Yesan, South Ch'ungch'öng Province, Korea
Died December 1955
Korean political leader
"I go to begin my future."
Pak Hön-yöng, on August 15, 1945, Liberation Day in Korea, when the Japanese surrendered
When the American and Soviet troops liberated Korea from Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II, several factions of Korean communists had developed, most in exile and arising from the strong anti-Japanese activism of Koreans abroad. One faction of Korean communists had trained in the Soviet Union, another in China, and another had arisen from the guerrilla armies that had fought the Japanese (Kim Il Sung [1912–1994], the future leader of North Korea, among them). The "home" faction had carried on secretly within Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pak Hön-yöng was the popular and respected home leader of the Korean communists at the time of liberation. His base of operations was in the southern part of Korea that the Americans occupied after the Japanese left. Pak had a strong following and worked in concert with the more moderate leftist (reform-oriented) groups following the lead of Yö Un-yöng (Lyuh Woon Hyung; 1885–1947; see entries). He was one of the top candidates to head the new government in southern Korea, but the American Military Government opposed him vigorously because he was a communist.
Rising to leadership in secret
Pak Hön-yöng was born in 1900 in the village of Yesan, in the province of South Ch'ungch'öng in southern Korea. He grew up during the hated Japanese occupation of Korea: in 1910, Japan had annexed Korea, incorporating it as a part of Japan with the help of a very weak Korean monarch whom they had helped to the throne, and ruled it with an iron fist. As a young man Pak traveled to Shanghai, China. Soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, which saw the Russian people rise up and overthrow the monarchy, he was drawn to communist ideology. (Communism is a political belief system 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.) Pak joined a communist youth league in Shanghai in 1919, and became a leader of the Korean Communist Party of Shanghai by 1921. During the 1920s, he returned to Korea as a guerrilla—fighting the enemy with ambushes and surprise attackes—and organized anti-Japanese and communist activists there. He was arrested by the Japanese several times, but never stopped his political efforts.
Most of the Korean communist movement at the time was taking place outside of Korea, particularly in Shanghai and Manchuria, China, and in Siberia and other parts of Russia. By 1928, there were four different Korean communist parties. Pak decided to combine them all and in 1939 formed the Communist Group. He led the group for its two years of existence and became well known as a revolutionary leader.
Liberation from the Japanese
On August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to end World War II and were ordered to withdraw their forces from Korea. In Korea, the top leaders, including Pak, were busy trying to form a transition government that could maintain order until a constitution could be created and a new government elected into office. A group of Korean leaders from all political sectors formed the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI), organized to function as a temporary governing body. This group of leaders was selected primarily by Pak and the more moderate leftist Yö Un-hyöng. On August 16, the Korean public learned that the CPKI was effectively ruling Korea. By radio and other media, the committee instructed the people of Korea to form local committees to govern locally until a new government could be put in place. Within two weeks, there were 145 branches of this government. The branches were called People's Committees and they ruled in the cities and villages throughout the country, assuming the function of government on the local level.
In the capital city of Seoul, the CPKI leaders separated into two factions: the communists, who followed Pak, and a more moderate leftist group led by Yö Un-hyöng. (In politics, leftist refers to people who seek change and reform, usually including more freedom, more equality, and better conditions for common people. Leftism may include communism, but many leftists are not communists. They seek reform either within the existing government or through revolution.) But it was no time for any divisions among factions. By September 6, the Americans were on their way to Korea, in theory to accept the surrender of the Japanese. (By agreement, the Americans were to receive the Japanese surrender south of the 38th parallel, while the Soviets were to receive it north of the 38th parallel.)
Most Koreans understood that it was essential that they have a functioning government in place if they wished to remain independent when the large powers arrived. The CPKI hurriedly announced the formation of the Korean People's Republic (KPR). Fifty-five Korean leaders were selected to serve in an interim (temporary) government until elections could put a democratic administration in place. The leaders of the KPR included people from all of the political factions. In fact, the future president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee (1875–1965; see entry), in exile at the time, was named president of the interim group, since his name was associated with the independence movement of earlier days.
