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Why does North Korea exist?

The very existence of North Korea is a bizarre quirk of history.

North Koreans attending a March 29 rally in Pyongyang in support of Kim Jong-un's order to put its missile units on standby in preparation for a possible war against the U.S. and South Korea.
REUTERS/KCNA

I’m not sure what is the weirdest government in the world, but North Korea’s “Kim Dynasty” is certainly in the running.

In additon to running a strange, retro, “Communist” dictatorship that may lead the world in totalitarianism, every few years North Korea engages in a sad/funny/scary provocative action that raises the question: Is the government crazy enough to do what it is threatening, is it just trying to scare someone into paying ransom or is it pursuing some other agenda that makes little sense to most of us fellow travellers on Spaceship Earth?

As you know, we are in the middle of the latest and possibly scariest such episode, since it involves nukes. I hope for a sane outcome and, someday, a more normal government in North Korea and a better life for its people.

Because I am a history nerd, every time North Korea calls attention to itself, I am reminded that the very existence of North Korea is a bizarre quirk of history. I’ve told the story before, most recently  three years ago, when the previous Kim (also semi-officially known as Dear Leader, Wise Leader, Unique Leader, Respected Leader and — on special occasions — “perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have,” among many other semi-official honorifics) was still in power and decided, for no very good reason, to fire rockets and shells at an island inhabited by South Korean civillians, killing several of them. That one blew over without a full-scale war and perhaps the current one will, too.

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Anyway, the historical (but not existential) answer to the headline question, is that Korea had never been divided into North and South Korea until the very last few days of World War II, as the United States was preparing to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our (then) great ally, the Soviet Union, had stayed out of the war in Asia but President Frankelin D. Roosevelt had extracted a pledge from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that he would help out with the war in Asia three months after the war ended in Europe.

(Speaking of ridiculous honorifics, Stalin always feigned great modesty but allowed his sycophantic followers to refer to him by such titles as “Driver of the Locomotive of History.” “Genius of Mankind,” and the extremely modest “Greatest Man of all Times and Peoples.”)

Since the very northeasternmost corner of Korea  borders the southeasternmost coast of Russia, Stalin had agreed to keep his pledge by invading Japanese-occupied Korea in August, a pledge that the United States welcomed at the time. As August approached, President Harry Truman (who had taken over after FDR’s death) was much less excited about Stalin invading Korea. The U.S. Navy had Japan blockaded, U.S. physicists had developed the A-bomb and Truman wasn’t in such great need of Russian assistance in finishing off Japan. And U.S. thinking about its Soviet ally was quickly changing into what would become the Cold War mentality.

As Stalin’s troops entered Korea from the north, American troops landed in the south. The allies (soon to be something less than allies) agreed that the U.S. troops would advance north and the Soviet troops would move south and they would meet in the middle. The Americans figured out that they might prefer to occupy as much as possible of Korea when the fighting stopped, but were worried that the Soviets might end up occupying most of the peninsula. So, with Stalin’s agreement, they decided to draw a line in the middle.

No one had given any advance thought to a divided Korea. The Pentagon urgently assigned a colonel with the wonderful name of Charles H. (Tick) Bonesteel III to propose a line dividing Korea into the two occupation zones, which were intended to be temporary. Lifting a couple of paragraphs from my previous 2010 telling of this tale:

Here’s the amazing part. Bonesteel had the assignment, but he didn’t have a decent map of Korea that showed, for example, the boundary lines of the Korean provinces, nor even major geographical features like rivers and mountains, that might enable him to work out a rational, relevant line on a map. Bonesteel and his partner on this mission, Lt. Co. Dean Rusk (yes, the Dean Rusk who later became secretary of state and one of the architects of the Vietnam War) found a wall map that showed the entire region but the level of detail was such that all they could tell was that the 38th parallel seemed to cut across roughly the middle of the country. They apparently noted that the Korean capital, Seoul, was south of the parallel, which seemed a good thing since the U.S. was going to occupy the south.

The higher brass in the Pentagon agreed to the Bonesteel-Rusk proposal. The only suspense was whether Stalin would accept it, since everyone from the U.S. side realized they had no way to prevent the Soviets from occupying all of Korea. Surprisingly, and scholars still struggle with why it turned out this way, Stalin not only accepted the 38th parallel as the line, but by the time he did, some of his troops had made it further south and Stalin called them back to the line.

The 38th parallel made a ridiculous boundary. It ignored Korean provincial boundaries and obvious geographical features, cutting across rivers, hills, roads and rail lines. Of course, Bonesteel couldn’t see any of those on the map, and he had no idea that 38th parallel would divide Korea into two nations for the next 67 years and counting. It gave the Russian zone a slight majority of the Korean territory, but the U.S. zone a huge majority of the population and the economic assets.

Well, as you know, although there is occasional talk of an eventual reunification of what should be the single nation of Korea, that hastily drawn, ludicrous Bonesteel line became and remains the boundary between North and South Korea. Of course, the drawing of the line is not exactly the whole reason that there is a separate North Korea — the tale continues directly into the Cold War and beyond. The Cold War also led to the division of the city of Berlin and the nation of Germany, in a similar manner and for similar reasons, but those boundaries, after causing a great deal of stress and misery, have been erased.

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But we still have a Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, now ruled by the grandson (Kim Jong-Un) of the Kim (Kim Il Sung, who from the grave still holds the title of “Eternal President”) who was installed temporarily by the Soviets in 1945.

If by any chance you find this tale intriguding enough to want to know a bit more, here’s my more thorough 2010 version, which includes excerpts from the official Army history, which confirms the basic lunacy of how this went down and includes a brief summary of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel, “The Sirens of Titan,” in order to introduce Vonnegut’s great line: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”