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Division and Partition

Image: Still from the film Homes Apart: Korea, Third World Newsreel (, 1992.


The world we live in is structured by the fateful U.S. decision to divide the Korean peninsula at World War II’s end. Tasked with dividing Korea into temporary U.S. and Soviet zones of occupation, two junior U.S. military officers, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, armed with just a National Geographic map, bisected Korea, long a colony of Japan, at the 38th parallel on August 10, 1945. Although the Soviet Union consented to this decision, no Korean was party to it. The consequences would be catastrophic. As historian Bruce Cumings writes, “from partition forward, war was predictable if not inevitable.”  In Dictée (1982), Korean American artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha offers an elliptical yet critical account of the internecine violence that ensued from the U.S.-drafted division of Korea: “We are severed in Two by an abstract enemy an invisible enemy under the title of liberators who have conveniently named the severance. Civil War. Cold War. Stalemate.” Setting into motion a world-shattering chain of events, these enemy-cum-liberators, Cha writes, violated that “which was once whole.” Yet more than a tragic past event, the partition and division of Korea reverberates as a durable structure of the present. Flexibly serving U.S. interests as a staging ground for its regional strategic interests, the divided Korean peninsula “offers an opportunity for staging a power transition within the arena of global politics,” as longtime Korean peace activist, Kang Jeong-koo perspicaciously stated in 2012.


Cairo Declaration (1943)

isan gajok

38th parallel

Military occupation

U.S. deferral of decolonization 

Displacement and refugees

Diasporic return, gohyang 


Study Materials

[Interview] Hong, Christine, “The First Year of Peace on the Korean Peninsula: An Interview with Kang Jeong-Koo,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 11, 2012 

In this 2012 interview, scholar and activist Kang Jeong-Koo of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK) addresses the implications of Obama’s militarized “pivot” to Asia and the Pacific for the peoples of that region. Analyzing the geostrategic utility of a divided Korean peninsula, he at the same time casts forward to 2013, the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the 1953 Korean War armistice by North Korea, China, and the United States. As he states, “In Korea, the 60th birthday has traditionally been characterized as a milestone that signals the commencement of a new life—one that is qualitatively different from that of the previous 60 years. Life expectancy in the old days was often far shorter than 60 years. …For almost six decades, peace has been deferred because of U.S. imperialism. Isn’t it now high time for us to conclude peace through our own efforts?”

[Video] ”2001 Third Inter-Korean Family Reunion 2001 3차 이산가족상봉 2박3일 다큐Korean Broadcasting Station, December 15, 2020.

This video, subtitled in English, is the full documentary of the third inter-Korean family reunion in 2001 (February 26, 2001-February 28, 2001), which was broadcasted by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). While the first such exchange took place in September 1985, inter-Korean family reunions recommenced in 2000 with the reaching of an agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang during the Sunshine Era in the same year. There have been twenty-one reunions so far with the last exchange in 2018.

[Documentary] Homes Apart: Korea (Takagi and Choi, Third World Newsreel, 1991), 56 min.

They speak the same language, share a similar culture, and once belonged to a single nation. When the battle phase of the Korean War came to a close, ten million families were torn apart. By the early nineties, as the rest of the world celebrated the end of the Cold War, Koreans remained separated. Beginning with one man’s journey to reunite with his sister in North Korea, director JT Takagi and producer Christine Choy reveal the personal, social, and political dimensions of a divided nation. Written by playwright David Henry Hwang, Homes Apart was the first U.S. project granted permission to film in both South and North Korea.

This archive organized and maintained by the Ministry of Unification in South Korea contains materials related to separated family members’ memories about their family history and reunions. On the Korean peninsula, there are many families who have not been able to see each other for more than seventy years because of the division of the two Koreas. This archival collection includes a wide range of records that express grief, pain, nostalgia, and hope, such as family photos, maps and drawings of hometowns, daily diaries, and essays, produced and donated by the separated family members.

[Novel] Han Kang  한강, Human Acts 소년이 온다 (New York: Hogarth, 2017)

This novel invites readers into the scenes of Gwangju democratization movement in South Korea, which took place from May 18, 1980 to May 27, 1980. The work shows the suffering of Dong-ho, a middle school student, and the people around him, tortured and killed as they fought against the South Korean government armed forces. The protagonists’ narratives in the novel describe the ways in which ordinary lives are destroyed by mass state violence. The accounts also help readers to ask fundamental questions about human deeds and cruelty by demonstrating the social suffering rendered by the division of the two Koreas.

The DMZ Art & Peace Platform, supported by the Ministry of Unification in South Korea, is an exhibition of a variety of art pieces that center concepts of peace, unification, ecology, and sustainability. The exhibition was organized between September 15 and November 15, 2021 at venues in and around the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a fortified boundary constituted by the Korean Armistice Agreement (1953), which has divided the two Koreas for decades. The display of artwork aimed to commemorate memories of the division in the DMZ, which embeds contradictory images of peace and violence.


  1. In 1943, the Allied powers convened in Cairo in anticipation of Japan’s defeat. As part of their blueprint for the postwar peace, they asserted that Japan would be stripped of the territories it had seized, occupied, and stolen. At the same time, the Allies proclaimed—here professing to be “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea”—that “in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” Has that day of freedom and independence arrived? Is it possible for a divided Korea to be free and independent?

  2. In the Pacific Theater of the Second World War, Japan—like its imperial rival, the United States—possessed expansionist territorial ambitions. Yet unlike its ally Germany, Japan was not divided at the end of the war. Instead, Korea, long a colony of Japan, was partitioned, and it remains so to this day. What was the justification of the division of Korea? Whose interests were served in 1945 by a divided Korea? Whose interests are served by Korea’s division today? 

  3. The division of Korea in 1945 and the cementing of national division through the war that ensued meant that one in three Korean families were divided at mid-century. 

    • How are family separation and national division both symptoms of the unresolved Korean War?

    • 이산가족, or separated families, are a phenomenon that Koreans intimately associate with the unresolved Korean War. Yet the phenomenon of family separation has played out in successive decades and taken many forms in the diaspora, including the overseas adoption of mixed-race and Korean children; Korean undocumentation; and North Korean migration. Can these forms of displacement and family separation be understood as structurally linked to the 이산가족 phenomenon? Are they, too, effects of the Korean War?  

  4. In an article on the return of transnational Korean adoptees to Korea, Eleana J. Kim describes the complex politics of belonging and alienation expressed by the adoptees with whom she worked. She writes, “They were sometimes literally homeless…to the extent that one of them joked about wanting to live in the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), which he described as his kohyang, or hometown” (316). How does the history of the Korean diaspora look different if we begin this story with the division of Korea? How might we denaturalize the DMZ not only as a drawn border, but also its imposition as a technology of mass psychic and physical displacement?

  5. How do the unresolved geopolitics of the Korean War, including militarized division, partition, and unaddressed state violence, shape nation-building prerogatives in the Koreas? Relatedly, how has Korean division empowered US intervention into the nation-building processes of other countries in the region?

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