Which side was Korea on during World War II?

Partition of Korea in 1945The cornerstone of a conflict that continues to this day

August 14, 1945: End of World War II in East Asia. "To our good and loyal subjects." This is how the declaration of surrender by the Japanese emperor Hirohito begins in the court language that most Japanese do not understand. It will be broadcast on the radio on August 15th at 12 noon. Japan thereby recognizes the conditions of the victorious powers.

With Japan's surrender a good 75 years ago, the foundation stone was laid for a new conflict that continues to this day: the partition of Korea. The Korean peninsula had been a Japanese colony since 1910 and, like other areas of occupation in Japan, was now to be divided up among the victorious powers. The big winner was the Soviet Union. During the final years of the war, the United States had promised Stalin great concessions if he would take part in the fighting against Japan. Eung Jung Lee heads the Institute for Korean Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

"The problem was the fear of Japan. Well, until February 1945 they hadn't expected Japan to surrender so quickly. It wasn't sure when Germany would surrender. But with Japan they felt even more insecure, almost Fear of the war on the main Japanese island. That's why they wanted to have Soviet troops with them. Because they thought they couldn't do it on their own. "

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Korea between the victorious powers

At the Tehran Conference in November and December 1943, the Soviets then promised to be ready for a war in the Pacific after a victory over Germany. Great Britain and the USA later expressed their gratitude accordingly. Bernd Stöver teaches at the Historical Institute of the University of Potsdam.

"During the meeting in Yalta in February 1945, a generous package was put together for the Soviet mission in East Asia: The USSR should get back the territories lost in 1905, the Kuril Islands and the south of Sakhalin. At the same time, Stalin should be allowed to control the Mongolian People's Republic and part of it Manchuria and Korea. "

However, the Western powers did not expect Japan to be defeated so quickly. Three months after the end of the war in Europe, Stalin's help was actually no longer needed in East Asia. Bernd Stöver:

"Ultimately, after the atomic bombs were dropped on August 6th and 9th, the situation suddenly changed. As is well known, Tokyo then accepts the Potsdam Declaration on August 14th. Tokyo then stops fighting two days later, on August 16th , and thus the reasons for the Soviet participation in the conquest no longer apply. "

Too immature to be self-employed?

But why was Japan's previous colony of Korea, which was an autonomous empire until 1910, now not granted independence?

"The mistake began at the Cairo conference, when President Roosevelt was of the opinion that if Japan's colonial rule over Korea was to end, the Koreans would be unable to run their own state. They would be able to simply too immature. Like Indochina, Vietnam and also like the Philippines a trust administration has to be. " Werner Pfennig is an expert at the Institute for Korean Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

"Germany has been divided, self-inflicted. War started, war lost, divided by the victorious powers. Korea did not start a war. Korea was brutally exploited as a colonial property of Japan. Was then not granted independence, but two administrations were established , one in the north, one in the south. "

The victorious powers, the USSR and the USA, divided the country among themselves. Three months after the end of the war in Europe, the Soviets reached northern Korea on August 8, 1945. Stalin used the confused situation in East Asia for his own ends. The first American atomic bomb had fallen on Hiroshima two days earlier, and only one more would have passed before it was dropped on Nagasaki. Bernd Stöver:

"The Soviets are actually behaving very, very carefully and proceeding very, very slowly towards the south. They only reach the northeast coast on August 10, two days later. 14 days later they are only in Pyongyang, what on half of the distance is approximately 38 degrees latitude. "

(picture alliance / dpa / Jeff Schmaltz) On this side and beyond the 38th parallel The Korean conflict is difficult to see through. Sixty years after the end of the Korean War, the historian Bernd Stöver has written in-depth background reading on the divided country and its history.

