South Korea Under United States Occupation, 1945-48

South Korea Under United States Occupation, 1945-48

The three-year occupation by the United States of the area approximating present-day South Korea, following the liberation of Korea from Japan, was characterized by uncertainty and confusion. This difficult situation stemmed largely from the absence of a clearly formulated United States policy for Korea, the intensification of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the polarization of Korean politics between left and right. Although the United States had maintained diplomatic ties with the Choson Dynasty between 1882 and 1905, Korea in 1945 still was a remote country known only to a small number of missionaries and adventurous businessmen, holding little importance in the official scheme of things. And although the United States had proposed the thirty-eighth parallel as a dividing line between the two occupation armies, United States policymakers still were unsure of the strategic value of South Korea. United States policy toward Korea became more uncertain after the deadlock of the United States-Soviet joint commission. While United States officials were pessimistic about resolving their differences with the Soviet Union, they remained committed to the December 1945 decision of the Allied foreign ministers (made during their Moscow meeting) that a trusteeship under four powers, including China, should be established with a view toward Korea's eventual independence. Thus, United States officials were slow to draw up long-range alternative plans for South Korea.

Moreover, as the Soviet Union consolidated its power in North Korea and the Nationalist Party (Guomindang or Kuomintang--KMT) government of Chiang Kai-shek began to falter in China, United States strategists began to question the long-run defensibility of South Korea. By 1947 it appeared that South Korea would become the only area of mainland Northeast Asia not under communist control. According to one highly placed official, this was an "exposed, unsound military position, one that [was] doing no good."

Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, commander of the United States occupation forces in Korea, was obliged to work under a severe handicap--a mission of maintaining peace and order until the international conflict over Korea was resolved. Possessing very limited resources, Hodge was expected to pursue the "ultimate objective" of fostering "conditions which would bring about the establishment of a free and independent nation."

General Hodge had to contend with hostile Korean political groups. Before United States forces had landed in Korea in September 1945, the Koreans had established self-governing bodies, or people's committees. The leaders of these committees had organized the Central People's Committee, which proclaimed the establishment of the "Korean People's Republic" on September 6, 1945. Exiles, abroad, mainly in China, had organized the "Korean Provisional Government" in Shanghai as early as 1919 and had sustained a skeletal organization in other parts of China until 1945.

The United States recognized neither the republic nor the provisional government. The provisional government was headed by Syngman Rhee, its first president, and Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, premier, and vice premier, respectively. The United States would not recognize any group as a government until an agreement was reached among the Western Allies. The exiles were mollified by the favorable treatment they received when they returned to South Korea, but were incensed by the United States Military Government in Korea's order to disband. The United States Army military government that administered the American-occupied zone proceeded to disband the local people's committees and impose direct rule, assigning military personnel who lacked language skills and knowledge of Korea as governors at various levels.

The Korean Communist Party, resuscitated in October 1945, had been a major force behind the Central People's Committee and the "Korean People's Republic," and quickly built a substantial following among the workers, farmers, and students. The party eventually changed its stance on trusteeship and came out in support of it on January 3, 1946. Because the party was under the control of the Soviet command in P'yongyang, it came into direct confrontation with the United States military government.

The situation was exacerbated in December 1945 when the decision to establish a trusteeship was announced. To the Koreans, who had anticipated immediate independence, the decision to implement a five-year trusteeship was humiliating, and the initially warm welcome to United States troops as liberators cooled. By early 1946, the United States military government had come to rely heavily on the advice and counsel of ideologically conservative elements, including landlords and other propertied persons.

The United States initially supported the returned exiles and the conservative elements, but between May 1946 and April 1947, the military government tried to mobilize support behind a coalition between the moderate left represented by Yo Un-hyong (or Lyuh Woon Hyung), who had been the figurehead of the Central People's Committee, and the moderate right, represented by Kim Kyu-sik, vice premier of the exiled government. This attempt only intensified splits within the left-wing and right-wing camps without producing any positive results. The moderates' argument that the Koreans should oppose the trusteeship was unacceptable to the other parties. Communist leaders, on the other hand, were driven underground in May 1946 after the discovery of a currencycounterfeiting operation run by the party. The left-wing and right-wing groups, in the meantime, frequently engaged in violent clashes not only on ideological grounds, but also because of their opposing views about the trusteeship decision.

In December 1946, the military government established the South Korean Interim Legislative Assembly to formulate draft laws to be used as "the basis for political, economic, and social reforms." South Korea's problems, however, required solutions at a much higher level. The left-wing political groups, consolidated under the rubric of the South Korean Workers' Party, ignored the assembly. The conservative Korean Democratic Party, supported by landlords and small-business owners, opposed the assembly because their principal leaders were excluded from it. Although many of the assembly's forty-five elected members were conservatives, most of the forty-five appointed members were moderates nominated by Kim Kyu-sik, who had emerged as Hodge's choice for political leadership. Unfortunately, Kim lacked dynamism and broad support among the masses.

