In contrast to their frequent squabbling over Indochina, American and British leaders gave little attention to Korea during the second world war.
This would change after Truman ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, these were not tough decisions for him. They were necessary, in his mind, to save American lives. They vividly demonstrated American power; they confirmed that enemies of America would pay for their transgressions. He also believed that Russia had to agree to strong central governments in Korea and China. "Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making."
Seventy years ago today, the North Korean People’s Army of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) swept south across the 38th parallel. This had divided the Korean peninsula as Japanese troops were driven out by the Allies at the end of the Second World War. On the 27e the US announced it would send troops that soon were to rule Pyongyang. But the US never declared war. Apart from the US fifteen other nations sent combat troops in aid of South Korea under the United Nations Command. Chinese troops intervened on the North Korean side.
When Japan's conflict in China broadened many Koreans were recruited or conscripted to work in Japanese mines and factories akin to slave labor and many Koreans died in military-related services.1
By late August, word had reached Seoul that U.S. troops would occupy the southern half of the country. The news brought feelings of relief to the Japanese and motivated the independence committee, which moved quickly to establish a de facto government that could be in place when the Americans arrived. 6 September saw the formation of the Korean People's Republic with a long list of Cabinet members representing a wide spectrum of political leaders, including many prominent exiles who were unaware that they had been nominated. Although the People's Republic was designed to look like a government of national unity, it was in fact dominated by two factions, Yo Un-hyung's Korean Independence League and the Communists, whose dominant faction was headed by Yo Un-hyung.
In a nation where even the Communists had feuding factions, it was no surprise that the Korean People's Republic soon found itself confronted by a rival coalition, formed a week later. This was the Democratic Party, led by well-to-do professionals, businessmen, and landowners, many of them educated in American or Japanese universities. Some were patriots who had spent their share of time in Japanese prisons, but others were tainted with suspicion-or more than suspicion-of having collaborated with the colonial authorities. The leaders of the Democratic Party saw Yo Un-hyung as an opportunist who had sold out to both the Japanese and the Communists. Mostly members of the affluent classes, they naturally resisted the more radical reforms called for by the Korean People's Republic. Had the Koreans been left to determine their own future, they might have found a basis for unity and independence, or they might have become embroiled in a civil war. But the forces of the world's two most powerful countries were arriving on the peninsula. The fate of Korea was now entangled in the exigencies of Great Power rivalries, as it had been so often in the past.
On 20 August, a platoon of Russian soldiers with a lone Soviet tank entered the old fortress town of Kapsan on the Korea-Manchuria border in what is now North Korea. The Kapsan People's Committee had organized a welcoming ceremony with an honor guard of the local Chiandae and citizens lining the streets waving homemade red flags. One old man waved a tattered copy of Das Kapital and was hoisted up to the tank. The Soviet soldiers, appreciative of their reception, passed out loaves of black bread that one Korean found "tough enough to be used as pillows but tasty."2
The Russian platoon belonged to a division of the Twenty-fifth Army, which had attacked the Japanese forces in northern Korea on 10 August. The outnumbered and outmaneuvered Japanese surrendered five days later. On the twenty-fourth, the Soviets reached Pyongyang, the largest city north of the 38th parallel, where they were welcomed by cheering crowds and bottles of liberated Japanese liquor.3
The Koreans soon discovered that the soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Army, like their counterparts in Manchuria, seemed to have left any sense of self-restraint far behind them in the Soviet Union. Indiscriminate looting, rape, and robbery began almost immediately. The town of Songdo, which was occupied by the Soviets for only days because it was below the parallel, had eight million yen taken from the bank and sixty thousand pounds of expensive, highly prized ginseng lifted from local warehouses. As a souvenir of their stay, the soldiers also relieved most of the citizens of their wristwatches.4
In the larger towns north of the parallel, the conduct of the Soviets was such that Korean women began disguising themselves as men. An Australian who visited Pyongyang to help in the recovery of Allied POWs reported, "The Russians, armed with tommy-guns, fire a few shots in the air, then break into the house, drag out what women (mostly young girls) they can find, put them into the truck along with furniture and any other objects that caught their eyes and drive off to their barracks. After a day or two the girls are thrown on the street." Even in 1947, long after Soviet generals had cracked down on their troops' worst abuses, a single province in the north experienced seven murders, one assault, two rapes, and five robberies during one month, according to Soviet Army statistics.6
Those statistics may safely be assumed to represent only a fraction of those types of offenses, since in the Russian Army, as in many armies, most such crimes went unreported.
