Yanp'yong, Kyönggi Province, Korea
Died July 19, 1947
Korean statesman and educator
"We believed that we must construct a country which, though standing for true and progressive democracy, would receive without hesitation recognition from the rest of the nations of the world … and we thought of course the [American] Military Government would wholly aid in setting up such a government and follow the path to independence."
When World War II was drawing to a close in 1945 and the Koreans understood that they were finally to be freed after forty years of Japanese colonial rule, they immediately developed plans to govern their country independently. This was no easy task, since the Japanese had not allowed any form of political organization among Koreans. At the time of liberation, a man named Yö Un-hyöng emerged as one of the important leaders in Korea. Known for being moderate, he was interested in active reform and self-rule, but he was not a member of the Communist Party. He was an attractive and charming man with silver hair who dressed smartly in Western clothes, but took his political philosophy from a wide range of Asian and Western sources, which was particularly befitting the Korean experience at the time.
In the tumultuous days at the close of World War II, Yö was a main force in leading his people to an orderly and nonviolent transition to independent rule and constructing a new government, the Korean People's Republic. He worked hard to bring together the many political factions, from the right (the conservative establishment made up of the wealthy and powerful) and the left (those leaning toward reform, redistribution of wealth, and equality). In the first years after the war, Yö seemed a likely leader of a unified Korea. While it is impossible to know what may have occurred had he survived, Yö's life offers useful insight into the Korean experience of the war in Korea, a side often overlooked in American history books.
Yö Un-hyöng (often called Lyuh Woon Hyung by Americans) was born in 1885 in Yanp'yong, in the Kyönggi Province of Korea. Yö's family was of the yangban class of Korea, the traditional Korean elite who often held bureaucratic positions in the government and came from a long tradition of scholarly pursuits. His family was, however, quite poor. When Yö was fourteen years old, he entered the Christian missionary high school, Paejae Haktang, where he was introduced to Christianity and Western learning. When he had graduated from school, he founded some private schools, but they were soon closed, in 1910, by the Japanese when they annexed Korea. (Japan incorporated Korea as a part of Japan with the help of a very weak Korean monarch whom they had helped to the throne.) In 1910, Yö entered the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pyongyang (later the capital of North Korea). In 1914, frustrated by the harsh rule of the Japanese, he set out for China to fight for Korean independence. He attended college in Nanjing, China, and in 1918 organized the New Korean Youth Party there. In 1919, he took part in the founding of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, China.
Return to Korea
In Shanghai, Yö became involved with the Korean Communist Party, which was founded in China in 1919. (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.) In 1921, he went to Moscow, Russia, to attend the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East. At the conference, he met Russian communist leaders Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) and Leon Trotsky (1879–1940). Also during this time he worked for the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) and probably met the future Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tsetung; 1893–1976; see entry).
While he was in Shanghai in 1929 or 1930, Yö was arrested by Japanese agents and returned to Korea. There, he was imprisoned in Taejon for three years. When he got out of prison in 1933, he became the editor of the Central Daily newspaper in Seoul, which the Japanese closed down in 1938. The Japanese never stopped pressuring him to work with them, but Yö held out steadfastly. (His brother, however, yielded to the pressure and collaborated with the Japanese, and Yö is often associated with his brother's deeds.)
Yö was very active politically, and his presence was increasingly appreciated in the underground (secret) Korean political world. He worked from a wide range of political ideals. He was not a member of the Korean Communist Party in Shanghai, but had been involved with it and found many socialist ideas useful and valid. (Socialism is an economic system in which there is no private property, and business and industry are owned by the workers. Communism is a political ideology based on socialism.) He believed in a Western form of democracy in which everyone was represented in government. He was Christian in his religious beliefs. One historian in Korea at the time of liberation is quoted in Bruce Cumings's history The Origins of the Korean War for his description of Yö: "What an amazing Korean he was … grey fedora, grey tweed overcoat, grey flannel trousers, well-tailored tweed coat, blue shirt with clean collar and neatly tied foreinhand [necktie] looking for all the world as though he were off for a date at the Greenwich Country Club." Yö was also very involved in Korean sports.
By 1943, Yö felt certain that the Japanese would be defeated in World War II (1939–45) and knew that the Koreans needed to prepare to rule themselves. Although it was illegal and very dangerous to organize any kind of Korean political party, he secretly founded the Korean Independence League in 1944, which remained one of the main political bases of Korea after the war.
