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Korea in 1945 (Part 1)

May 13, 2013

I remember that day long ago in North Korea–August 15, 1945–the day Koreans consider the day of their independence. I still feel the jubilee and ecstasy of Koreans witnessing the defeat of their colonizer (Japan) and getting the country back.  However, reality crept in sooner rather than later. Two occupying forces, the United States and the Soviet Union, two huge whales, entered the small peninsula–a little shrimp, as my father used to say–and cut up the land of morning calm.

If we are to understand what happened after August 15, 1945, we need to go back to those days when the war was coming to an end. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. Between those dates, on August 8, the Soviets declared war on Japan and began attacks in Manchuria. Some historians say that by August 10, the United States knew that Japan would surrender. Others say that Americans knew earlier in the summer that Japan would surrender and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary. Whatever was the case, in the immediate aftermath of these events, Korea was divided at the 38th latitude into American and Soviet occupation zones.

The initial decision to draw such a line was taken by the Americans without Soviet participation. That decision was made during a night-long session of the State-War-Navy-Coordinating Committee in Washington, DC, on August 10-11, 1945. Around midnight, Colonel Charles H. Bonesteel and Major Dean Rusk were ordered by Brigadier General George Lincoln to figure out how to define the zones to be occupied in Korea by American and Russian forces. The two men were given 30 minutes. Feeling the pressure of the ticking clock, Bonesteel saw a small-scale wall map of the Far East and on it noted the 38th Parallel. It passed north of Seoul (Americans wanted to include the capital in their zone) and divided Korea into almost two equal parts. He immediately proposed the 38th parallel as a zonal boundary. Imagine, that’s how Korea was divided and remains divided until today! (Most of this information comes from The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. I by Bruce Cumings.)

The occupying forces, the United States and the Soviet Union, entered Korea, with the Soviets arriving almost a full month before the Americans. Honoring the agreement about the 38th parallel, they stayed in the north.

First about Russians. For that, I want to take myself back to the autumn of 1945 to Shinchun, North Korea, my home town, where I saw Russian soldiers for the first time in my short life. I saw the Russians reaching out and people putting their watches into their hands. Over the years since our family crossed the 38th parallel, the image of their hands with people’s watches grew in many shapes and forms, especially in contrast with Americans putting chocolates and chewing gums into the hands of children.

When the Russians came to our hometown in the North in 1945, my mother was in her mid-thirties and desirable, her beauty still radiant. One day my mother just left our home, leaving us children with our grandmother. I didn’t know what was happening but learned later that my father (who was already in Seoul to greet his adopted father, Kim Gu, one of two best known independent fighters with Syngman Rhee) arranged to send her to Kumdani, the village where we had our family mountain, before she could travel on to Seoul. My father feared that she might be raped.

In May 2006, I went to Seoul to talk with my 94-year-old aunt on my mother’s side.  I asked her to tell me her experience with the Russians after the liberation in North Korea. “As you might remember, your uncle liked luxuries in life. He built a lavish, modern house in Shinchun, the very first such house in that entire region.” (I vaguely remember that house and wondered why we did not have such a house.  My father was wealthier than my uncle). “Well, the Russians came to that house, walked around in their boots, took everything in sight, and then told us that we had to move out. They wanted to use the house for their offices. They were barbarians.” As my aunt talked, I could tell that her chest still heaved with anger and fury.

Some books I read later confirmed my aunt’s story and my childhood memories of the Russians. The Soviets carried out looting, pillaging, and rape in both Korea and Manchuria. Some say that the Soviets did those things because they had no settled policy in Northern Korea and Manchuria, and that they did not have long-range plans to stay. Further, many Russian soldiers were poor peasants plucked out of their rural communities, drafted into the military and shipped to Korea without proper training. After a few months, however, according to some scholars, the Soviet government sent an entire MP unit to stop their soldiers from pillaging and raping. Whatever the case, it is safe to say that the rapid surrender of Japan left Soviet policies toward Korea relatively unformed, and that the Russians did not leave a good impression on the Koreans who fled the North.

To be continued.

 Remember to order Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson at or


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