Despite the behavior of their troops, which soon prompted an order from the high command that soldiers at night must travel in groups of three for safety, the advent of the Russians was far from completely unwelcome in the north. Land rents were drastically reduced, and over the next few months land formerly owned by Japanese or absentee landlords was confiscated and distributed to former tenants or other landless farmers. Many larger landowners fled to the south. Those who remained were permitted to retain only as much land as they could cultivate themselves. Japanese troops were quickly disarmed and sent north to prisoner of war camps. Japanese officials, police, and bureaucrats promptly found themselves out of a job. Most soon joined the streams of thousands of other Japanese refugees headed for the port of Wonsan or to southern Korea.
After a few years, as the Cold War hardened and the division of the peninsula evolved into a permanent condition, many Americans (exemplified by Trumans note as quoted at the start) and their allies came to see Soviet actions in Korea as a product of a carefully developed plan to bring about the Sovietization of the north, a region where the Korean Communist presence was weak to nonexistent. (Most of the real fire-breathing Communists were in the south, while the north was a stronghold of the nationalist right, the Christians, and indigenous socio-religious movements.)
Actually, Soviet actions in the north were driven by no guiding plan, nor was any needed. Soviet officers knew only one political and social system, and they had been assured since early childhood that Russian style Communism represented a scientific blueprint for human progress. The Soviets kept the local People's Committees in place but brought them firmly under control. In Pyongyang, they retained the Provisional People's Political Committee, headed by Cho Man-sik, a widely respected Christian nationalist. A graduate of Meiji University in Japan, Cho was sixty-three years old in 1945 and had been active in nationalist causes since the 1920s. He had become particularly famous during the war years for publicly refusing to comply with the Japanese order that all Koreans adopt Japanese names.
While the soviets went about their task of assuring a friendly political regime in northern Korea, Japanese and Koreans below the 38th parallel uneasily awaited the arrival of the Americans. The Japanese were having second thoughts about having granted such wide latitude to the nationalists, and they reinforced their well-armed police with detachments from the army. Either ignorant of or ignoring the fact that Japan had surrendered unconditionally, Japanese officials in Korea insisted that the future of Korea would be decided at a coming "peace conference" with the Allies. Endo, speaking for the governor-general, explained, "The Japanese sovereign power in Korea still majestically exists ... in a sense only hostilities have ceased. The matters about Korea will be decided only after the treaty has been signed."7
Kim Il Sung, the leader of North Korea, wanted to unite the two Koreas under communist rule and sought permission of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to do so by force, according to records from the Wilson Center.
The U.S. Army's XXIV Corps, which had fought in the bloody campaign of Okinawa, in turn, was designated by MacArthur as the occupation force for Korea. Like the Marines on Okinawa, the soldiers of the XXIV Corps' three divisions had been expecting an early return to the United States now that the war had ended.
Instead, they got Korea. While even the newest Marine in Tsingtao, Tientsin, or Peking had consumed an ample stew of fact, sea stories, and half-remembered history about China before he embarked from Okinawa, there was nothing of the sort about Korea-no gossip, no rumors, no colorful or bloodcurdling stories. Nothing. Almost no one in the army spoke Korean except for a handful of Americans of Korean descent and the sons of missionary families. Thousands of soldiers had been trained in Japanese at the U.S. Army Military Government School in Charlottesville, Virginia, but "policy prohibited the study of Korean in Army schools."8
The XXIV Corps had almost no intelligence on Korea. Aerial reconnaissance missions were flown over the peninsula and Koreans captured with the Japanese Army were interrogated, but with "little result."9 Donald MacDonald, a graduate of the Military Government School, where he had been trained in intensive Japanese, arrived at Inchon aboard a troopship. "On the way a few of us dug out of the ship's library a book entitled 'Terry's 1905 Japanese Empire' which had a few pages on Korea .... We copied that on the ship's typewriter and then mimeographed it. That was the total of our knowledge about Korea when we arrived at Inchon."10
The American entry into Seoul was made in silence. Heavily armed Japanese police lined the principal streets, and those Koreans who dared turn out for the American arrival were prudently quiet. That afternoon, however, as General Hodge and Admiral Thomas C. Kincaid, commander of the Seventh Fleet, drove through Seoul on their way to accept the Japanese surrender, the previously silent Koreans broke into wild cheering. The surrender ceremony was held in the capitol building, in a chamber that had been used as a throne room for the emperor of Japan on imperial visits to Korea. That evening, Koreans danced and celebrated in the streets.
