North Korea Table of Contents

The crux of the period of national division and opposing states in Korea was the decade from 1943 to 1953, and the politics of contemporary Korea cannot be understood without comprehending this decade. It was the breeding ground of the two Koreas, of war, and of a reordering of international politics in Northeast Asia.

From the time of the tsars, Korea had been a concern of Russian security. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was fought in part over the disposition of the Korean Peninsula. It was often surmised that the Russians saw Korea as a gateway to the Pacific, especially to warm-water ports. However, the Soviets did not get a warm-water port out of their involvement in Korea.

There was greater complexity than this in Soviet policy. Korea had one of Asia's oldest communist movements. Although it would appear that postwar Korea was of great concern to the Soviet Union, many have thought that its policy was a simple matter of Sovietizing northern Korea, setting up a puppet state, and then, in 1950, directing Kim Il Sung to unify Korea by force. However, the Soviets did not have an effective relationship with Korean communists; Joseph Stalin purged and even executed many of the Koreans who had functioned in the Communist International, and he did not help Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in their struggle against Japan.

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. 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.

During World War II, Stalin was mostly silent in his discussions with Roosevelt about Korea. From 194l to 1945, Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas were given sanctuary in Sino-Soviet border towns, trained at a small school, and dispatched as agents into Japanese-held territory. Recent research suggests that Chinese, not Soviet, communists controlled the border camps. Although the United States suspected that as many as 30,000 Koreans were being trained as Soviet guerrilla agents, postwar North Korean documents captured by General Douglas A. MacArthur showed that there could not have been more than a few hundred guerrilla agents. When Soviet troops occupied Korea north of the thirty-eighth parallel in August 1945, they brought these Koreans, now in the Soviet army, with them. They were often termed Soviet-Koreans, even though most of them were not Soviet citizens. Although this group was not large, several of them became prominent in the regime, for example H Ka-i, an experienced party organizer, who was Soviet-born, and Nam Il, who became well known during the Korean War when he led the North Korean delegation in peace talks. The Soviet side quietly acquiesced to the thirty-eighth parallel decision and then accepted the United States plan for a multilateral trusteeship at a foreign ministers' meeting in December 1945. Over the next two years, the two powers held so-called joint commission meetings trying to resolve their differences and establish a provisional government for 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.

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. 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 Ysu 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.

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.

From August 1945 until January 1946, Soviet forces worked with a coalition of communists and nationalists led by a Christian educator named Cho Man-sik. Kim Il Sung did not appear in North Korea until October 1945; what he did in the two months after the Japanese surrender is not known. When he reappeared, Soviet leaders presented Kim to the Korean people as a guerrilla hero. 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.

Whether in response to United States initiatives or because most Koreans despised the trusteeship agreement that had been negotiated at the end of 1945, separate institutions began to emerge in North Korea in early 1946. In February 1946, an Interim People's Committee led by Kim Il Sung became the first central government. The next month, a revolutionary land reform took place, dispossessing landlords without compensation. In August 1946, a powerful political party, the North Korean Workers' Party, dominated politics as a result of a merger with the Korean Communist Party; in the fall the rudiments of a northern army appeared. Central agencies nationalized major industries that previously had been mostly owned by the Japanese and began a two-year economic program based on the Soviet model of central planning and priority for heavy industry. Nationalists and Christian leaders were ousted from all but pro forma participation in politics, and Cho Man-sik was placed under house arrest. Kim Il Sung and his allies dominated all the political parties, ousting resisters.

Within a year of the liberation from Japanese rule, North Korea had a powerful political party, a growing economy, and a single powerful leader, Kim Il Sung. Kim's emergence and that of the Kim system dated from mid-1946, by which time he had placed close, loyal allies at the heart of power. His prime assets were his background, his skills at organization, and his ideology. Only thirty-four years old when he came to power, Kim was fortunate to emerge in the last decade of a forty-year resistance that had killed off many leaders of the older generation. North Korea claimed that Kim was the leader of all Korean resisters, when, in fact, there were many other leaders. But Kim won the support and firm loyalty of several hundred people like him: young, tough, nationalistic guerrillas who had fought in Manchuria. Because the prime test of legitimacy in postwar Korea was one's record under the hated Japanese regime, Kim and his core allies possessed nationalist credentials superior to those of the South Korean leadership. Furthermore, Kim's backers had military force at their disposal and used it to their advantage against rivals with no military experience.

