ORIGINS OF A TRAGEDY
Seldom in the course of history has a nation been so rapidly propelled from obscurity to a central place in the world's affairs as Korea. The first significant contact between "The Land of the Morning Calm" and the West took place one morning in September 1945 when an advance party of the American Army, in full battle gear, landed at the western harbor of Inchon, to be met by a delegation of Japanese officials in top hats and tailcoats. This was the inauguration of Operation "Black List Forty," the United States' occupation of South Korea.
These first American officers found the city of Inchon, fearful and uncertain of its future, shuttered and closed. After a hunt through the streets, glimpsing occasional faces peering curiously at their liberators from windows and corners, they came upon a solitary Chinese restaurant bearing the sign "Welcome U.S." Then, from the moment the Americans boarded the train for Seoul, they met uninhibited rejoicing. A little crowd of Koreans waving gleeful flags stood by the tracks in every village they passed. At Seoul railway station, the group had planned to take a truck to their objective, the city post office. Instead, on their arrival, they decided to walk. To their bewilderment, they found themselves at the center of a vast throng of cheering, milling, exultant Koreans, cramming the streets and sidewalks, hanging from buildings, standing on carts. The Americans were at a loss. They had arrived without any conception of what the end of the Japanese war meant to the people of this obscure peninsula.
Throughout its history until the end of the nineteenth century, Korea was an overwhelmingly rural society which sought successfully to maintain its isolation from the outside world. Ruled since 1392 by the Yi Dynasty, it suffered two major invasions from Japan in the sixteenth century. When the Japanese departed, Korea returned to its harsh traditional existence, frozen in winter and baked in summer, its ruling families feuding among each other from generation to generation. By the Confucian convention that regarded foreign policy as an extension of family relations, Korea admitted an historic loyalty to China, "the elder brother nation." Until 1876 her near neighbor Japan was regarded as a friendly equal. But early that January, in an early surge of the expansionism that was to dominate Japanese history for the next seventy years, Tokyo dispatched a military expedition to Korea "to establish a treaty of friendship and commerce." On February 26, after a brief and ineffectual resistance, the Koreans signed. They granted the Japanese open ports, their citizens extraterritorial rights.
The embittered Koreans sought advice from their other neighbors about the best means of undoing this humiliating surrender. The Chinese advised that they should come to an arrangement with one of the Western powers "in order to check the poison with an antidote." They suggested the Americans, who had shown no signs of possessing territorial ambitions on the Asian mainland. On May 22, 1882, Korea signed a treaty of "amity and commerce" with the United States. In the words of a leading American historian of the period, this "set Korea adrift on an ocean of intrigue which it was quite helpless to control." The infuriated Japanese now engaged themselves increasingly closely in Korea's internal power struggles. The British took an interest, for they were eager to maintain China's standing as Korea's "elder brother" to counter Russian influence in the Far East. By 1893, Korea had signed a succession of trade treaties with every major European power. The Japanese were perfectly clear about their objective. Their Foreign Minister declared openly that Korea "should be made a part of the Japanese map." Tokyo hesitated only about how to achieve this without a confrontation with one or another great power.
The Chinese solved the problem. Peking's increasingly heavy-handed meddling in Korea's affairs, asserting claims to some measure of authority over Seoul, provoked a wave of anti-Chinese feeling and a corresponding surge of enthusiasm for the Japanese, who could now claim popular support from at least a faction within Korea. In 1894, Japan seized her opportunity and landed an army in Korea to force the issue. The government in Seoul, confused and panicky, asked Peking to send its own troops to help suppress a rebellion. The Japanese responded by dispatching a contingent of marines direct to the capital. The Korean government, by now hopelessly out of its depth, begged that all the foreign troops should depart. But the Japanese scented victory. They reinforced their army.
The last years of Korea's national independence took on a Gilbertian absurdity. The nation's leaders, artless in the business of diplomacy and modern power politics, squirmed and floundered in the net that was inexorably closing around them. The Chinese recognized their military inability to confront the Japanese in Korea. Tokyo's grasp on Korea's internal government tightened until, in 1896, the King tried to escape thralldom by taking refuge at the Russian Legation in Seoul. From this sanctuary he issued orders for the execution of all his pro-Japanese ministers. The Japanese temporarily backed down.
In the next seven years Moscow and Tokyo competed for power and concessions in Seoul. The devastating Japanese victory at Tsushima, a few miles off Pusan, decided the outcome. In February 1904 the Japanese moved a large army into Korea. In November of the following year the nation became a Japanese protectorate. In a characteristic exercise of the colonial cynicism of the period, the British accepted Japanese support for their rule in India in exchange for blessing Tokyo's takeover of Korea. Whitehall acknowledged Japan's right "to take such measure of guidance, control, and protection in Corea [sic] as she may deem proper and necessary" to promote her "paramount political, military and economic interests."
Korean independence thus became a dead letter. In the years that followed a steady stream of Japanese officials and immigrants moved into the country. Japanese education, roads, railways, sanitation were introduced. Yet none of these gained the slightest gratitude from the fiercely nationalistic Koreans. Armed resistance grew steadily in the hands of a strange alliance of Confucian scholars, traditional bandits, Christians, and peasants with local grievances against the colonial power. The anti-Japanese guerrilla army rose to a peak of an estimated 70,000 men in 1908. Thereafter, ruthless Japanese repression broke it down. Korea became an armed camp, in which mass executions and wholesale imprisonments were commonplace and all dissent forbidden. On August 22, 1910, the Korean emperor signed away all his rights of sovereignty. The Japanese introduced their own titles of nobility and imposed their own military government. For the next thirty-five years, despite persistent armed resistance from mountain bands of nationalists, many of them Communist, the Japanese maintained their ruthless, detested rule in Korea, which also became an important base for their expansion north into Manchuria in the 1930s.
Yet despite the decline of China into a society of competing warlords, and the preoccupation of Russia with her own revolution, even before the Second World War it was apparent that Korea's geographical position, as the nearest meeting place of three great nations, would make her a permanent focus of tension and competition. The American Tyler Dennett wrote presciently in 1945, months before the Far Eastern war ended:
"Many of the international factors which led to the fall of Korea are either unchanged from what they were half a century ago, or are likely to recur the moment peace is restored to the East. Japan's hunger for power will have been extinguished for a period, but not forever. In another generation probably Japan will again be a very important influence in the Pacific. Meanwhile the Russian interest in the peninsula is likely to remain what it was forty years ago. Quite possibly that factor will be more important than ever before. The Chinese also may be expected to continue their traditional concern in the affairs of that area."
