End of Japanese Rule and Formation of the Korean People’s Republic (KPR)
At the time of the Japanese surrender, the Japanese governor-general in Korea did not know of the arrangements that had been made for two occupation zones. The Japanese expected the Soviets to take the whole peninsula. In addition to their worries about the aroused Koreans, they feared the Red Army, whose undisciplined soldiers wantonly looted, killed, and raped in all the countries they liberated (Millett 2005, 49).
To minimize this risk, they decided to hand over the reigns of govern-ment in advance to Koreans in exchange for a promise of protection. Since pro-Japanese Koreans had no credibility with most Koreans, the Japanese approached Korean nationalists. They met first with a conser-vative leader, Song Chin-u (1890–1945), who refused them, possibly for fear of being seen as a collaborator. The Japanese then asked for the help of Yo Unhyong, a respected, left-leaning nationalist who had spent years in Japanese jails.
Yo Unhyong saw the offer as a chance to lay the groundwork for an independent Korea. He agreed to form the Committee for the Preparation for Korean Independence (CPKI) and to assure the safety of the Japanese in Korea provided the Japanese meet four demands: to release all political prisoners, guarantee food provisions for three months, not interfere with the maintenance of peace or Korean activi-ties for the sake of independence, and not interfere with the training of workers and peasants. The Japanese agreed. Yo Unhyong promptly asked one of his lieutenants to draft a Korean Declaration of Independence.
The CPKI set up headquarters in Kyedong and sent teams to the countryside to spread the word. By the end of August, some 145 CPKI branches existed in north and south Korea. The release of about 16,000 prisoners, most of them with leftist leanings, immediately gave the CPKI a more radical tinge. Within a matter of weeks, the CPKI had suc-ceeded in creating a large number of factory unions and peasant unions. Many sprang up spontaneously without CPKI urging. In many factories workers took over the plant.
In other factories workers called strikes and slowdowns (Cumings 1990, 73). With the help of Koreans demo-bilized from the Japanese army, the CPKI kept its promise to minimize violence against Japanese in Korea.Individuals judged to be collaborators were not permitted to join the KPR, making it even more left-leaning. Still, Yo Unhyong made an effort to be inclusive.
Within the KPR peacekeeping duties were shared by groups that belonged to the left and also some that later allied themselves with the right, such as the Choson Hakpyong Tongmaeng (the Korean student soldier’s league). When, at the end of August, the CPKI took steps to form a government, which it called the Korean People’s Republic, it proposed that its chairman be Syngman Rhee (who did not return to Korea until October 1945 and never joined the KPR). Leftists were a comfortable majority in the CPKI/KPR. They could afford to be magnanimous.
Formation of the Korean Democratic Party
By this time, the last week in August, both the Koreans and the Japanese knew that the Soviets had halted their advance and that the south of the country would be in American hands. The news caused an immediate change in the political situation within Korea. Leftists made a greater effort to include conservative elements in their new government to make it more acceptable to the Americans.
Right-wing Koreans, who knew how much Americans hated communism, became emboldened and formed their own organization, the Korean Democratic Party (KDP), the main platform of which was opposition to the CPKI, which it accused of being the work of “a tiny clique of running dogs of Japanese imperialism,” though in fact it was the KDP that included in its roster of members a significant number of pro-Japanese Koreans, while the KPR did not.
Meanwhile, the colonial government in Korea contacted the Americans and told them that the country was in a state of anarchy. “The condition in northern Korea has taken a sudden turn for the worse since 23 August and the lives and property of the Japanese resi-dents are exposed to imminent danger,” went a message from the gov-ernor-general to U.S. occupation headquarters in Okinawa.
A Japanese lieutenant general in Seoul warned Americans of “communist and inde-pendence agitators” and of possible sabotage of the American landing in Korea by “red” labor unions. Adding to the anarchy they described, the Japanese sold their goods in Korean warehouses, printed money for use as bribes, and distributed “imperial gifts” to Korean collaborators (Cumings 1990, 82). The American occupation authorities evidently took the word of their recent enemies. Almost immediately upon their arrival they snubbed the KPR and threw their weight behind the KDP.
In December 1945 another conference of the World War II Allies was held, the first after the surrender of Japan. This one was held in Moscow and attended by the foreign ministers of the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and China. The Allied powers concluded that an interim government was to rule Korea for up to five years, leading to eventual full independence. To implement the plan Allied representa-tives set up the U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission, which met at the Toksu Palace in Seoul in January 1946.
The commission was to initiate demo-cratic activity in Korea by holding nationwide elections. The trustees were to see to the repatriation of Japanese soldiers, officials, and civil-ians to Japan and to ensure the return of Korean citizens who had been sent to the far corners of the now-defunct Japanese empire.