A Divided Korea Heads for War: 1948–1950

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A Divided Korea Heads for War: 1948–1950

By 1947, an overpopulated southern Korea, without industry or energy sources, was quickly going into an economic tailspin, with widespread famine and unemployment. A new and stronger right wing (a group composed of anticommunists who generally supported a government by the wealthy or elite) was forming, and youth gangs were terrorizing the leftists (those who sought reform and equality, some of whom were communist). Conflicts among the Koreans were becoming more violent and more frequent. Something needed to be done and quickly.

Talks were held between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1946 and again in 1947 to try to create a joint trusteeship over Korea, with the idea that a few nations jointly govern the country. In 1947, the Soviets proposed to the United States that both powers withdraw their troops from Korea at the same time, leaving the Koreans to create their own independent nation. The United States knew its position in Korea was too difficult to defend. In September, despite Russia's strong objections, the United States passed the matter of Korea on to the United Nations.

The United Nations "adopts" Korea

The United Nations (UN) was founded right after World War II (1939–45) in 1945 to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries. It was orig inally formed by the Allies (the United States, the British Com monwealth, the Soviet Union, and other European nations) during the war. When the United States asked for the United Nations's help with Korea, the UN agreed to set up supervised elections in Korea, after which Korea would be independent.

The United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) was then formed; its members arrived in the capital city of Seoul in May 1948.

The Soviet Union and the northern Koreans did not believe that the UN had authority to decide the future of Korea. The northern Koreans blocked UNTCOK from entering its part of the country to set up the elections and refused to participate in any way. Korean independence leader Syngman Rhee (1875–1965) urged going forward with the elections without the northern vote, a plan that was clearly in his favor. (In order to fight the communist elements in southern Korea without starting an all-out revolution, the United States had sought out Rhee, who was staunchly anticommunist, to come help lead a new independent Korea after World War II. He was already in place in southern Korea. See Chapter 2.) Many in southern Korea strongly objected, believing that an election in which only the south participated would doom any possibility of reunification. Several prominent leaders from southern Korea went to the north to try to work out some kind of arrangement with the northern Koreans, but they did not succeed before the elections.

There was much controversy within the UN about holding such a one-sided vote, but the election went on without the Koreans north of the 38th parallel. The elections filled two hundred of the three hundred seats in the new Korean National Assembly, reserving one hundred seats for northerners. The new government was to rule over all of Korea.

On May 10, 1948, the Republic of Korea's first Korean National Assembly was elected. It adopted a constitution

establishing a presidential form of government and four-year terms for the president. Syngman Rhee was inaugurated president of the Republic of Korea (ROK) on August 15, 1948. With the new South Korean flag now flying over Seoul, Rhee cracked down on his opposition, using the national police as his own machine for repression. Political arrests abounded, and freedom of the press was restricted.

North Korea forms a new government

Northern Korea then announced upcoming elections for a new Korean government. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was created, and popular guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung (1912–1994) was elected as its premier. He claimed to be the legitimate leader of all the people of Korea, saying he had been elected not only in the north, but in underground elections in the south as well. The Soviet Union withdrew all of its troops from North Korea at the end of 1948.

The cold war heats up

In 1949, while the United States was getting its troops out of Korea, several world events made a wave of change in public attitude. First, by 1948 and 1949, the Soviet Union had become very aggressive in Europe. Then the Russians successfully tested their first atomic bomb in September 1949.

As tension was building, an unprepared American public was shocked when Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976) proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, having driven the American-backed Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) and his forces to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa). The United States government cut off aid to Chiang, seeing no hope for the Nationalists, who had lost most of their popular support in China through corruption and incompetence. The American public was horrified, believing that Chiang Kai-shek was a strong and heroic ruler. Cold war propaganda began to abound, spurred on by sensational media stories and attention-seeking politicians. (The cold war refers to the political tension and military rivalry that begun after World War II between the United States and the Soviet Union, which stopped short of full-scale war and persisted until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.) Fingers pointed everywhere, and U.S. leaders, especially in the White House and the State Department, were accused of selling out China and being communist sympathizers.