Transition from Japanese rule
In August 1945, with the war all but over, the Japanese in Korea grew fearful of reprisals (attacks to get even) against them by the Korean people, and sought help among Korean leaders. They made several unsuccessful attempts to work with conservative leaders, who refused to collaborate with the Japanese even as their rule was ending. The Japanese then approached Yö, knowing that he was an activist popular among students and reformers. He met with the Japanese Governor General's secretary on August 15, the day the Japanese surrendered in World War II, prepared to negotiate. In return for his promise to help restrain the Korean people from violent retaliation against the Japanese, he demanded concessions from the Japanese: to release all political prisoners in Korea; to guarantee food provisions for three months after their departure; and to promise not to interfere with Korean programs for independence. Yö received these promises from the reluctant Japanese official, and the power to maintain law and order was turned over to him. He called a meeting of Korean leaders that same day, August 15. The group, selected by Yö from all political sectors, formed the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI), organized to function as a temporary governing body. Yö had prepared for the meeting with two documents: one, a statement to incoming Allied forces, thanking them for their part in liberating Korea, but stating the thought foremost on Koreans' minds: that Korea must be governed by Koreans; and the other, a Korean Declaration of Independence, which included a provision for getting rid of the Koreans in government who had collaborated with the Japanese.
The next day, August 16, Yö fulfilled his promise to the Japanese by urging a gathering of five thousand Koreans to refrain from violence against their colonial rulers during the transition of power. He called for Koreans of all political beliefs to join together and work for the independent rule of Korea. Political prisoners were released that day, sending thousands of Korean communists whom the Japanese had arrested back into the population. The next day, 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 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.
The Korean People's Republic
In Seoul, the CPKI leaders separated into two factions: the communists and those who followed Yö's lead, seeking the unity of Korean people, elimination of the Japanese and Koreans who had collaborated with them, and most of all, Korean independence. Yö's stand wasn't well accepted by the Japanese, however, who continued to represent themselves as rulers and demanded that the CPKI serve only as a peacekeeping organization. On August 18, Yö was attacked by terrorists—in the first of many such attacks on him—and had to take some time out to recover.
On September 6, the Americans were on their way to Korea, in theory to accept the surrender of the Japanese. 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. From the Kyönggi Girl's High School, the CPKI 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. Some other right-wing (conservative) leaders were also selected as leaders of the interim government, but the majority were more left-wing (reform-oriented). Yö became vice-chairman of the cabinet, and it is believed that he took the lead in selecting the diverse group of leaders, and had in fact been the undeclared leader of Korea since the Japanese defeat.
The arrival of the American Military Government
The Americans landed at the port city of Inchon on September 8, 1945, under the command of Major General John Reed Hodge, armed with money and power but little understanding of the Korean people and the tangled political situation. Completely ignoring the new government of the new Korean People's Republic (KPR), they initially allied themselves as rulers with the Japanese—the former occupiers who were defeated in the world war—rather than the Koreans. When they did begin to work with Koreans, they conferred with the most right-wing faction, the Korean Democratic Party (KDP). Representatives from the KDP told the Americans that the KPR and Yö were both pro-Japanese and communist, which, had it been true, would have made a very unlikely combination, since the Japanese were staunchly anticommunist. Yö was labeled a communist by the army's intelligence almost immediately, and he could not even get in to talk to Hodge until October 5. At that time, the Americans treated Yö rudely, accusing him of collaborating with the Japanese.
The American Military Government probably did not acknowledge the Korean People's Republic because it sought reforms they disapproved of and because it included communists at a time when the United States was fiercely anticommunist. (Communism, with its theory of "sharing the wealth" among the community, was fundamentally at odds with the American economic system, capitalism, in which individuals can amass personal wealth.) But after a time, the American Military Government decided to create an advisory council of Koreans to help rule the country. They asked Yö to join. He initially agreed to be part of the council, but when he found that the other members were all from the conservative KDP, he quickly resigned. When he did this, the Military Government published a condemnation of the Korean People's Republic in the newspapers, insulting most Koreans by calling the KPR's leaders foolish to think that they could take on the task of successfully running the government of Korea.
In October, the Military Government was involved in the return to Korea of the exiled Syngman Rhee from the United States and Kim Koo, the president of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. In November, the Americans demanded that the Korean People's Republic change its name, to give up any claim to being a government. (It eventually became known as the People's Party.) In December, General Hodge called the KPR a "public enemy" and declared its activities to be illegal. Even so, in February 1946, an American intelligence report found that the majority of Koreans wished to be represented by the KPR.
In February 1946, Yö's party joined the Korean National Democratic Front, an alliance with many of the communist and moderate left-leaning groups that replaced the Seoul Central People's Committee. Speaking to a large crowd in mid-February, Yö received an enthusiastic standing ovation. With the branches of the left working together in a coalition, the Americans feared losing their stronghold and foresaw a possible communist takeover. Seeing that Yö continued to have a very strong following among the Korean people, Hodge tried to recruit him into a new leadership coalition that would be more representative of the Korean people. The coalition of Korean political factions that the Americans envisioned, however, was equal parts conservative and reform-oriented, when, in truth, the conservative elements were a tiny minority of landlords and businessmen. The vast majority of the Korean population was intent on reform after so many years of abuse by the Japanese.