And now, suddenly, the war was over, and the Japanese Empire was in the hands of the broker's men. Koreans found themselves freed from Japanese domination, looking for fulfillment of the promise of the leaders of the Grand Alliance in the 1943 Cairo Declaration -- that Korea should become free and independent "in due course."
The American decision to land troops to play a part in the occupation of Korea was taken only at the very end of the war. The Japanese colony had been excluded from the complex 1943-45 negotiations about occupation zones between the partners of the Grand Alliance. The Americans had always been enamored of the concept of "trusteeship" for Korea, along with Indochina and some other colonial possessions in the Far East. They liked the idea of a period during which a committee of Great Powers -- in this case, China, the U.S., and the U.S.S.R. -- would "prepare and educate" the dependent peoples for self-government and "protect them from exploitation." This concept never found much favor among the British or French, mindful of their own empires. And as the war progressed, concern about the future internal structure of Korea was overtaken by deepening alarm about the external forces that might determine this. As early as November 1943 a State Department subcommittee expressed fears that when the Soviets entered the Far East war, they might seize the opportunity to include Korea in their sphere of influence: "Korea may appear to offer a tempting opportunity to apply the Soviet conception of the proper treatment of colonial peoples, to strengthen enormously the economic resources of the Soviet Far East, to acquire ice-free ports, and to occupy a dominating strategic position in relation both to China and to Japan....A Soviet occupation of Korea would create an entirely new strategic situation in the Far East, and its repercussions within China and Japan might be far reaching."
As the American historian Bruce Cumings has aptly pointed out, "What created 'an entirely new strategic situation in the Far East' was not that Russia was interested in Korea -- it had been for decades -- but that the United States was interested." Yet by the time of the Potsdam Conference of July 1945, the United States military was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the perceived difficulties of mounting an invasion of mainland Japan. They regarded the Japanese armies still deployed in Korea and Manchuria as a tough nut for the Red Army to crack and were only too happy to leave the problem, and the expected casualties, to the Russians. The Pentagon had anyway adopted a consistent view that Korea was of no long-term strategic interest to the United States.
Yet three weeks later the American perception of Korea had altered dramatically. The explosion of the two atomic bombs on Japan on August 6 and 9 brought Japan to the brink of surrender. The Red Army was sweeping through Manchuria without meeting important resistance. Suddenly, Washington's view of both the desirability and feasibility of denying at least a substantial part of Korea to the Soviets was transformed. Late on the night of August 10, 1945, barely twenty-four hours after the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb, the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee reached a hasty, unilateral decision that the United States should participate in the occupation of Korea. The two officers drafting orders for the committee pored over their small-scale wall map of the Far East and observed that the 38th Parallel ran broadly across the middle of the country. South of this line lay the capital, the best of the agriculture and light industry, and more than half the population. Some members of the committee -- including Dean Rusk, a future Secretary of State -- pointed out that if the Russians chose to reject this proposal, the Red Army sweeping south through Manchuria could overrun all Korea before the first GI could be landed at Inchon. In these weeks, when the first uncertain skirmishes of the Cold War were being fought, the sudden American proposal for the divided occupation of Korea represented an important test of Soviet intentions in the Far East.
To the relief of the committee in Washington, the Russians readily accepted the 38th Parallel as the limit of their advance. Almost a month before the first Americans could be landed in South Korea, the Red Army reached the new divide -- and halted there. It is worth remarking that, if Moscow had declined the American plan and occupied all Korea, it is unlikely that the Americans could or would have forced a major diplomatic issue. To neither side, at this period, did the peninsula seem to possess any inherent value, except as a testing ground of mutual intentions. The struggle for political control of China herself was beginning in earnest. Beside the fates and boundaries of great nations that were now being decided, Korea counted for little. Stalin was content to settle for half. At no time in the five years that followed did the Russians show any desire to stake Moscow's power and prestige upon a direct contest with the Americans for the extension of Soviet influence south of the Parallel.
Thus it was, late in August 1945, that the unhappy men of the U.S. XXIV Corps -- some veterans of months of desperate fighting in the Pacific, others green replacements fresh from training camps -- found themselves under orders to embark not for home, as they so desperately wished, but for unknown Korea. They were given little information to guide their behavior once they got there. Their commander, General John R. Hodge, received only a confusing succession of signals at his headquarters on Okinawa. On August 14, General Stilwell told him that the occupation could be considered "semifriendly" -- in other words, that he need regard as hostile only a small minority of collaborators. At the end of the month the Supreme Commander, General MacArthur himself, decreed that the Koreans should be treated as "liberated people." From Washington the Secretary of State for War and the Navy Coordinating Committee dispatched a hasty directive to Okinawa ordering Hodge to "create a government in harmony with U.S. policies." But what were U.S. policies toward Korea? Since the State Department knew little more about the country than that its Nationalists hungered for unity and independence, they had little to tell Hodge. As a straightforward military man, the general determined to approach the problem in a straightforward, no-nonsense fashion. On September 4 he briefed his own officers to regard Korea as "an enemy of the United States," subject to the terms of the Japanese surrender. On September 8, when the American occupation convoy was still twenty miles out from Inchon in the Yellow Sea, its ships encountered three neatly dressed figures in a small boat who presented themselves to the general as representatives of "the Korean government." Hodge sent them packing. He did likewise with every other Korean he met on his arrival who laid claim to a political mandate. The XXIV Corps' intention was to seize and maintain control of the country. The U.S. Army, understandably, wished to avoid precipitate entanglement with any of the scores of competing local political factions who already, in those first days, were struggling to build a power base amid the ruin of the Japanese empire.
The fourteen-strong advance party who were the first Americans to reach Seoul were fascinated and bemused by what they found: a city of horse-drawn carts, with only the occasional charcoal-powered motor vehicle. They saw three Europeans in a shop and hastened to greet them, only to discover that they were part of the little local Turkish community, who spoke no English. They met White Russians, refugees in Korea since 1920, who demanded somewhat tactlessly, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" The first English-speaker they met was a local Japanese who had lived in the United States before the war. His wife, like all the Japanese community, eager to ingratiate herself with the new rulers, pressed on them a cake and two pounds of real butter -- the first they had seen for months. That night they slept on the floor of Seoul Post Office. The next morning they transferred their headquarters to the Banda Hotel.
