The Anticommunist Purge in the South

The Anticommunist Purge in the South

In early 1946 Kim Ku joined forces with his rival Syngman Rhee to form the Representative Democratic Council, a right-wing coalition. Its opposition was the Democratic National Front, a left-wing alliance of Yo Unhyong, Pak Hongyong, and Kim Il Sung.

By early 1947, how-ever, it was clear that Syngman Rhee was preparing for a separate gov-ernment in the South; Rhee had accepted the division of Korea, at least for the moment, postponing unification until he had consolidated power in the South.

Kim publicly broke with Rhee. In a desperate move he traveled to Pyongyang, hoping to form a left-right coalition and pre-vent the nation from being permanently divided. It was a gamble that did not pay off: Kim Il Sung was not cooperative, and Kim Ku was left without a strong case for running against Syngman Rhee.

Syngman Rhee and his KDP colleagues, with the help of the American military government, took action against the left in the American zone. Part of the work was done by paramilitary youth organizations mod-eled on the Black Shirts of fascist Italy and the Brown Shirts that had helped the Nazis come to power in Germany.

The most prominent of these youth groups, the Korean National Youth, had U.S. funding and perhaps training. Its members wore blue shirts (Cumings 2005, 206–207). Other parts of the anticommunist purge were conducted by the police as they battled a series of popular uprisings and rebellions in the countryside and strikes in industrial areas.

The youth groups confronted, harassed, and at times killed suspected communists, which meant in practice those connected with the KPR, the committees it had organized, and the labor unions and peasant organizations around the country. It meant Koreans demanding the redistribution of land (whose concentration into fewer hands had occurred during the Japanese occu-pation), demanding lower prices for rice, striking for higher wages, as well as those who attacked landlords and police.

Peasant uprisings and industrial strikes spread across the Kyongsang and Cholla provinces beginning in September 1946 in a series of incidents known in Korea as the Autumn Harvest Uprisings. A general strike by railroad works began in Pusan and spread to Seoul, freezing transport throughout the country. The strike soon spread to printers, electrical workers, the telegraph office, and postal employees. Students joined the strikers; most newspapers supported them.

On October 1, 1946, during a demonstration of children marching in support of the strikers, police killed one of the demonstrators. The next morning more than 1,000 demonstrators appeared in the streets bearing the body. When the demonstrators approached the police station, the police fled. On October 3 a group of 10,000 overran the police station in Younchon, killed officials and police, and burned the police station to the ground.

As the rebel-lion spread it was suppressed by a combination of forces: the American military government, the Korean police, a Korean “constabulary” (really the core of a Korean army, called by this name because Hodge had been ordered not to form a Korean army), and the paramilitary youth groups who were made into “temporary police.” The methods used were exceptionally savage. In some cases, entire villages were destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered.

Another small war between the people and the authorities occurred on Cheju Island between 1947 and 1949 (and thus continuing while the military occupation gave way to the establishment of the Republic of Korea, ROK, in the south in 1948).

Cheju was controlled by the same people’s committees that had been formed by the KPR and that Rhee and the KDP, with the help of the American military government, had been trying to uproot. Fighting on the side of the islanders was conducted by guerrilla groups calling themselves “People’s Armies.” On the government side at various times were paramilitary youth groups, Korean police, and after 1948 the Korean army.

By the time the island had been pummeled into submission, 20,000 homes on the island had been destroyed, and between 15,000 and 30,000 people had been killed. The operation to root out the communists was extremely difficult because they occupied some of the numerous caves that dot the volcanic hills in the middle of the island.


Because Korea’s various factions could not agree either on whether to accept trusteeship or when to hold elections, the U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission referred the case to the United Nations (UN) which estab-lished the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) on November 14, 1947. Its mission was to help Korea form an elected government.

An UNTCOK team arrived in Seoul in January 1948 to lay the groundwork for nationwide elections. Leaders in Pyongyang, how-ever, did not recognize the team and refused them access to the Soviet zone. The elections were also widely boycotted in the South, where they were opposed by Kim Ku and Kim Kyusik.

UNTCOK went ahead in the South, and legislative elections were held in May 1948 with 30 UN observers. Syngman Rhee became the head of the new assembly, which subsequently adopted a constitution providing for a presidential form of government. On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed, with Rhee as its first president. Less than a month later, on September 9, Kim Il Sung proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The Korean War

The Korean War started on a Sunday morning, June 25, 1950. Koreans do not call it the “Korean War.” Rather, they refer to it as the “June 25 Incident,” the date the sudden invasion of Seoul had penetrated the national consciousness. But the hostilities and preparations for the war predated that June 25 by at least two years.

Increased Hostilities and the “Acheson Line”

By early 1950 Syngman Rhee had largely, though not completely, succeeded in suppressing the communist insurgency in South Korea. A few weeks before the war he met with U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles (1888–1959, secretary of state 1953–59) in Seoul; Rhee pleaded with Dulles not only for a commitment to defend Korea but for a go-ahead to attack the North, saying such a move could suc-ceed in a few days (Haliday and Cumings 1988, 65). North Korea, of course, spoke of liberating the South.

