The 1954 Geneva Conference on Korea: From Armistice to Stalemate


For fifty days in 1954, many of the Cold War’s preeminent figures met in Geneva to deal with “the Korean question,” how to reunite and bring peace to a Korean Peninsula that had been divided since 1945 and which had just endured three years of devastating warfare.  The ongoing war in Indochina was also on the agenda but for the US delegation was a secondary concern.  Although the Geneva Conference on Korea ended in failure, proposals were offered, compromises were considered, and surprises occurred.  South Korea, which initially opposed holding an international conference at all, unilaterally sprang toward the end of the conference an ambitious fourteen-point proposal that was rejected by the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea – to the relief of the US delegation.1  By July 20, when the Geneva Conference finally ended, it had failed to unite Korea, but had divided Vietnam.

The list of participants at the Geneva Conference reads like a postwar “Who’s Who,” including: US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, supported by Under Secretary of State and former director of central intelligence Bedell Smith and diplomat U. Alexis Johnson; PRC First Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai; Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, supported by Andrei Gromyko; UK Foreign Secretary and future prime minister Anthony Eden; Canadian Foreign Minister and future prime minister Lester Pearson; Thai Foreign Minister Prince Wan; and two future secretaries-general of NATO, Prime Minister Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium and Joseph Luns of the Netherlands.  The South Korean delegation was led by Foreign Minister Byeon Yeong-tae (known to Westerners as Y.T. Pyun); the North Korean delegation by Foreign Minister Nam Il, who as general of the Korean People’s Army had signed the Armistice the previous year.  The Geneva Conference did not suffer from a lack of high-level attention or talent.

Declassified documents from the time show that the participants were pessimistic about their chances of success but nevertheless hoped and worked for a positive outcome.2  Their efforts and eventual failure have lessons for today about the still unresolved “Korean question.” Whoever is involved in current or future Korean peace processes will be taking up the Geneva Conference agenda as it was inconclusively left sixty-five years ago.            

Background and sources

In popular imagination, Korea was divided at the 38th Parallel by the Korean War.  There were actually three stages to the partition of the peninsula: 1) an initial phase from 1945–1950, during which efforts were made to erase a line which had been drawn by the United States and the USSR to mark the territory in which they would receive respectively the surrender of Japanese forces; 2) the Korean War from 1950–1953 that ended in armistice along the 38th Parallel, now a demilitarized zone (DMZ); and 3) diplomatic efforts from 1953–1954 to reunite Korea, culminating in failure at the Geneva Conference.  After the Geneva Conference, the DMZ hardened into an international border.  During the ensuing sixty-five years, efforts to ease tension at the DMZ and to improve inter-Korean relations have waxed and waned, but there has been no serious effort to erase the now seemingly permanent line between North and South Korea.

The years just before and just after the Korean War are little discussed or understood.  Searching for books on Korean War military operations from English-language, online booksellers shows that almost 500 titles are currently available.  It is hardly a forgotten war.  However, apart from the memoirs of politicians and diplomats that touch glancingly on post-1945 Korean diplomacy, there is only one readily available book in English on international politics regarding the Korean Peninsula from 1945 to 1950, The United Nations and the Peaceful Unification of Korea: The Politics of Field Operations 1947-1950, by Dutch scholar Leon Gordenker, published in 19593; and one book that tells the story of the negotiation and implementation of the 1953 armistice, The Korean Armistice, by Englishman Sydney D. Bailey, from 1992.4  Bailey included in his book a twenty-page chapter on the Geneva Conference that serves for all practical purposes as the sole published description of the conference’s Korea phase. 

Fortunately, original documents preserved in the US National Archives; the State Department’s series, “Foreign Relations of the United States”; and Chinese and Russian documents that have been made available relatively recently by the Wilson Center’s admirable Cold War International History Project5 make it possible to recreate the Geneva Conference on an almost day-to-day basis and to gain insight into the participants’ negotiating assessments, strategies, and interactions.  Missing from this paper are documents from South Korean archives, which would benefit future research—as would access to North Korean government archives, someday.

