The Cold War Comes to Korea: 1945–1948

views updated

The Cold War Comes to Korea: 1945–1948

In the five-year period from 1945 to 1950, after World War II (1939–45) and before the start of the Korean War in 1950, the fate of Korea became entwined with intense power struggles between the Western nations (Europe and the United States) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union). As World War II drew to a close, the Allies (the United States, the British Commonwealth, the Soviet Union, and other European nations) began to divide up territories that had been controlled by the soon-to-be-defeated enemies, mainly Germany and Japan. Presiding at these early negotiations, which began in 1943, were U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965).

By World War II's end in 1945, Stalin had negotiated tremendous Soviet power in eastern Europe. Although the Soviets were an ally, the Western nations were worried by this Soviet communist expansion. (The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen republics, including Russia, and existed as a unified communist country from 1922 to 1991. Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property. It is a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed. The United States, on the other hand, has a capitalist economy, in which individuals, rather than the state, own the property and businesses, and the cost and distribution of goods are determined by the free market.) Distrust grew to such proportions that at times it appeared that World War III was at hand. These tensions were the beginning of the cold war, a period of political anxiety and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that stopped short of full-scale war. The cold war between these two giants had devastating consequences for the Korean nation that continue right into the twenty-first century.

The Soviet Union joins the war in the Pacific as Japan surrenders

The Soviet Union fought in Europe during World War II, but it was not involved in the war in the Pacific against the Japanese until the end of the war. When Russia entered the war in the Pacific, it did so at the request of the Allies, who were planning to invade the Japanese homeland. They wanted the Soviets to intervene with the Japanese troops stationed in Manchuria, an area in northern China where Japan had built up its army into a massive force, so those troops would be occupied outside of Japan at the time the Allies invaded. By asking the Russians to participate in the fight in the Pacific, the United States seemed willing to give them control of parts of Asia, including Korea.

The Allies asked the Soviets to intervene in Manchuria before it was clear that the atomic bomb was going to be available to the United States to use as a weapon on Japan. The Allied invasion of Japan never took place, but the Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific did. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. On August 8, the Soviets entered the war in the Pacific, assembling its troops in Manchuria. On August 9, the United States dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Japan surrendered on August 14, and World War II was over. The Soviets were still in Manchuria.

The 38th parallel

As the war closed, the Russians, already stationed at the Korean borders, continued their march into Korea. U.S. troops in Asia were spread so thin that there was no way to get them to Korea before the Soviet troops arrived. Nonetheless, the United States acted quickly, fearing that once the Soviet Union was established as the liberator in Korea, a pro-Soviet

communist nation would form there. On August 10, without consulting the Soviets or the Koreans, two U.S. officials selected the 38th parallel (the 38th degree of north latitude as it bisects the Korean peninsula) as the dividing line across Korea. On August 15, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), the Allied supreme commander of U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific, issued a general order for the Japanese to surrender throughout Asia. This order included an arrangement for Korea in which the Americans were to accept the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel, and the Soviets would receive the surrender north of it. The Soviets accepted the arrangement without comment and stopped their march at the 38th parallel, even though there was nothing to stop them from occupying the whole country.

The Allied powers did not believe Korea would be ready to rule itself right away after so many years under colonial rule. (Korea had struggled under Japanese imperialism— ruling a country outside one's own nation's borders—since 1905.) Prior to the war's end, the Allies had agreed that Korea should be allowed to form an independent nation once liberated from the Japanese, but only "in due course" (meaning, not right away). Roosevelt and Stalin had agreed that the Allies would set up an international trusteeship (control by several countries) to govern Korea for no more than five years. But Roosevelt died in 1945, before an agreement about the trusteeship was reached.

Korea prepares for independence

After four decades of Japanese imperialism, most Koreans wanted to get rid of all reminders of colonial rule. When the Japanese defeat was assured, the Koreans immediately went to work to create an independent Korean government. First they formed the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI). The committee quickly spread throughout Korea, with 145 branches by the end of August 1945. These branches were called People's Committees, and in many places they served effectively as the local government. On September 6, 1945, the CPKI elected fifty-five leaders to head the Korean People's Republic. This new Korean government favored reforms that would redistribute land and wealth, help workers, and uphold human rights for all Korean people.

