Post-WWII American Occupation of Korea

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160th Infantry, 40th Infantry Division (CA, NV), serving as part of the military occupation forces in Korea after the end of World War II

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In their wartime meetings, the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain had devoted a great deal of time to discussing post-war borders and the political future of the liberated countries of Europe. They paid relatively little attention to other parts of the world where their armies were fighting. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Roosevelt proposed that some sort of “trusteeship” be set up to rule over Korea after the war. Stalin agreed, though he said he hoped the period of trusteeship would be a short one. Plans for Korea’s future remained vague. U.S. and Soviet military strategists agreed that, once the Red Army entered the war against the Japanese, it would continue its drive into Korea.

By mid-August 1945, U.S. policy makers were having second thoughts. They did not want Korea turned into an outpost of Soviet power after the war. To forestall the possibility that the Russians would simply take over all of Korea, they decided to land U.S. troops at the port of Inchon on Korea’s western coast and have them move north to meet the Soviets midway up the peninsula. The two armies would meet along the 38th parallel, which ran about 25 miles north of Inchon and the inland Korean capital of Seoul. In 1945, 9 million Koreans lived north of this line, while 21 million lived south of it. Most of Korea’s industry was concentrated north of the line, and most of its agricultural land lay south of it. Until plans could be worked out for an independent, unified Korean government, the Americans and the Soviets would set up occupation governments in the two zones of the country. These plans were similar to those that had been worked out earlier for the post-war occupation of Germany. The difference was that Korea was supposed to be a “liberated” rather than a “defeated” country. Many Koreans resented the fact that the 35-year occupation of their country by one foreign army, the Japanese, was followed immediately by occupation by two new foreign armies.

At first the occupation of Korea went smoothly. Although the Red Army arrived in the country a month before the Americans, the Russians halted their advance, as agreed, at the 38th parallel. U.S. troops under the command of Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge landed at Inchon on September 8, 1945. They marched to Seoul the next day, where they accepted the surrender of the Japanese. The Koreans cheered the arrival of the Americans. But Hodge, a tough and undiplomatic veteran of the fighting on Guadalcanal and Okinawa, angered many Koreans when he decided to leave the Japanese colonial government in power until other arrangements could be made to maintain law and order. After 35 years, even a few more weeks of Japanese rule seemed intolerable. Although Hodge’s policy was soon reversed on orders from Washington, it gave a good indication of U.S. priorities in Korea, which emphasized political stability rather than Korean self-determination.

As the cold war intensified in the months after Japan’s surrender, the chances for peacefully reuniting the two Korean occupation zones became increasingly unlikely. In the northern half of Korea, Kim Il Sung’s Communists created a government and society along the Soviet model. They divided up the big landholding estates and redistributed land to the peasants, which was a popular move. At the same time they stamped out all opposition to Communist rule, arresting and imprisoning their opponents.

In the southern half of Korea General Hodge, who would remain the U.S. military governor in Korea for four years, was determined to keep the Communists from gaining power. He allied the United States with the most conservative political groups in southern Korea, including those which had collaborated with the Japanese. He ordered the disbanding of the “people’s committees,” set up after the war by Communists and other independence groups in many Korean cities, as well as communist-influenced labor unions. The Korean national police force arrested and killed thousands of Communists and other opponents of the U.S. military government.

Hodge was on hand to welcome Syngman Rhee back from his long exile in October 1945. U.S. relations with Rhee over the next few years proved stormy, for the cantankerous old man had a mind of his own. “President Syngman Rhee is a man of strong convictions and has little patience with those who differ with him,” President Truman recalled in his memoirs. “I did not care for the methods used by Rhee’s police to break up political meetings and control political enemies.” But in the end Truman decided Rhee was the best available candidate to stiffen the resistance of the anti-Communist forces in the South.

American military leaders were not at all enthusiastic about the prospect of tying up tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers on indefinite occupation duty in southern Korea. Preoccupied with the possibility of war breaking out in Europe against Soviet forces, they regarded the Korean Peninsula as a drain on scarce resources, with little strategic significance of its own. The Pentagon pushed for the earliest possible withdrawal from South Korea. The Soviets would pull out their own forces from northern Korea in 1948, leaving behind a large and well equipped North Korean army. However, several thousand Soviet soldiers remained behind as military advisers.

Others in the government were equally determined to maintain a strong U.S. presence in Korea. In September 1946, a half-year before the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, U.S. presidential aide Clark Clifford in a report to the president identified Korea as one of the “trouble spots” where the United States should be prepared to confront the threat of Soviet expansionism. The U.S. State Department argued against any quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from southern Korea, believing that such action would be an invitation for a Communist takeover or invasion.

In May 1948 the United Nations, at the request of the United States and over the objections of the Soviet Union, organized parliamentary elections in South Korea. North Korea refused to participate, and communists in South Korea called for a boycott of the elections. The new South Korean National Assembly elected Syngman Rhee as its chairman and in July adopted a constitution establishing the Republic of Korea in the South. General MacArthur made a rare trip away from his headquarters in Japan to attend Rhee’s inauguration in Seoul. Rhee clamped down on critics of his regime, arresting almost 90,000 people between the fall of 1948 and the spring of 1949. North Korea’s Communists responded to the events in the South by setting up their own government, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in July 1948. U.S. occupation of Korea formally ended in August 1948. Apart from a few hundred U.S. military advisers (known as the Korean Military Advisory Group, or KMAG), all U.S. troops had been withdrawn from South Korea by the end of June 1949.

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