In the days that followed the major units of XXIV Corps disembarked at Inchon, and dispersed by truck and train around the country, to take up positions from Pusan to the 38th Parallel. General Hodge and his staff were initially bewildered by the clamor of unknown Koreans competing for their political attention and by the disorders in the provinces, which threatened to escalate into serious rioting if the situation was not controlled. There was also the difficulty that no Korean they encountered appeared to speak English, and the only Korean-speaker on the staff, Commander Williams of the U.S. Navy, was insufficiently fluent to conduct negotiations.
Amid all this confusion and uncertainty, the occupiers could identify only one local stabilizing force upon whom they could rely: the Japanese. In those first days the Japanese made themselves indispensable to Hodge and his men. One of the American commander's first acts was to confirm Japanese colonial officials in their positions, for the time being. Japanese remained the principal language of communication. Japanese soldiers and police retained chief responsibility for maintaining law and order. As early as September 11, MacArthur signaled instructions to Hodge that Japanese officials must at once be removed from office. But even when this process began to take place, many retained their influence for weeks as unofficial advisers to the Americans.
Within days of that first euphoric encounter between the liberators and the liberated, patriotic Koreans were affronted by the open camaraderie between Japanese and American officers, the respect shown by former enemies to each other, in contrast to the thinly veiled contempt offered to the Koreans. "It does seem that from the beginning many Americans simply liked the Japanese better than the Koreans," the foremost American historian of this period has written. "The Japanese were viewed as cooperative, orderly and docile, while the Koreans were seen as headstrong, unruly, and obstreperous." The Americans knew nothing -- or chose to ignore what they did know -- of the ruthless behavior of the Japanese in the three weeks between their official surrender and the coming of XXIV Corps -- the looting of warehouses, the systematic ruin of the economy by printing debased currency, the sale of every available immovable asset.
To a later generation, familiar with the dreadful brutality of the Japanese in the Second World War, it may seem extraordinary that Americans could so readily make common cause with their late enemies -- as strange as the conduct of Allied intelligence organizations in Europe, which befriended and recruited former Nazi war criminals and Gestapo agents. Yet the strongest influence of war upon most of those who endure it is to blur their belief in absolute moral values and to foster a sense of common experience with those who have shared it, even a barbarous enemy. There was a vast sense of relief among the men of the armies who still survived in 1945, an instinctive reluctance for more killing, even in the cause of just revenge. There was also a rapidly growing suspicion among some prominent American soldiers -- Patton notable among them -- that they might have been fighting the wrong enemy for these four years. McCarthyism was yet unborn. But a sense of the evil of communism was very strong and already outweighed in the minds of some men their revulsion toward Nazism or Japanese imperialism. In Tokyo the American Supreme Commander himself was already setting an extraordinary pattern of postwar reconciliation with the defeated enemy. In Seoul in the autumn of 1945, General Hodge and his colleagues found it much more comfortable to deal with the impeccable correctness of fellow soldiers, albeit recent enemies, than with the anarchic rivalries of the Koreans. The senior officers of XXIV Corps possessed no training or expertise of any kind for exercising civilian government -- they were merely professional military men, obliged to improvise as they went along. In the light of subsequent events, their blunders and political clumsiness have attracted the unfavorable attention of history. But it is only just to observe that at this period many of the same mistakes were being made by their counterparts in Allied armies all over the world.
"South Korea can best be described as a powder keg ready to explode at the application of a spark," Hodge's State Department political adviser H. Merell Benninghoff reported to Washington on September 15. "There is great disappointment that immediate independence and sweeping out of the Japanese did not eventuate. Although the hatred of the Koreans for the Japanese is unbelievably bitter, it is not thought that they will resort to violence as long as American troops are in surveillance....The removal of Japanese officials is desirable from the public opinion standpoint, but difficult to bring about for some time. They can be relieved in name but must be made to continue in work. There are no qualified Koreans for other than the low-ranking positions, either in government or in public utilities and communications."
The pressures upon the Americans in Korea to dispense with the aid of their newfound Japanese allies became irresistible. In four months 70,000 Japanese colonial civil servants and more than 600,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians were shipped home to their own islands. Many were compelled to abandon homes, factories, possessions. Yet the damage to American relations with the Koreans was already done. Lieutenant Ferris Miller, U.S. Navy, who had been one of the first Americans to land in the country, and subsequently enjoyed a lifelong association with Korea, said, "Our misunderstanding of local feelings about the Japanese, and our own close association with them, was one of the most expensive mistakes we ever made there."
In the months that followed the expulsion of the Japanese, the Koreans who replaced them as agents of the American military government were, for the most part, long-serving collaborators, detested by their own fellow countrymen for their service to the colonial power. A ranking American of the period wrote later of his colleagues' "abysmal ignorance of Korea and things Korean, the inelasticity of the military bureaucracy and the avoidance of it by the few highly qualified Koreans, who could afford neither to be associated with such an unpopular government, nor to work for the low wages it offered."
Before their enforced departure, the Japanese had been at pains to alert the Americans to the pervasive influence of communism among South Korea's embryo political groupings. Their warnings fell upon fertile soil. In the light of events in Europe, the occupiers were entirely ready to believe that Communists were at the root of political disturbances, their cells working energetically to seize control of the country. Benninghoff reported, "Communists advocate the seizure now of Japanese properties and may be a threat to law and order. It is probable that well-trained agitators are attempting to bring about chaos in our area so as to cause the Koreans to repudiate the United States in favor of Soviet 'freedom' and control."
The principal losers in the political competition that now developed, to discover which Koreans could prove themselves most hostile to communism and most sympathetic to the ideals of the United States, were the members of the so-called Korean People's Republic, the KPR. In Korea in 1945 the phrase "people's republic" had not yet taken on the pejorative association it would so soon acquire. The KPR was a grouping of nationalists and prominent members of the anti-Japanese resistance who, before the Americans arrived, sought to make themselves a credible future leadership for Korea. More than half of the eighty-seven leaders chosen by a several-hundred-strong assembly at Kyonggi Girls' High School on September 6 had served terms of imprisonment under the Japanese. At least half also could be identified as leftists or Communists. But prominent exiles such as Syngman Rhee, Mu Chong, Kim Ku, and Kim Il Sung were granted places in absentia, though few subsequently accepted the roles for which they had been chosen. It is significant that the men of the right nominated to the KPR leadership were, on average, almost twenty years older than those of the left.
