The celebration of the end of World War and the defeat of the Japanese was short lived in Korea. Three weeks after the end of the war, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel according to the Yalta agreement hammered out between U.S. President Harry Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

At the war’s end, the Korean Peninsula, although liberated from Japan, was once again occupied by foreign forces. The day of Japan’s surrender — August 15, 1945 — became Korea’s liberation day. However, the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to the division of the peninsula at the thirty-eighth parallel, with the Soviets assuming authority over the northern half and the United States over the southern half. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

In a speech in April 1950, future U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk excluded “fatefully, as it turned out, South Korea, from American’s defensive perimeter in the Western Pacific.” This was taken as a sign that the U.S. was not so keen on defending Korea, which in turn may have encouraged Kim Il Sung to invade southern Korea and start the Korean War.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “After the end of colonial rule in 1945, political divisions within Korea interacted with the escalating Cold War tension between the United States and USSR, each of which had occupied and fostered a government in one half of the peninsula, to create the conditions that led to the Korean War (1950-53). In the aftermath of that war, with its non-decisive result, the separation of North and South Korean states (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, respectively) has been maintained to this day, continually reproduced until fairly recently by an atmosphere of mutual hostility. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu ^^^ ]

Communists and Japanese Collaborators After World War II

Japan’s colonial authority was replaced by the division of the Cold War, a division that would last far longer than the hated Japanese occupation. In the first years after the division, the communists built a formidable political and military structure in North Korea under the aegis of the Soviet command. The Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) was established on August 15, 1948, in the South; on September 9, 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) was established in the North.

Initially high-ranking Korean military officials and bureaucrats that collaborated with the Japanese were purged or imprisoned. By 1949 they had been freed and rehabilitated in South Korea by Syngman Rhee. “He couldn’t run the economic otherwise,” Young Jung Suk of the Sejong Institute, told the New York Times. These people, who tend to be strongly anti-North Korea and pro-American, ran the country and their influence remained strong into the late 1980s hwen South Korea became a democracy. [Source: New York Times, January 2005]

After the war, Shelia Miyoshi Jager wrote in “Brothers at War”, Americans relied in “incumbents Japanese officials to carry out the essential functions of governance.” to which the South Koreans reacted with outrage.

In 1946, a year after the U.S. Army occupied southern Korea at World War II's end, a U.S. Embassy poll found that 77 percent of southerners wanted a socialist or communist future. Instead, the U.S. military government kept many of Japan's right-wing Korean collaborators in power, and the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, vowed to "stamp out" the communists. [Source: Charles J. Hanley, Associated Press, August 17, 2008]

Korea at the End of World War II

Korea was the first country in history to be occupied and fought over by three modern superpowers — Russia, the U.S. and Japan. On August 8, 1945, during the final days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war against Japan and launched an invasion of Manchuria and Korea. As the Red Army of the Soviet Union easily advanced through Manchuria from several positions, the American suddenly realized they had to do something about Korea.

In Cairo in November, 1943. Roosevelt, Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek had decided: “In due course Korea shall be free and independent.” In a late night, 11th hour meeting, after the Soviet invasion had begun, a group of senior uniformed American war planners decided among other things to divide the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. While this was going on Japanese announced that the Soviets had invaded Korea and retaken the southern half of Sakhalin island. [Source: S. Kang, Hartwick College]

Japan had been depleted by the drawn-out war against the United States and its Allies and Japanese forces were in no position to stave off the Soviets. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, respectively, had led the Japanese government to search for ways to end the war. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally. The Japanese surrender and the Soviet landing on the Korean Peninsula totally altered the history of contemporary Korea. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Deciding What to Do About Korea Before World War II Was Over

While World War II was still going on, the United States, Great Britain, and China promised Korea independence. When Allied leaders discussed the fate of Korea during World War II at Cairo (December 1943) and Yalta (February 1945), they reached no conclusion about its postwar status beyond deciding that it should be allowed to gain freedom and independence “in due course,” and that an international trusteeship — vehemently opposed by most Koreans — might be necessary to facilitate such a transition. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005]

At the Cairo Conference, the Allies had decided to strip Japan of all the territories it had acquired since 1894, the beginning of Japan's expansionist drive abroad. The United States, Britain and China (represented by the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek not Mao Zedong) and had agreed at Cairo that Korea would be allowed to become free and independent in due course after the Allied victory. The Soviet Union agreed to the same principle in its declaration of war against Japan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Although the United States president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Marshal Josef V. Stalin of the Soviet Union had agreed to establish an international trusteeship for Korea at the Yalta Conference of February 1945, no decision had been made on the exact formula for governing the nation in the aftermath of Allied victory.