From scattered uprisings to guerrilla warfare

Meanwhile, hostilities between South Korean factions mounted. Small battles arose daily, often between peasants and the national police or youth gangs. In certain parts of South Korea there were large pockets of leftists, particularly in places where the People's Committees remained strong, such as the provinces of Chölla, Kyöngyang, and Kangwön, and the island of Cheju (pronounced SHE-shoo). (People's Committees were formed as local branches of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence [CPKI], the first organized effort after World War II for Korean independence and unity. In many places they served effectively as the local government.)


In 1948, guerrilla warfare broke out on Cheju-do (do means island), an island with a population of three hundred thousand. Cheju, blissfully isolated from the rest of Korea and its conflicts, had been existing peacefully, governed by its People's Committee. But in 1948, the national police started a brutal campaign there to eliminate the People's Committee. At the

time of the national elections in May 1948, there were protest demonstrations in Cheju over the attempts to eliminate the People's Committee and institute police rule. Over two thousand young demonstrators were arrested; one was tortured to death.

The people of Cheju-do had had enough; a guerrilla army of about four thousand was quickly formed and it began to attack police stations, blow up bridges, and cut communications

lines on the island. The guerrillas, working in small groups, had taken control of most of the villages on the interior of the island by June 1948, and they managed to maintain their control for some time. It was not until a year later, in April 1949, that the American embassy reported that the guerrillas had been stopped. The price, however, was costly. The national police and the youth gangs who came in to put down the uprisings were ruthless, taking an appalling toll on the population of Cheju-do. American sources cited fifteen thousand to twenty thousand islander deaths, but the governor of Cheju cited a much higher figure of sixty thousand deaths. Out of four hundred villages on Cheju-do, only one hundred seventy villages remained after this warfare. Terrified people fled across the water to Japan as their homes and villages were demolished. The people of Cheju have long kept silent about the atrocities that befell them, but in the 1980s the survivors began to record the tales of torture, murder, and rape to which they were subjected by the youth gangs and the national police.

Soldiers turn rebel

In October 1948, some South Korean soldiers who had been sent to fight the rebels in Cheju-do decided instead to turn against the government. They took control of the port city of Yosu and restored the People's Committee. While the town was in rebel hands, trials began for police and landlords, among others, and some executions took place. As the rebellion spread, red flags and DPRK (North Korean) flags flew over surrounding villages. After one week of this rebellion, the Korean army regained control of Yosu. Many of the townspeople fled; those who remained were beaten and tortured. More than five hundred townspeople in Yosu were shot on suspicion of having helped the guerrillas.

By early 1949, there were an estimated thirty-five hundred to six thousand guerrilla rebels in South Korea, especially strong in South Chölla, North Kyöngysang, and Kyöngju. Syngman Rhee's entire army, backed by its American advisors, killed an estimated six thousand guerrillas between November 1949 and March 1950, claiming to have eliminated them entirely.

Fighting begins between North and South

By 1949, Rhee was determined to go to war with the north, hoping to unify Korea under his own regime. Rhee had been intent on one thing throughout his whole career: to be the ruler of an independent Korea. However, Rhee was not popular with American leaders. Even the future commander of the UN forces in Korea, General Mark W. Clark, who was very sympathetic to Rhee, described him as a zealot (fanatic) and an autocrat (a person who rules with unlimited authority) in his book From the Danube to the Yalu: "By the time of the Korean War, Rhee had been working for independence and unity so long that he had come to identify himself as the living embodiment of Korean patriotism, the sole prophet who could show the way to unity and freedom for the Koreans. Opposition to Rhee's ideas seemed to him to be anti-Korean, not anti-Rhee." Rhee badly needed strong U.S. backing to begin his mission to take over North Korea by force, but the United States, with no wish to be involved in a war in Asia, repeatedly told him there would be no U.S. support in an unprovoked attack against the north.

