South Korea Table of Contents
Figure 3. South Korea in Its Asian Setting, 1990
On August 8, 1945, during the final days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war against Japan and launched an invasion of Manchuria and Korea. By then, Japan had been depleted by the drawn-out war against the United States and its Allies and Japanese forces were in no position to stave off the Soviets. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, respectively, had led the Japanese government to search for ways to end the war. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally.
The Japanese surrender and the Soviet landing on the Korean Peninsula totally altered the history of contemporary Korea. At the Cairo Conference of December 1943, the Allies had decided to strip Japan of all the territories it had acquired since 1894, the beginning of Japan's expansionist drive abroad. The United States, China, and Britain had agreed at Cairo that Korea would be allowed to become free and independent in due course after the Allied victory. The Soviet Union agreed to the same principle in its declaration of war against Japan.
Although the United States president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Marshal Josef V. Stalin of the Soviet Union had agreed to establish an international trusteeship for Korea at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, no decision had been made on the exact formula for governing the nation in the aftermath of Allied victory. The landing of Soviet forces, however, compelled the United States government to improvise a formula for Korea. Unless an agreement were reached, the Soviets could very well occupy the entire peninsula and place Korea under their control. Thus, on August 15, 1945, President Harry S Truman proposed to Stalin the division of Korea at the thirty-eighth parallel. The next day Stalin agreed. Evidently Stalin did not wish to confront the United States by occupying the entire peninsula. He may also have hoped that the United States, in return, would permit the Soviet Union to occupy the northern half of the northernmost major Japanese island, Hokkaido (see fig. 3).
The Allied foreign ministers subsequently met in Moscow on December 7, 1945, and decided to establish a trusteeship for a five-year period, during which a Korean provisional government would prepare for full independence; they also agreed to form a joint United States-Soviet commission to assist in organizing a single "provisional Korean democratic government." The trusteeship proposal was immediately opposed by nearly all Koreans, especially the Korean right under Syngman Rhee, who used the issue to consolidate his domestic political base. The Korean communists objected at first, but quickly changed their position under Soviet direction.
The joint commission met intermittently in Seoul from March 1946 until it adjourned indefinitely in October 1947. The Soviet insistence that only those "democratic" parties and social organizations upholding the trusteeship plan be allowed to participate in the formation of an all-Korean government was unacceptable to the United States. The United States argued that the Soviet formula, if accepted, would put the communists in controlling positions throughout Korea.
Data as of June 1990