It was not surprising that the Americans, on their arrival, knew nothing of the KPR. The chaotic struggle to fill the political vacuum in Korea was further confused by the arrival from Chungking of the self-proclaimed Korean Provisional Government, an exile grouping which included some nominated members of the KPR. In the weeks that followed the military government's skepticism about the KPR -- energetically fostered by the Japanese -- grew apace. Here there was more than a little in common with Western attitudes to Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues in Vietnam of the same period. There was no attempt to examine closely the Communist ideology of the leftists, to discover how far they were the creatures of Moscow and how far they were merely vague Socialists and Nationalists who found traditional landlordism repugnant. No allowance was made for the prestige earned by the Communists' dominant role in armed resistance to the Japanese. Hodge and his men saw no merit in the KPR's militant sense of Korean nationalism -- this merely represented an obstacle to smooth American military government. It would be naive to suppose that such a grouping as the KPR could have formed an instantly harmonious leadership for an independent Korea. The group included too many irreconcilable factions. But it also represented the only genuine cross section of Korean nationalist opinion ever to come together under one roof, however briefly. Given time and encouragement, it might have offered South Korea some prospect of building a genuine democracy.
But the strident tones in which the KPR addressed the American military government ensured that the group was rapidly identified as a threat and a problem. "There is evidence [wrote Benninghoff on October 10] that the [KPR] group receives support and direction from the Soviet Union [perhaps from Koreans formerly resident in Siberia]. In any event, it is the most aggressive party; its newspaper has compared American methods of occupation [with those of the Russians] in a manner that may be interpreted as unfavorable to the United States."
It was another group, which could call upon only a fraction of the KPR's likely political support, that seemed infinitely more congenial to Hodge and his advisers: "...the so-called democratic or conservative group, which numbers among its members many of the professional and educational leaders who were educated in the United States or in American missionary institutions in Korea. In their aims and policies they demonstrate a desire to follow the western democracies, and they almost unanimously desire the early return of Dr. Syngman Rhee and the 'Provisional Government' at Chungking." Barely three weeks after the American landings in Korea, official thinking in Seoul was already focusing upon the creation of a new government for the South around the person of one of the nation's most prominent exiles.
Syngman Rhee was born in 1875, the son of a genealogical scholar. He failed the civil service exams several times before becoming a student of English. Between 1899 and 1904 he was imprisoned for political activities. On his release, he went to the United States, where he studied for some years, earning an M.A. at Harvard and a Ph.D. at Princeton -- the first Korean to receive an American doctorate. After a brief return to his homeland in 1910, Rhee once more settled in America. He remained there for the next thirty-five years, lobbying relentlessly for American support for Korean independence, financed by the contributions of Korean patriots. If he was despised by some of his fellow countrymen for his egoism, his ceaseless self-promotion, his absence from the armed struggle that engaged other courageous nationalists, his extraordinary determination and patriotism could not be denied. His iron will was exerted as ruthlessly against rival factions of expatriates as against colonial occupation. He could boast an element of prescience in his own world vision. As early as 1944, when the United States government still cherished all manner of delusions about the postwar prospect of working harmoniously with Stalin, Rhee was telling officials in Washington, "The only possibility of avoiding the ultimate conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is to build up all democratic, non-communistic elements wherever possible."
Rhee had gained one great advantage by his absence from his own country for so long. Many of his rivals disliked each other as much as the Japanese. But against Rhee, little of substance was known. He was free from the taint of collaboration. While the Americans struggled to come to terms with a culture and a society that were alien to them, Rhee was a comfortingly comprehensible figure: fluent in the small talk of democracy, able to converse about America and American institutions with easy familiarity, above all at home in the English language. Rhee was acerbic, prickly, uncompromising. But to Hodge and his advisers this obsessive, ruthless nationalist and anti-Communist seemed a plausible father figure for the new Korea. On October 20 the general was present at an official welcoming ceremony for the Americans in Seoul, stage-managed by the so-called Korean Democratic Party, the KDP -- in reality a highly conservative grouping. On the platform stood a large ebony screen inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In a grand moment of theater, the screen was pulled aside. The bony, venerable figure of Dr. Syngman Rhee was revealed to the Korean people. The crowd cheered uproariously. Rhee delivered a rousingly anti-Soviet speech, and disconcerted even his sponsors by denouncing American complicity in the Soviet occupation of the North. The doctor was triumphantly launched upon his career as South Korea's most celebrated -- or notorious -- politician.
Overwhelmingly the strongest card that Rhee possessed was the visible support of the Americans. Roger Makins, a senior official in the British Foreign Office throughout the early Cold War period, remarks upon "the American propensity to go for a man, rather than a movement -- Giraud among the French in 1942, Chiang Kai Shek in China. Americans have always liked the idea of dealing with a foreign leader who can be identified and perceived as 'their man.' They are much less comfortable with movements." So it was in Korea with Syngman Rhee.
In an Asian society, where politics are often dominated by an instinctive desire to fall in behind the strongest force, Rhee's backing from the Military Government was a decisive force in his rise to power. When Benninghoff identified Rhee with the Korean "Provisional Government" in Chungking, he blithely ignored the open hostility between the two that had persisted for twenty years, despite Rhee's continuing claim to be the "Provisional Government's" representative in Washington. The State Department, with long and close experience of Rhee, regarded him as a dangerous mischief-maker. There is no murkier episode in the history of the American occupation than the return of Rhee to Seoul. The Military Government firmly denied not only complicity but prior knowledge of this. Yet all the evidence now suggests that General Hodge and his staff participated in a carefully orchestrated conspiracy to bring back Rhee, despite the refusal of the State Department to grant him a passport. A former deputy director of the wartime OSS, Preston Goodfellow, prevailed upon the State Department to provide Rhee with documentation. There appears to have been at least a measure of corruption in this transaction. Rhee got to know Goodfellow during the war, when the Korean mendaciously suggested to the American that he could provide agents for operations behind the Japanese lines. After the war it seems almost certain that Goodfellow assisted and raised money for Rhee in return for the promise of commercial concessions in Korea when the doctor gained power. Rhee flew to Seoul in one of MacArthur's aircraft. Despite the vigorous denials of the U.S. Army in the Far East, it seems likely that he met secretly with both the Supreme Commander and Hodge during his stopover in Tokyo. Rhee, it is apparent, was their nominee for the leadership of a Korean civilian government.