The Americans urged Yö to break with the communists. Yö and Korean communist leader Pak Hön-yöng (1900–1955; see entry) had been rigorously competing for leadership of the Democratic Front. At around this time, the Korean communists decided to back the American and Soviet plan for a five-year, multi-country trusteeship to govern Korea. The trusteeship was very unpopular with the Korean people, and many were breaking with the Communist Party over this. For his part, Yö was interested in the idea of a coalition and listened to the Americans. He hoped to use the American support to help him in his fight with the communists and he also hoped to influence the Americans in their policies toward Korea. He cut ties with the Korean Communist Party altogether and joined the Coalition Committee for Cooperation between the rightists and the leftists. Yö, of course, was criticized by many for joining with the Americans.
By 1947, South Korea was in an economic tailspin, with widespread famine and unemployment. A new and stronger right wing was forming, supported by the national police and youth gangs that terrorized leftists. Conflicts among the Koreans were becoming more violent and more frequent. In May, Roger Baldwin, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, traveled to Korea to see for himself what was happening there. He reported in the New York Times on June 23, 1947, that southern Korea was in a "state of undeclared war.... in the grip of a police regime and a private terror." Hespent some time interviewing Yö about the problems in the divided country. Yö told him, as he had expressed many other times, that the national police were at the heart of the chaos. The police force was made up mainly of people who had been trained by the Japanese during colonial rule. There was a lot of ill will between the police and the population. In the city of Taegu in late 1946, fifty-three policemen were killed by angry mobs. The police were overzealous, often brutal, and politically motivated. In fact, Yö repeatedly complained that the police were following him everywhere.
In early 1947, the Korean population was violently rebelling against the American government in their country. Yö resigned from the Coalition Committee after being attacked several times. At this time, most of his followers had split into factions. Hope for an independent Korean government was fading. The Americans saw, as the other factions dissolved into fragments, that Syngman Rhee and his nationalist forces were gaining momentum. The Americans feared Rhee's dictatorial power, based on the backing of the national police and some violent youth gangs, as well as his unwillingness to go along with them. They decided to try one more time to create a middle-of-the-road leadership and once again contacted Yö.
The death of a leader
The American civil administrator in Korea, E. A. J. Johnson, described the chain of events on the day of Yö's death, July 19, 1947, as quoted in Cumings:
Our instructions were to try to form a government of the center. We decided to try to offset the rightism of the administration with the leftism of Lyuh Woon Hyung [Yö]. It was finally decided that I would speak to Lyuh about joining the government. It was decided that the meeting must be very quiet and that it wouldn't do for Lyuh to come to the government building to meet me, so we arranged for him to come to meet me at my house. Lyuh was contacted, and he was willing…. Lyuh was tocome to my house at 4 o'clock. I waited past 4, 4:30…. And thenfinally at 4:35 the interpreter arrived panting and alarmed at my door.... He looked terrified. And then he told me. Just one blockbefore he reached my house, Lyuh had been shot. That of course ended our attempts at forming a centrist government.
Yö had been the victim of nine murder attempts in two years. He had repeatedly asked the American Military Government for permission to carry a weapon, but had never received it. On that day in July 1947, while Yö was riding in a car, a young man had jumped onto the running board and pumped three bullets into his head, killing him instantly. Evidence indicates that the killer was a nineteen-year-old member of the Black Tiger Gang, which operated secretly alongside the Seoul police force. He may have been a follower of Kim Koo.
Although terrorism was common in Korea at this time, the Korean people were stunned and greatly saddened by the death of this popular leader. For two weeks after his death his body was laid out in state and thousands of people came to pay their respects, many pledging to carry on his fight for the People's Republic of Korea. A National Salvation Committee was formed almost immediately as a coalition among the left and the moderates of both sides to carry on Yö's work, but it was quickly outlawed by the police. On the day of Yö's funeral, the police prohibited any of the trappings of a public ceremony, but there was no stopping the huge procession of thousands of people from many different factions who had come out to honor the man many felt represented Korea. Three years later, when Yö's admirers tried to hold a memorial service for him, Syngman Rhee had ninety-seven of them arrested.
Where to Learn More
Deane, Hugh. The Korean War, 1945–1953. San Francisco: China Books, 1999.
Kim, Joungwon Alexander. Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945–1972. Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1975.
Nahm, Andrew C. Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Korea. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.
New York Times, June 23, 1947.
Words to Know
coalition government: a temporary government formed by combining all the different parties and interests in order to take a joint action.
collaborator: someone who cooperates with, or helps out, enemies to his or her own nation.
concessions: things that are given up and granted to the other side in an argument or conflict.
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.
multinational trusteeship: government by the joint rule of several countries that have committed to act in what they deem to be the country's best interest.
Provisional Korean Government: a government in exile, formed in Shanghai 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.
reprisal: violence or other use of force by one side in a conflict in retaliation for something bad that was done by the other side; a system of getting even for harm done.
rightist: a person who advocates maintaining tradition and the status quo and generally supports a strong and authoritarian government by the elite.