The Koreas
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The Koreas

The Birth of Two Nations Divided

Theodore Jun Yoo

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eBook - ePub

The Koreas

The Birth of Two Nations Divided

Theodore Jun Yoo

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About This Book

What history, pop culture, and diaspora can teach us about North and South Korea today.

Korea is one of the last divided countries in the world. Twins born of the Cold War, one is vilified as an isolated, impoverished, time-warped state with an abysmal human rights record and a reclusive leader who perennially threatens global security with his clandestine nuclear weapons program. The other is lauded as a thriving democratic and capitalist state with the thirteenth largest economy in the world and a model for developing countries to emulate. In The Koreas, Theodore Jun Yoo provides a compelling gateway to understanding the divergent developments of contemporary North and South Korea. In contrast to standard histories, Yoo examines the unique qualities of the Korean diaspora experience, challenging the master narratives of national culture, homogeneity, belongingness, and identity. This book draws from the latest research to present a decidedly demythologized history, with chapters focusing on feature stories that capture the key issues of the day as they affect popular culture and everyday life. The Koreas will be indispensable to any historian, armchair or otherwise, in need of a discerning and reliable guide to the region.

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Out of the Ashes of War

The 1950s

This first chapter examines the social and political realities of national division and the collective traumas and a sense of anxiety and fear caused by internecine hostilities. Themes include the exile experience and the impact of the Cold War on national and cultural developments. It explores how the North branched out, as the Soviet Union did, to engage with Third World countries that were beginning to undergo the complex process of decolonization.
On September 6, 1956, Yi Jungseop (1916–56), widely regarded today as one of Korea’s most talented and versatile modern painters, died of hepatitis at the young age of forty at the Red Cross Family Hospital in Seoul. He passed away in abject poverty, without his family at his side. Born in Pyeongwon (in present-day North Korea) to a well-to-do family, Yi became interested in art while studying at Osan High School. He found a mentor in Im Yongryeon, who had studied at Yale University and worked as an artist in Paris. In 1932, Yi gained admission to Teikoku Bijutsu Gakkō, the famous imperial art institute in Tokyo, where he studied Western painting before transferring to the Bunka Gakuen (Academy of Culture), a progressive school that allowed him to engage in free-style avant-garde techniques like line drawing and other Fauvist forms. As a member of the Association of Free Artists (Jiyū bijutsuka kyōkai), he garnered the Second Art Exhibition prize and was recognized by the judges as “a prodigy of the peninsula.” Soon several prominent Japanese art magazines like Mizue and Atelier were featuring his works. He completed his studies in 1941 at the start of the Pacific War and returned to his hometown in Wonsan, a coastal city located in the northeastern part of the peninsula. In May 1945, Yi, affectionately known as Agorisan (Mr. Long Jaw Yi), married Yamamoto Masako, who took on a Korean name, Yi Namdeok. The couple had met at Bunka Gakuen in 1938 and courted for several years, exchanging two hundred or more hand-drawn postcards and letters. Theirs was a unique interracial and companionate marriage; they were both very talented artists who shared a genuine love relationship that seemed to transcend nationality and culture. Masako hailed from a very wealthy Japanese family. Her father, the president of a subsidiary of Mitsui Stock Company, was open to her marriage to someone from outside of Japan proper (gaichi). Likewise, Yi’s immediate family members were all conversant in Japanese and did not oppose their relationship, because Masako was a Christian and a fellow artist. However, the newly married couple could not live in blissful matrimony after Emperor Hirohito unexpectedly announced Japan’s unconditional surrender and recognition of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration on August 15, 1945, that ended thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule. Yi’s life reflected the experiences of Koreans who found themselves liberated from colonial rule only to be swept into the bloodiest fratricidal war. The Korean War tore the peninsula into two ideologically opposed nations, leaving in its wake unresolved trauma from the gruesome violence, family separations, dislocation, and political retribution on both sides.
FIGURE 1. Barbed wire fence on Gangneung Beach, South Korea.