The United States arrives in the south

Major General John Reed Hodge was appointed commanding general of the U.S. armed forces in Korea as soon as the war ended. The U.S. State Department was not able to make his mission in Korea very clear to him because the United States until that time had little understanding of Korea. While MacArthur instructed Hodge to treat the Koreans as a liberated people, Hodge also received orders from the U.S. secretary of state to "create a government in harmony with U.S. policies." Hodge, a very competent leader in battle but a poor diplomat (foreign relations negotiator), instructed his officers to treat Korea as an "enemy of the state," as quoted in Bruce Cumings's history, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History.

A strange collaboration between the American military in Korea and the Japanese developed. Although the Japanese had been the United States's enemy in the war just weeks before, for some reason many U.S. leaders found them easier to understand than the Koreans. Thus, instead of arriving to expel the former colonial rulers, Hodge actually had leaflets dropped in southern Korea telling the citizens to continue to obey the same Japanese authorities they had been forced to obey before the surrender. When the U.S. troops arrived in Korea on September 5, 1945, they were welcomed by the Japanese police force. The Koreans, who anxiously awaited the U.S. soldiers as their liberators, were stunned to see them treating the Japanese as their allies in Korea.

The Koreans' hopes for independence under their new government were soon dampened as well. The Americans never accepted the Korean People's Republic, viewing it as procommunist. The new U.S. military government, the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG), had no interest in the reforms sought by the Koreans. Additionally, the United States was initially unwilling to recognize any group as a government until an agreement was reached by the Allies about a trusteeship to oversee Korea. To maintain law and order until such a trusteeship came into being, Hodge decided to leave the Japanese colonial rule intact. In September 1945, at the ceremony given for the surrender of the Japanese, Hodge announced that the colonial government would continue to rule as it had before the war, with the Japanese leaders, even the Japanese governor general, remaining in place.

The uproar from the Koreans in the south against Japanese rule was so strong that within days Hodge agreed to replace the Japanese leaders with Koreans. The Japanese leaders, however, were asked to recommend Koreans to take their places. Because of this, most leaders in postwar southern Korea were those Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese

during the colonial rule, and many of the Korean people viewed them as traitors. Although the Japanese civil servants and soldiers were shipped back to Japan within four months, the Koreans did not forget the alliance between the Americans and the Japanese. Uprisings against the U.S. military government were soon common in the south.

Occupation in the south

In order to fight the communist elements in southern Korea without starting an all-out revolution, the United States began seeking Korean leaders who had not been affiliated with the Japanese rulers. Several conservative nationalist leaders—who were both anticommunist and proindependence—were brought in from the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai, China (see Chapter 1). In October 1945, Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), a Korean independence leader who had been living in the United States, arrived in the capital city of Seoul. The seventy-year-old Rhee and his Austrian wife arrived in MacArthur's plane. For decades Rhee had been doing everything he could to educate the U.S. government to the evils of Japanese rule in Korea, but up to this point he was generally paid little heed. Rhee was staunchly anticommunist.

New factions arose in southern Korea. One was made up of the tiny Korean minority of wealthy landowners and capitalists, who formed a party called the Korean Democratic Party (KDP). The United States gave its approval to this party and began to form an interim government (a government formed to fill in until a permanent one is established). In October 1945, the U.S. military government established an elevenperson "advisory council" to work with the American military governor. This council was supposed to represent the Korean population; in fact, it was archly conservative and mainly comprised of members of the KDP.

In November 1945, the Americans began to train Koreans in military maneuvers. The old Korean National Police (KNP), the nationwide police force with which the Japanese had tyrannized the Koreans, was also revamped and called the "constabulary" by the Americans. It was comprised of about 85 percent of the same Koreans who had been employed by the Japanese. Hodge then began his battle against the Korean People's Republic, using the KNP to dismantle the People's Committees that remained active in the countryside.

Northern Korea after the split

The Soviets entering northern Korea after World War II were welcomed enthusiastically by the many Koreans who sought reforms under the new People's Committees. The Soviets were not such a welcome sight to landlords, businesspeople, Japanese civilians, and anticommunists, many of whom fled to southern Korea on their arrival. Unlike the Americans in the south, the Soviets left the People's Committees intact and joined in their reform efforts, especially in eliminating the hated Japanese colonial government. Many Korean soldiers and anti-Japanese activists had taken refuge from the Japanese in the Soviet Union, particularly in Siberia, the vast part of Russia that comprises one-third of Asia. The Russians brought these soldiers back to Korea with Soviet training and installed them in key positions in the People's Committees. One of these refugees was the popular and successful guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung (1912–1994). (See Chapter 1.)