U.S. and U.S.S.R. Decide Korea’s Fate

The landing of Soviet forces in Manchuria and Korea compelled the United States government to improvise a formula for Korea. Unless an agreement were reached, the Soviets could very well occupy the entire peninsula and place Korea under their control. Thus, on August 15, 1945, President Harry S Truman proposed to Stalin the division of Korea at the thirty-eighth parallel. The next day Stalin agreed. Evidently Stalin did not wish to confront the United States by occupying the entire peninsula. He may also have hoped that the United States, in return, would permit the Soviet Union to occupy the northern half of the northernmost major Japanese island, Hokkaido. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

The Allied foreign ministers subsequently met in Moscow on December 7, 1945, and decided to establish a trusteeship for a five-year period, during which a Korean provisional government would prepare for full independence; they also agreed to form a joint United States-Soviet commission to assist in organizing a single "provisional Korean democratic government." The trusteeship proposal was immediately opposed by nearly all Koreans, especially the Korean right under Syngman Rhee, who used the issue to consolidate his domestic political base. The Korean communists objected at first, but quickly changed their position under Soviet direction.

The joint commission met intermittently in Seoul from March 1946 until it adjourned indefinitely in October 1947. The Soviet insistence that only those "democratic" parties and social organizations upholding the trusteeship plan be allowed to participate in the formation of an all-Korean government was unacceptable to the United States. The United States argued that the Soviet formula, if accepted, would put the communists in controlling positions throughout Korea.

Division of Korea on the 38th Parallel

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “At the end of the war Korea was arbitrarily divided into two zones as a temporary expedient; Soviet troops were north and Americans south of the line of latitude 38°N. The Soviet Union thwarted U.N. efforts to hold elections and reunite the country under one government. When relations between the Soviet Union and the United States worsened, trade between the two zones ceased; great economic hardship resulted, since the regions were economically interdependent, industry and trade being concentrated in the North and agriculture in the South. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

The 38th parallel demarcation line was an American creation to keep the Soviet army from moving into what is now South Korea. At the end of World War II, Soviet troops advanced rapidly into territory that was controlled by Japan.

On August 12, 1945, two days before the formal surrender by Japan, several thousand Soviet troops entered present-day North Korea. The decision to divide Korea at the 38th parallel was reportedly made in 30 minutes by two American army colonels and Dean Rusk — an Army colonel at the time, who went on to become secretary of state — after they were ordered to find a place where southward-advancing Soviet troops meet the northward-advancing troop after Japan surrendered.

According to the terms of the Yalta agreement Korea north of the 38th parallel was to be "temporarily" occupied by the Soviet Union and the portion south of the 38th parallel was to be "temporarily" occupied by the United States as part of a partition similar to the one worked out for Germany.

Because the nearest American troops to the region were in Okinawa, the American Assistant Secretary of War, sent a memorandum to Stalin on August 16, which among other things asked the Soviets to accept the surrender north of the 38th parallel while those south of the line would surrender to the United States. Stalin accepted the memorandum and Korea has been stuck with line ever since.

Division of North Korea and South Korea

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “In 1948 two separate regimes were formally established — the Republic of Korea in the South, and the Democratic People's Republic under Communist rule in the North. By mid-1949 all Soviet and American troops were withdrawn, and two rival Korean governments were in operation, each eager to unify the country under its own rule. In June, 1950, the North Korean army launched a surprise attack against South Korea, initiating the Korean War, and with it, severe hardship, loss of life, and enormous devastation. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

After World War II, the industrialized north with nine million people was occupied by the Soviets . The agricultural south with 19 million people was occupied by the United States. Both the Soviets and Americans said they were committed to a unified Korea as they quickly helped set up rival governments.

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 U.N. General Assembly recognized Korea's claim to independence and made preparations for the establishment of a government and the withdrawal of occupation forces.

