South Korea Table of Contents
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.
Data as of June 1990
South Korea Table of Contents