Economy and Society

These circumstances had thrown South Korea's economy into complete chaos. Even if the occupation forces had arrived with a carefully laid economic plan, the situation would have been difficult because the Japanese had developed Korea's economy as an integral part of their empire, linking Korea to Japan and Manchuria.

The division of Korea into two zones at an arbitrary line further aggravated the situation. There were many inherent problems in building a self-sufficient economy in the southern half of the peninsula. Most of the heavy industrial facilities were located in northern Korea--the Soviet zone--including the chemical plants that produced necessary agricultural fertilizers. Light industries in southern Korea had been dependent on electricity from the hydraulic generators located on the Yalu River on the Korean-Manchurian border; electric generating facilities in the south supplied only 9 percent of the total need. Railroads and industries in the south also had been dependent upon bituminous coal imported from Manchuria, Japan, and the north (although the south had been exporting some excess anthracite to the north).

The problems were compounded by the fact that most of Korea's mines and industries had been owned and operated by Japan. As the United States military government let the 700,000 Japanese depart from South Korea in the months following the start of the American occupation, almost all of the mines and factories--now enemy properties vested in the military government--were without managers, technicians, and capital resources. This situation led to severe problems of unemployment and material shortages.

The months after the arrival of occupation forces also witnessed a vast inflow of population. South Korea's population, estimated at just over 16 million in 1945, grew by 21 percent during the next year. By 1950 more than 1 million workers had returned from Japan, 120,000 from China and Manchuria, and 1.8 million from the north. The annual rate of increase of births over deaths continued at about 3.1 percent. Since rural areas were inhospitable to newcomers, most of the refugees settled in urban areas; Seoul received upwards of one-third of the total. The situation was further aggravated by scarcities of food and other commodities and by runaway inflation, caused in part by the fact that the departing Japanese had flooded Korea with newly printed yen.

The social unrest created by these developments can be easily surmised. By 1947 only about half the labor force of 10 million was gainfully employed. Labor strikes and work stoppages were recurrent phenomena, and demonstrations against the United States military government's policies drew large crowds. Temporary stoppages of electricity--supplied from the northern areas--in the early part of 1946 and late 1947 plunged the southern region into darkness on each occasion, deepening the despair of the populace. The disillusioned and disconcerted people paid keen attention to political leaders of various persuasions who offered new ways of solving the Korean problem.

Establishment of the Republic of Korea

In this atmosphere, the United States scuttled an earlier plan to provide US$500 million over five years for South Korean development. It then submitted the Korean problem to the United Nations (UN) in September 1947. In November the UN General Assembly recognized Korea's claim to independence and made preparations for the establishment of a government and the withdrawal of occupation forces. The United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea arrived to supervise the election of a national assembly, which was held in May 1948. The Soviet Union, however, objected to the UN resolution and refused to admit the commission to the Soviet-controlled zone in the north. It was becoming increasingly clear that two separate regimes would be established on the peninsula.

The prospect of perpetuating the division of Korea catapulted some of the southern political leaders to action, significantly altering the political configuration there. The choice they faced was between immediate independence at the price of indefinite division, or postponement of independence until the deadlock between the United States and the Soviet Union was resolved. Rhee had campaigned actively within Korea and the United States for the first alternative since June 1946. Other major figures in the right-wing camp, including Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, decided to oppose the "separate elections" in the south, hoping to resolve the international impasse by holding talks with their northern counterparts. The group led by the two Kims made their way to P'yongyang, the future capital of North Korea, in April 1948, boycotted the May 1948 elections, and were discredited when P'yongyang cut off electricity, leaving Rhee a clear field though he lacked grass roots support apart from the Korean Democratic Party. By this time, the communists in the south had lost much of their political following, particularly after a serious riot in October 1946; most of their leaders congregated in the north. The moderate left-wing camp was in disarray after their leader, Yo Un-hyong, was assassinated in July 1947. Kim Kyu-sik had been the clear choice of the United States military government, but he could not be dissuaded from his fruitless trip to P'yongyang.

The National Assembly elected in May 1948 adopted a constitution setting forth a presidential form of government and specifying a four-year term for the presidency. Syngman Rhee, whose supporters had won the elections, became head of the new assembly. On this basis, when on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was proclaimed, Rhee assumed the presidency. Four days after the proclamation, communist authorities completed the severing of north-south ties by shutting off power transmission to the south. Within less than a month, a communist regime, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Premier Kim Il Sung, who claimed authority over the entire country by virtue of elections conducted in the north and the underground elections allegedly held in the south. Rhee scarcely had time to put his political house in order before North Korea launched its attack on South Korea in June 1950.

The South Korean army had come into being in September 1948. A communist-led revolt of army regiments in the southern part of the peninsula in October of the same year, known as the YosuSunch 'on rebellion, had consumed much of the army's attention and resources, however, and a massive purge in the aftermath of that revolt weakened the entire military establishment. Given South Korea's precarious future and the communist victory in China, the United States was not eager to provide support. By June 29, 1949, United States occupation forces had been withdrawn, save for a handful of military advisers, and Korea had been placed outside of the United States defense perimeter.

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