Why did not Washington, undeluded about Rhee's shortcomings, simply call a halt to the policies being pursued in Seoul? John Carter Vincent, director of the State Department's Office of Far Eastern Affairs, indeed sought to remind the War Department that the United States was seeking to avoid taking sides, far less promoting factions, in Korean politics. But his memorandum of November 7 on these issues provoked a response from John J. McCloy, the Assistant Secretary of War, which goes as far as any document of the period to explain the course of events in postwar Korea.
"Vincent's memorandum [wrote McCloy] seems to me to avoid in large part the really pressing realities facing us in Korea....From talking with General Hodge I believe that his concern is that the Communists will seize by direct means the government in our area. If this were done, it would seriously prejudice our intention to permit the people of Korea freely to choose their own form of government. There is no question but that Communist action is actively and intelligently being carried out through our zone....It would seem that the best way to approach it in the overall is to build up on our own a reasonable and respectable government or group of advisers which will be able under General Hodge to bring some order out of the political, social, and economic chaos that now exist south of the 38th Parallel and so provide the basis for, at some later date, a really free and uncoerced election by the people....To get back to Vincent's memorandum -- does it not add up to asking us to tell Hodge that we really repose little confidence in him, that we are not prepared to let him do the few things which, on the spot -- and what a spot -- he feels can be useful towards achieving our aims? Let us ask for his views on the Communist problem and his thoughts as to how to keep it from wrecking our objectives, but let us also let him use as many exiled Koreans as he can, depending on his discretion not to go too far."
The essence of McCloy's argument, which would serve as the justification for all that was done in Korea in the three years that followed, was that it was an idealistic fantasy to suppose that the United States could merely hold the ring, serve as neutral umpires while Koreans worked out their own destiny. Some Korean leaders must be singled out from the mob of contending factions and assisted to win and retain power. It must surely be the men on the spot, Hodge and his staff, who were best qualified to decide which Koreans these should be. The American military rulers employed no further deceits to dignify the process by which they now set about installing a congenial regime. Just as the Russians, at this period, were securing control of North Korea for a Communist regime, so the only credentials that the Americans sought to establish for the prospective masters of South Korea were their hostility to communism and willingness to do business with the Americans. If this appears a simplistic view of American policy, the policy itself could scarcely have been less subtle.
In October 1945 the Americans created an eleven-man Korean "Advisory Council" to their military governor, Major General Arnold. Although the membership purported to be representative of the South Korean political spectrum, in reality only one nominee, Yo Un-hyong, was a man of the Left. Yo initially declined to have anything to do with the Council, declaring contemptuously that its very creation "reverses the fact of who is guest and who is host in Korea." Then, having succumbed to Hodge's personal request to participate, Yo took one look around the room at the Council's first session and swept out. He later asked Hodge if the American believed that a group which included only one nonconservative could possibly be considered representative of anything. An eleventh nominated member, a well-known Nationalist named Cho Man-sik, who had been working in the North, never troubled to show his face.
The Council was doomed from the outset. It reminded most Koreans far too vividly of their recent colonial experience -- its chairman had been a member of the Japanese governor-general's advisory body and an enthusiastic supporter of the Japanese war effort. Yet Yo Un-hyong's "unhelpful" behavior, contrasted with the "cooperative" attitude of the conservatives who joined the Council, reinforced the American conviction that the conservatives -- above all, the members of the Korean Democratic Party -- were the men to work with. But what now was to be done about the reality in the countryside -- that reports reaching Hodge declared that while the KPR was "organized into a government at all levels," the KDP was "poorly organized or unorganized in most places?"
Hodge's answer was that the KPR must be fought and destroyed to provide the KDP with the opportunity for survival and growth. On November 10, as a warning to the Korean press, the most prominent Seoul newspaper sympathetic to the KPR was shut down, ostensibly for accountancy irregularities. On November 25, Hodge cabled MacArthur about his intention to denounce the KPR: "This will constitute in effect a 'declaration of war' upon the Communistic elements in Korea, and may result in temporary disorders. It will also bring charges of political discrimination in a 'free' country, both by local pinkos and by pinko press. If activities of the Korean People's Republic continue as in the past, they will greatly delay time when Korea can be said to be ready for independence. Request comment." MacArthur answered simply, like McCloy before him, confirming Hodge's absolute discretion: "Use your own best judgement....I am not sufficiently familiar with the local situation to advise you intelligently, but I will support whatever decision you may take in this matter."
Throughout the winter of 1945-46 the Military Government waged a campaign to suppress both the KPR and resurgent labor unions, which were adjudged an inevitable focus of Communist subversion. And even as this struggle was taking place, a new controversy was growing in intensity. In a fit of benevolent reforming zeal after their arrival, the Americans greatly eased the burdensome conditions of landholding for the peasants -- a highly popular measure -- and also introduced a free market in rice. The traditional rice surplus was the strong point of the Korean economy. Now, suddenly, by a measure introduced with the best of intentions, the Americans unleashed a wave of speculation, hoarding, and profiteering on a scale the country had never seen. The price of a bushel of rice soared from 9.4 yen in September 1945 to 2,800 yen just a year later. Officials were making vast fortunes through rice smuggling and speculation. By February 1946, not only was the free market rescinded, but stringent rationing had been introduced. Tough quotas were introduced for peasant farmers to fulfill, enforced by local police and officials.
