Known better as the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), the 38th Parallel was the approximate boundary which separates the free South from the communist North in Korea. It is the precursor to the modern Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which is situated mostly on or just north of the MDL. The line was decided upon on 10 August 1945 and adopted on 2 September. The line was drawn to define Soviet-American occupation of the nation following the defeat of Japan during World War II.

A four-nation trust was established to oversee the government of Korea for five years leading to proposed independence. The primary holders were the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with China and Britain being minor players in the trust. A subsequent U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission was established to attempt to organize a proper united government, but the antagonistic nature of the Cold War had already gripped foreign relations by this time. The difference in ideologies deepened between both the superpowers and the Koreans in the midst of this inaction.

Protests erupted surrounding the potential division of Korea between 1947 and 1948. However, despite the protests, citizens in the two occupied territories failed to reach agreements on the proposed government incarnation. General elections and appointments followed by mid-late 1948. In August of 1948, Syngman Rhee took over government control from the United States in the Republic of Korea (South). The following month, Kim Il-Sung took over government control from the Soviet Union in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North).[1]

Protests and unrest continued after these leaders were appointed, however. Particularly bloody conflict had broken out largely on the dividing line, with territorial and ideological disputes being the chief cause. The division of the country was thought to be a temporary incarnation, especially following many years of Korean unity on the peninsula. The rapid escalation of tension eventually erupted into civil war in 1950.[2]

The North eventually invaded the South, which led to a reactionary deployment of UN forces led by the United States. The North had striven to establish its own communist government to unify Korea. The UN response initially was to drive the North back to the 38th Parallel to restore the status quo, but Syngman Rhee posited that the original MDL had been obliterated by the North’s invasion. GEN Douglas MacArthur echoed these concerns, using it as a springboard to launch offensives into the North. Ultimately, the conflict resulted in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. The two Korea’s have technically remained at war ever since.


[1] Pembroke, Michael. Korea: Where the American Century Began. Hardie Grant, Melbourne. 2018. p47.

[2] Robinson, Michael E. Korea's Twentieth-Century Odyssey. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii. 2007. p112.

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