Korean History

The Continuum: The Origins of Korean Politics

Before the allies arrived in Korea in September 1945, Korean politics existed only undergound and in exile, among  feuding  factions of various brands of radicals.  A search of Time’s  fascinating archives, which are completely free, shows that the American press paid little attention to events in Korea until American missionaries began reporting on Japan’s oppression.  This  attention increased in the 1930’s as  hostility rose between Japan and the United States, but exile politics received almost none of that attention.

Less than a week after the arrival of the first American soldiers  at Incheon in September 1945, Time  described the main groups of Korean exiles that  had begun  returning to compete for power:

The Exiles. Many Koreans went into exile. Some 300,000 found refuge in Siberia; more than 100,000 fled to China and a few thousand to Hawaii.

In 1919 the exiles organized a Provisional Government at Shanghai. For two decades they had factional troubles. In 1942 they united again, under the Presidency of earnest, greying Kim Koo, who had taken refuge in Chungking, and won financial support and de facto recognition from Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek. The new coalition of exiles did not include the 300,000 Koreans in Siberia. They remained aloof and inaccessible. At least 30,000 of them were said to be organized in a Red Army unit. They were apparently under the leadership of two veteran Korean leftists, Park Hoon and Kim Kun.

The Worriers. In Chungking last week the Korean Provisional Government chafed anxiously, hoped hard for Chinese and U.S. air transport homeward. While waiting, Foreign Minister T. Josowang paid public tribute to Korean troops with the Red Army and with the Chinese Communists, who last month suddenly sponsored a Korean Independence League (TIME, Aug. 20). “We welcome any allies,” he said, “marching in … for the purpose of liberating . . . the fatherland.”  [Time, Sept. 10, 1945]

At the same time, dormant opportunists were already  emerging to  compete  with the exile groups.  Thus, the story of Korea’s politics really began in 1945, but only for a brief interlude until it was truncated by a zero-sum struggle between two repressive systems, albeit systems that would follow two very different trajectories.

In the North, politics ended almost as soon as the Soviets arrived with Kim Il Sung in their baggage.  Despite some initial American insistence on the protection of free speech, little political dissent or competition — beyond fratricidal intra-party purges — appears to have survived beyond 1946.

Before Syngman Rhee established his political supremacy in the South, patterns of political speech and taxonomy emerged that seem familiar to Korea watchers to this day.  As soon as the Americans arrived in September, there was an immediate proliferation of political groups, parties, debates, and demonstrations.  The Japanese occupation, however, didn’t instill Koreans with much sense of political tolerance or civic debate.

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(Once again, the photographs come from the flickr page of Tok1, otherwise known as Don O’Brien.)

O’Brien photographed a couple of those groups demonstrating, the first in some forgotten place, the second in Seoul.

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Politics coalesced around political groupings that would be familiar to a modern observer:

Korea today has almost no politics, and legions of politicians. Seventy-odd parties stepped up to be counted at General Hodge’s request. The best guess is that they will shake down to three: 1) a “democratic” party, conservative and nationalist; 2) an extreme left-wing party, Communist-dominated; 3) a middle or pinkish party, claiming a position comparable to Labor’s in Britain.

All parties are for independence, nationalism, turning the Jap rascals out. Where they differ is on methodology, nationalizing industry, and on local issues. After years of political frustration there are few strong personalities. One is plump, man-of -good-will Woon Heung Lyuh (pronounced Yuh), 60, head of the provisional commission for rebuilding Korea, nucleus of party No. 3. He is out of circulation at the moment (it appears there were a couple of fist fights). Lyuh told me he wants to set all good Koreans — Communists included — help the reconstruction.

Song Chin Woo, a fiftyish editor with a long record in the secret nationalist movement, is remaining aloof from parties while things jell. Cho Mansik, called the Gandhi of Korea, is a Christian church elder whom the Russians reportedly brought out of retirement to head the municipal government of industrial Pyengyang. As for the long-exiled government at Chungking, some Koreans would welcome it as a ready-made instrument for wielding political power. More likely, its members will return as private individuals.