In the winter of 1945 the Americans ruling South Korea harbored no delusions that they had made much progress toward creating an ordered and democratic society. They understood that they presided over a seething, unhappy country ripe for major disorders. They saw that Koreans' hunger for unity and independence surpassed all other ideology and sentiment. They perceived that the drifting policies of the military government, contrasted with the coherent if ruthless socialization now taking place north of the 38th Parallel, could only increase Korean respect for Soviet strength and diminish still further American popularity. On December 16, Hodge submitted a grim report to MacArthur in Tokyo, which subsequently reached the desk of President Truman. His summary of the situation he faced concluded, "Under present conditions with no corrective action forthcoming, I would go so far as to recommend we give serious consideration to an agreement with Russia that both the U.S. and Russia withdraw forces from Korea simultaneously and leave Korea to its own devices and an inevitable internal upheaval for its self-purification."
Hodge and his colleagues placed the overwhelming burden of blame for their difficulties upon the Russians: Soviet-directed internal policies in the North and skillful subversion in the South. The Americans detected the organizing hand of Moscow in a host of political groups in South Korea. In this they greatly overestimated both Soviet will and capability in the South at this period. There is no doubt that Communists throughout Korea wished to create a united nation under their own control. But many non-Communist Koreans also incurred American animosity by their enthusiasm for national unification, merely because Hodge and his colleagues considered this unattainable under non-Communist rule. The U.S. military government in Korea -- like its counterparts in other areas of the world at this period -- dismissed the possibility that its own manipulation of conservative forces in a society was comparable, morally and politically, with the Soviets' sponsorship of Communist groups in their own zone. Western historians support the ultimate benevolence of American influence upon the postwar political settlement in the developed societies that came under their control, above all, those in Europe. But in Korea, as in other less-developed nations, it was infinitely less easy to discover any prospective anti-Communist leadership possessed of the political maturity, the commitment to tolerable moral and political standards, which would render it truly worthy of the support of the United States.
On December 27, 1945, the Three-Power Foreign Ministers' Conference ended in Moscow with an important agreement. The Russians had accepted an American proposal for Korea: the nation was to become the object of a Four-Power "International Trusteeship" for five years, paving the way to independence as a unified state. Four-Power Trusteeship represented a concession by Moscow, cramping immediate progress toward a Communist state in Korea. The Russians probably anticipated that the Left in Korea was sufficiently strong to ensure its own ultimate triumph under any arrangement. But the Moscow Accords also reflected the low priority that Stalin gave to Korea. He was willing to appease Western fears in the Far East, no doubt in the expectation that in return Washington would less vigorously oppose Soviet policies in Europe.
In the weeks that followed the Moscow meeting, there was political turmoil in South Korea. Right-wing factions expressed their passionate hostility to the trusteeship proposals, backed by strikes and demonstrations. So too did Hodge and his advisers, who raged against the unknown State Department "experts" who had made the agreement with the Soviets. On January 28 the general offered his resignation in protest. It was refused. More than that, the tide in Washington now began to turn strongly in favor of the American group in Seoul. No less shrewd a diplomat than Averell Harriman visited Korea in February and returned to report most favorably upon Hodge's "ability and diplomacy." The Americans themselves now stood their own proposal on its head, and indeed revoked their assent to it. In the wake of the Moscow meeting, President Truman determined that Secretary of State Byrnes had given away far too much; that the time had come for a determined stand against Soviet expansionism; that Stalin should be confronted on a range of critical fronts. Of these, Korea was now identified among the foremost. All Asia understood the nature of the struggle taking place there. "The Korean question," declared an editorial in the Chinese newspaper Ta-Kung-Pao, "is in effect the political battleground for Russo-American mutual animosities, parrying and struggling for mastery."
Hodge's new proposal was that an indigenous Korean political body should be hastened into existence before the first meeting of the American-Soviet Joint Commission, intended to supervise the Trusteeship arrangements. On February 14 the Representative Democratic Council held its first meeting in Seoul's Capitol Building. Of its twenty-eight members, twenty-four were drawn from rightist political parties. Syngman Rhee declared, "Hereafter, the Council will represent the Korean people in its dealings with General Hodge and the Military Government." Limited as were the powers of the Council, it provided the Americans with a core of acceptable Korean leaders to match the Russian-sponsored Communist leadership now established in the North under Kim II Sung. When the Joint Commission began its meetings on March 20, each side focused its attention and complaints upon the lack of facilities afforded to the sympathizers of the other for political campaigning in their own zone.
American policy was now set upon the course from which it would not again be deflected: to create, as speedily as possible, a plausible machinery of government in South Korea that could survive as a bastion against the Communist North. On December 12, 1946, the first meeting was held of a provisional South Korean Legislature, whose membership was once again dominated by the men of the Right, though such was their obduracy that they boycotted the first sessions in protest against American intervention in the elections, which had vainly sought to prevent absolute rightist manipulation of the results. A growing body of Korean officials now controlled the central bureaucracy of SKIG -- the South Korean Interim Government. In 1947 a random sample of 115 of these revealed that seventy were former officeholders under the Japanese. Only eleven showed any evidence of anti-Japanese activity during the Korean period.
The suspicions of many Korean Nationalists about the conduct of the American military government were redoubled by the fashion in which the National Police, the most detested instrument of Japanese tyranny, was not merely retained but strengthened. It was the American official historians of the occupation who wrote that "the Japanese police in Korea possessed a breadth of function and an extent of power equalled in few countries in the modern world." The 12,000 Japanese in their ranks were sent home. But the 8,000 Koreans who remained -- the loyal servants of a brutal tyranny in which torture and judicial murder had been basic instruments of government -- found themselves promoted to fill the higher ranks, while total police strength in South Korea doubled. Equipped with American arms, jeeps, and radio communications, the police became the major enforcement arm of American military government and its chief source of political intelligence. A man like Yi Ku-bom, one of the most notorious police officers of the Japanese regime, who feared for his life in August 1945, was a year later chief of a major ward station in Seoul. A long roll call of prominent torturers and anti-Nationalist fighters under the colonial power found themselves in positions of unprecedented authority. In 1948, 53 percent of officers and 25 percent of rank-and-file police were Japanese-trained. By a supreme irony, when the development began of a Constabulary force, from which the South Korean Army would grow, the Americans specifically excluded any recruit who had been imprisoned by the Japanese -- and thus any member of the anti-Japanese resistance. The first chief of staff of the South Korean Army in 1947 was a former colonel in the Japanese Army.