None of these preparations mattered to the Americans, who thought the transitional government leaned too far to the left. The KPR was never recognized by the new American Military Government, nor would they even speak to its leaders when they arrived.
Communism in southern Korea, 1945–1947
Despite the American Military Government's rejection, the Korean People's Republic had the popular support of the Korean people. Although Pak and Yö had very different political values, they tried at first to maintain unity. In 1946, they formed the Korean National Democratic Front, an alliance among many of the communist and moderate left-leaning groups that replaced the Seoul Central People's Committee. For a time the two leaders fought a vigorous battle for leadership of the Front. The Americans, seeing how much popular support the Front was able to draw from, and fearing that it would soon be in the communist hands of Pak, convinced Yö to break off altogether from the Front and the communists. With Yö gone, Pak organized the South Korean Workers' Party and again found strong support. In spite of American efforts, he was emerging as one of a few top leaders of southern Korea. The American Military Government decided to move against him. A warrant for his arrest on charges of organizing disruptive activities was issued at the end of 1946. Early the next year, Pak and other southern communists were forced to flee to the Soviet-occupied north.
In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
Pak and some of his followers settled at Haeju, in Hwanghae Province. There they established the Kangdon Political Institute, a school for training guerrillas to fight for independence and communism in the south. Through these activities, Pak began to gather support in the north. Kim Il Sung, the premier of the newly formed Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), did not like the competition for power. He closed Pak's institute, but because Pak was popular and respected, and because his following in the south would be very important in an invasion, Kim brought him into the new government as vice-premier and minister of foreign affairs.
Pak's main interest in these years was to unify his country. In 1948, he initiated a meeting of North and South Korean leaders in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Although some powerful South Korean leaders attended, the meeting did not accomplish very much. The next year, in 1949, Pak tried once again with the formation of the Democratic Front for the Unification of the Fatherland. The group's goal was to eliminate the Americans and the Japanese influences from South Korea. It opposed Syngman Rhee's government and fully supported Kim Il Sung's leadership and communism.
The plan to invade
During 1949 and 1950, border skirmishes between North and South Korea were fairly common. Both sides initiated battles. North Korea's army was becoming increasingly fit, with more men, superior training, and better arms than South Korea could muster. Kim Il Sung was ready to invade. Many of the histories of the war say that Pak convinced Kim that there were hundreds of thousands of his supporters in the south who would join with the North Korean army and rise up against Syngman Rhee and his army if the North invaded.
There had indeed been many guerrillas in the south. Severe guerrilla warfare had raged in the southern part of the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) in the years from 1946 until 1949. With the help of the American Military Government, however, Rhee had devoted the ROK army, the military police, youth groups, and paramilitary groups to the brutal elimination of the guerrillas, as well as many other opponents to his rule. By the time the North Koreans invaded on June 25, 1950, there was very little support for their efforts from within South Korea. Kim Il Sung had boasted to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) and Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976; see entries) that he would win back South Korea in three weeks. In the three-year war that followed, he never did win back the south.
At the end of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung was bent on eliminating any threats to his own power. Setting himself up as the almost godlike leader of North Korea, he jealously guarded against rivals to his command. It has been suggested that he had Pak arrested because he feared Pak's natural ability to lead the communist North. It has been traditionally held, however, that Pak's overestimation of communist support in the South angered the leader. Pak was charged with espionage (spying) and executed in 1955.
Where to Learn More
Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Deane, Hugh. The Korean War, 1945–1953. San Francisco: China Books, 1999.
Kim, Joungwon Alexander Kim. Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945–1972. Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1975.
Matray, James I. Historical Dictionary of the Korean War. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Varhola, Michael J. Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950–1953. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 2000.
Words to Know
annex: to take over a nation that was independent, making it a dependent part of another nation.
Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.
exile: forced or voluntary absence from one's home country.
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.
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.
leftists: people who advocate change and reform, usually in the interest of gaining greater freedoms and equality for average citizens and the poor; some leftist groups aspire to overthrow the government; others seek to change from within.
moderate: of neither one extreme nor the other; having political beliefs that are not extreme.
occupation: taking over a state or nation and ruling it by a foreign military force.
socialism: a system in which there is no private property, and business and industry are owned by the workers.