The Autumn Crisis of Occupation and American Policy in Korea, 1945

Symmes, Elena, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Zelikow, Philip, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

In 1945, the thirty-eighth parallel stretched across the Korean peninsula to delineate two temporary occupation zones of American and Soviet military occupation forces. By 1953, the Korean War Armistice Agreement transformed this interim partition into the boundary lines of two sovereign nations. Sound scholarship produced by generations of historians already understands many of the effects of the division of the peninsula, braiding together an interdisciplinary triad of related fields: the history of U.S. Foreign Relations, the international history of the Cold War, and Korean studies. What is less understood is the transformative process through which this plastic partitioning reached a de facto state of permanence in the final quarter of 1945, long before the Korean War or the armistice agreement in 1953. The primary debates explored in this paper unravel how Americans in the State and War Departments struggled to choose between either a policy of engagement via a fantasy Four-Power trusteeship (as foretold by vague wartime agreements), or pursue immediate and speedy disengagement from Korea. The effects of this historical and tragic imbroglio continue to reverberate across time and space; As the DPRK-ROK border defines ongoing regional and local geopolitics in the twenty-first century East Asia as the nexus of inter and intra-Korean diplomacy, the Second World War and not the Korean War forged the split fate of modern Korea. Indeed, the ways in which irresolvable tension between American-Soviet visions for the postwar world order and Korean nationbuilding created the preconditions for the Korean War should be factored into the cost of the Second World War.

MA (Master of Arts)
Korea, 1945, North Korea, South Korea, Postwar Asia
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