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The KOREAN WAR (1 of 8)

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The Korean War

Korea Divided | Unification Elections Denied | Kim Il-sung sends His Troops South | UN Troops to the Yalu River | First Contacts between the Chinese and UN Forces | Chinese push into South Korea | MacArthur versus Truman I Military Contests and Settlement

Korea Divided

The Allies had declared in December, 1943, that Korea was to become "free and independent," and it was agreed that the Soviet Union was to occupy northern Korea, to the 38th parallel, and that the United States was to occupy the southern half of Korea – to disarm the Japanese. This was done while the Roosevelt administration was in a wartime cooperation mood with Stalin, and there was not an appreciation of Stalinist dangers.

The Koreans did not need to be occupied. They had an organized and substantial resistance movement against Japanese rule. By 1945 they also had their own government in exile in China – at Chongqing. As the day of Japan's surrender neared, Japan's governor-general in Korea, Nobuyuki Abe, was looking forward to saving lives and property of the Japanese in Korea and looking forward to an orderly withdrawal from Korea, and he invited Korean leaders to meet with him to make this possible. Then came the Soviet troops, on August 12. Three days later the nation of Japan surrendered to the Allies, and joy immediately erupted in Korea. Japanese flags came down and Korean flags went up. The Koreans expected their government to arrive from Chongqing shortly. They were in contact with world news enough to expect the Americans, and the Americans arrived four weeks later, on September 8, at Inchon, near the capital, Seoul. In a ceremony in Seoul on September 9 Japanese forces in Korea surrendered to the Americans, marking the end of three and a half decades of Japanese rule in Korea. The government that had been in Chongqing was still in Chongqing.

Map of Korea

Map of Korea. Click to enlarge Enlarged map of Korea

The northern zone, occupied by the Russians, was more heavily industrialized than the southern zone, and concerned with the devastation of their own homeland the Russians were interested not only in the north's machinery but also its coal. The Russians were taking machinery and whatever else they thought had belonged to the Japanese, which the Koreans could have used. And Soviet troops were stealing what they could from the Koreans.

Korea's economy had been integrated with Japan, and with that relationship now broken, so too was its economy. The Russians made matters worse by sealing their zone of occupation from the southern zone, halting coal deliveries to southern Korea, halting also railway traffic, mail deliveries and the transfer of electrical power southward across the 38th parallel. Through the autumn, the Russians refused to discuss their policies in Korea, and Soviet officers were surprised to learn of the American view that some of the coal they now controlled in the north should be delivered to the south.

The Russians wished to protect their interests in northern Korea through a joint administration with the Koreans, and working under the Russians in their zone was the Korean "Provisional People's Committee" dominated by Communists but also consisting of liberal democrats. At a conference in Moscow in December 1945 the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Britain, and the US Secretary of State met and discussed a five-year trusteeship for Korea. Across Korea, enraged people demonstrated against any such foreign intrusion. Communists in the northern zone were a part of the demonstrations. Then they shifted suddenly in support of the trusteeship, the Russians having decided that for them recognition of a trusteeship would be beneficial.

The Russians were moving into North Korea people originally from Korea who had fled Japanese colonial rule. Some of them had been guerrilla fighters against the Japanese. During their years in the Soviet Union they had absorbed the Soviet Union's version of communist ideology. In North Korea in February, 1946, a new governing body was created, called the People's Committee for North Korea. Heading this body was Kim Il-sung, a young man in his thirties who had been a celebrated anti-Japanese guerrilla and had spent considerable time in the Soviet Union.

In May, talks between the Russians and the US regarding Korea broke down. The Americans continued to rule their zone directly – a military government which refused to recognize the government that had been in exile in Chunking. But they were allowing a profusion of political parties to flourish, including a Communist party.

Many Koreans from the north were now moving by night, avoiding main roads and traveling through forests and mountains, with the few worldly possessions they were able to carry, crossing from the Soviet zone into the southern zone.

President Truman was no longer interested in a trusteeship for Korea. In early 1946 he was looking forward to turning Korea over to the Koreans. In May, talks between the Russians and Washington regarding Korea's future broke down. Talks resumed the following May, 1947, the US demanding that elections be held in both zones for the creation of a government across both zones. The Russians demurred. The US turned to the United Nations for help, and an overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly agreed to general elections for the whole of Korea.

In January 1948, the Russians refused the UN commission entry into its zone to prepare for nationwide elections. The UN General Assembly authorized elections in those areas where its commission members were allowed, and on May 10 the first general elections in Korea's history took place. The winners formed a National Assembly, and by July 12 the new government created a constitution. On July 20 an election was held for the government's president. Winning the election was Syngman Rhee, a 73-year-old Christian and an old fighter for independence venerated by the Koreans. He had been imprisoned by the Japanese when a young man and had then fled to the United States, where he had earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Georgetown, Harvard and Princeton universities.

The Russians blamed the United States for imposing its will on the United Nations and on South Korea. They saw American capitalism and imperialism at work, and they countered with single slate elections. In their zone a constitution was created and, on September 8, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was proclaimed.

The Soviet Union was presenting North Korea as an independent nation, and the Soviet Union announced that it was withdrawing completely from the northern zone. But it would not allow a United Nations commission entry into its zone to verify the withdrawal.

In December, 1948, the UN General Assembly recognized the government in the south – the Republic of Korea – as the only lawfully constituted government in Korea. The Truman Administration also recognized it as such, as did some fifty other nations.


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