There were ideas for division 40 years earlier

At that time the legend arose that a dividing line had to be found in Korea within half an hour in order to stop the Soviets, who reached the 38th parallel on August 28, 1945. Eung Jung Lee:

"So the idea of ​​dividing Korea in general, this idea came up as early as 1905. There were also secret negotiations between Japan and the USA that the northern part of Korea could be occupied by Russia and the southern part of Korea by Japan or could be colonized. Such ideas existed And in Yalta, they wanted to administer the country in trust after the surrender of Japan. But if it is to be administered in trust, what should it look like? And they already had in 1944, we also found the documents in the archives in the USA in the archives people were already thinking back then, where could we now make such a division as in Germany. If we occupy, what should that look like? There was latitude in the middle. The line had not yet been laid out specifically. That's why this one was created Legend that you had half an hour. "

The Americans, surprised by the sudden victory over Japan, had not yet been able to send troops to Korea.

"The Soviet units, which had already advanced beyond the latitude, then immediately retreat behind the demarcation line. The US troops coming from Japan then actually landed on September 8th, very, very late, which in turn also shows I can conclude that it wasn't their first option to move in now. It actually wasn't that interesting. "

Why was Stalin satisfied with half of Korea?

So 75 years ago - in the first days of September 1945 - the division of Korea became a reality. A dozen villages, three railway lines and many roads were severed. No Korean had a say. But why was Stalin satisfied with half of Korea, why did he stop his troops at the 38th parallel even though the Americans were still in Japan? Bernd Stöver from the University of Potsdam:

"Why Stalin was so cautious now is clearly due to the fact that under no circumstances did he want to start a conflict with the Americans, or rather initiate. That was simply because he believed he was not in a war with the Americans or with them to be prepared for the West. He was clearly behind, the atomic bomb was not there yet. It will not be tested successfully for the first time until 1949. Ultimately, he assumed that he had to buy time. "

The approaching Cold War cemented the line at the 38th parallel - until today. The Koreans now live in the fourth generation, hermetically separated from one another.

Sightseeing on the border

Visit to the demarcation line before the outbreak of the corona pandemic. On the South Korean side, the border facility has become a magnet for visitors. A tourist bus from Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is parked by a bridge over which you could take a train to Pyongyang, the capital of the north, before the division. The end of the bridge is barricaded. Music blares from a souvenir shop.

The four-kilometer-wide and 240-kilometer long border between North and South Korea is flanked by trip wires, ground sensors, minefields and soldiers who are always ready to fight. There is also a huge array of weapons. The world's most impenetrable border. Most South Koreans were not afraid of a war with the north, says Lisa Kim, travel assistant on one of the commercial border tours.

"Many foreigners are afraid, but we Koreans are not, because we have known the situation here since we were born. No, we are not worried. The foreign TV stations broadcast a lot of information about North Korea. The foreigners know better than we do. It is dangerous." they say. We South Koreans never think that we live in a dangerous country. "

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Two states were founded and the Korean War

The many stalls selling baseball caps and T-shirts and the frolicking children also convey normalcy. A mixture of sight, fairground and lively history lessons. The Koreans themselves carried out the division that is valid today: with the establishment of two states in 1948 and finally in the Korean War. In 1950, North Korea surprisingly invaded the south until UN troops led by the Americans were able to push them back. Each attack was answered with a counter attack. It was a proxy war between East and West: China intervened in the war until all cities on the Korean peninsula were in ruins.

The Korean War still weighs heavily on the reunification intentions that are expressed from time to time by the North and the South, of course on different terms.

"I didn't experience the Korean War, but my parents and relatives told me about it. So I know the sad story. But I had no idea about it. I only heard about it from the media. When I visit the demilitarized zone here, I have no idea. only then do I understand what it means that Korea is divided. "

(dpa / picture-alliance / Stefan Schaubitzer) Founding of North Korea - the last divided country of the Cold War Even 70 years after the end of the Second World War, this and the Cold War continue to have an impact in Asia. Korea is still divided - the separation of North and South Korea was originally planned as a temporary measure. It all began with the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on September 9, 1948.

Separate development for 75 years

Visitors tie colorful ribbons on a fence with wishes and prayers for reunification in memory of the relatives in the north. Ten million families were separated after the Korean War. South Koreans are also not allowed to contact them. The national security law forbids them to do so. Lisa Kim:

"I feel sorry for the North Koreans because I've heard that some of them are starving. We are fine in the south. We want to support the north. We would like to be with them and help them, somehow."

