World War II, or what the Koreans call the Pacific War, brought new stresses to Korea, including extreme shortages of clothing and food and increasing inflation. However, the country was not bombed by the Allies (except by the Russians on the northern frontier) and, while badly run down, was intact after the war. Koreans were every bit as happy as Americans when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, and numerous factions jostled for influence in a country they expected would soon be independent. Unfortunately, international politics intervened yet again to dash their hopes of freedom.
At the Cairo conference of Allied leaders in December 1943 it had been proposed that Korea become independent immediately after the war. However, British authorities, concerned about the precedent that Korea might set for their colonies, opposed immediate independence for Korea. As a result, the Allies decided that Korea would become independent “in due course,” and Korea was occupied after the Japanese defeat by the Russians in the north and the United States in the south. The victors were supposed to establish a trusteeship as a prelude to independence. Instead, the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, coupled with the splintering of domestic political groups, conspired to divide the country for the first time since the seventh century.
Seoul was at the center of a country in a race against time that it was doomed to lose. The capital, remembers former diplomat Gregory Henderson, was a city that combined intimacy and excitement. When a car went down the street, “you leaned out of a third story and said, ‘Oh, there goes Mr. Lee. He’s going to visit Governor Koo.’ You knew everyone who owned a car in Seoul in 1948 and you usually knew where he was going. (15)
Tragically, dreams of liberation gave way to the brutality of division. Superpower rivalries magnified local ones and the country was caught in the whirlwind of change. The U.S. military authorities had no time for a fledgling coalition of nationalists and leftists and instead supported conservative politicians, many of them wealthy landowners. In the north, Soviet troops helped former guerrilla leader Kim II Sung consolidate his power.
U.S. military authorities turned to Korean military and police officials, who had earlier collaborated with the Japanese, in an attempt to impose rule on the country. Leftists encouraged strikes and even armed uprisings by urban workers and farmers; between 1945 and 1948 the south drew closer to civil war. Peasants wanted to topple an oppressive agricultural system that forced them to turn over 50 percent or more of their crops to landowners. Dedicated leftists merged with nationalists in the south, riding a wave of revulsion on the part of urban workers and farmers against an elite tainted by its association with the Japanese.
Even before the Korean War, prospects for the Korean economy were bleak. In February 1948, American general Charles Helmick (who had served as deputy military governor with the occupation forces) predicted: “Korea can never attain a high standard of living. There are virtually no Koreans with the technical training and experience required to take advantage of Korea’s resources and effect an improvement over its rice-economy status.” Helmick also predicted that after the U.S. forces withdrew, as they did the following year, South Korea would become nothing but a “bull cart” economy and that nine million nonfood producers would face starvation.(16)
The view that the Koreans would never amount to much was widely shared. Two years later, Alec Adams, the British chargé d’affaires in Korea, described Koreans as “sorry, contemptible and dishonest.” Adams also called Koreans “the thievingest people, and the greatest ‘gimme’ exponents of all time. Folk who live here mostly entertain the lowest opinion of Korean intelligence, mores, ability and industry. It is hard to believe, I gather, that they will ever be able successfully to govern themselves.(17)
A combination of ignorance and willful misunderstanding caused the United States to badly mismanage its military occupation of Korea. The United States reflexively sided with the well-dressed, English-speaking conservative landowners and, on many occasions in the early days of U.S. occupation, U.S. military authorities proved more comfortable with the former Japanese rulers than with aspiring Korean leaders.
Relations between north and south quickly deteriorated, thanks to local rivalries and superpower tensions. Both South (Republic of Korea) and North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) declared their independence in 1948. Soviet troops left Korea in late 1948. The United States, which had no clear strategic policy in Korea, pulled its last forces out in mid-1949.
The North invaded the South on June 25, 1950. The attack came against a background of hostility on both sides, with Syngman Rhee in the months before the invasion threatening to march north, but it was Kim II Sung who struck first, backed by China and the Soviet Union. It was a brutal conflict.......
(15.) Gregory Henderson, “Korea 1950,” in James Cotton and Ian Neaiy (eds.), The Korean War in History, p. 175.
(16.) U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, VI, p. 1092. I am grateful to Professor Lee Chong-Sik for this citation.
(17.) These are from two letters, dated December and October 1950, respectively, quoted in Ra Jong-yil, “Political Settlement in Korea: British Views and Policies, Autumn 1950,” in Cotton and Neary, The Korean War in History, p. 54.
Extracted from pages 28-29, of
by Mark L. Clifford, 1994;
published by M. E. Sharpe, Inc.
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