As World War II ended, euphoria swept across the Korean peninsula, which was suddenly liberated from decades of colonial rule. Yet the immediate dissolution of the Japanese empire by the Allied Powers created a huge power vacuum, sounding an ominous warning of civil unrest and political uncertainty for the next eight years for those living on the peninsula. The number of Koreans living abroad in 1945, mostly in places like Japan, Manchuria, and Russia, totaled approximately 5 million, comprising more than 20 percent of the total Korean population. By comparison, roughly 6.9 million Japanese civilians and soldiers lived outside of Japan’s mainland, complicating the task of the Allied Powers to dismantle this multiethnic empire and repatriate its members, especially interracial couples like Masako and Yi (and their children), many of whom got married under the wartime assimilation policy. After the liberation of Korea, such couples became acutely aware of the hostility and risks of remaining on the peninsula, and some Korean wives even divorced their Japanese husbands for fear of reprisals. However, there were Japanese women like Masako who opted to remain despite the cloud of uncertainty that hung over them as former colonizers. The fact that Masako’s in-laws were wealthy landowners and well connected in Wonsan may have persuaded her that a future in Korea was possible. Other Japanese expats without relatives willing to sponsor their return to their homeland had no alternative but to remain on the peninsula. A group of nineteen Japanese women, who are now in their nineties, live in Nazarewon, a small nursing home in Gyeongju, South Korea.
When the Allied Forces declared the liberation of the peninsula, the Koreans, who had not achieved victory on their own, were ill prepared to initiate a process that would transfer political power, thus triggering conflicts over the creation of a new government. Despite the struggles between members of the Shanghai-based Provisional Government in exile and those aligned with the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence under Yeo Unhyeong (1886–1947), a left-leaning nationalist to whom Governor-General Abe Nobuyuki personally handed over power, national leaders began to make earnest plans for reconstructing their nation. But unbeknown to the majority of Koreans, the great powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Great Britain—had already discussed a four-power international trusteeship over their country in Cairo in 1943 and later in conferences in Moscow, Yalta, and Potsdam. Korean leaders were conspicuously absent from any of the dis-cussions. To complicate matters, following President Franklin Roosevelt’s untimely death in May 1945, Harry S. Truman sought a more hardline position vis-à-vis the Russians. The midwives to the painful birth of the twin nations from a unified Korea were more concerned with their own Cold War agendas than the fate of the people. In response to Japan’s sudden defeat and to increasing distrust of Soviet activities in the north, the Americans unilaterally partitioned the peninsula across the thirty-eighth parallel and started repatriating Japanese officials back home in early September. For their part, the Soviets aimed to set up a Socialist state in the north to secure their sphere of influence.
After thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule, the Korean leadership in the south was eager to prepare for statehood, but competing claims led to confusion and tensions. Kim Gu (1876–1949), who had led the Shanghai-based Provisional Government, returned to Korea, expecting to take control at the helm, but he found himself sidelined by other leaders. Yeo Unhyeong, who had secretly organized the Korean Restoration Brotherhood during the Japanese occupation, was recently released from prison. He established the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, which formally announced the founding of the Korean People’s Republic (KPR) on September 6, 1945. That same day, the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), under Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, proclaimed itself the only legitimate government in the southern part of the Korean peninsula, and outlawed the KPR. A nagging concern for the Americans and right-wing nationalists was the presence of leftists and members of the Korean Communist Party in the south, especially since they had participated in establishing the fledgling nation in cooperation with Yeo. Koreans in the south also kept a wary eye on clashes in the north between the occupying Soviet forces and local Communist Party, and anti-Soviet and anti-Communist students, many of whom belonged to the Christian Social Democratic Party. Demonstrations in the northern city of Sinuiju during the second week of November resulted in twenty-three deaths and the imprisonment of more than two thousand protestors. Landed families like that of Yi Jungseop (the artist mentioned above) faced severe scrutiny because of their wealth and Christian (often Presbyterian) background and fled to the south, bringing with them a virulent fear and hatred of Communism.
To ensure that such Communist influence would not take root in the south, the USAMGIK outlawed all left-leaning organizations, such as the Korean Communist Party and the Korean Student-Soldier’s League, an organization of student conscripts established during the colonial period whose primary aim was to create a national army and disseminate leftist publications. Bypassing the plethora of factions such as the Korean People’s Republic—a coalition of leftist, moderate, and rightist groups—the Americans supported the right-wing, pro-American Democratic National Party, composed mainly of English-speaking landowners and businessmen who sought to protect their assets by drawing on anti-Communist rhetoric. To the dismay of opponents, the Democratic National Party embarked on a path that failed to address the most deep-rooted Korean grievances. It not only delayed land reforms, which were already underway in northern Korea, but it supported the USAMGIK’s decision to retain most of the colonial police, and appointed collaborators in key administrative and military positions under the pretext that Koreans were not ready for self-governance and needed supervision. The party also supported the suppression of local ad hoc counsels, or people’s committees, created to remove the Japanese and collaborators from positions of authority. Ignoring populist demands for justice for past colonial abuses, the United States handpicked an anti-Communist septuagenarian, Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), who lacked any grassroots support, and arranged for him to return from exile in Hawai‘i. Rhee stood in stark contrast to the Soviet choice in the north—a Moscow-groomed former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter named Kim Il-sung.
