The deaths, only a couple of days apart, of the Manichaean figures of Kim Jong Il and Václav Havel invite some historical reflection. In Korea, the 38th Parallel was determined to be the division between North and South Korea one summer night in 1945 by two junior American officers — including the future secretary of state Dean Rusk, then a colonel. It was chosen as the dividing point to determine whether the Japanese garrison in Korea should surrender to the Soviet Union or to the United States. As the heavy-handed Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula, which had begun in aggressive conquest in 1895, ended, Rusk and his comrade did manage to save about 60 percent of the Koreans from the Kims, who were then barely a gleam in the sallow eyes of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung.
On June 24, 1950, in an act of naked aggression, Kim Il Sung’s heavily armed (by Stalin) North Koreans, in what was widely seen as retaliation for the USSR’s being excluded from Japan, attacked across the 38th Parallel into the almost unarmed South. President Truman well remembered the weakness of the West over Manchuria and Ethiopia in the Thirties, and was one of the founders of the United Nations, of whom he said: “In this first big test, we just can’t let them down.” With the Soviet delegate to the U.N. absent in protest against Chiang Kai-shek’s retention of the Chinese Security Council seat, Truman received overwhelming support at the U.N. and domestically to assist the South Koreans.
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