In Korean eyes the two tragedies of their country are that the Japanese were here from 1910 on, and the Russians are here now. Eventually the Koreans must solve the problem of transforming their schizoid country into a nation. Meanwhile it is our problem too, and what the U.S. does here in the next year or so will be the tip-off to our future role in the Orient.  [Time, Sept. 8, 1945]

Two weeks Later, dozens of political parties were  lobbying the Americans for influence:

From Seoul, LIFE Photographer George Silk cabled: “I am writing this during a party in Korea’s leading geisha house. The party is the third in a succession of 51 such parties. In the last few weeks 51 Korean political organizations have mushroomed and each tried to reach American military authorities. Failing, they are entertaining the U.S. press. Some of the new parties’ names: Republican, Democratic, Communist, New Korea, Party for the Control of Law and Order, and Party for Cooperation with the Party for the Control of Law and Order.”  [Time, Sept. 24, 1945]

By the following spring, as the authorities north of the 38th Parallel stamped out dissent,  Syngman Rhee had established his own control and begun to do the same in the South.  Tok1 captured General Hodge with Rhee and his people at a ceremony that sure seemed like a hand-off.  Hodge was under tremendous pressure to turn the reigns of power over to Koreans, which was hard enough, but harder yet because collaborators were also off-limits.  Rhee had the additional advantages of an ivy league education, an excellent command of English, and an understanding of how to manipulate foreign public opinion.

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By 1946, the South Korean left had came under the domination of violent, pro-North cadres who began to assert their views through  a  brutal insurgency, and  through the promiscuous propagation of half-truths and anti-Americanism.  It is stories like these that cause me to speak of modern Korean history as a continuum:

Southern leftists too were throwing their weight around. A Communist-inspired “Battle Front Formation Convention” met in Seoul to denounce U.S. occupation measures. One speaker brought the house down with a report on World War II. Gist of the report: when Germany was near collapse in 1944, the U.S. jumped into the European war for spoils. After ineffectual skirmishes by U.S. troops on minor South Pacific islands, Russia staggered Japan with tremendous blows by the mighty Red Army.  [Time, Mar. 4, 1946]

Rhee no doubt accelerated the communization of the Korean left by elimination — by suppressing leftists who weren’t siding with the communists.  To say that the non-communist left was “non-violent,” however, would also have been inaccurate.  In those early years, Seoul was plagued with assassinations, but mostly directed at politicians.  The communists broadened their terror campaign to target broad swathes of the population, and Rhee would respond in kind with an equally  brutal counterinsurgency campaign.
Korean politics was a high-stakes game in those days.   Song Chin-Woo didn’t even survive 1945 before an assassin got him.  The assassin was a nationalist who was angry at Song for supporting a U.S.-Soviet trusteeship.  Along with fellow activist Kim Song-Su, Song was one of the founders of the Dong-A Ilbo.

Woon Heung Lyu, a/k/a Yo Un Hyung, a/k/a Yuh Woon Hyung, pictured here at right, was assassinated in 1947.  Some say a right-wing North Korean refugee did it; others say it was Kim Ku’s people who did it.  Yo/Yuh/Lyu himself was also something of a political question mark, called a leftist by some and an American stooge by others, and with enemies on the left and right alike.  Yo was one of the first reunificationistas, insisting that North and South eshew their superpower sponsors and unite, something that still may have seemed almost possible in those times.  He briefly edited the Chungang Daily News, not to be confused with today’s Joongang Ilbo.  You can still find his ardent admirers on the Web.  This one also quotes extended passages from the discredited leftist hack Bruce Cummings … so be warned.

Kim Koo was blessed with an exceedingly long life by the standards of contemporary Korean politicians, surviving until June 1949.  The building he was assassinated is now Samsung Hospital, which isn’t far from the old West Gate, Sodaemun (fifty-one years later, my mother-in-law-to-be died in that  very same building).  Suspicions have fallen on Syngman Rhee for having had a role. 