Korean exuberance was soon cut short by Hodge's announcement at a news conference that, for the present, the Japanese Government-General would continue to function under American supervision and that all of its personnel from Governor-General Abe to the lowest ranking policeman would remain in their jobs. This declaration, which surprised even the Japanese, unleashed a blast of criticism in the media. Editorial writers in U.S. papers reacted to Hodge's announcement in the same manner as Lieutenant Bliss's soldiers had to the sight of the bayonet-wielding Japanese sentries at Inchon, although they used less colorful language. Koreans took to the streets in protest. The Seoul Times commented that Koreans would rather be ruled by "some chief from Borneo" than by the Government General.11
The State Department quickly disavowed any responsibility for leaving the Japanese in control, explaining to the press that it was a local decision of the theater commander. In fact, State Department planning documents for Korea had discussed the desirability of continuing to utilize Japanese technicians and functionaries in the postwar era to fill positions where no qualified Koreans were available.12
On the advice of Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, President Truman released a public statement saluting Koreans as "a freedom-loving and heroic people" and promising that all Japanese officials would quickly be replaced.13
Exactly why Hodge made his ill-fated decision remains unclear. One possibility is that he was simply following MacArthur's occupation policy for Japan, which was based on utilizing the existing governmental structures to implement American policies. Whatever the reasons, MacArthur, anticipating instructions from Washington, directed Hodge to remove immediately the Government General and its officials. Hodge might have attempted to work through the Korean People's Republic, which was already exercising governmental responsibilities in many areas and was far and away the strongest and best organized political group in southern Korea. Yet Hodge and his political adviser, H. Merrill Benninghoff, had only a sketchy idea of who was who in Korean politics during those first few weeks. When Hodge invited Korean political parties to send two representatives to meet with him, more than two hundred individuals appeared. By November there were 134 different political parties registered with the American headquarters. Unlike General Gracey in Indochina, Hodge maintained personal lines of communication with all factions, including with the Communist leader Pak Hon-yong.14
Southern Korea can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark," wrote H. Merrill Benninghoff, General Hodge's political adviser, in his first report to Washington one month after the Japanese surrender. Inflation continued. Thousands of Koreans were unemployed, either because they refused to work any longer in Japanese-owned businesses or because of the collapse of many war-driven industries. Refugees from the north swelled the population of the crowded cities. There was a critical shortage of rice and coal. Korean agriculture was a mess and had been so for years. About 3 percent of the population owned two-thirds of the arable land. Farms were small and farming methods primitive. More than half of all farmers were tenants who worked their rented land under conditions that made sharecroppers in the American South appear almost affluent by comparison.15
All Korean political groups, Benninghoff concluded, "seem to have the common ideas of seizing Japanese property, ejecting the Japanese from Korea and achieving immediate independence. Beyond this they have few ideas ... Korea is completely ripe for agitators."16
In addition, some of the leaders of the Korean former provisional government returned from their long exile in China and the United States. This, they had been assured by their conservative English-speaking informants, would be a great step toward stability in southern Korean politics. The two best-known members of the Korean provisional government were Kim Ku, who led the organization from China, and Syngman Rhee, it's representative in the United States. Kim Ku had gained fame for masterminding a 1932 Hodge's difficulties were not just confined to squabbling political factions in Seoul. The military government, having proclaimed itself the sole authority, had somehow to extend its control over the eight sprawling provinces of southern Korea. As had the Government General in Seoul, Japanese officials in the provinces kept Hodge supplied with continuing reports on the disorder and danger to lives and property in the countryside. This disorder and lawlessness were generally attributed to Communist inspiration.
By mid-October, Hodge had received his two additional divisions, the 40th Infantry Division and the 6th Infantry Division, from the Philippines. A portion of the 6th Division, having gained experience in the evacuation of the Japanese from the Philippines, took on the task of completing the embarkation of thousands of Japanese from the port of Pusan on the east coast of Korea. The rest of the division, together with the 40th, made their way into the countryside. Military government companies that were supposed to assume responsibility for supervising or implementing all local government functions followed the divisions a few months later.
As their trucks rolled down the dusty roads and byways into towns and villages, the GIs received a warm welcome. Koreans ran from their homes "pointing and waving in the direction of the oncoming Americans. They lined the streets, sometimes three deep, shouting and waving homemade American and Korean flags... At the entrance to the larger towns archways garnished with fresh flowers were constructed across the road. Across the top were signs of all sizes and descriptions' ‘Welcome Americans,' 'Thank you Allied Force,' or 'America-Korea.'
This cordiality did not last. In many areas, American troops and' military government detachments clashed with local People's Committees of the Korean People's Republic that had assumed governmental functions in towns and districts. In some larger towns People's Republic leaders occupied the city hall and other municipal buildings.