In 1947, the United Nations ordered elections in 1948 for a unified Korea. 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 U.N. resolution and disrupted efforts by the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Joint Commission to reach an agreement on a unified Korea and undermined efforts by the U.N. General Assembly to supervise a democratic election for all of Korea. The Soviets refused to admit the commission to the Soviet-controlled zone in the north, effectively leading to a North Korean boycott of the 1948 election. After this it was clear that two separate regimes would be established on the peninsula. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Meetings and Policies That Shaped the Creation of North and South Korea

The United States took the initiative in big power deliberations on Korea during World War II, suggesting a multilateral trusteeship for postwar Korea to the British in March 1943, and to the Soviet leaders at the end of the same year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned about the disposition of enemy-held colonial territories and aware of colonial demands for independence, sought a gradualist, tutelary policy of preparing former colonials — such as the Koreans — for self-government and independence. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

At the Cairo Conference in December 1943, the Allies, under United States urging, declared that after Japan was defeated Korea would become independent "in due course," a phrase consistent with Roosevelt's ideas. At about the same time, planners in the United States Department of State reversed the traditional United States policy of noninvolvement in Korea by defining the security of the peninsula as important to the security of the postwar Pacific, which was, in turn, very important to American security.

At a midnight meeting in Washington on August 10 and 11, 1945, War Department officials, including John J. McCloy and Dean Rusk, decided to make the thirty-eighth parallel the dividing line between the Soviet and United States zones in Korea. Neither the Soviet forces nor the Koreans were consulted. As a result, when 25,000 American soldiers occupied southern Korea in early September 1945, they found themselves up against a strong Korean impulse for independence and for thorough reform of colonial legacies. By and large, Koreans wished to solve their problems themselves and resented any inference that they were not ready for self-government.

By 1947 Washington was willing to acknowledge formally that the Cold War had begun in Korea and abandoned attempts to negotiate with the Soviet government to form a unified, multilateral administration. Soviet leaders had also determined that the postwar world would be divided into two blocs, and they deepened their controls over North Korea. When President Harry S Truman announced the Truman Doctrine and the containment policy in the spring of 1947, Korea was very nearly included along with Greece and Turkey as a key containment country; Department of State planners foresaw an enormous US$600-million package of economic and military aid for southern Korea, and backed away only when the United States Congress and the Department of War balked at such a huge sum. Instead, the decision was made to seek United Nations (UN) backing for United States policy in Korea, and to hold a UN-supervised plebiscite in all of Korea if the Soviet Union would go along, in southern Korea alone if it did not. North Korea refused to cooperate with the UN. The plebiscite was held in May 1948 and resulted in the establishment of the Republic of Korea in August of the same year.

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 Chosun 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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

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."

Political Instability in South Korea Under United States Occupation, 1945-48

Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, commander of the United States occupation forces in Korea, 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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

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 Pyongyang, 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.

Governance of South Korea Under United States Occupation, 1945-48

General Hodge 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." [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

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 in South Korea After World War II

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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

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 1946 the United States helped the South Korea establish an assembly, the first step on their way to self rule. Syngman was elected by an assembly in the 1947 United-Nations-sponsored election that was boycotted by North Korea. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was created in 1948 soon after North Korea declared independence. In 1948,two of Rhee’s rivals Kim Koo and Kim Kyu Sik traveled to North Korea to meet with Kim Il Sung, with the hope of trying to sell him on idea of a Korea-wide election. The South Koreans were humiliated at a conference run like a Soviet plenum. They returned after having accomplished very little. The United States used their failure as a chance to hold democratic elections only in the south. Rhee used this to his advantage by charging his rivals with ineptitude and arguing that he was the best man to bring reunification.

The prospect of perpetuating the division of Korea had 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 Pyongyang, the future capital of North Korea, in April 1948, boycotted the May 1948 elections, and were discredited when Pyongyang 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 Pyongyang. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

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.

Creation of the South Korean Army after World War II

In November 1945, the United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) began the task of organizing Korean military and police forces. In December a school for training military officers was established; the South Korean National Constabulary was organized in January 1946. The United States originally had planned to assist South Korea in developing only those police and military organizations necessary to maintain law and order during the period Korea was to be under the five-year Soviet-American trusteeship. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

By 1948, however, it was apparent that South Korea would need to expand the National Constabulary into a larger and more conventionally organized army to adequately defend itself from a possible invasion by North Korea. For this reason, the United States provided funds and training to expand the eight provincial units and one capital city unit of the National Constabulary from regiments to brigades. In November 1948, the Republic of Korea National Assembly passed the Armed Forces Organization Act. Under the provisions of this act, the National Constabulary was reorganized into an army comprising seven divisions.