Paek Sun Yup, who was to prove one of the few competent soldiers in Rhee's army in the 1950-53 war, rising to become its Chief of Staff while still in his early thirties, was a typical product of the system. A Noah Korean landlord's son, he attended Pyongyang High School, then Mukden Military Academy. He served as a young officer with the Japanese Army in Manchuria. "We thought nothing about Japanese influence," he said, shrugging, years later. "Every young man takes the status quo for granted. At that time, the Japanese were Number One. They were winning. We had never seen any British or Americans." Paek's unit was fighting the Russians when the war ended. He walked for a month to reach his home. He quickly disliked what he saw of the new Communist regime in the North. On December 28, 1945, he escaped across the 38th Parallel, leaving his wife behind in the North. She joined him later. Two months later, he joined the Constabulary as a lieutenant. He rose rapidly, to become director of intelligence in the embryo South Korean Army and a divisional commander a few weeks before the 1950 invasion. No man could have attained Paek's position without demonstrating absolute loyalty to the regime of Syngman Rhee, and all that implied. But in every Asian society there is an overwhelming instinct in favor of serving the strongest force. The worst that can be said of Paek is that he was a tough, ambitious product of his environment.
But some young South Koreans did express their hostility to Rhee...and paid the price. Beyond those who were imprisoned, many more became "unpeople." Minh Pyong Kyu was a Seoul bank clerk's son who went to medical college in 1946 but found himself expelled in 1948 for belonging to a left-wing student organization. "There was an intellectual vacuum in the country at that time," he said. "The only interesting books seemed to be those from Noah Korea, and the Communists had a very effective distribution system. We thought the Americans were nice people who just didn't understand anything about Korea." Minh's family of eight lived in genteel poverty. His father had lost his job with a mining company in 1945, for its assets lay noah of the 38th Parallel. Minh threw himself into antigovernment activity: pasting up political posters by night, demonstrating, distributing Communist tracts. Then one morning he was arrested and imprisoned for ten days. The leaders of his group were tried and sentenced to long terms. He himself was released but expelled from his university, to his father's deep chagrin. Like hundreds of thousands of others, Mirth yearned desperately for the fall of Syngman Rhee.
Kap Chong Chi, a landowner's son and another university student, felt far better disposed toward the Americans, and toward his own government, than Minh. But even as an unusually sophisticated and educated Korean, he shared the general ignorance and uncertainty about the politics of his own country: "In those days, we did not know what democracy was. For a long time after the Americans came, we did not know what the Communists were, or who Syngman Rhee was. So many of the students from the countryside, farmers' children, called themselves Communists. There was so much political passion among them, but also so much ignorance." Korean society was struggling to come to terms with a political system, when it had possessed none for almost half a century. Not surprisingly, the tensions and hostilities became simplistic: between haves and have-nots; between those who shared the privileges of power and those who did not; between landlord and peasant, intellectual and pragmatist. The luxury of civilized political debate was denied to South Korea, as it was to the North.
Ferris Miller, the naval officer who was one of the advance party at Inchon in September 1945, left the country at the end of that year. But he was that rare creature -- an American deeply attracted by Korea: "Somehow, it had got into my blood. I liked the place, the food, the people." In February 1947 he returned to Seoul as a civilian contract employee of the Military Government. He was dismayed by what he found: "Everything had gone downhill. Nothing worked -- the pipes were frozen, the electricity kept going off. The corruption was there for anybody to see. A lot of genuine patriots in the South were being seduced by the blandishments of the North. There were Korean exiles coming home from everywhere -- Manchuria, China, Japan. Everybody was struggling, even the Americans. The PX was almost bare of goods. Most of our own people hated the country. There were men who came, stayed a week, and just got out. There were Koreans wearing clothes made of army blankets; orphans hanging around the railway stations; people chopping wood on the hills above Seoul, the transport system crumbling. It was a pretty bad time."
The conditions Miller discovered in Seoul might as readily have been observed in Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg -- any of the war-ruined cities of Europe that winter. Even in London and Paris, cold and shortages were a way of life in 1947. But whereas in Europe democratic political life was reviving with remarkable vigor, in South Korea a fundamentally corrupt society was being created. Power was being transferred by the Americans to a Korean conservative faction indifferent to the concept of popular freedom, representative only of ambition for power and wealth. The administration and policing of the country had been placed in the hands of men who were willing tools of a tyranny that a world war had just been fought to destroy. Their only discernible claim to office was their hostility to communism.
Between 1945 and 1947 the foreign political patrons of North and South Korea became permanently committed to their respective protégés. The course of events thereafter is more simply described. In September 1947, despite Russian objections, the United States referred the future of Korea to the United Nations. Moscow made a proposal to Washington remarkably similar to that which General Hodge had advanced almost two years earlier: both great powers should simultaneously withdraw their forces, leaving the Koreans to resolve their own destinies. The Russians were plainly confident -- with good reason -- that left to their own devices, the forces of the Left in both Koreas would prevail. The Americans, making the same calculation, rejected the Russian plan. On November 14 their own proposal was accepted by the General Assembly: there was to be UN supervision of elections to a Korean government, followed by Korean independence and the withdrawal of all foreign forces. The Eastern bloc abstained from the vote on the American plan, which was carried by 46 votes to 0.
The United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea met for the first time in Seoul on January 12, 1948. The Russians and North Koreans utterly rejected UN participation in deciding the future of Korea. Thus it was apparent from the outset that any decision the Commission reached would be implemented only south of the 38th Parallel. The General Assembly's Interim Committee brooded for a time on this problem. Dr. Rhee was strongly in favor of immediate elections for as much of Korea as was willing to hold them. But every Korean opposition party argued against holding a vote in the face of the Communist boycott. Not only would this make genuinely "free" elections impossible -- it would doom for years, if not forever, the national unity so many Koreans still cherished. It would be a formal recognition of the divided status of Korea.
The Australian and Canadian members of the UN Temporary Commission shared these misgivings. But a majority of its members -- France, the Philippines, Chiang Kai Shek's China, El Salvador, and India -- supported elections in the South. The Interim Committee agreed that elections should go ahead. Campaigning for election to South Korea's first government was held in a climate of mounting political repression. William F. Dean, the American military governor, replied to a question from the UN Commission about political prisoners: "I have yet to find a man in jail because his ideology is different from anyone else's." Yet it was he who authorized the Korean police to deputize bands of "loyal citizens" into "Community Protective Organizations." These quickly became known colloquially among Americans as "Rhee's goon squads." Their purpose was frankly terroristic -- to drive not only Communists, but any group unsympathetic to the Right, from South Korean life. In the six weeks before polling, 589 people were killed in disturbances and 10,000 "processed" at police stations.