The Division of Korea: 1945

To understand the 1954 Geneva Conference, a brief recapitulation of events on the Korean Peninsula from 1945 to 1954—and particularly the UN’s role—is required.  The situation on the peninsula in 1945 was that Japanese forces were surrendering, creating a chaotic situation following 35 years of Japanese occupation and rule.  For many decades before that, Russia, China, and Japan had vied for domination of the peninsula, paying little heed to the sovereignty of the enfeebled Korean dynasty.  Because there was no plausible status quo ante to which to return, the fall of the Japanese Empire created a vacuum in Korea. 

The Allies had, however, outlined their intentions towards Korea in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, “…mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, [the United States, United Kingdom, and Nationalist China] are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”6  In the Potsdam Proclamation of 1945, later endorsed by the USSR, the Allies stated that they would “occupy points in the Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies…to secure the achievement of the basic objectives (i.e. peace, security, and justice).”7  Former “Japanese territory” included holdings of the Japanese Empire, among them Korea.

The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 9, 1945, three days after Hiroshima.  On August 17, two days after Japan announced that it would surrender, the Soviet Army entered Korea and rapidly moved south, occupying Seoul before withdrawing to the 38th parallel, agreed with the United States as a demarcation line for the surrender of Japanese forces.  The United States and the USSR were to restore order on their respective sides of the parallel pending a decision on withdrawing foreign forces from the peninsula.  However, as early as August 25, the Soviets had established an “Executive Committee of the Korean People” in the North, which by February had become a “Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea,” led by Soviet-trained Kim Il-sung, who ruled from 1948 to his death in 1994.  The situation in the South was more chaotic, with Americans providing a military government while competing South Korean political forces maneuvered for power and advantage in preparation for promised upcoming elections.

The Joint Commission and the UN Commissions: 1946-1950

A Joint Commission of American and Soviet officials in Korea failed to make any progress towards establishing a unified Korea while it met between March and August of 1946.  The Soviets rejected American proposals for a relaxation of travel between North and South Korea and for a unified Korean administration and economy. They also rejected US proposals for peninsula-wide elections by secret ballot under international supervision.8 

Faced with deadlock in the Joint Commission, the United States referred the Korean question to the UN General Assembly in September 1947.  The General Assembly voted, over Soviet objections, to create a United Nations Temporary Commission for Korea (UNTCOK) with the mandate of paving the way for a withdrawal of foreign forces and creation of a unified Korean government.  The multilateral UNTCOK and its successor organizations, UNCOK I (United Nations Commission for Korea) and UNCOK II operated in South Korea but were never allowed access into North Korea. 

The earnestness with which the three UN Commissions approached their mandate to assist in unifying Korea can be seen in UNTCOK’s heated internal debates about whether to support elections to be held only in the South instead of continuing to push for Korea-wide elections.9  The same debate took place between competing South Korean political factions with conservatives favoring holding South Korea-only elections as soon as possible.  UNTCOK also made repeated and imaginative attempts to establish communications with North Korean authorities.  In the end, UNTCOK succeeded in influencing South Korean and American authorities to liberalize the voting age, franchise, and relative freedom of the 1948 South Korean elections, and it provided election observers for every province in South Korea, but it understood that this was all at the cost of exacerbating differences between North and South.   

UNCOK II’s last act was to make a tour of the entire North-South border in June 1950 to investigate reports of infiltrations and clashes.  The observation team departed Seoul on June 9, 1950 and returned on June 23.  Its June 24 report stated that South Korean forces were holding purely defensive positions and showed no signs of aggressive intent.  One day later, North Korean forces attacked the South, launching the Korean War.  UNCOK II’s last report at least provided evidence to refute later claims by the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea that South Korea had been the aggressor.10

The Armistice: July 27, 1953

Armistice talks between the warring sides took place during most of the Korean War, with face-to-face talks starting as early as July 1951.  From then until the war ended on July 27, 1953, 159 plenary sessions and over 500 working-level meetings took place.  The three main issues were: 1) the location of a military demarcation line; 2) specific arrangements for the cease-fire and supervision of the terms of the armistice; and 3) release and repatriation of prisoners of war.  Agreement was hard-won on all three points, but the one that proved the most difficult was the prisoner of war issue.  China and North Korea insisted upon repatriation of all prisoners of war.  American and allied interviews with their Chinese and North Korean prisoners of war revealed that most did not want to be returned, creating a practical and ethical dilemma regarding forced repatriation.11 

