History Korean History U.S. Military

The Continuum: Birth of a Nation

The restoration of Korea’s nationhood seemed to begin so harmoniously: 

It is their purpose that Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since 1914, and that all territories stolen from China shall be restored. Japan will be expelled from all other territories taken by violence and greed. In due course Korea shall become free and independent.

With these objects in view, the three Allies, in harmony with those of the United Nations at war with Japan, will persevere in the serious and prolonged operations necessary to procure the unconditional surrender of Japan.  [Time, Dec. 13, 1943, quoting the  joint Tehran declaration of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin]  

The following March, on the anniversary of the 1919 uprising, a Time correspondent wrote this prescient reflection:

The passive, unarmed revolt led to savage repression. The Japs arrested, tortured, executed the Committee of 33; they flogged 11,000 other Koreans. The rocky Asian peninsula at Japan’s back door, where China and Russia had vied for influence and may vie again, became a land of silent people.

Last week brought the 25th anniversary of the declaration of independence.  Korea was still a land of silent people. No one could say how few, if any, of the nation of 23,000,000 knew that China, the U.S. and Britain, at Cairo last November, had promised to restore their freedom “in due course.” In Chungking, greying Kim Koo, head of a Korean provisional government, declared that Koreans want “full and immediate independence” after the war. But strategic Korea, after long years of bondage, seems more likely to become the ward of an international condominium until she has learned the ways of self government again.  [Time, Mar. 13, 1944]

As the war raged in other theatres, Korea was left mostly untouched by World War Two.  Japan and the Soviet Union had fought a very large and mostly forgotten battle at  Khalkhin Gol in August 1939, one month before Hitler invaded Poland.  The battle ended in a decisive Soviet victory and the elevation of  Georgi Zhukov, one of the few  capable Soviet officers to survive the  purges of the 1930’s. 


Torgau on the Imjin:  American and Soviet soldiers meet at the 38th Parallel, 1945.  

By  April 1945,  Zhukov’s tanks were  racing  those of Marshals Koniev and Rokossovsky  to Berlin over the remnants of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS.  The  final Soviet offensive began on April 16th,  as Hitler made the decision to die in his Bunker.   That same day, Time reported that  the Soviet Foreign Commisariat had summoned Japanese Ambassador Naotake Sato to inform him that the Soviets were abrogating the two nations’ 1941  neutrality pact, signed two months before Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa.   The writing was on the wall, notwithstanding the frequency with which the words “free and independent,” qualified by  “in due course,” would  appear in declarations, conferences, and on leaflets showered on Seoul at the start of the U.S. occupation.  The Americans, however,  were not the first to arrive:

For 25,000,000 Koreans a new era had begun. Russian marines patrolled Seoul, Korea’s capital. Elsewhere in the Land of Morning Calm, Red Army paratroopers and truck-borne infantry had taken over airfields, harbors, railway junctions. Moscow reported that the Red flag waved in Korean towns, that Korean crowds were wildly cheering their liberators, that self-government committees were operating, and that a purge of collaborationists had begun.  [Time, Sept. 10, 1945]


Seoul, 1945:  The Soviet and American flags fly together on a welcome banner.

What do I love about this photograph?  The font.  What American soldier has served in Korea who hasn’t seen it on hundreds of  off-post storefronts, advertising tailors, plaque shops, and nightclubs?  Like all of the photos here, it comes from tok1’s flickr page, where you can see larger-size versions of most of these photos, and more.

In  January 1946, the erstwhile allies were still talking about the mechanics of governance, peace, and reunification:

The communiqués, released without [French Foreign Minister Georges]  Bidault’s okay, set up a procedure on drafting peace treaties far closer to the Russian than to the U.S.-British proposals at London. The Russians at Moscow agreed to a general conference, but the Big Powers will handle the first & last drafts.


[The Secretary of War visits General Hodge in Seoul, 1945]

Government by Gadget. On Japan the U.S. stood fairly firm. To save Russian face it set up an eleven-power policy-making commission and a four-power council to “implement” the policy. The commission would operate under veto provisions, so that little or no action could pass through this Rube Goldberg international machinery. Fortunately, General MacArthur can make interim decisions. The General, however, did not like it. He said: “On Oct. 31 my final disagreement was [radioed to Washington that] the terms ‘in my opinion are not acceptable.’ Since that time my views have not been sought. . . . Whatever the merits or demerits of the plan it is my firm intent … to try to make it work.”

