U.S. Policy in South Korea
General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), supreme commander of American forces in the Pacific, appointed John R. Hodge (1893–1963) to the post of commanding general United States armed forces in Korea. Hodge was a blunt, unostentatious “soldier’s soldier” with a distinguished record in the Pacific War but no experience with Asian culture or politics. He was chosen for the job because he and the XXVI Corps he commanded were near Korea at the time (Cumings 1990, 122–123).
Arriving with his troops on September 8, 1945, via a 21-ship convoy protected by a flotilla of destroyers, Hodge alienated many Koreans almost immediately. With an apparent indifference to feelings of a people who had endured 40 years of foreign domination, he announced that for the present he was keeping the Japanese colonial govern-ment in place with all its Japanese and Korean personnel, including Governor-General Abe Nobuyuki (1875–1953).
Koreans were out-raged. After pressure from the U.S. State Department in Washington, Hodge replaced the Japanese staff with Koreans who had been a part of the colonial government. However, he retained key Japanese figures as unofficial advisers.Showing an immediate preference for the wealthiest, most privi-leged, most pro-Japanese, and least popular groups within Korea,
Hodge snubbed the KPR leadership while giving his trust to the KDP, whom he pronounced the “democratic” faction.
The conservatives of the KDP, concerned about their collaborationist taint and anxious to be led by men with good anti-Japanese, nationalist credentials, persuaded Hodge to bring back two exiled nationalist leaders, Syngman Rhee and Kim Ku (1876–1949).
Though Hodge refused to grant any legitimacy to the Shanghai Provisional Government in Exile, to which both Rhee and Kim had belonged, he and other Americans smoothed the path for their return. Rhee, the favorite of Americans in Washington, was admired as a Christian and a fierce anticommunist.
Many who admired him, and also many of those who disliked him, regarded Rhee as the Korean equivalent of Chiang Kai-shek, the anticommunist Chinese nationalist leader who also had America’s support. With help from a U.S. intelligence agent, Rhee arrived in October on the personal plane of Douglas MacArthur. He was introduced to the Korean public by Hodge himself.
With much less enthusiasm Hodge permitted the return of Kim Ku, known as “the assassin,” who arrived with his supporters in the American zone in November. Hodge soon had reason to wish he had kept Kim out.
In December, in yet another conference of the World War II victors, the United States and the Soviet Union formerly agreed on a five-year “trusteeship” for Korea.
When Hodge broke the news to the KDP leaders on December 29, Song Chin-u, the head of the KDP (and the man whom the Japanese had first turned to to lead the interim government), said that he would help to support this policy. Kim Ku thereupon arranged his assassination.
Kim Ku organized mass demon-strations against the trusteeship, condemned those Koreans appointed to government office by the Americans, calling them collaborators and traitors, and rallied other nationalists to form an antitrusteeship move-ment that pushed for immediate independence.
Probably the most fateful decision made by General Hodge’s military government was to retain the existing apparatus of the Japanese colo-nial government and to staff it with right-wing Koreans. KDP members were put in some of the highest-ranking positions.
This intrusive and efficient bureaucracy, created by the Japanese for the totalitarian control of their colony, included the police, which used its power to suppress political opposition to Korea’s extreme right wing. By the time Hodge wanted to bring more moderate leaders to power in the American zone, right-wing control of the bureaucracy had made this impossible.
Soviet Policy in North Korea
Meanwhile, north of the 38th parallel the Soviets took steps to establish control of the political forces within their zone. Kim Il Sung arrived in the Soviet occupation zone of Korea in October 1945, the same month that Syngman Rhee arrived in the American occupation zone.
The Soviets gave Kim Il Sung the same sort of conspicuous and visible sup-port the Americans gave Syngman Rhee. Kim was first introduced to the top Korean Communist Party leadership, then to Koreans at large in a mass rally attended by tens of thousands of people.
Potential rivals for the leadership of the Korean left in the Russian zone were eliminated, either by people working for Kim himself or by the Soviets. Hyon Chun Hyok, a charismatic communist schoolteacher who, according to the military historian Allan Millet, was Kim Il Sung’s rival for the posi-tion of general secretary of the Communist Party, was assassinated on September 28, 1945.
At the time, he was in a truck sitting next to Cho Mansik (1883–1950), another popular Korean activist often called the “Gandhi of Korea,” whom the Soviets suspected of being difficult to control, so the assassination also served as a warning to Cho. Cho was eventually arrested and died in prison in mysterious circumstances.
Since the revolutionary platform of the people’s committees was not a threat to the Soviets, they were not suppressed, and the Soviets helped them enact their popular program of land redistribution, women’s equality, and the complete eradication of the hated colonial bureaucracy, which Hodge in the American zone had decided to keep.
All pro-Japanese collaborators were ruthlessly purged, another move popular with everyone except the collaborators. At the same time, Korea’s Communists laid the groundwork for the totalitarian state that North Korea would soon become. Freedom of the press was virtually eliminated. By the end of 1946, all newspapers, whether communist or noncommunist, carried the same news.
Christians, who were seen as opponents to the regime, were imprisoned, often on trumped-up charges. Churches remained open, but any political activity connected with them was ruthlessly stamped out. All nonleftist political opposition was methodically eliminated; a few noncommunist parties were allowed to exist for a show of pluralism, but with no power. The groundwork was laid for a vast security apparatus of secret police and informers.
In a manner oddly reminiscent of the Japanese during the last period of their rule, virtually all North Koreans were bullied into joining organizations and attending meetings—in schools, workplaces, government offices, and villages—at which they received a thorough indoctrination in the views of the regime. In a technique also used by communists in China and Vietnam, the ideologically backward were made to engage in criti-cism and self-criticism sessions (Cumings 2005, 229–231).
The very thorough eradication of freedom in the Soviet zone was actually associated with less violence than actions taken in the South, perhaps because other aspects of Soviet policy were popular. Still, a lot of people must have disliked it. An estimated 388,000 natives of North Korea fled southward to the American zone.
Including those from North Korea, Manchuria, Japan, and China, official records show a total of 2,380,821 Koreans coming to the American occupation zone between October 1945 and December 1947, greatly adding to the chaos in the South and the troubles of the American military regime (Cumings 1990, 60). As the groups and regimes empowered by the Soviets and the Americans within their respective zones were diametri-cally opposed to each other, it became even more likely that a civil war would immediately follow any attempt at a reunification.