The Armistice Agreement that was signed on July 27, 1953, addressed all three issues, and added a fourth, Article IV, “Recommendations to the Governments Concerned on Both Sides.”  Although the United States would have preferred the Armistice to deal purely with military matters, including the prisoners of war issue, it acceded to Chinese and North Korean insistence that the Armistice include language calling for a subsequent political conference.12  The Chinese and North Korean motivation to press for a political conference may have been to attain legitimacy at a time when the United States and the United Nations still considered only the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee’s (president from 1948 to 1960) Republic of Korea to be legitimate.  For China and North Korea to be at a political conference table would imply equivalence with the United States, Republic of Korea, and any other international participants.

Article IV of the Armistice stated that the military commanders of both sides recommended to their respective governments that “within three months of the Armistice, a political conference of a higher level be held…to settle through negotiation the question of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.” One can almost see in the “etc.” the impatience of military officers not to become bogged down in diplomacy after having struggled so long to resolve the military elements of the Armistice.  “Etc.” would have to be settled later.

The Geneva Conference is announced

From January 25 to February 18, 1954, foreign ministers of the Four Powers (i.e. the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and France) met in Berlin to discuss unresolved international issues: the division of Germany, the Soviet occupation of Austria, the ongoing Indochina War, and the Korean Armistice.  They failed to come to any terms regarding Germany but succeeded in agreeing to a Soviet withdrawal from Austria in exchange for a pledge of Austrian neutrality.  They also agreed to convene a conference in Geneva on April 26 to deal primarily with Korea but also with Indochina.13

The United States put Korea on the Berlin agenda because post-Armistice talks at Panmunjom with China and North Korea had been completely unproductive since the signing of the Armistice six months earlier.  The United States believed that elevating the talks to an international level might help break the logjam regarding the “Korean question,” particularly if the USSR became actively involved and pushed for a more cooperative attitude from its ally, China.  The State Department’s press briefing notes emphasized that, “The United States is committed to do all in its power to bring about by peaceful means the unification of Korea as an independent nation free to manage its own affairs under a representative form of government.”14

One problem with organizing such an international gathering was that the United States recognized neither the People’s Republic of China nor the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while China and North Korea refused to meet under UN auspices because they considered the UN itself to have been a belligerent in the Korean War.  French Foreign Minister Georges Bidault proposed as a solution that the Four Powers should convene the conference by means of the United States inviting South Korea and the other countries that had been part of the Unified Command (UNC, or the “Sending States” that contributed forces to defend South Korea during the Korean War, the term generally used during the Geneva Conference); the Soviet Union would invite China and North Korea; and, France and the United Kingdom would invite themselves.15  Although Syngman Rhee hoped the Allied delegations would be subordinate to the United States at the conference, the State Department made clear that representatives of the countries that had been part of the Unified Command would be full and equal participants in the conference “without distinction among them.”

The set of inviters and invitees was agreed upon by the foreign ministers in Berlin but because the “Text of Agreement Reached with Respect to Conference on Korea and Indochina” simply listed all of the intended participants, the USSR was able to claim publicly, repeatedly, and falsely thereafter that China was one of the “Five Powers” that had convened the Geneva Conference, an assertion that the United States and her allies repudiated as often as the Soviets made it.16 

South Korean reaction to the announcement of the Geneva Conference

The United States knew from the Armistice negotiations that Syngman Rhee strongly preferred quick unification, by force if necessary, over diplomatic engagement with North Korea and China.  The Berlin Agreement therefore was presented to him as a fait accompli the day after it was announced.  Ambassador Briggs reported from Seoul immediately after their meeting that Rhee had accepted it “more in sorrow than in anger,” and had said that he reluctantly would go along with it “if his American friends insist.”17 

The next day, however, the Korean Republic, a government newspaper, was scathing towards the Berlin Agreement, accusing the Big Three (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) of having acted secretly and in violation of the Armistice, and claiming that the United States had broken promises made to the Republic of Korea (ROK) by accepting Russia as a non-belligerent and by agreeing to include Red China as a sponsoring power (sic).  Foreign Minister Byeon added publicly that the ROK Government had not decided whether to attend.