If many Koreans soon found the American presence in Korea tiresome, many Americans found Korea to be the farthest shore of nowhere. "I thought at the time that Korea was hopeless as a society," recalled a former American engineer officer at Inchon. "It was this curious mixture of more or less 20th century and 15th century. You could smell it forty miles at sea .... The only fertilizer they had was human excrement. Honey wagons were all over the place .... This was obviously a society totally alien to us young Americans. We had no comprehension of it." (Richard A. Ericson interview by Charles Stuart Kennedy, 27 March 1995, "Frontline Diplomacy" oral history collection, Center for the Study of Diplomaey, Washington, D.C.)
The Koreans themselves "were not overly friendly." They appeared to lack the obsequiousness and good manners of the Japanese or the jovial and accommodating approach of those Chinese long accustomed to dealing with foreigners. Instead, the Koreans appeared proud, stubborn, puritanical, and contentious, "the most independent, cocky, sassiest people in the world." "The GIs in Japan have got heaven and don't know it," declared one of Hodge's soldiers after a short stay at a rest camp near Tokyo. "The Japanese are friendly. The Koreans are hostile. You try to take a picture of a Korean child and he runs away. You treat the Korean nice and he cheats you." Another soldier declared he would "sign up for ten years" if he could spend them in Japan rather than Korea.19
"Here we are not dealing with wealthy U.S.-educated Koreans," observed General Hodge, "but with poorly trained and poorly educated Orientals strongly affected by forty years of Japanese control who stubbornly and fanatically hold to what they like and dislike, who are definitely influenced by direct propaganda and with whom it is almost impossible to reason."20
Washington's solution for Korea's problems was to pursue the goal of an international, or at least u.S.-Soviet, trusteeship. The State Department argued that only Soviet agreement to an international trusteeship could guarantee the elimination of the 38th parallel barrier and the reunification of Korea. In December 1945, Secretary of State Byrnes journeyed to Moscow for talks with the Soviets on the situation in Eastern Europe and the future of Korea. He carried with him an American proposal for a five-year Great Power trusteeship over Korea.
The recently During a day-long summit in 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to formally end the Korean War and negotiate a peace treaty.
Those efforts have since collapsed, as have attempts by US President Donald Trump to officially end the conflict and have North Korea give up a nuclear weapons program that could threaten the US mainland.
1. SIGEX Kandy to Director of Operations, X-2 R&A, National Archives Record Group 226, entry 58, box 3.
2. Peter Worthing, Occupation and Revolution, Berkeley, 2001, p. 70.
3. Memo for Record by General Gallagher, 21 September 1945, Philip E. Gallagher Papers, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle, Pa.
4. Report of Arthur Hale, November 1945, enclosure 2, Gallagher to Bernard.
5. A.L. Patti, Why Vietnam?, Berkeley, 1980, p.285.
6. William J. Duiker,Ho Chi Minh,New York, 2000, pp. 313-14.
7. Memo, Major George C. Sharp to Colonel G. Edward Buxton, Captain Albert Peter Dewey, 28 December 1943, National Archives Record Group 226, microfilm 1642, reel 73.
8. Ronald Spector, Advice and Support, New York, 1985, p.6.
9. George Wickes, Saigon 1945 - Hanoi 1946.
10. Peter M. Dunn, First Vietnam War; New York, 1985, p. 154.
11. Bruce Cumings, Origins of the Korean War, Princeton, 1981, p. 136.
12. James A. Matray, "Hodge Podge: American Occupation Policy in Korea, 1945-1948," Korean Studies 19 (1995), p. 23.
13. "Draft Statement Prepared for President Truman," 12 September 1945, 740.00119-PW/9-1845, National Archives Record Group 59.
14. NIS Survey of Political Parties, tab C JCS 1483, ABC 014 Japan, 13 April, National Archives Record Group 165, entry 421, box 32.
15. Richard E. Lauterbach, "Hodge's Korea," Virginia Quarterly Review 23, June 1947, p. 359.
16. Benninghoff to the Secretary of State, 15 September 1945, The Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1945, vol. 6, pp. 1049-50.
17. "History of US. Armed Forces in Korea," pt. 1, ch. 6, p. 15.
18. Richard A. Ericson interview by Charles Stuart Kennedy, 27 March 1995, "Frontline Diplomacy" oral history collection, Center for the Study of Diplomacy, Washington, D.C.
19. Walter Simmons, "GI's Haven't a Kind Word to Say for Korea," Chicago Tribune, December 13, 1945.
20. MacArthur to JCS [enclosing letter from Hodge], 2 February 1946, FRUS, 1946: The Far East, vol. 8, p. 629.