Kim Il Sung, too, wanted to reunify Korea under his leadership. But when the first battles began in 1949, it was for the most part the south that was on the attack, and this was probably because Kim was still preparing his army for war. In 1947, Kim had sent thirty thousand troops to Mao Zedong to fight with the communists in the civil war in China. With Mao's victory in 1949, the troops were gradually coming back to Korea, trained and well seasoned in war. And Kim had been building his forces by buying military equipment from the Soviets and training his own troops.

A bloody border battle between north and south took place in May 1949, started by the south. Small but vicious battles continued at the border until the war began.

States of preparedness in 1950

In January 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1893–1971) delivered a speech to the press, outlining the areas of concern for military defense. Korea was not mentioned among the countries that the United States was prepared to defend. This may have been the news Kim Il Sung was hoping for. It greatly disturbed Syngman Rhee.

Without strong military support from the United States, the Republic of Korea Army (called the ROKs) was not very prepared for war. There were about ninety-five thousand troops in the ROKs in 1950, almost all of them members of the national police, or constabulary, that had been formed by the U.S. military government. They were undertrained and poorly equipped. Because Rhee was so eager to go to war, the United States had deliberately underequipped the ROKs, so they would not do something foolish. The United States had not provided the ROKs with tanks, either, thinking that they would be useless in Korea's mountainous countryside. Heavy weapons and vehicles were in short supply, and most of the ROK artillery units were only one-quarter armed. When the United States had withdrawn its troops in July 1949, it had left behind a five-hundred-man Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG), which was still working on building up the ROK troops.

The American military itself was drastically reduced since the end of World War II. At the end of the war there had been twelve million men and women in military service, but by 1948 there were only 1.5 million. Weapons and equipment were in short supply.

The North Korean People's Army (NKPA), founded in February 1948, was significantly stronger than the ROKs. By mid-year in 1950, the NKPA had strength of about 135,000 troops. Most of the officers in the NKPA had fought in the Chinese Civil War or with the Soviets in World War II. The NKPA had 150 Soviet-made armored tanks and were equipped with heavy weaponry. When the Soviets withdrew their occupation troops at the end of 1948, they, like the Americans, left behind a military advisory group.

On June 24, 1950, unknown to South Korea or its American advisors, ninety thousand North Korean People's Army troops—two-thirds of the entire army—gathered on the 38th parallel, prepared for battle.

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, 1999.

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] http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/krtoc.html (accessed on August 14,2001).

Words to Know

artillery: large weapons, such as howitzers, rockets, and 155-millimeter guns, that shoot missiles and generally take a crew to operate.

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.

autocrat: a person who rules with unlimited authority.

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.

guerrilla warfare: an irregular form of combat; in Korea it usually involved small groups of warriors who hid in mountains, enlisted the help of the local population, and used ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.

reunification: the process of bringing back together the separate parts of something that was once a single unit; in Korea, it connotes the dream of a single Korea ruled under one government, no longer divided into two nations at the demarcation line.

United Nations: an international organization founded in 1945 comprised of member nations whose goal is to promote international peace and good relations among nations.

youth gang: a group of young people acting together toward some end; usually used in its negative sense of an adolescent group that works outside the law, often terrorizing others and committing illegal acts.

zealot: fanatic; someone who pursues his or her objectives with extreme passion and eagerness.

Left versus Right: Definitions

The terminology used to express the opposing sides in modern politics has at its base the opposites left and right. In politics, leftism is a vague term used to include people who hold radical political views seeking change and reform, usually including more freedom, more equality, and better conditions for common people. Leftism may include communism, which is a kind of economic practice that eliminates private property, under which production of goods and the distribution of goods are owned by the state or the population as a whole. But many leftists are not communists. They seek reform either within the existing government or through revolution.

The right wing in politics holds conservative views and generally seeks to maintain traditions, preserve established institutions, and establish a strong, authoritative government. The right wing is always anticommunist and may tend to favor big business and power in the hands of an aristocracy or elite.