Ambassador Briggs’ assessment in a cable to Washington was that the strong ROK government reaction was “at least partly motivated by exasperation that conference [is] in fact going to be held.  ROK had apparently concluded political conference unlikely and was planning its policy accordingly.  On balance Embassy inclined to believe they will not boycott conference but possibility some such thoughtless action should not be entirely discounted.”18

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Walter Robertson strongly recommended to South Korean Ambassador Yang that the ROK government attend the conference and assured him, “This Government intends to consult fully with the ROK Government before and during the conference on both procedural and substantive matters.”  Robertson told Yang that the results of the Berlin Conference “were infinitely better than we had dared hope for,” in that only belligerents would participate and that China would not be given the status of a co-sponsor.19  South Korea had been particularly averse to any involvement of neutral countries in peace talks.

Did the United States risk a South Korean boycott of the Geneva Conference by not consulting with the ROK Government before the Berlin agreement?  The US assessment was likely to have been that if the United States had consulted the Rhee government and then overridden its predictably strong objections to the international conference, a South Korean boycott would have been even more likely. It remained uncertain whether the ROK would show up in Geneva until it finally made its decision known to the United States one week before the conference was to begin.20

Conference arrangements

On February 24, the State Department extended an invitation to South Korea, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Columbia, Ethiopia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, and the Union of South Africa (which, alone, declined): “In accordance with the proposal agreed upon February 18, 1954, at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the US, France, the UK, and the Soviet Union and announced in the enclosed communique of the same date, the Government of the United States has the honor to extend to the Government of ___ an invitation to participate, if it so desires, in the Korean political conference to be convened at Geneva, Switzerland, April 26, 1954.  In view of the many administrative and procedural arrangements which must be settled before the Conference convenes, an early reply would be appreciated.” 

Saying that there were “many arrangements to be settled” was a diplomatic understatement.  In personal correspondence from February 20, Henry Nichol at the US Mission in Geneva noted to Harold Kissick at the State Department: “The calm atmosphere of Geneva, usually prevalent this time of year, was abruptly shattered by the news that the Big Conference will be held here on April 26.  At the moment everything is uncertain.  When (the Swiss government) gave the OK on Geneva as the site, it was with little or no consideration having been given to the many practical problems involved.”21 

Throughout March and April 1954 there were intense negotiations and frantic preparations regarding how expenses would be shared among the participants, translation, observer status, who would chair the conference, the order of speakers, rules of procedure, how minutes would be taken and distributed, whether special rostrums or tables would need to be constructed, press coverage and, above all, seating arrangements. 

During the protracted negotiations on seating, the United States made clear on April 16 that unless a satisfactory arrangement could be reached, the United States would not attend the conference except as an observer.22  Its chief concern was to not be seated in a way that implied equivalence with China.  UK Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden reached agreement with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov on a seating arrangement acceptable to John Foster Dulles the day before the conference opened, just in time for technicians to install the wiring for microphones.

Who would chair the conference also proved to be a vexing issue.  The Soviet Union would not accept a rotation among the Four Powers because it would pointedly exclude China, which the USSR was still promoting as equal to the Four.  No one favored a rotation among all nineteen participating countries.  It was suggested that UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold might be brought in to chair the Conference, but the idea was dropped in the face of Soviet and Chinese objections to highlighting any UN role in the conference.  In the end, it was agreed that the Conference would be chaired in rotation among three individuals: Anthony Eden, Molotov, and Prince Wan of Thailand.  Although Thailand was a member of the Unified Command, it enjoyed reasonably good relations with Moscow.

