Liberation, division, and the Korean War (1945–1953)

Liberation, division, and the Korean War (1945–1953)

Many Koreans were dislocated by World War II and the accompanying economic deprivations. Some had volunteered or were drafted to serve the Japanese imperial army. Some were compelled to serve in the women’s comfort corps. Other Koreans had volunteered to work in factories in Korea, Japan, or Manchuria. Still others left their homes out of economic necessity to find some way to feed their families.

Koreans served throughout Japan’s far-flung empire. To the west and south Koreans were found on work projects in Burma and Indonesia. To the east they were scattered as far away as the islands of the Pacific, working on airfields and ports. Many Koreans serving the Japanese empire abroad were killed as the Americans started their “island hop-ping” strategy; this was the U.S. effort to gain control of the Pacific island by island. The largest number of Korean fatalities, some 30,000, occurred in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Korea was liberated from Japan when Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. The war did not damage the Korean Peninsula in the sense of bombing or other war-related destruction of homes and infrastructure. There was no combat on Korean soil. Korean people, however, were killed and wounded because they had been scattered to places where fighting did take place as well as places where the most dangerous labor was being performed. The other loss Korea sustained as a result of World War II was the loss of its unity.

In the middle of the night, on August 10–11, as Soviet troops moved into Korea, a major and a colonel working for the U.S. State Department were given 30 minutes to decide on a boundary between Soviet and U.S. zones of occupation. For more than 60 years Korea has been divided, roughly along this hastily drawn line that was never intended to be permanent. Korea was divided into north and south, soon leading to another war, this time on Korean soil.

Hardening Lines

Like the war it led to, the division of Korea after 1945 had complicated causes. It was not planned in advance. It was not desired by the Koreans themselves. Neither was it simply imposed upon them by the mutually suspicious recent allies, the Soviet Union and the United States. Like the divisions of Germany and Vietnam, it was both a product of the cold war and of long-building internal conflicts.

The birth of the two modern Korean states has long been a subject of intense dispute of fact and interpretation. For decades American politicians and writers maintained that the side the United States supported, led by the elderly, Christian, American-educated anticommunist Syngman Rhee, represented a democracy-loving majority battling a communist insurgency fomented by infiltrators from the Soviet-con-trolled North. Few serious historians say this today.

In the words of the American journalist and historian David Halberstam, Rhee was a democrat, “as long as . . . no one else was allowed to challenge his will” (Halberstam 2007, 67–68). Besides, the revolutionary ferment in Korea was a home-grown response to old injustices. Instead of denying these facts, defenders of U.S. policy point out how much worse life is now in North Korea than in South Korea.

Others such as Bruce Cumings, whose two-volume Origins of the Korean War is the longest and most authoritative study of the period, have wondered if it would have been better for everyone if Korea had been allowed to have the violent social revolution it was ripe for. Far fewer would have died than died in the Korean War, and by today a unified Korea might have come a long way toward being normalized like China and Vietnam—there would be no North Korean “rogue state” (Cumings 1990, 443).

Plans for postwar Korea were made without the participation of Koreans during and immediately after the war at a series of inter-national conferences of the major powers. At the Cairo Conference (November 1943) U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), and Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), leader of China’s ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, met to discuss the war with Japan and to plan for a postwar Asia.

The conference concluded that Korea should be a free and inde-pendent state “in due course”; an earlier draft of the conference state-ment had specified “at the earliest possible moment,” as proposed by Chiang, who represented the Korean Provisional Government in Exile. Roosevelt recommended the more conservative phrase in the final declaration. He believed that colonies would take as much as 10 to 40 years to prepare for autonomy (Cumings 2005, 190).

The powers were not at this point thinking of a division of Korea. A little over a year later, in February 1945, when the war in Europe was near-ing its conclusion but American soldiers were paying a high price to wrest one Pacific island after another from the Japanese, Roosevelt and Churchill met with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) at the Yalta Conference. Stalin accepted the idea of a trusteeship for Korea. Established nations would temporarily administer the country; as far as Stalin was concerned, however, the period of the trusteeship should be “as short as possible” (Kang Man-gil, 182).

In addition, it was agreed that the Soviet Union would engage Japan in Manchuria and Korea once the European war was over to relieve pressure on the United States, which would focus on Japan and perhaps invade Korea from the south.

As promised, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria, encountering far less resistance than had been expected. The Soviets moved troops into Korea on August 11, 1945, and landed more troops in Korean ports on August 12 and August 13. The Japanese armed forces in Korea offered no resistance, and the Soviets moved swiftly southward.