Unlike southern Korea, which was mainly agricultural, northern Korea had most of the nation's industry. Under Soviet supervision, the industries were quickly nationalized (became owned by the government), which was easy to accomplish because they had been owned by the Japanese. Land reforms were put into place that took farms away from landlords, redistributing the land among the people. Within one year of the Soviet arrival in northern Korea, those Koreans who had been part of the KNP in colonial times were expelled. There was little killing, but in that first year between one and two million people—landlords, capitalists, police, and others who had collaborated with the Japanese—became refugees in southern Korea.

The new northern Korean government did not allow opposition. There was no freedom of speech or press. The powerful new security forces that took the place of the KNP were well trained: they avoided corruption and unnecessary cruelty. Instead of using brutality as the Japanese had done, the northern Koreans adopted the technique of converting their opponents, persuading them to change their beliefs. The police system was set up to try to learn everyone's thoughts, at least as they pertained to politics. Northern Koreans were encouraged to report to the authorities if a neighbor or relative said anything that might be anticommunist. Detailed records of seemingly innocent remarks were kept at special offices in every village; suspects and their families, friends, and associates were carefully watched.

Where to Learn More

Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Clark, Mark W. From the Danube to the Yalu. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1954.

Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 1997.

Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War. New York: Times Books, 1982.

Hart-Landsberg, Martin. Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

Hasting, Max. The Korean War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Liem, Channing. The Korean War: An Unanswered Question. Albany, NY: The Committee for a New Korea Policy, 1992.

Varhola, Michael J. Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950–1953. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 2000.

Whelan, Richard. Drawing the Line: The Korean War, 1950–1953. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

Web sites

Savada, Andrea Matles, and William Shaw, eds. "South Korea: A Country

Study." The Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. [Online] (accessed on August 14, 2001).

Words to Know

atomic bomb: a powerful bomb created by splitting the nuclei of a heavy chemical, such as plutonium or uranium, in a rapid chain reaction, resulting in a violent and destructive shock wave as well as radiation.

cold war: the struggle for power, authority, and prestige between the Communist Soviet Union and the capitalist Western powers of Europe and the United States from 1945 until 1991.

collaboration: cooperating with, or helping out, an enemy to one's nation.

colonial rule: rule imposed upon one nation by another, more powerful, nation.

communism: an economic system that does not include the concept of private property. Instead, the public (usually represented by the government) owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.

conservative: in politics, a person who seeks to maintain traditions, preserve established institutions, and promote a strong, authoritative government; conservatives are anticommunist and may tend to favor big business and power in the hands of an aristocracy or elite.

diplomat: a professional representative of a nation who helps handle affairs and conduct negotiations between nations.

exile: forced or voluntary absence from one's home country.

imperialism: one nation imposing its rule over another country outside of its borders.

interim government: a government formed after the ruling government in a nation is eliminated; when necessary, an interim government fills in until a permanent one can be established.

international trusteeship: the government of a country by the joint rule of several countries that have committed to act in what they deem to be the country's best interest.

nationalize: to place ownership, usually of a factory or a business, in the hands of the government.

Provisional Korean Government: a government in exile, formed in Shanghai, China, during Japanese rule of Korea (1910–45), that elected leaders and fought for the cause of an independent Korea, but had no actual power within occupied Korea.

refugee: someone who is fleeing to a different country to escape danger in his or her own nation.

38th parallel: the 38th degree of north latitude as it bisects the Korean Peninsula, chosen by Americans as the dividing line between what was to be Soviet-occupied North Korea and U.S.-occupied South Korea in 1945.

Western nations: the noncommunist nations of Europe and America.

Korean Place Names

The Korean language is written in its native land in Han'gul, meaning "great letters," a script using characters that are very different from the Roman alphabet that is used to write English. When Korean names, places, and other words are spelled in English, the words are written more or less as they are pronounced. In the Korean language, however, there are sounds that the Roman alphabet cannot produce exactly. Because of this, when reading about Korea, place names can be spelled in slightly different ways, with different consonants (Pusan = Busan), or with a variety of diacritical marks (Pyongyang = P'yong'an). Generally speaking, however, when reading a Korean place name in the Roman alphabet, the word itself reflects the pronunciation.

Place names in Korean often have a special addition or two to make them more specific. For example, the village of No Gun is generally referred to as No Gun Ri; ri means "village." Similarly, the island of Koje is often called Koje-do; do means "island."

About this article

The Cold War Comes to Korea: 1945–1948

Updated About content Print Article


The Cold War Comes to Korea: 1945–1948