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KEI Spotlight

KEI Vice President Mark Tokola Examines The 1954 Geneva Conference

March 8, 2019

Writing for the Asan Institute, KEI Vice President Mark Tokola writes about the 1954 Geneva Conference. Many people remember this international conference for ending the First Indochina War and dividing Vietnam into two – fewer people remember that participants at this peace conference also discussed the potential reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

Examining declassified documents, Tokola finds that participants were pessimistic about their chances of success but nevertheless hoped and worked for a positive outcome. 

Four substantive issues were under discussion:

  1. Withdrawal of foreign troops
  2. Elections
  3. Proportionality between North and South
  4. The role of the UN.


South Korea advanced a surprisingly ambitious proposal that called for a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces before national elections and to amend the ROK constitution once an all-Korean legislature had been elected.  North Korea conveyed internally among communist bloc delegates that it would not accept free elections on the Korean Peninsula – and the communist delegates rejected the ROK proposal on the grounds that the elections would include UN supervision.

Looking back on the records, Tokola reflects that proposals from the conference would not apply to the Korean question today. However, he highlights the importance of examining the lens through which the participants at the Geneva conference viewed Korea. Even the adamantly anti-communist State Department of John Foster Dulles assumed that mutually agreed unification was possible and desirable.  If that could not be achieved, at least practical measures such as economic trade, postal and telephone services, and transportation infrastructure ought to be established between North and South. 

Read the full piece here