement the Moscow trusteeship agreement adjourns without an agreement.
  • 1947 (May–October) The Second U.S.-USSR Joint Commission fails; in September, the United States takes the Korean question to the United Nations General Assembly: the USSR protests.
  • 1948 ( January) A UN delegation to supervise general elections in the Korean peninsula arrives; (February) The UN Temporary Commission on Korea decides to hold elections only in the U.S.-occupied southern half of the peninsula; (August 15) The Republic of Korea (South Korea) established, with Syngman Rhee as President; (September 9) The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) established, with Kim Il Sung as Premier.
  • 1950 ( June 25) The Korean War begins with a large-scale invasion of South Korea by North Korea.

When Japan attacked the United States in 1941, a new phase in Korean-American relations dawned. According to American wartime planning, Japan, along with Germany, was to be thoroughly defeated until her unconditional surrender to the Allies, and all of her overseas possessions, including Korea, were to be wrested from her control. The earliest indication of American planning regarding the future of Korea was given when U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader, in December 1942, of the possibility that China, American, Britain, and Russia would become “the four ‘big policemen’ of the world” after the war and that Russia would have to be included in any military occupation or trusteeship over Korea. This view was reasserted when British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden came to the United States in March 1943 and discussed with Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull a number of questions including the future of Japanese possessions in the Asia-Pacific region. During a conference at the White House, Roosevelt suggested that “Korea might be placed under an international trusteeship, with China, the United States, and one or two other countries participating.” Eden, whose account of this suggestion in his memoirs identifies the “one or two other countries participating” as the Soviet Union, concurred with this proposal. Next came the most important wartime policy statement regarding the future of Korea, one that proved to be of decisive importance in shaping the country’s future for the next fifty years and beyond. At the Cairo Conference attended by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang in November 1943, the so-called Cairo Declaration on the war against Japan and postwar settlement for Japanese-held territories (including Korea) was issued, a part of which read that “in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” How and why this decision was reached is of utmost importance and of considerable interest. The idea of granting Korea postwar independence was agreed to by all the Allied powers (including the Soviet Union), but there is some uncertainty regarding the origination and formulation of the decision to grant not immediate independence after Japan’s defeat but, rather, one “in due course,” which implied a transitional stage of some sort of international trusteeship before full independence. Given that Roosevelt had mentioned the idea of trusteeship to Chiang and Eden already months earlier, it seems highly probable that it was indeed Roosevelt who was the originator of this idea. However, in the preparatory papers for the Cairo Conference, Roosevelt, in discussing the proposed conference agenda with his advisors, makes it sound like it was Chiang who originated this idea.


The drafting of the wording “in due course” itself went through a tortuous process, starting with the phrase “at the earliest possible moment after the downfall of Japan” in the initial American draft, of which there is a published record. This “initial” draft was actually a product of a revision by Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s personal assistant who was with Roosevelt in Cairo. At any rate, Roosevelt, upon reading this draft, changed the wording to “at the proper moment after the downfall of Japan,” and, finally, the wording “in due course” was made after incorporating the British draft of the declaration. Thus, the facts regarding this rather complicated process stand as follows: while the wording “in due course” was definitely the work of the British, it was Roosevelt who changed the wording “at the earliest possible moment” to “at the proper moment,” but it is not certain whether the wording “at the earliest possible moment” was the work of Hopkins who revised the original American draft or that of those American staff members (whose identities remain unknown) who had made the original draft for Hopkins’ revision. Because the content of the very first American draft is unknown, the original wording in that first draft also remains unknown, but it is possible that the original wording was indeed “at the earliest possible moment.” However, it is also possible the original wording actually proclaimed Korea’s immediate independence, only to be revised by Hopkins to “at the earliest possible moment.” Nevertheless, even if the original wording, probably the work of certain State Department officials, actually had proclaimed immediate independence, it would not have mattered, as Roosevelt already had his views on the need for a Korean trusteeship and was bound to change the wording to such as would allow room for a trusteeship.