To date, the societies in the two Koreas are ethnically very homogeneous. But apart from that, the differences between north and south could hardly be greater, if you consider diet or life expectancy, mindset or belief. They are two completely different political and economic systems that have developed in both parts over the last 75 years.

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"People are trained to be obedient"

A visit to a North Korean city a few years ago: while a jet fighter flies through the clouds, girls and boys aged four or five march in lockstep to kindergarten. Her parents work in an agricultural cooperative during the day. The little ones exercise like the big ones. Thin arms swing to the rhythm of the song on lean children's bodies. It is impossible to tell whether they dislike this drill or not. The children's faces are expressionless. Practice in a system that will probably demand a lot from you in your life. Il Nam Choi was also taught obedience from an early age. Only because he lives in South Korea today can he talk about it.

"When the leaders of North Korea planned something, they gave us direct orders and we had to obey. That has not changed. A protest is unthinkable. Even if someone were ordered to die, he would have to kill himself. People are trained to do this To take orders and obey. "

To this end, the enemy is constantly summoned from the outside: the program is regularly interrupted on state television to remind people of the Korean War, the destruction of the country by the USA and our own preparedness for defense. Today, South Korea is a democratic economic power, North Korea is a poor dictatorship that isolates itself from the outside world, with total control inside, explains Chung-in Moon, professor emeritus and expert on security issues in East Asia.

"With threatening scenarios, the regime was repeatedly able to intimidate the people in North Korea and get them involved in their policies so that they would not revolt against the regime for fear of external threats. The technical control and surveillance in North Korea is extensive and the rulers know each other good at monitoring the masses. The security apparatus extends across the country and is very effective. Then there is the indoctrination and propaganda that is expressed in the so-called personality cult surrounding the Kim family. "

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Politics of isolation and defensiveness

North Korea is not Stalinist. The country has followed its own socialist philosophy since Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state and Eternal President. It is also based on an old Korean ruler cult that existed on the peninsula for centuries until Japan invaded in 1910 and deposed the Korean emperor. In addition, there is a warlike nationalism that grew during the time of the Japanese occupation and that North Korea is on display today. State founder Kim Il Sung learned his trade in a cadre organization in the Soviet Union that had set itself the goal of liberating the country from Japan in the 1930s. "Juche", the ideology he invented, translates as independence, defense against any outside interference. Such an autonomy can only be maintained in the modern world through total isolation.

"There is no communication with the outside world, no free exchange of goods or people. Without this isolation, the regime in North Korea would not have survived to this day. The North Korean system is unique because there dignity and self-respect are more important than bare survival and economic prosperity If foreign countries do not recognize the leadership in North Korea as a sovereign power, their response will be challenging. "

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The buffer zone, seen from the other side

The north also leads its rare visitors to the demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel. This buffer zone between the enemy troops in the north and south has been left to its own for 67 years, since the end of the Korean War, and has thus become a biotope for rare animals and plants. The legacy of the occupation of Korea by Japan from 1910 to 1945 and that of the war in East Asia, on the other hand, have still not been resolved, says Eung Jung Lee, head of the Institute for Korean Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

"A generation of students who went to school from 1935 to 1945 only learned Japanese. And then a lot of slave laborers, workers were not only forced to exploit, but also to do the hardest work in Japanese mines and mining work, there were a lot of Korean ones Workers. And with women, where we now estimate about 200,000 young women between the ages of 18 and 40, dragged along to the front as so-called 'comfort women', exploited or fallen victim as sexual slaves. And these are stories that one cannot They also want to discuss that, but the Japanese government rejects it and is still arguing, especially when it comes to women as sex slaves, they still deny that today. And with the forced laborers too. "

The relationship between the two Koreas and Japan is complicated, as is their common history. In East Asia, coming to terms with the past is still in its infancy.

(Deutschlandradio / Bodo Hartwig) Demilitarized Zone - Formerly a battlefield, today a natural habitat The Korean War did not end in peace in 1953, but in an armistice. To this day, a four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone characterizes the border between north and south. The past of that border region is tragic - the future holds ecological potential.