In Korea a U.S.-Soviet commission will attempt to set up a provisional government, may recommend establishment of the first of the trusteeships envisaged in the San Francisco Charter. If so, Korea will be run by the U.S., Russia, Britain and China for five years, after which it will be free. Koreans in the U.S. zone greeted the trusteeship with mass strikes and attacks on American soldiers.  [Time, Jan. 7, 1946]

By  May of  1946, the differences had only sharpened.  All of this seems typical enough of that year’s machinations when put in the context of similar ongoing  disputes over Poland, Germany, and Japan  — where the Americans barely preempted Soviet landings in Hokkaido  — and the massive westward shift of the borders lying between Moscow and Berlin.  Clearly, the Koreans’ post-colonial euphoria had begun to fray:

The pleasant May afternoon in Seoul has been disturbed for several hours now by a long blast of Korean oratory, hurled into the streets from a loudspeaker in a former Japanese bank building. “We will fight for independence,” an unseen speaker shouts, “until the last Korean is dead!” Other voices are summoning Koreans to a mass meeting on behalf of freedom.


[Seoul, 1945:  Political posters angrily denounce the “trust rule system.”]

U.S. military-government officials are paying no evident attention to the oratory, which has much the flavor of a political campaign in Chicago or Seattle. In America’s Korea, as in Chicago or Seattle, free speech has been the rule since the U.S. Army arrived last fall to take charge below the 38th parallel. In fact, U.S. insistence on free speech for Koreans has become the newest impaling post of Soviet-American relations.

A Matter of Semantics. Seven weeks ago a delegation of 120 Russians came down from their zone north of the 38th parallel. They were led by rotund Colonel General Terenty Shtykov, who said: “The Soviet people warmly support … a free way of life … for the Korean people.” Inside the pillared grey walls of Seoul’s Duk Soo Palace, General Shtykov and four top comrades began a series of talks with five U.S. officers, led by strapping Major General Archibald V. Arnold.

The joint commission sought to “implement the directive” (as they say in Washington) of last December’s Conference of Foreign Ministers in Moscow, which called for a provisional Korean government. Koreans were supposed to be consulted, but the Russian idea of which Koreans to consult differed radically from the American.

A Formula for Purging. Koreans, remembering Japan’s tutelage, were disappointed when the Moscow Conference decided upon another trusteeship, under the U.S. and Russia, for five years. Rightist groups in the American zone, loosely amalgamated in the Representative Democratic Council under elder statesman Syngman Rhee, protested heatedly, berated both the U.S. and Russia. But leftists, gathered under Communist domination in the Democratic People’s Front, espoused trusteeship and opposed immediate independence, although Communists all over the world were yipping for the freedom of India and Indonesia.

In the Duk Soo Palace, Soviet negotiators demanded that all Koreans who had spoken against trusteeship be barred from consultation. The Russian attitude, as one American put it, was: “The gods have spoken. Korea is going to have trusteeship. Why listen to those who oppose it?” They went even further. They asked that members of the Representative Democratic Council be disqualified from any provisional government.

The Americans balked over what, in effect, was a political purge in favor of pro-Russian parties. Since there was no meeting of minds on that issue, the Americans shifted to another. Would the Russians consent to “remove the 38th degree parallel boundary as an obstacle to the reunification of Korea?” The Russians refused to consider it.   [Time, William Gray, May 20, 1946]

No such acrimony would be tolerated in Pyongyang:

A dog-eared copy of the one-page North Korea Communist mouthpiece Chawng Lo (Right Way) turned up in the U.S. zone last week. From it, South Koreans, eager for news of their northern countrymen, learned of a two-day meeting in P’yongyang to plan a provisional government for the Soviet-occupied area. The self-government murmurs had strong overtones of the Internationale.

Chairman of the conference, Chawng Lo said, was Kim II Sung, “a 32-year-old hero” who appeared “in a Red Army uniform . . . proudly wearing medals received from the Russian Government.” Chawng Lo reported: “All of Kim II Sung’s bills passed unopposed.” Delegates had set up an Interim Peoples Committee and voted a platform which included extermination of pro-Japanese and antidemocratic elements, confiscation of land, extermination of imperialistic ideas. “Plans were drafted,” Chawng Lo proclaimed, “for the benefit of the human race.”

In the U.S. zone skeptics called the provisional regime a “Soviet puppet,” charged that Kim II Sung was an impostor trading on the name of a legendary Korean resistance leader.  [Time, Mar. 4, 1946]

The charge that Kim Il Sung was an impostor is of dubious merit, but there’s little question that Kim was a Stalinist puppet.  There was dissent in the North, too … briefly.  Once, at a meeting of the North Korean Freedom Coalition, I met an elderly man who claimed to have been a member of an anti-Soviet student group in Pyongyang.  When the Communists came for him, he wasn’t home, but his mother was.  She packed him a bag, and he  fled to Seoul.  He never saw her again.