While all this discussion of the differences in wording may seem, literally, semantic, it is of considerable importance and interest, as the differences in meaning between “at the earliest possible moment” and “in due course” are substantial. While the former conveys a sense of urgency and a desire to take all necessary measures to grant Korea her independence in the speediest possible manner after Japan’s defeat, the latter connotes a much more indefinite time frame, allowing for the possibility of a very long period of time, indeed stretching for many years, after Japan’s defeat. What is intriguing here is the question of Britain’s role. Considering that Eden and Roosevelt had already agreed in March on the need for a Korean trusteeship, it is most likely that, by the time of the Cairo Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill still shared this understanding on Korea. The interesting question is which of the two Allied leaders was more in favor of a shorter period of trusteeship. From the change in the wording, it seems Churchill actually favored an even longer period of trusteeship than Roosevelt, as “in due course” connotes a longer period of time—an extended process of necessary preconditions for independence being gradually fulfilled over time—than “at the proper moment” with the word “moment” denoting a quicker process, with the possibility of granting independence when the conditions become merely favorable, not necessarily fulfilled. This modification in wording made at Cairo indeed leads one to wonder if Churchill was actually the originator of the idea of a Korean trusteeship and had influenced Roosevelt to adopt such an idea. Because there is no written record identifying the originator of this idea, one can only speculate.

In general, however, the idea of establishing trusteeships worldwide in the postwar settlement was Roosevelt’s: the American president did believe in national self-determination of non-Western peoples, though he also believed in the necessity for a form of tutelage, such as the proposed system of trusteeship, for those peoples he deemed not yet ready for immediate full independence. As is well known, Roosevelt was opposed to the maintenance of European colonial empires after the war and saw the trusteeship system as a means to dismantle Britain’s colonial empire. This attempt by Roosevelt, however, met with failure as Churchill vehemently resisted any attempts by the Americans to break Britain’s grip on her colonies. Thus, it seems unlikely Churchill was the originator of the idea of trusteeship for Korea, given his opposition to the idea of applying trusteeships to Britain’s colonies; yet it is still possible he was the originator of this idea given that, after all, trusteeship in this case was a means to dismantle the Japanese, not the British, colonial empire, just as British foreign policy had favored the League of Nations mandate system to dismantle the Ottoman and German colonial empires after World War I. No matter who was the real author of the idea of Korean trusteeship, it seems clear both Churchill and Roosevelt at Cairo did not judge the Koreans to be yet capable of immediate self-rule after Japan’s defeat and that Churchill, the British imperialist par excellence, actually may have evaluated the Korean capacity for self-rule even lower than did Roosevelt.

An important aspect of the Cairo Declaration on Korea is that it was made by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang without the participation of Stalin, who was not consulted about it beforehand. Cordell Hull, who was not at Cairo and who himself was not consulted about this by Roosevelt, registers his disapproval of this decision in his memoirs, noting that Russia “had an interest in Korea.”11 However, when Churchill and Roosevelt met with Stalin shortly after Cairo in Tehran (November 28–December 1, 1943), Churchill asked Stalin if he had read the declaration, to which the latter replied he had and that he approved of it. More will be said about this reaction by Stalin, but it is worth noting that the Soviet Union was not yet at war with Japan at this point and that anything said by Stalin then with regard to Korea or any other Japanese possessions in Asia was tentative at best.

The great importance of the Cairo Declaration for Korea’s future was, first, that, by withholding immediate independence after Japan’s defeat and imposing a trusteeship in the interim period, it created an uncertain future for Korea after Japan’s defeat which allowed room for manipulation by those Great Powers with an interest in Korea to their own advantage and also for engendering complications especially between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is very important to note that, though the declaration was made without consulting Stalin beforehand, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Chiang reserved room for Soviet participation in the proposed trusteeship and welcomed Soviet adherence to the declaration at any time. Thus, a Soviet role in Korea’s postwar settlement was already accepted by the three leaders by the time of the Cairo Conference, which implied also allowing room for Soviet military occupation of at least a part of Korea. American and British military planning by this time called for Soviet participation in the war against Japan after Germany’s defeat, which naturally presupposed a Soviet role in defeating Japan and accepting the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea. An indication of the American military planners’ acceptance of a Soviet military role in Korea is given in a remark by George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, to Roosevelt during a meeting to set the agenda for the Cairo Conference, in which the general said the Soviets desired a warm water port (most likely Pusan) in Korea close to Japan. As will be discussed in depth later when describing the establishment of the 38th parallel, this decision at Cairo to defer Korea’s immediate independence and to allow for a Soviet role in a trusteeship thus gave Stalin practically a free hand to militarily occupy as much of Korea as he could depending on the future progress of the Red Army’s operations in Korea against Japan. Given that the Cairo Declaration and his adherence to it already allowed him a military role in Korea, it was no wonder Stalin later did not list a claim on Korea as part of the preconditions for entering the war against Japan which he presented to Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