Opening positions: the United States

A key question regarding the Geneva Conference in retrospect is whether the United States considered it a debating forum in which to sway international public opinion or whether it believed an agreement was possible.  At an April 20 meeting with representatives of the fifteen Unified Command countries in Washington, Dulles openly weighed this choice.  He told them that if the conference was predestined to fail, then it would be best to start with a proposal that global opinion would find reasonable, stick with it, and then blame the communist countries for having failed to accept it.  If, however, the negotiations had a chance of succeeding, then it would be best to begin with a more extreme proposal and to negotiate towards a compromise.  Dulles favored the latter course, saying that the United States “was disposed to the view that our side should make a really earnest effort to bring about the unity and independence of Korea at this conference.”23

Evidence that Dulles was not merely playing to the Allied gallery can be seen in the classified US “Position Paper Prepared for the Korea Phase of the Geneva Conference.”  The paper outlined three alternative outcomes for the conference, “any of which would meet the US objective of a non-Communist, independent, and representative government in Korea”: “‘Plan A’ would be the incorporation of North Korea into the existing Republic of Korea; ‘Plan B’ would be elections in both North and South Korea for a Korean National Government within the ROK constitutional structure; and ‘Plan C’ would be all-Korean elections for a new Constituent Assembly and newly-constituted National Government.”24

The US negotiating strategy, as outlined in the Position Paper, would be to initially propose Plan A because South Korea would likely insist upon it, to fall back to Plan B, which would be most Allies’ preference and which the ROK might accept following the inevitable rejection of Plan A, and to hold Plan C in reserve in case the Communists demonstrated willingness to arrive at a peace settlement. The “Communists” refers to the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.  It was a convenient short-hand term to denote one of the two blocs at the Geneva Conference, the other side being “The Sixteen,” which included the United Statets, South Korea, and the fourteen Unified Command countries that were there.  The totality of participants was referred to as “The Nineteen.”

The State Department also produced for the Geneva Conference a secret, internal document, “Possible Alternatives on Korea Short of Full, Free Unification,” that included suggestions on: inter-Korean governmental cooperation; North-South trade agreements; North-South transportation links; and postal, telephone, and telegraphic services.  No opportunity arose in Geneva to discuss these ideas.25

Opening positions: the Communists

For their part, the Chinese, Russians, and North Koreans closely coordinated their positions before the conference and held a planning session in Moscow in mid-April.  The Soviets and North Koreans generally deferred to China in regard to overall substance, but Molotov was their chief spokesperson in Geneva and offered his own proposals and compromises.  Molotov, Zhou Enlai, and Nam Il coordinated well in Geneva and had an easier time presenting a common front than did “the Sixteen.”  Despite their efforts to come to common positions in frequent coordination meetings (the heads of delegation of the Sixteen met eleven times in Geneva between April 26 and June 15) differences among the Sixteen were often on full display, to the delight of the Communist group.26  A US special envoy, Arthur Dean, remained in Seoul for the length of the Geneva Conference for frequent and often stormy consultations with Syngman Rhee. 

In a March 2 memo to the Party Central Committee, Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai hailed the convening of the Geneva Conference with Chinese participation as “a great achievement of the Soviet Union.”  Zhou wrote, “We should go all out at the Geneva Conference to strive for agreements so as to open the path to resolving international disputes through discussions and negotiations by the big powers.”  The Geneva Conference presented an early opportunity for China to appear as a key player on the international stage.  “Any success here will be important since a path for active participation in international affairs is being opened for the PRC.”27  Molotov supported the positive Chinese attitude but added as a cautionary note that “he has heard that Kim Il-sung does not welcome free elections.”28

In an example of ships passing unawares in the night, Molotov recorded in his memorandum of a conversation with PRC ambassador to Moscow Zhang Wentian that the Chinese were secretly making internal preparations (in a way very similar to that of the US State Department) to discuss practical measures in the event that unification talks at Geneva failed: preservation of the existing situation, the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops, and the regulation of economic, trade and other relations between North and South Korea.29  If they had met in Geneva to discuss practical measures, the US and Chinese delegations would have found that they were thinking along similar lines.

The issues discussed at Geneva

After stripping away the thick layer of rhetoric at Geneva regarding blame for the war, colonialization, freedom, and foreign intervention, there were four substantive points at issue: 1) withdrawal of foreign troops, 2) elections, 3) proportionality between North and South, and 4) the role of the UN.