A low-intensity conflict, which military historian Allan Millett called a “border war,” had been going on along the 38th parallel since the end of 1949. According to Millett, the provocation came primarily from North Korea, which used the border war as a way of softening up and testing the mettle of its adversary (Millett 2005, 204–205). This ongoing conflict once left a lot of room for argument concerning the exact beginning of the war. North Korea for years claimed that the South had actually started the war. Some scholars outside of Korea found these claims credible.

This view required modification after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the Kremlin released classified documents showing that Kim Il Sung launched the invasion only when he had received Joseph Stalin’s permission to do so. Stalin had withheld this permission until January 1950, when he agreed with the concept that the Korean Peninsula should be unified by force and to supply more equipment, including precious petroleum for the North Korean tanks and trucks.

The troops of the Republic of Korea were not prepared for the attack and were taken by surprise, as they would not have been if they had planned an imminent attack of their own. The fact remains, however, that reunification by force was a policy of Syngman Rhee’s ROK, as it was of Kim Il Sung’s DPRK. Neither side recognized the other’s legiti-macy. Each side claimed all the territory of the other and asserted the right to reclaim it by force.

Stalin may have changed his mind and permitted the invasion because of the changed security situation. The Chinese Communists completed their takeover of mainland China in October 1949. This development not only gave the North Koreans inspiration, it also gave them soldiers.

Many Koreans, high-ranking officers on down to foot soldiers, had fought for Mao and then returned to Korea. Furthermore, in 1949 the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, which may have increased Stalin’s confidence.

Another factor in the timing of the invasion seems to have been what appears in retrospect an extremely inept statement by U.S. sec-retary of state Dean Acheson (1893–1971). As part of his country’s search for peace in the post–World War II world, Acheson on January 12, 1950, declared that the U.S. line of defense ran along the western edge of the Pacific, a line that included Japan and the Philippines but excluded Korea and Taiwan.

It came to be known as the “Acheson Line.” Acheson’s declaration gave great hope to Kim Il Sung, Stalin, and Mao that the United States was heading toward a new phase of isola-tionism and would not intervene in communist Korea or Taiwan.

The statement followed the Communist takeover of China by three months and countered the calls from the American right to support Chiang Kai-shek in his attempt to retake the Chinese mainland. The Acheson Line declaration may also have helped persuade Stalin to reverse his position on Kim Il Sung’s proposed invasion of South Korea.

June 25, 1950

In June 1950 the North Korean army had approximately 100,000 sol-diers, a substantial number of whom had just returned from successful support of Mao in China. South Korea’s 65,000 soldiers were neither as well trained nor as well equipped as the Communists. Only a small group of American military advisers remained in South Korea at the time.

When the North Korean tanks and soldiers rolled across the 38th parallel toward Seoul, they quickly overpowered an unprepared South Korean army and the few American personnel. The attack was well planned and well coordinated. It opened with an artillery barrage fol-lowed closely by armored vehicles and infantry. Four separate Korean People’s Army spearheads drove south through gaps in the hills. Topography offered more formidable obstacles to their advance than the Republic of Korea forces.

The American advisers withdrew with the South Korean Army, which fled southward in disarray, abandoning equipment as it went. At 9:30 A.M. Kim Il Sung broadcast the DPRK’s version of what was happening: “The South Korean puppet clique has rejected all methods for peaceful reunification . . . and dared to com-mit armed aggression . . . north of the 38th parallel. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ordered a counterattack to repel the invad-ing troops . . .” (Hastings 1987, 53).

Seoul, which had the misfortune of being quite close to the 38th parallel, was taken in three days. The North Korean Army then paused to consolidate its position and allow its logistical support to catch up. By July 5, when it began moving south again, the United States had shipped troops to stiffen ROK resistance and block the roads south-ward.

The first American units to face the enemy, hastily thrown into action, were composed partly of troops untested by combat and partly of World War II veterans softened by an easy life as occupiers of Japan.

They arrived amid optimistic rumors that the North Koreans would flee when they learned they were going to be facing the U.S. Army and that they would be home in a week. With head-spinning suddenness they found themselves in a desperate losing battle against a better-prepared enemy whose capabilities the United States had greatly underestimated.

Facing Soviet-made T-34 tanks and armed with handheld bazooka rocket launchers that did not pierce tank armor, they were quickly overwhelmed, and their retreat was disorderly. The same inglorious pattern was repeated time and again as retreat turned into a desper-ate holding operation within the Pusan Perimeter, a 150-square-mile corner of Korea that included the port of Pusan, vital for the landing of troops, and the city of Taegu.

The unpopularity of the ROK regime added to its military weakness. Its generals were men who had fought for Imperial Japan and whose later combat experience consisted of operations against communist guerrillas in the South.

As soon as the invasion began, the earlier civil war in the South was revived, and ROK forces again fought local guer-rillas, who assisted the North Koreans in their successful 14-day siege of Taejon (Deane 1999, 92).