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.
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.
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.