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Why Are North and South Korea Divided?

February 9, 2018 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Map of the Korean peninsula including North and South Korea. (Credit: Filo/Getty Images)

As all eyes turn to South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympic Games, held in the resort city of Pyeongchang, drama continues to swirl around the unexpected participation of North Korea, its hermetic and often hostile neighbor.

Though North and South Korea have agreed to march under one flag and share one hockey team for the benefit of these “Peace Olympics,” they have been divided for more than 70 years, ever since the Korean Peninsula became an unexpected casualty of the escalating Cold War between two rival superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States.

A Unified Korea

For centuries before that point, the peninsula was a single, unified Korea, ruled by generations of dynastic kingdoms. Occupied by Japan after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and formally annexed five years later, Korea chafed under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years—until the end of World War II, when its division into two nations began.

“The catalyzing incident is the decision that was made—really, without the Koreans involved—between the Soviet Union and the United States to divide Korea into two occupation zones,” says Michael Robinson, professor emeritus of East Asian Studies and History at Indiana University, who has written extensively on both modern Korea and its history.

Map of the Korean peninsula including North and South Korea. (Credit: Filo/Getty Images)

Why Was Korea Divided?

In August 1945, the two allies “in name only” (as Robinson puts it) divided control over the Korean Peninsula. Over the next three years (1945-48), the Soviet Army and its proxies set up a communist regime in the area north of latitude 38˚ N, or the 38th parallel. South of that line, a military government was formed, supported directly by the United States.

While the Soviet policies were widely popular with the bulk of the North’s laborer and peasant population, most middle-class Koreans fled south of the 38th parallel, where the majority of the Korean population resides today. Meanwhile, the U.S.-supported regime in the South clearly favored anti-communist, rightist elements, according to Robinson.

“The ultimate objective was for the Soviet Union and the United States to leave, and let the Koreans figure it out,” he explains. “The trouble was that the Cold War intervened….And everything that was tried to create a middle ground or to try to reunify the peninsula is thwarted by both the Soviet Union and the United States not wanting to give in to the …read more


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