  1. Withdrawal of foreign troops was the first issue mentioned in the Armistice Agreement as a subject for negotiations.  South Korea began with an adamant position that Chinese troops would have to withdraw first, and UN forces would remain on the peninsula until unification was assured.  That untenable position was followed by an exchange of proposals and counterproposals until there was near agreement on a phased withdrawal of both Chinese and UN forces around the time of elections.  Secretary Dulles offered in private conversations with Allies that in the context of an overall agreement, there could be a complete withdrawal of US and UN forces from the peninsula.30
  1. The Sixteen started from the position that UN-supervised elections had already taken place in South Korea.  UN-supervised elections need only take place in North Korea.  This opening position also gave way during the course of negotiations to a compromise, to which South Korea acquiesced, whereby new elections would be held in North and South Korea.
  1. One of the fundamental demands of the Communist side was that North and South Korea be treated equally.  They proposed that an “all-Korean Commission” be established in which the two sides would, by consensus, agree on steps forward, including on elections and establishment of a new Korean government.  The Sixteen countered that the basis for settlement could only be on the basis of representational government in which the greater population of the South would be taken into account.  Towards the end of the conference, North Korea was offering that the “Korean Commission” be on the basis of equality but that members of a national assembly might be elected proportionally.
  1. The Communists’ opening position on international supervision was that Korean issues should be settled only by Koreans.  First, a complete withdrawal of foreign forces and then North and South Korea by mutual agreement could settle their differences.  The Sixteen viewed this as simply a prelude to a North Korean takeover of the South by force, as it had tried in 1950.  The Sixteen stood firm on a role for the UN in supervising withdrawal of forces, elections, and unification, now under the auspices of UNCURK (the post-Korean War UN successor to UNTCOK and UNCOK). (The United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea (UNCURK) was established in 1951 and was disbanded in 1973). The Communists countered with an offer to have supervision provided by a Neutral Nations Commission.  The Sixteen rejected this, based on North Korea and China’s record of sabotaging the functioning of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC) already operating—or failing to do so—under the Armistice.


Having been by turns recalcitrant or passive during the Geneva Conference, the ROK unexpectedly tabled its own fourteen-point proposal on May 17.31  In a remarkable shift from its earlier positions, the new ROK proposal would have allowed for a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces before national elections, and stated that the newly-elected, all-Korean legislature could amend the ROK constitution. There was doubt among the Sixteen that the head of the ROK delegation, Foreign Minister Byeon, had consulted with Syngman Rhee before tabling the fourteen-point plan.  It turned out that he had not, but Rhee said subsequently that although he never would have pre-approved it, and considered recalling Byeon once he learned of it, he nevertheless would have honored it if it had been accepted.  The United States considered this a highly risky proposal32; others among the Allies, including the United Kingdom, saw in it a possible way forward.  The United States was relieved when the Communist side rejected the ROK proposal on the grounds that it included UN election supervision.33

Having run into an impasse on a role for the UN, the United States decided that it was time to end the conference.  It feared that the Communists, having found the Sixteen’s sticking point, would begin offering further compromises on the remaining issues, winning the public relations battle to appear reasonable and flexible.  Although some Allies would have preferred to continue negotiating, the US view prevailed.

On June 15, the Korean phase of the Geneva Conference ended in shambles.  Following a carefully prepared statement by the Sixteen expressing regret that agreement was not possible,34 Zhou Enlai cannily riposted by taking the microphone and proposing a concluding statement for the conference: “The states participating in the Geneva conference agree that they will continue their efforts towards achieving an agreement on the peaceful settlement of the Korea question on the basis of establishing a united, independent and democratic Korea.  As regards the question of the time and place for resuming appropriate negotiations, it shall be decided separately by the states concerned through negotiation.”  Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak and UK delegate Lord Reading replied that although they would not approve Zhou’s statement, it did not mean they rejected the ideas it contained.  This provoked laughter from the Chinese.35

Facing a US delegation that was incandescent at giving China the last word and opening the door to institutionalizing the Geneva Conference, flustered Chairman Anthony Eden weakly observed that the conference had no voting procedures and ended the proceedings without a concluding statement.

The Geneva Conference in retrospect

It is unlikely that digging through the records of the 1954 Geneva Conference could unearth proposals that would apply to the Korean question today.  Instead, the value of studying the conference is that it provides a different lens with which to view 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. 

Current inter-Korean talks take on a different hue in light of the 1954 Geneva perspective.  Today, Korea appears to be one people living in two nations.  To the diplomats in Geneva, it was one people living in a single, divided nation.  That is a perspective that should not be consigned to history.

1. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 396.1 GE/6-254: Telegram from Secstate to U.S. Delegation in Geneva, June 2, 1954.

2. U.S. Department of State, Telegram, Secstate Circular, 1954 APR 14 PM 3 42, Secret (Declassification Authority NND842474), Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

3. Leon Gordenker, The United Nations and the Peaceful Unification of Korea: The Politics of Field Operations 1947-1950 ( The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1959).

4. Sydney Bailey, The Korean Armistice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991).

5. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Cold War International History Project, Bulletin: New Evidence on North Korea,Issue 14/15, Winter 2003 – Spring 2004.

6. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943,

7. The Potsdam Declaration, July 26, 1945,

8. Gordenker, 12.

9. Ibid., 61.

10. Address by John Foster Dulles at the Third Plenary Session of the Geneva Conference, April 28, 1954. Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

11. Bailey, 110.

12. Ibid., 150.

13. Berlin Communique on the Geneva Conference, Issued February 18, 1954, Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

14. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 396.1-BE/2-1854: Telegram, February 18, 1954.

15. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Germany and Austria, Volume VII, Part 1.United States Delegation Record of the Sixth Restricted Meeting of the Berlin Conference, February 18, 1954.

16. U.S. Department of State, Telegram from Moscow to Secstate, Advance Copy, April 10, 1954, Secret (Declassification Authority NND842474), Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

17. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 795.00/2-1954: Telegram from Seoul to Washington, February 19, 1954.

18. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 795.00/2-2054: Telegram from Seoul to Washington, February 20, 1954.

19. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 396.1 BE/2-2454: Telegram from Secstate to Seoul, February 24, 1954.

20. U.S. Department of State, Telegram from Seoul to Secstate, 1954 APR 18 PM 6, Official Use Only, Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

21. February 20, 1954 Letter from Henry Nichol to Harold Kissick, Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

22. U.S. Department of State, Telegram from Secstate to Geneva, 1954 APR 16 AM 8 30, Confidential (Declassification Authority NND842474), Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

23. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 396.1 GE/4-2054: Memorandum of Conversation by Elizabeth Bowen of the Office of United Nations Political and Security Affairs, April 20, 1954.

24. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, GK D-4/1e: Memorandum by the Technical Secretary, United States Delegation at the Geneva Conference (Van Hollen), April 24, 1954.

25. The Geneva Conference, Korea Phase, Possible Alternative Proposals on Korea Short of Full, Free Unification.  Secret, April 30, 1954 (Declassification Authority NND842474), Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

26. Document No. 29. Telegram, Zhou Enlai to Mao Zedong and Others, Regarding the Situation at the Thirteenth Plenary Session. PRCFMA 206-00046-09. Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

27. Document No. 2. Preliminary Opinion on the Assessment of and Preparation for the Geneva Conference,” Prepared by the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (drafted by PRC Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai) and Approved in Principle at a Meeting of the CCP Central Secretariat, March 2, 1954. PRCFMA 206-Y0054. Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

28. Document No. 3. Telegram, PRC Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Wentian to the PRC Foreign Ministry, Zhou Enlai and the CCP Central Committee. Reporting the Preliminary Opinions of Our side on the Geneva Conference on the Soviet Side.March 6, 1954. PRCFMA 206-00048. Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

29. Document No. 1. From the Journal of Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov:Secret Memorandum of Conversation between Molotov and PRC Ambassador Zhang Wentian,March 6, 1954. AVPRF f.6, op.13a. d.25, II, 7. Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

30. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 795.00/4-2854e: Memorandum of Conversation by the Ambassador in Switzerland (Willis): Luncheon Meeting of Dulles, Eden, and Bidault, April 28, 1954.

31. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 396.1 GE/5-1554: Telegram from the U.S. Delegation in Geneva to Seoul. May 15, 1954.

32. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 795B.00/5-1954: Telegram from Secstate to Seoul. May 19, 1954.

33. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, The Geneva Conference, Volume XVI, 396.1 GE/6-654: Telegram from the U.S. Delegation in Geneva to Secstate. June 6, 1954.

34. The Geneva Conference, Declaration by the Sixteen, June 15, 1954, Records Pertaining to the Geneva Conference, Record Group 84, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

35. Bailey, 168.