The Soviets placed  Cho Man Sik under house arrest in 1946.  He was executed in a North Korean prison camp in October  1950, as U.N. forces moved North following the second Incheon landings.


  1. Josh,
    I just returned from a trip to the DMZ (Joint Security Area) and the War Museum in Yong San. I didn’t realize how close the Kaesong Industrial Complex is to the JSA. I have to concur (again) with your analysis.

    What jumped out at me at the War Museum was a display of the newly liberated PyongYang in 1950 after the UN-led counter-offensive into the north. The photo showed uncountable thousands of North Koreans excitedly waving S. Korean flags. Another exhibit showed the S. Koreans + UN Allies releasing 170,000 N. Korean Soldiers to their own country’s control at the Bridge of No Return. Clean contrary to Confucian values, 70,000 of the N. Korean regulars refused to go back. Telling.

    While leftism is alive and well in contemporary S. Korea, I would bet that there is formidable support for a S. Korean takeover in North Korea today.


  2. This photograph is my favorite example of that (here, ironically placed beside a Charles Hanley hit piece, thus accidentally putting it into context). It won Max Desfor the Pulitzer in 1951. No question that Syngman Rhee was an SOB, but it’s pretty clear that large numbers of North Koreans still preferred taking their chances with him over Kim Il Sung.


  3. While leftism is alive and well in contemporary S. Korea, I would bet that there is formidable support for a S. Korean takeover in North Korea today.

    I don’t claim to know all the answers here, but I’m guessing that North Koreans would be deeply conflicted about it. I think most of them despise most of their officials, from the local level all the way up to Kim Jong Il. I think they secretly wish for the regime to collapse but lack a clear idea of what sort of system they’d rather have (a key reason, if you ask me, why the regime persists; there is no vision around which resistance can cohere).

    I also think that some aspects of the Cult are legitimately popular. I’ve previously mentioned nationalism and racial and cultural “purity.” I’ve also speculated that many North Koreans — including those who hate Kim Jong Il — probably still revere Kim Il Sung. I think that North Koreans simultaneously realize and resent how much the regime’s military overspending has cost them, and at the same time, the regime’s perceived military strength and bombastic diplomacy probably instill a sincere sense of pride in most North Koreans. Consider the significance of the last word of the previous sentence in South Korean society (Tokdo?) and triple it. Bombastic government is popular everywhere, but especially in Korea.

    Indeed, North Koreans probably tend to exaggerate and reinforce the Korean cultural trends that westerners find the most confounding and exasperating.

    Would North Koreans welcome their new southern overlords? At first, yes — they’d bring food, medicine, and hope. But they’d soon realize how much they’ve grown apart linguistically, culturally, psychologically, and physically. The North Korean dialect was purged of Chinese and western words, and people from Masan and Sinuiju can only understand each other with difficulty. It would sink in that the ordinary hardness of life is not instantly alterable. And then there will be the issues of carpetbagging, exploitation, and class envy I’ve mentioned before.

    Ironic prediction: there will be a lot of shouting about South Koreans causing fatal car accidents.

    Then imagine the complications of South Koreans trying to police the North, which means that they’ll be standing in the way while victims of the current system seek to settle old scores, impose summary justice, and prevent today’s oppressors from leveraging the state’s resources to become tomorrow’s exploiters.

    If you think that sounds like a hard task, imagine big-nosed, dark-skinned, or blond-haired Americans — the objects of a lifelong of indoctrinated hate — trying to maintain order in those circumstances. Now add to the mix a lot of loose weapons, a porous border with China, and China’s ill intent toward us. You quickly see a huge flaw in our current OPLANs: it’s absolutely essential that North Korea be occupied by Koreans. If Americans must go in, they should be few in number, out of sight, and performing short-term technical, logistical, and humanitarian tasks. The outside world is going to be blinding enough to people who have been that isolated.

