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The 38th parallel in Korea has become almost as famous as another imaginary line, the equator. The political history of the 38th:

Origin. Three days before Japan’s surrender, Russian troops entered Korea. A hurried decision by the U.S. War Department set the 38th parallel as a line between Russian and U.S. forces taking over from the Japanese.

Two Regimes. By late 1948 two hostile regimes faced each other across the parallel. The Communist government in the north had barred U.N. officials, refused to take part in a U.N.-sponsored election for an all-Korea government. On Dec. 12, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly approved elections in southern Korea as “a valid expression of the free will of the electorate.” By July 1949 the U.S. had withdrawn its occupation forces.

First Crossing. On June 25, 1950, a Russian-armed North Korean army drove south across the 38th parallel in a surprise attack. The same day, the U.N. Security Council branded the assault aggression.

Second Crossing. On Oct. 7, 1950, the U.N. Assembly authorized MacArthur to unify Korea under U.N. supervision. The vote was supported by 47 nations, opposed only by the five members of the Soviet bloc.

The U.N. army had reached the parallel on Oct. 1. South Korean troops crossed it in pursuit of the northerners. But MacArthur held up his non-Korean forces until the Oct. 7 decision by U.N.

Third Crossing. By this time, Mao Tse-tung had issued marching orders to his troops. On Oct. 26 Red troops crossed the Yalu River. On Dec. 31, they drove over the parallel on the heels of the U.N.’s retreating forces. Their proclaimed objective, in the words of Radio Peking: “To liberate Korea . . . and crush the aggression of the imperialists.”

Fourth Crossing. Last week, once more, South Korean patrols scouted north of the 38th parallel. The U.N. army drew up to the line. Its commanders had U.N. authority, as announced in Washington and London, to cross the parallel.

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