Korea: A House Divided

Fifty years after the armistice, the two Koreas' legacy of conflict underlies a deepening crisis.

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Nonetheless, the urge to unite with their northern brethren—to step across the real DMZ—is deeply rooted in the South. “This country was unified for 13 centuries before 1945, when it was divided as an expedient by the United States to prevent it from being entirely taken over by the Soviet Union,” says Don Oberdorfer, author of The Two Koreas. In the waning days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and occupied Korea, annexed by Japan in 1910. Under a hasty agreement, Korea was partitioned at the 38th parallel: the northern part of the peninsula came under Soviet control; the southern region, including Seoul, came under the aegis of the United States.


The Soviets and Americans withdrew by 1950, leaving behind two bitterly opposed regimes: the Communist North led by Kim Il Sung, a young guerrilla leader who had fought the Japanese, and the southern peninsula, under an aging, U.S.-backed patrician, Syngman Rhee, who had been elected president by an assembly.


Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean tanks and troops poured across the 38th parallel, capturing Seoul within three days. President Harry Truman appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, hero of the war against Japan (and Allied commander of the seven-year occupation of Japan that followed its defeat), as commander of a U.S.-led force of United Nations troops, to roll back the North Korean invasion. In a spectacular counterattack in September, MacArthur’s forces staged an amphibious landing at Inchon, on the western coast not far from Seoul. By October, the North Korean Army was routed and Pyongyang taken. But when U.N. forces neared the YaluRiver, marking the Korea-China border, Chinese troops unleashed a massive offensive, conquering northern Korea and, by January 1951, Seoul. In April, after acrimonious disputes over military strategy, Truman fired MacArthur, who wanted the option of using nuclear bombs against China, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway. The war continued without either side gaining decisive advantage.


Dwight Eisenhower broke the bloody stalemate. Elected president in November 1952 after making a campaign pledge to “go to Korea,” Ike indeed went there, before his inauguration. Bundled up in a heavy jacket, fur-lined hat and thermal boots, “Eisenhower did what he had done so often during World War II,” wrote biographer Stephen Ambrose. “He studied an artillery duel with his binoculars, chatted with the troops, ate outdoor meals from a mess kit. . . . ” Eisenhower decided the war was unwinnable and should be quickly ended on honorable terms. He recognized that North Korea would exist as a separate nation and called for an armistice.


Losses on either side of the newly drawn DMZ were appalling. An estimated 1,000,000 Chinese and 600,000 North Korean soldiers had been killed or wounded. The figure for U.N. troops was about 300,000, more than two-thirds of them South Koreans. Some 37,000 Americans were killed or missing, and another 103,000 wounded. Civilian casualties were even higher. About four million Koreans, nearly one-tenth of the whole peninsula’s population, were killed or wounded, and another five million turned into refugees.



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