Lecture Video: The 1882 Korean-American Treaty, Syngman Rhee, and the Division of Korea

It has become axiomatic that the division of Korea in 1945 was a hasty decision taken by men who had little knowledge of Korea and who were every hour being bombarded by issues of much greater importance. It was “wholly an American action” taken with no thought of the Koreans themselves or of the long-term consequences of that division. The division of Korea was not a sufficient condition for the Korean War, but it was a necessary one. Given the monumental consequences that resulted from that division, comparatively little scholarly effort has gone into contextualizing it and to explaining the contradictory directives of the State and War departments that Colonels Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel were given thirty minutes and a small scale National Geographic map of East Asia to solve. The War Department wanted none of Korea, while the State Department wanted nearly all of it. The 38th Parallel was a compromise, not just between the United States and the Soviet Union, but between the United States government’s differing interpretations of its responsibilities toward Korea.

But why did Americans care about Korea at all? Military planners claimed that Korea had no strategic value to the United States and their lack of planning for either an assault on or an occupation of Korea proved they believed it. Dean Rusk’s own account of the division claims that he was tasked with dividing Korea for “symbolic purposes”—not strategic ones. What could have made Korea symbolically important in 1945? The answer lies in the largely unexamined forty-year campaign by Syngman Rhee and the Korean independence movement to persuade Americans to care about Korea. Rhee built a comparatively small but determined network of supporters, tirelessly lobbied the United States government, and at key junctures transformed Korea into an issue of symbolic importance that could not be ignored. Rhee’s activities as the leader of the Korean independence movement in the United States are crucial to the context in which American policymakers suggested the division of Korea.

This lecture will explain how Rhee used the obscure 1882 Korean-American Treaty to transform Korea into a place a symbolic importance to Americans at two critical junctions, the debate over the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and the summer of 1945 when the Allies were constructing a new world order in the wake of World War II. Rhee’s argument that the United States’ violation of this treaty made it responsible for Korea resonated with many Americans, who through their congressmen and grassroots organizing pressured the U.S. government to do something for Korea. Division was not what they had in mind, but it is nevertheless what they received.

David P. Fields earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is currently a Fulbright scholar at Yonsei University. His dissertation “Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea” examines how Korean independence activists used the rhetoric of American exceptionalism to lobby for Korean independence in the first half of the 20th century. He is the editor of The Diary of Syngman Rhee, published by the Museum of Contemporary Korean History. He has served as the book review editor of the Journal of American-East Asian Relations since 2015. He has been published in the Journal of American-East Asian Relations and the North Korea Review.


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