The great importance of the Cairo Declaration for Korea’s future was also the more obvious one of deferring immediate independence on the grounds that the Koreans were not yet ready for self-government and needed a period of tutelage. As Hull, who disagreed with this decision, notes in his memoirs, “Koreans wanted their independence immediately, not ‘in due course’ ” and “did not welcome the Cairo Declaration.” Roosevelt’s view on this matter seemed to have been predicated on his opinion that, based on what he regarded as America’s great success in preparing the Philippines for self-government, Korea, along with Indochina, Burma, Malaya, and the East Indies, could also be successfully taught in the art of self-government. Proceeding from this assumption, Roosevelt concluded that, since it took the United States about 50 years to prepare the Philippines for self-government, Korea would need somewhere between 20 and 30 to be taught self-government, as he later told Stalin at the Yalta Conference. It is to be noted that even this estimate of 20 to 30 years was on the low side, as the consensus, no doubt forged by Roosevelt and Churchill, at the earlier Tehran Conference seemed to have been 40 years as the duration of the proposed trusteeship.

Questions of the length of the Korean trusteeship aside, a more immediate question is the precise nature of the system of trusteeship itself that was proposed by Roosevelt as an instrument of postwar settlement. What is clear is that Roosevelt considered himself to be a firm opponent of European imperialism and sought to undermine the European colonial empires at the end of the war. A major reason for this was the prevailing perception on the part of both the American public and the foreign-policy establishment that the real culprit for the collapse of the world order in the 1930s was the old imperialism of the sort practiced by Britain, which was seen as predicated on power politics, spheres of influence, preferential trading blocs, and simple greed. In this view, it was precisely this failure of the imperialist powers like Britain to establish a free, open, and just international order after World War I that gave rise to Fascism and Nazism. Given this perception, British imperialism was regarded by Roosevelt and his advisors as in some ways even more of a threat to postwar cooperation than the Soviet Union, which, though deeply distrusted and feared, at least did not bring about the rise of Nazism. There is strong evidence that Roosevelt meant to apply the trusteeship system to British and European colonial possessions after the war, only to later back down on this plan upon meeting stiff resistance from Churchill and De Gaulle. As Eden recounts in his memoirs, the British were deeply suspicious of Roosevelt’s intentions when the latter broached the topic of trusteeships during his talk with them at the White House in March, 1943. This seething suspicion came out into the open during the Yalta Conference when Edward Stettinius, then the U.S. secretary of state, introduced a report on the subject of trusteeships. In a warning to the Americans, Churchill then burst out in a vehement statement affirming his intention that he would brook no “interfering fingers into the life’s existence of the British Empire.” Stalin, who was present, obviously enjoyed this display of discord between his capitalist allies, as the usually calm and imperturbable Soviet dictator got up from his chair and walked up and down, beaming and even breaking into applause at intervals. An embarrassed Stettinius later explained to Eden that the trusteeship idea was meant to apply principally to territories that were to be taken away from Japan.



Excerpted from The Partition of Korea after World War II: A Global History by Jongsoo James Lee. Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan in the US, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.


JONGSOO JAMES LEE  is the author of The Partition of Korea after World War II, Assistant Professor, Department of History & Political Science, at Manchester College and a Center Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.  Lee has also served as an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Korea Institute.  A historian and a political scientist with broad research interests, Lee has taught at Dartmouth College and Bowdoin College.

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