Kim's organizational skills probably came from experience gained in the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930s. He was also a dynamic leader. Unlike traditional Korean leaders and intellectual or theoretical communists such as Pak Hn-yng, he pursued a style of mass leadership that involved using his considerable charisma and getting close to the people. He often visited a factory or a farm for so-called "on-the-spot guidance" and encouraged his allies to do the same. Led by Kim, the North Koreans went against Soviet orthodoxy by including masses of poor peasants in the party; indeed, they termed the party a "mass" rather than a vanguard party.

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.

Kim's ideology in the 1940s tended to be revolutionary- nationalist rather than communist. The chuch'e ideology had its beginnings in the late 1940s, although the term chuch'e was not used until a 1955 speech in which Kim castigated some of his comrades for being too pro-Soviet. The concept of chuch'e, which means placing all foreigners at arm's length, has resonated deeply with Korea's Hermit Kingdom past. Chuch'e doctrine stresses self-reliance and independence, but also draws on neo-Confucian emphasis on rectification of one's thinking before action in the real world. Soon after Kim took power, virtually all North Koreans were required to participate in study groups and re-education meetings, where regime ideology was inculcated.

In the 1940s, Kim faced factional power struggles among his group. Factions included communists who had remained in Korea during the colonial period, called the domestic faction; Koreans associated with Chinese communism, the Yan'an faction; Kim's Manchurian partisans, the Kapsan faction; Soviet Union loyalists, the Soviet faction. In the aftermath of the Korean War, amid much false scapegoating for the disasters of the war, Kim purged the domestic faction, many of whose leaders were from southern Korea; Pak Hn-yng and twelve of his associates were pilloried in show trials under ridiculous charges that they were American spies, and ten of them subsequently were executed. In the mid-1950s, Kim eliminated key leaders of the Soviet faction, including H Ka-i, and overcame an apparent coup attempt by members of the Yan'an faction, after which he purged many of them. Some, such as the guerrilla hero Mu Chng, a Yan'an faction member, reportedly escaped to China. These power struggles took place only during the first decade of the regime. Later, there were conflicts within the leadership, but they were relatively minor and did not successfully challenge Kim's power.

In the period 1946 to 1948, there was much evidence that the Soviet Union hoped to dominate North Korea. In particular, it sought to involve North Korea in a quasi-colonial relationship in which Korean raw materials, such as tungsten and gold, were exchanged for Soviet manufactured goods. The Soviet Union also sought to keep Chinese communist influence out of Korea; in the late 1940s, Maoist doctrine had to be infiltrated into North Korean newspapers and books. Soviet influence was especially strong in the media, where major organs were staffed by Koreans from the Soviet Union, and in the security bureaus. Nonetheless, the Korean guerrillas who fought in Manchuria were not easily molded and dominated. They were tough, highly nationalistic, and determined to have Korea for themselves. This was especially so for the Korean People's Army (KPA), which was an important base for Kim Il Sung and which was led by Ch'oe Yng-gn, another Korean guerrilla who had fought in Manchuria. At the army's founding ceremony on February 8, 1948, Kim urged his soldiers to carry forward the tradition of the Koreans who had fought against the Japanese in Manchuria.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established on September 9, 1948, three weeks after the Republic of Korea had been formed in Seoul. Kim Il Sung was named premier, a title he retained until 1972, when, under a new constitution, he was named president. At the end of 1948, Soviet occupation forces were withdrawn from North Korea. This decision contrasted strongly with Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. Tens of thousands of Korean soldiers who fought in the Chinese civil war from 1945 to 1949 also filtered back to Korea. All through 1949, tough crack troops with Chinese, not Soviet, experience returned to be integrated with the KPA; the return of these Korean troops inevitably moved North Korea toward China. It enhanced Kim's bargaining power and enabled him to maneuver between the two communist giants. Soviet advisers remained in the Korean government and military, although far fewer than the thousands claimed by South Korean sources. There probably were 300 to 400 advisers posted to North Korea, but many of those were experienced military and security people. Both countries continued to trade, and the Soviet Union sold World War II-vintage weaponry to North Korea.

In 1949 Kim Il Sung had himself named suryng, an old Kogury term for "leader" that the Koreans always modified by the adjective "great"--as in "great leader" (Widaehan chidoja). The KPA was built up through recruiting campaigns for soldiers and bond drives to purchase Soviet tanks. The tradition of the Manchurian guerrillas was burnished in the party newspaper, Nodong simmun (Workers' Daily), perhaps to offset the influence of powerful Korean officers, who like Mu Chng and Pang Ho-san, had fought with the Chinese communists.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress