The Korean War and Its Challenges for the Newborn UN

  January 20, 2024   Read time 4 min
The Korean War and Its Challenges for the Newborn UN
The Korean question had been intensively discussed at the UN for four years before, in 1950, it was faced there with the greatest challenge of its history.

During the Second World War it had been agreed among the Allies that, after the defeat of Japan, Korea would be restored to independence. At the Yalta Conference there had been a brief discussion of the possibility of some sort of international trusteeship for the country, but this was not pursued. It was, however, agreed there that the Soviet Union should join the war against Japan at a time of her choosing. The obvious place for the Russians to attack was Korea, so this raised the possibility of a Soviet occupation of the country. In May 1945, when Harry Hopkins went to Moscow on behalf of President Truman, Stalin again raised the possibility of some sort of international trusteeship for Korea. But nothing was agreed.

On 8 August the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan, and four days later sent her troops into northern Korea. Within the next few days it was proposed by the United States, and accepted by the Soviet Union, that the Japanese surrender should be accepted by Soviet forces in northern Korea and by the United States in the south. The division between the areas occupied by the two allies should be the 38th parallel. This was a proposal of the US joint chiefs-ofstaff. It was a fateful decision, since it effectively determined the political future of Korea for the coming decades. A month later, on 8 September, US forces landed in Korea. By that time Soviet forces could, if they had so wished, have occupied the entire country. But the agreement was observed. Soviet forces occupied the area north of the 38th parallel, and US forces the part to the south.

This had originally been regarded, at least in Western quarters, as a purely temporary arrangement. The Allies were committed to restoring independence to Korea and to establishing there a unitary state. But this immediately raised the question, to what government should power be handed over?

In December 1945 the Council of Foreign Ministers, meeting in Moscow, agreed in principle to establish a 'provisional Korean democratic government' for a united Korea. A joint commission was to be established, consisting of representatives of the US and Soviet commands, to prepare proposals in consultation with democratic parties and organisations in Korea. Meanwhile there would be a four-power trusteeship for the country, to be held by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France.

The proposal for trusteeship, implying a kind of colonial tutelage, was strongly resisted by many Korean politicians in the South; and the United States subsequently declared that this proposal need not be implemented if a viable and representative Korean government could be established. This view was contested by the Soviet Union, which continued to attach importance to the trusteeship idea. For nearly two years inconclusive negotiations proceeded between the US and Soviet occupation authorities in the two zones about the future government of the country. A joint commission was set up to assist in this process but was frustrated by a total conflict of views. There was prolonged disagreement about which groups and organisations within Korea were 'democratic' and should be consulted about the constitutional system to be established. The Soviet Union held that any groups opposed to the Moscow Agreement and the trusteeship proposal had no right to be given a voice. The United States in reply proposed that elections should be held separately in the two zones; representatives from each zone would then come together in numbers proportionate to population (the population of the South was twice that of the North) to establish a provisional government for a united Korea. But the Soviet Union wanted the provisional assembly to be appointed, with equal numbers from North and South, and with representatives only of those parties which fully supported the Moscow Agreement. The United States then suggested that the various proposals should be considered by a joint meeting of the four signatories of the Moscow Agreement. This in turn was rejected by the Soviet Union.

Finally the Soviet Union proposed that all US and Soviet forces should be withdrawn by 1 January 1948, handing over to local authorities in each zone, and so in effect perpetuating the division of the country. The United States was not unwilling to withdraw its forces, under reasonable safeguards, since the joint chiefs-of-staff regarded the commitment in South Korea as both a military and a political liability. But it was not yet willing to renounce all hope of eventual reunification. In the late summer of 1947 the United States decided to bring the question before the UN. On 17 September, Secretary of State Marshall declared to the Assembly that it now seemed evident that further attempts to solve the Korean problem by means of bilateral negotiations will only serve to delay the establishment of an independent united Korea .... Although we shall be prepared to submit suggestions as to how the early attainment of Korean independence might be effected, we believe that this is a matter which now requires the impartial judgement of the other members. We do not wish to have the inability of two powers to reach agreement delay any further the urgent and rightful claims of the Korean people to independence.

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