Efforts to Establish Communist Units in Both North and South Korea

The United States military command, along with emissaries dispatched from Washington, tended to interpret resistance to United States desires in the south as radical and pro-Soviet. When Korean resistance leaders set up an interim "people's republic" and people's committees throughout southern Korea in September 1945, the United States saw this fundamentally indigenous movement as part of a Soviet master plan to dominate all of Korea. Radical activity, such as the ousting of landlords and attacks on Koreans in the former colonial police force, usually was a matter of settling scores left over from the colonial period, or of demands by Koreans to run their own affairs. But it immediately became wrapped up with United States- Soviet rivalry, such that the Cold War arrived early in Korea — in the last months of 1945. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

From August 1945 until January 1946, Soviet forces worked with a coalition of communists and nationalists. The Soviets did not set up a central administration, nor did they establish an army. In retrospect their policy was more tentative and reactive than American policy in South Korea, which moved forward with plans for a separate administration and army. In general, Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region was flexible and resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Manchuria in early 1946.

Since the 1940s, from 12 to 14 percent of the population has been enrolled in the communist party, compared with 1 to 3 percent for communist parties in most countries. The Korean Workers' Party (KWP) was formed by a merger of the communist parties in North Korea and South Korea in 1949. The vast majority of KWP members were poor peasants with no previous political experience. Membership in the party gave them status, privileges, and a rudimentary form of political participation.

Rebellions Under U.S. Rule in South Korea

Once the United States occupation force chose to bolster the status quo and resist radical reform of colonial legacies, it immediately ran into monumental opposition to its policies from the majority of South Koreans. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (1945-48) spent most of its first year suppressing the many people's committees that had emerged in the provinces. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

This action provoked a massive rebellion in the fall of 1946; after the rebellion was suppressed, radical activists developed a significant guerrilla movement in 1948 and 1949. Activists also touched off a major rebellion at the port of Yeosu in South Korea in October 1948. Much of this disorder resulted from unresolved land problem caused by conservative landed factions who used their bureaucratic power to block redistribution of land to peasant tenants. North Koreans sought to take advantage of this discontent, but the best evidence shows that most of the dissidents and guerrillas were southerners upset about southern policies. Indeed, the strength of the left wing was in those provinces most removed from the thirty-eighth parallel — in the southwest, which had historically been rebellious (the Tonghaks came from there), and in the southeast, which had felt the greatest impact from Japanese colonialism.

Fighting After the Soviets and Americans Left Korea in 1949

By 1949, both the Soviet Union and the United States had withdrawn their troops from Korea, leaving behind two insecure regimes eyeing each nervously across the 38th parallel. Public and private statements by Secretary of State Dean Acheson — most notably the exclusion of South Korea from the U.S. “Defense perimeter” in a speech given in January 1950 — led many to believe that the United States had washed its hands of South Korea and had resigned itself to all of Korea coming under Soviet control. Many historians have argued that North Korea probably would have not invaded if the United States had shown more interest in projecting South Korea.

In June 1949, when the last United States Army units deployed in Korea as part of the post-World War II occupation forces withdrew, leaving behind a 500-person military advisory group, the leaders of the South Korean army controlled an organization that had been internally weakened by subversion and political factionalism and that lacked enough trained personnel and modern weapons to prepare adequately for war. North Korea's effort to win control of the south using guerrilla warfare forced South Korea's military leaders to concentrate on counterinsurgency operations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

In the fall of 1949, North Korean guerrilla units attempted to gain control of remote areas and small towns in the mountainous areas of eastern and southern South Korea. It was estimated that as many as 5,000 guerrillas trained in North Korea were infiltrated into these areas by the winter of 1949. Two South Korean army divisions and one army brigade were quickly deployed to conduct sweep and destroy missions to eliminate the guerrillas. Counterinsurgency operations were initiated in South Cholla Province in October 1949. In some areas, South Korean villages were evacuated both to protect civilians and to assist counterinsurgency units in locating guerrilla bases. By April 1950, less than 500 North Korean guerrillas remained in South Korea. Although the counterinsurgency program succeeded in ending the threat posed by the guerrillas, it had a deleterious effect on the army, necessitating reorganization and retraining for conventional war preparedness.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.