The United States, though its victory over Japan was assured (the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9), began to worry that the Soviets would occupy the whole peninsula and stay there. The United States was not yet prepared for its part in the proposed occupation, nor at this point was America ready to fight to keep Korea out of Russian hands. Even so, there seemed to be no harm in asking the Russians to go along with the arrangements discussed at Yalta.

J. Lawton Collins in War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea described the fateful decision. “After midnight, August 10–11, Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel (1909–77) and Major Dean Rusk (1909–94) . . . began drafting part of a General Order that would define the zones to be occupied in Korea by American and Russian forces.”

With only 30 minutes to complete their draft, the two men decided to make a boundary of the 38th parallel; this would put into the American zone Korea’s capital city, Seoul, in addition to two major ports, Inchon and Pusan, which would facilitate the landing of troops (Collins 1969, 25–26).

It so happened that the Russians and the Japanese had discussed dividing Korea at the 38th parallel in 1886 and again in 1903. Bruce Cumings speculates that in the light of these precedents Stalin may have interpreted the choice of this particular boundary as a hint that it would be all right with the United States if Korea were permanently divided into Russian and American zones.

“Like the Americans, the Soviets might have preferred a unified, friendly Korea, but a divided Korea would well serve the basic security interests of the Soviet state—assurance that the Korean peninsula would not provide venue for an attack against Russia” (Cumings 1990, 121). Somewhat to American surprise, the Russians agreed to the proposal and ceased their south-ward advance at Kaesong, just below the 38th parallel.

The United States had given little thought to Korea prior to 1945. The U.S. attitude would change with the victory that put Japan under American control and with the worsening of U.S.-Soviet relations dur-ing the late 1940s. Eventually, Korea would be seen as a potential stra-tegic threat to both of the superpowers. Korea was dangerously situated between Russia and Japan.

A unified, neutral Korea, standing like a wall between American and Russian spheres of influence, would have been acceptable to both the Soviets and the Americans, and it was certainly the outcome desired by most Koreans. It turned out to be impossible, because the Korea that the Soviets and the Americans found was pro-foundly disunited, ripe for revolution and civil war.

Power Struggle

Neither the Koreans nor the Japanese in Korea waited passively for the arrival of the Allied armies. The Japanese feared revenge of the Koreans and sought mainly to get out of the country safely. Koreans who had cooperated with the Japanese—big landowners, businessmen, colonial police, and Koreans employed by the colonial government—had to worry about the privileges and property they might lose in the new order following liberation and about possible trials as collaborators or summary punishment without the benefit of a trial.

Other Koreans had to prepare for the power struggle that might follow liberation: Who would be in charge? What kind of a country would the new Korea be? Would it be independent at last, or would it be dominated by some new foreign power?

Even before the occupation, Korea had been a country of great inequalities. Koreans on the left wanted to change that. They did not all have the same sorts of change in mind. Their ideas ranged from mildly reformist and democratic to rigidly communist, from those who wanted land reform, democracy, and trade unions to those who wanted state ownership of property and took the Soviet Union as a model.

The popularity of leftist ideas in Korea had special, uniquely Korean causes. Not only had the introduction of capitalism caused difficult changes in people’s ways of life (as it had in the West), but it had been imposed brutally and suddenly by the Japanese. Capitalism was thought of as something foreign. Most Koreans of all classes still had a Confucian disdain for commerce, seeing profit-taking as a form of theft.

Korean businessmen had little prestige. Most Korean industrial workers had once been farmers and wanted to return to the land. Prosperous businessmen, whether or not they had been active collaborators, were suspected of being traitors, since they had profited from the occupation and participated in the Japanese war effort.Koreans on the right feared and despised communism, but even milder left-wing programs threatened their interests.

The anticommu-nists in Korea had an additional problem: Many of them had cooperated with the Japanese. A few anticommunists who had left Korea during the occupation—such as Syngman Rhee, the former president of Korea’s government-in-exile in Shanghai—had good nationalist credentials, but the natural constituency of the right, the people who would work with Rhee, were landlords, businessmen, bureaucrats, and policemen who had prospered in Japan’s Korea.

The staunchest, most steadfast Korean nationalists were men such as Kim Il Sung, who had fought the Japanese in Manchuria until 1941 and come back as a Soviet protégé, and Yo Unhyong, who was willing to share power with communists.