On election day, out of a total population of 20 million, 95 percent of the 7.8 million registered voters went to the polls. The UN commissioners declared that the vote represented a "valid expression of the free will of the people." America's Ambassador to the UN, John Foster Dulles, told the General Assembly that the elections "constituted a magnificent demonstration of the capacity of the Korean people to establish a representative and responsible government." Syngman Rhee's "Association for the Rapid Realization of Independence" gained 55 of the 200 seats in South Korea's new constitutional assembly. The Conservative Hanguk Democratic Party won 29, and two other right-wing groups gained 12 and 6 seats respectively. The Right therefore commanded an effective majority of the 200 seats. The Left boycotted the election. The North Koreans, invited to send delegates, unsurprisingly made no response. Rhee and his supporters instituted a presidential system of government. He himself was inaugurated as South Korea's first elected leader on July 24, 1948. On August 14, the third anniversary of VJ day, amid the wailing tones of the Great Bell of Chongno, the U.S. flag was lowered over the Capitol Building in Seoul and that of the new South Korean Republic was hoisted. General MacArthur delivered a bellicose speech in which he told Koreans, "an artificial barrier has divided your land. This barrier must and shall be torn down."
In the months that followed Syngman Rhee addressed himself to the creation of a ruthless dictatorship in South Korea. Any minister who showed symptoms of independence was dismissed. The President took steps to bind the police and Constabulary under his personal control. Each new manifestation of left-wing opposition provided provocation for a renewed surge of government repression. There were frequent clashes along the 38th Parallel with North Korean border units, for which blame seemed about evenly divided. The most serious internal upheaval began on October 19, 1948, when an army unit sent to deal with Communist rebels on Cheju Island mutinied at Yosu, on the southwest tip of Korea. They won local civilian support by urging vengeance upon oppressive local police and marched against the town of Sunchon. Here, they were checked. By the end of the month the uprising had been defeated, at a cost of a thousand lives. But a climate of oppression, intolerance, and political ruthlessness was deepening. Ferociously hostile radio propaganda from Pyongyang fed rumors of imminent invasion from the North. In November press restrictions were imposed, and more than 700 political arrests carried out. Between September 1948 and April 1949 there were a total of 89,710 police arrests in South Korea. Only 28,404 of the victims were released without charge. Kim Ku, the seventy-four-year-old veteran of the "Provisional Government" who had suffered grievously for his opposition to Japanese rule and still commanded widespread respect in South Korea as the President's most credible rival, was assassinated in his study by one of Rhee's creatures in June 1949. In the same month the last United States occupation troops, excepting a 500-man assistance and training group -- the KMAG -- left Korea. Rhee pleaded desperately for a continued American military presence. But the Russians had already pulled their army out of the North, and Washington was anyway reluctant to allow its forces to linger longer in Korea, whose occupation had cost so much pain and so many dollars. The United States had done all that it believed possible. With so many other demands upon America's resources as the Cold War intensified, its leaders were unwilling to allow Korea to assume a disproportionate importance. It was a measure of Washington's determination to limit the mischief that could come out of Korea, that Dr. Rhee's new army was denied armor and heavy artillery. The intention was to provide South Korea solely with the means for her own defense, above all against mounting internal guerrilla activity.
The peaceful departure of the Red Army from North Korea diminished American fears of overt Communist aggression in the peninsula. North of the 38th Parallel, the Soviets left behind a ruthlessly disciplined, totalitarian Stalinist society in the hands of their protégé, Kim Il Sung. Russian advisers helped to set up a national network of "people's" committees, and a central government based upon a "Provisional People's Committee." In November 1946 the first election to membership was held, based upon a single list of candidates, all members of a "Democratic Front." Moscow reported that Kim Il Sung's grouping collected 97 percent of votes cast. In February 1947 a "Convention of People's" Committees met for the final time in Pyongyang and established the "People's Assembly of North Korea." The "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" was proclaimed on September 9, 1948. But North Korea was an undeveloped society. The prospect that it might embark upon a war without the direct support of its Russian sponsors still appeared remote. Among those in the Pentagon and the State Department conscious of Korea's existence, there were considerable misgivings about what had been done and what had been created in the South in America's name. Yet there was also the feeling that the best had been made of an impossible situation. Diplomatically, it was a considerable achievement that the United States had been able to maintain the support of the Western allies for her anti-Communist program. The United Nations Commission on Korea, charged with pursuing the eventual objective of supervising the unification of the divided nation, now maintained a permanent presence in the South, monitoring the mutually hostile activities of Seoul and Pyongyang and seeking "to observe and report any developments which might lead to or otherwise involve military conflict in Korea." It is a backhanded tribute to the vestiges of democracy that persisted in the South that, in the elections for a new National Assembly in May 1950, Syngman Rhee's bitter unpopularity was fully reflected. The parties of the Right gained only 49 seats against 130 seats won by Independents and 44 by other parties.
With the advantage of hindsight, it is evident that United States policy in postwar Korea was clumsy and ill conceived. It reflected not only a lack of understanding, but a lack of interest in the country and its people beyond their potential as bricks in the wall against Communist aggression. This failure, it may be suggested, lay close to the heart of the United States' difficulties not only with Korea, but also with China and subsequently with Vietnam. The occupiers' enthusiasm for the reproduction of American political and bureaucratic institutions in Asia held little charm for Koreans with different attitudes and priorities. Japan, alone in Asia, represented in the 1940s, as it represents today, the single glittering example of a society in which American political transplants took firm root. Only Japan was sufficiently educated and homogeneous to adapt the new institutions successfully. In Japan alone the traditional leaders of society were not identified by their poorer compatriots with an intolerable measure of injustice, corruption, and collaboration with foreign oppressors. In those parts of Asia where they exerted influence, the Americans honorably attempted to mitigate the worst excesses of landlordism and social oppression. But they never acknowledged how grievously these evils damaged their perpetrators as credible rulers in a democratic society. Again and again in Asia, America aligned herself alongside social forces which possessed no hope of holding power by consent. Chiang Kai Shek's followers, like t