As superpower countries, the Soviet Union and the United States did play significant roles in dividing the Korea into two Koreas from 1945 until 1950 to protect their own interests and maintain their power in the region, in which the north was backed by the Soviet Union and the south was backed by the United States.
The location of the Korean Peninsula was indeed strategic, and those superpowers were further incentivized to segregate the region by the heightened occurrence of the ideological conflict between the communists and non-communists at the end of World War II (Stueck, 1995). In August 1945, the Soviet Union occupied Korea, as well as defeating and substituting Japan that had invaded Korea since 1910. President Joseph Stalin himself had previously desired to project a short of outright domination due to the peninsula’s strategic importance for the Soviet Union – at the very least through the strong exertion of the Communist Party’s influence (Sellen and Buhite, 1982).
Subsequently, the United States, with the fear of the Soviet Union being able to seize the entire peninsula under its rule, decided to occupy the south by sending its military troops to the south to contain the influence of the Soviet Union and balance the power in the region.
The 38th parallel, a latitudinal line that bisected Korea, was eventually decided to become the territorial divider of the two Koreas through the establishment of two ‘military operational zones’ in order for the United States to “place the capital city in the American zone” and “prevent a total Soviet takeover” (Halliday and Cummings, 1988). Until this point, it could be seen that the primary reason behind the division was for the United States to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union in the peninsula.
Although both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to create a free and independent Korea through the idea of trusteeship as stated in the Moscow Agreement in 1945, most South Koreans did not support the notion (Campbell, 2014). Oftentimes, the Soviet Union and the United States also clashed in terms of their ideas to unify the two Koreas; for example, how the Soviet Union wanted to exclude any groups opposed to trusteeship (in this case most South Korea’s non-communist groups), which was understandably rejected by the United States since South Korea was backed by the United States (Campbell, 2014), and the United States needed a lot of support from South Koreans. Furthermore, the two Koreas even became more segregated, especially since the Soviet Union held an independent election for North Koreans, where South Koreans did not participate. The election was held after North Koreans refused to participate in the unification elections held by U.N. commission (proposed by the United States) as they assumed that the election might lead to the unification under Rhee.
In fact, both Rhee and Il Sung had the ambitions to unify the two Koreas merely under their own rule. As a result, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was formed in September 1948 subsequent to the election (Sellen and Buhite, 1982). On the other hand, Rhee formed the Republic of Korea (ROK) as DPRK’s rival government.
Having no mutual agreement and lacking serious attempts to further negotiate the status of Korea at that time, the Soviet Union and the United States subsequently withdrew their troops from Korea in 1949 – leaving the pursuit of their initial objectives behind. It could be seen that the military intervention of the Soviet Union and the United States in the Korean peninsula were merely carried out to pursue their interests in relation with Cold War politics happening at that time, whereby the balance of power in Korea is ought to be achieved in order to hinder one from exerting its ideological influence – in this case, the Soviet Union and its communist ideology. As a result, the division of Korea is still prevalent until the present day – leaving the legacy of the occupation intact.
- Campbell, J., 2014. The Wrong War: The Soviets and the Korean War, 1945-1953. International Social Science Review, 88(3), pp.1-29.
- Cumings, B. and Halliday, J., 1988. Korea: the Unknown War. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Sellen, R. and Buhite, R., 1982. Soviet-American Relations in Asia, 1945-1954. The American Historical Review, 87(5), p.1497.
- Stueck, W., 1995. The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Division of Korea: A Comparative Approach. Journal of American-East Asian Relations, 4(1), pp.1-27.