On August 10, 1945, under pressure to produce a document as quickly as possible, two exhausted United States army colonels who were military planners in the Policy Section of the Strategy and Policy Group in United States War Department Operations Division, lacking adequate maps and working deep into the night, began to outline surrender procedures in General Order Nº 1, which General Douglas Mac Arthur (1880-1964) would transmit to the Japanese Government after its surrender. The first paragraph of the order specified the nations and commands that were to accept the surrender of Japanese forces throughout the Far East. The order outlined the terms of the Japanese surrender in World War II, terms that would shape the future of the Far East and set the stage for the Korean War and the Taiwan crisis.
The two colonels, Colonel Charles Hartwele Bonesteel (1909-1977), chief of the policy section, and Colonel David Dean Rusk (1909-1994), Oxford educated and later Secretary of State under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson during the early Vietnam war years, had thirty minutes in which to dictate Paragraph 1 to a secretary as the Joint Staff Planners and the State War Navy Coordinating Committee were impatiently awaiting the result of their work. Bonesteel and Rusk thus somewhat hastily decided who would accept the Japanese surrender. Their thoughts, with very slight revision, were incorporated into the final directive. Bonesteel's prime consideration was to establish a surrender line as far north as he thought the Soviets would accept. He knew that Soviet troops could reach the Southern tip of Korea before American troops could arrive. He knew also that the Soviets were on the verge of moving into Korea, or were already there.
The nearest American troops to Korea were in Okinawa, 600 miles away. Bonesteel's problem therefore was to compose a surrender arrangement, which, while acceptable to the Soviets, would at the same time prevent them from seizing all of Korea. If they refused to confine their advance to North Korea, the United States would be unable to stop them. Thus the subsequent existence of South Korea was essentially the result of Soviet good will.
At first, Bonesteel had thought of surrender zones conforming the provincial boundary lines. However, the only map he had in his office was hardly adequate for this sort of distinction. The 38th Parallel, he noted, cut Korea approximately through the middle. If this line was agreeable to President Truman and to Soviet leader generalissimo Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), it would place Seoul and a nearby prisoner of war camp in American hands. It would also leave enough land to be apportioned to the Chinese and the British if some sort of quadripartite administration became necessary. They discussed possible surrender zones, the allocation of American, British, Chinese, and Soviet occupation troops to accept the surrender in the zone most convenient to them, the means of actually taking the surrender of the widely scattered Japanese military forces, and the position of the USSR in the Far East. They quickly decided to include both provisions for splitting up the entire Far East for the surrender and definitions of the geographical limits of those zones. They decided to use the 38th parallel as a hypothetical line dividing the zones within which Japanese forces in Korea would surrender to appointed American and Russian authorities.
The 38th Parallel was not a good division. In fact, the colonels knew it was quite undesirable, but it did bisect the peninsula and it could keep the Soviets at bay—so they drew the line that would have devastating consequences.
Former secretary of State David Dean Rusk wrote years later "During a meeting on August 10, 1945, Colonel Charles Bone steel and I retired to an adjacent room late at night and studied intently a map of the Korean peninsula. Working in haste and under great pressure, we had a formidable task: to pick a zone for the American occupation.... Using a National Geographic map, we looked just North of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographic line. We saw instead the 38th Parallel and decided to recommend that... (The State and War Departments) accepted it without too much haggling, and surprisingly, so did the Soviets.... (The) choice of 38th parallel, recommended by two tired colonels working late at night, proved fateful.”
The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff telegraphed the general order to General Douglas MacArthur on August 14 and directed that he furnish an estimated time schedule for the occupation of a port in Korea. Among the items it specified, General Order Nº 1 stated that Japanese forces north of the 38th Parallel in Korea, would surrender to the Russian commander, while those south of the parallel would surrender to the commanding general of the United States expeditionary forces.
As Washington waited for Moscow's reaction to President Truman's message, there was a short period of suspense. Russian troops had entered Korea three days before the President accepted the draft of General Order Nº 1. If the Russians failed to accept the proposal, and if Russian troops occupied Seoul, Brigadier General George A. Lincoln, chief of the strategy and policy group, suggested that American occupation forces move into Pusan. Stalin replied to Trumann on August 15, 1945; saying nothing specifically about the 38th Parallel but he offered no objection to the substance of the president's message.
At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the Americans, led by President Truman, and the Soviets divided Korea politically at the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea (South), with Syngman Rhee as President, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North), a communist government. Both North Korea and South Korea claimed the whole of Korea. Japan officially surrendered to the Allies on 15 August 1945.
The new dividing line, about 190 miles across the peninsula, sliced across Korea without regard for political boundaries, geographical features, waterways, or paths of commerce. The 38th Parallel cut through more than 75 streams and 12 rivers, intersected many high ridges at variant angles, severed 181 small cart roads, 104 country roads, 15 provincial all-weather roads, eight better-class highways, and six north-south rail lines. It was, in fact, an arbitrary separation, symbolic of the unnatural notion of two Koreas. The division of Korea along the 38th parallel was decided in America before the Korean people even knew about the capitulation of the Japanese empire.
South of the 38th parallel, the American zone covered 37.000 square miles and held some 21.000.000 people. North of the line, the USSR zone totaled 48.000 square miles and had about 9 million people. Of the 20 principal Korean cities, 12 lay within the American zone, including Seoul, the largest, with population of nearly 2 million. The American zone included six of Korea's 13 provinces in their entirety, the major part of two more, and a small part of another. The two areas, North and South Korea, complemented each other both agriculturally and industrially.
South Korea was mainly a farming area, where fully two-thirds of the inhabitants worked the land. It possessed three times as much irrigated rice land as the northern area, and furnished food for the north. North Korea furnished the fertilizer for the southern rice fields, and the largest nitrogenous fertilizer plant in the Far East was in Hungnam. Although North Korea also had a high level or agricultural production, it was deficient in some crops. The political barrier imposed serious adverse effects on the natural symbiosis of the divided zones.
In 1940, South Korea produced about 74 percent of Korea's light consumer goods and processed products. Its industry consisted of some large and many small plants producing textiles, rubber products, hardware, and ceramics. Many of these plants had been built to process raw materials from North Korea.
North Korea, a largely mountainous region contains valuable mineral deposits, especially coal. Excellent hydroelectric plants, constructed during the last 10 years of Japanese domination, ranked with the largest and best in the world. Because of its power resources, North Korea housed almost all of Korea' heavy industry, including several rolling mills and a highly developed chemical industry. In 1940, North Korea produced 86 percent of Korea's heavy manufactured goods. The only petroleum processing plant in the country, a major installation designed to serve all of Korea, was located in the north, as were seven of eight cement plants. Almost all the electrical power used by South Korea came from the north, as did iron, steel, wood pulp, and industrial chemicals needed by South Korea's light industry.
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