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Korea in 1945 (Part 2)

May 24, 2013

The US army entered Korea led by General John Reed Hodge, a well-meaning Midwesterner who became Commanding General of the United States Armed Forces in Korea. He was a choice of convenience, particularly for Douglas MacArthur; his troops were close by in Okinawa.

As the two occupying forces entered north and south portions of the Korean peninsula, where were Koreans? In August 1945, Koreans found themselves with changes made by the colonizer that had not run their course. Many peasants had been torn from their lands and put into industrial labor; landlords were becoming industrial entrepreneurs. However, that process had not been completed, sending both groups right back where they had been. In addition, there were returning masses of peasants, who had migrated from their villages in search for food, and independent fighters in exile. Moreover, Korea had not been self-governing since 1910.

Clearly, Koreans were not best situated to prepare for postwar Korea. Nevertheless, with revolutionary hope and zeal, on September 6, 1945, several hundred activists of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence announced formation of the Korean People’s Republic (KPR) in Seoul. They wanted to demonstrate that Koreans could run their own affairs and were eager to make revolutionary changes.

KPR organizers set out to form a society with ideals akin to communism but different from Marxism, Stalinism or any other forms of communism. They knew that Korea needed change, and that the changes should benefit the masses who had been long oppressed. During Japanese rule, many who opposed the Japanese turned to communism (socialism). Ideologically, both the peasants and workers found much more in common with communist ideals than with the ideas of conservatives and nationalists who had been severely compromised by their cooperation with the Japanese.

There were, however, leaders—mostly older generation, right-wing types—who wanted organizations of their own in opposition to the KPR. They founded the Korean Democratic Party (KDP) on September 16, 1945. The KDP consisted primarily of landlords and those in manufacturing and publishing, and landlord-entrepreneurs. Many of these people had collaborated with the Japanese. Many Koreans who had been in the colonial administration worked closely with the KDP.

Thus, upon their arrival, Americans found the Koreans divided among themselves: between those who had collaborated closely with the Japanese and underground dissenters; between landowners and peasants; between police and civilians; between managers and workers and among exiled groups.

Above all, they were confronted by two major groups: those who belonged to KPR, ready to try, on their own, to govern their liberated land with a revolutionary spirit, and KDP eager to turn to Americans for help. Americans dismissed Koreans with revolutionary zeal and the slightest hint of communism.

What made the situation worse was the fact that neither the US nor the USSR was prepared to deal with postwar Korea. At Yalta (February 1945), postwar Korean affairs were discussed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. They reached a loosely defined trusteeship agreement for Korea but not in any specific, written terms. In view of that, at the subsequent conference at Potsdam (July-August 1945), Churchill, Stalin and Truman—who had replaced Roosevelt in April—planned to deal with postwar Korea, but were preoccupied with more important issues, such as the trusteeship of Italian colonies in Africa. Korea was not discussed.

Having failed at two conferences, Yalta and Potsdam, the foreign ministers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union convened in Moscow in December 1945 to discuss a variety of postwar problems that had remained unresolved in the wartime negotiations. The Moscow accords included provisions for a four-power trusteeship for Korea of up to five years under the United States, the United Kingdom, China and the USSR, and eventual independence.

In the North, the Soviets congratulated Koreans for their liberation from Japan and quickly displayed a willingness to work with the “people’s committees,” set up by Koreans. Further, they were able to keep the Korean left in line on the trusteeship issue. They refused, however, to acknowledge the Korean People’s Republic (KPR) in Seoul. The Soviets focused on issues at hand in the North rather than setting the stage for national unity. Lacking the resources to create states with full control either in Korea or Manchuria, they quit Manchuria in 1946 and allowed a greater degree of autonomy in North Korea than they had allowed in some Eastern European states. This meant Koreans in the North were able to carve out some autonomy in the first years of liberation.

It was a different story in the South.

To be continued.

Don’t forget to order Iowa Sky: A Memoir by Donald D. Gibson at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com.

In Iowa Sky, Don remembers taking me to Potsdam in 2004 when we went to Germany for our 25th anniversary.

“I wanted to take Dai Sil to Potsdam to show her where the historic 1945 conference had taken place when the World War II allies—the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom—discussed how to deal with the aftermath of the war.” (p.247)

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