How American Christians from North Korea Could Have Altered Korea’s Future in 1945

By Mark P. Barry

Few Americans realize that the hasty 1945 division of Korea and ensuing communist eradication of Christianity in the north occurred despite the efforts of a handful of uniquely qualified American officials. These men were born in the pre-World War II American Christian community in northern Korea, and were concerned, while serving in the U.S. government, about the fate of a land no less their home than America.

Historians generally maintain the U.S. government was largely uninformed about Korea during the Second World War and paid it scant attention. But these American Christians, serving in significant roles in the wartime U.S. government, sought to direct U.S. focus and efforts toward Korea. Despite their best efforts, they were unsuccessful and there is an almost complete absence from the historical record of their efforts.

Dr. George M. McCune was the best-known of these second-generation born and raised in Korea of American Christian missionaries. He became the main expert on Korea for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. His father, Rev. George S. McCune, a Presbyterian missionary, headed Union Christian College (also known as Sungsil School, both a high school and college) in Pyongyang, where, interestingly, Kim Il Sung’s father (who later married the daughter of a Presbyterian minister) attended (the late Ruth Graham, wife of Rev. Billy Graham, also attended high school there for three years).

The younger McCune was born and raised in Pyongyang, the “Jerusalem of the East,” and earned the first doctorate in the study of Korea from an American university in 1941. He served in the OSS from 1942 and the next year became Korea desk officer for the Department of State, the leading official in the U.S. government on Korean affairs. His brother, Dr. Shannon McCune, was an expert on the geography of Korea and East Asia.

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