    Presuming there is an all-Korean reconstruction period, the “kibun” trajectory will shoot up in the immediate aftermath, decline sharply for the next 5-10 years, and then slowly recover over the next 2-3 decades. It will be an exaggerated version of the German example, or even our own after the Civil War. My guess is that 50 years from today, the physical, regional, and economic differences between North and South will still be visible.


  4. Then imagine the complications of South Koreans trying to police the North, which means that they’ll be standing in the way while victims of the current system seek to settle old scores, impose summary justice, and prevent today’s oppressors from leveraging the state’s resources to become tomorrow’s exploiters.

    This is precisely what befell post-Saddam Iraq. What surprised me most was the boll-weevil-like looting of the government – like locusts, the newly emancipated Iraqis took out their frustrations caused by the Baathist socialist dictatorship on anything that the government ran or owned – which was nearly everything. I can forsee a similar scenario in nK when the regime collapses. The settling of old scores in Iraq at one point threatened civil war – and it was averted by a culturally astute commander (GEN Petraeus) who understood counterinsurgency (what a pKJIr may look like).

    Concur that there is some legitimate pride in nK and genuine affection for KIS – though that may be shallower and less numerically robust than we would think, especially once the “outside world’s” messages begin to pour in. Iraqis were not allowed to have satellite dishes but literally, within days of the fall of Baghdad, satellite dishes sprang up on rooftops in Iraq like dandelions in springtime. I would anticipate a similar dynamic in nK, but only after the poor ordinary citizens are stabilized with food/medical aid. I would guess that cell phones would spread like wildfire in nK once the rudimentary infrastructure was established. sK is currently the most networked country in Asia.

    As hated as he was, Saddam did inspire the Fedayeen Saddam – “martyrs for Saddam” and we fought them in As Samawah and Diwaniya. This is why I insist on preparing for a counterinsurgency (COIN) fight in pKJI nK.

    I agree that the presence of any Americans in nK will be culturally problematic. The Iraqis were also indoctrinated to hate us, the Great Satan, yet we overcame their perceptions once we broke the code on the cultural significance of religious and tribal leaders and figured out how to co opt them in support of their new government. I believe the same dynamics could transpire in nK IF, I say, IF we do the prepatory work of analyzing the culture, religion, tribal and familial structures. As of right now, that is not being done well (if at all) and I am trying to get as educated as I can on the religious aspects of the peninsula in view of an immanent regime collapse. COIN is nasty, dirty, personal work that requires immersion in the population and the sK forces are the best fit by far for that kind of warfare in a pKJIr.

    Today in Iraq there is very little pride in Saddam Hussein. He is all but forgotten in the daily lives of Iraqis although when we arrived in 2003 his megalomania was evidenced by his ubiquitous image in monuments, palaces, statuary, billboards, paintings, press, televison appearances (he actually came on TV and pontificated for hours almost nightly). Like KIS, he painted his defeat by the allied Coalition as a strategic victory and hailed himself a military genius. KIS did the same in 1953 and spun that theme for all he could wring out of it for two generations. But after the hanging of Saddam, that chapter of Iraq was closed forever and any pride in the old Baathist Socialist movement was superseded by Arab pride, Iraqi pride, Islamic pride, and hope in the new conditions. When the Iraqis learned how Saddam was perceived by the rest of the world, to include (most especially) fellow Arabs, they were ashamed. I forsee similar circumstances in nK once the world media is accessible and amicable consortation with sK peoples is achieved. The nK people may turn against the cult with a zealous vehemence – that is what I predict, but it may occur only after a nasty and violent insurgency is quelled.

    All this will no doubt concern the Chinese. However, I believe they will not intervene unilaterally in a sK annexation of nK. The relationship between nK and China will have to be renegotiated, especially if a unified Korea poses a long term economic and energy threat to the PRC.



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