The postwar north reflected both the external influence of the Soviet Union as well as its own political culture, ideology, and style. At the First Congress of the Workers’ Party of North Korea (the forerunner to the Workers’ Party of Korea) in Pyeongyang on August 28, 1946, 366,000 members elected Kim Tubong (1889–1958) as chairman and Ju Yeongha (1908–?) and Kim Il-sung as vice presidents. The thirty-four-year-old Kim Il-sung (1912–94) drew on his wartime activities as a leader of a guerrilla faction in Manchuria, fashioning his image as a revolutionary hero and champion of agricultural reforms to impress his Soviet handlers. On August 31, the Rodong sinmun (Worker’s Newspaper), which would later become North Korea’s official newspaper, published its first installment on the historic elections. In the following months, the interim North Korean Provisional People’s Committee (established by Kim Il-sung) began to address the agricultural crisis, nationalize key industries, and confiscate the land owned by the landlord class, redistributing it among the peasants. As Kim’s government strengthened the political base of the party by eliminating the landed class, these new policies of postcolonial liberation in the north would spell trouble for families like that of the artist Yi Jungseop. His elder brother went missing after being charged by the Wonsan People’s Committee of being a capitalist landlord. Yi’s dreams of studying abroad in Paris also evaporated when his family fortunes disappeared, along with those of two million Christian landlord families in the north. When Yi discovered that his brother had been executed, he started to contemplate fleeing to the south for fear of more bloody reprisals against his family.
The radicalization of workers was not unique to the north. As right-wing forces started to gain a strong foothold in the south, hyperinflation and food shortages triggered a series of labor strikes staged by leftist groups such as the National Council of Korean Labor Unions, which culminated in a popular uprising in Daegu in the autumn of 1946. As a strike by railroad workers spread throughout North Gyeongsang Province, civilians joined the protests. The USAMGIK and local police worked hand in glove to suppress the strikes violently. By November 14, 1947, the dissolution of the US–Soviet Joint Commission looked inevitable. Disregarding calls for a left-right coalition, the United States presented the Korea Issue to the American-controlled United Nations General Assembly, which in turn quickly established a Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) under Resolution 112 to oversee separate national elections under UN supervision. When the Soviets refused entry of UN supervisors into the north, the General Assembly drafted a new resolution granting an election to be held in areas accessible to the UN Commission (mainly in the southern half of Korea) to establish a separate government.
The unilateral decision by the United States to create a separate regime through the mechanism of a United Nations resolution triggered large demonstrations across Jeju Island in the south starting in March 1948. Protesters opposed the UN resolution and called for US troops to withdraw from the peninsula. The local police in concert with the Northwest Youth Group, a paramilitary group made up of anti-Communist Korean refugees from the north that had been dispatched by the USAMGIK, began to commit atrocities against the demonstrators. Syngman Rhee in turn declared martial law on the island allegedly to quell armed leftist insurgencies. The US-occupied south forged ahead with general elections on May 10, disregarding the South–North Joint Conference in Pyeongyang where leaders from both sides of the peninsula (representing fifty-seven political parties) convened in a last-ditch effort to boycott the UNTCOK-supervised elections. It bears noting that delegates to the joint conference included English-speaking moderates like Kim Gyusik (1918–50) and rightists like Kim Gu, who met with Kim Il-sung to find a resolution. Following the general elections, the Republic of Korea (ROK) declared statehood on August 25, 1948, with Syngman Rhee as the South’s first president. The North declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) the following month on September 9, with Kim Il-sung at the helm as the premier, thus finalizing the national division. Disregarding the twin births, the United Nations recognized the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea at the Third General Assembly.
In the South, the state began to implement draconian measures to consolidate the power of the new regime and its military. The ROK military conducted a massive purge of its rank and file suspected of having taken part in or sympathized with the mutinies of roughly three thousand soldiers stationed in the cities of Yeosu and Suncheon in October 1948, who had refused to suppress the uprisings on Jeju Island, where an estimated eighty thousand people were killed in one year. The military purge offered a pretext to draft a new National Security Law in December 1948, outlawing leftist activities and allowing the government to round up opposition lawmakers on trumped-up espionage charges. The state also linked its opponents to Communist organizations, including those who called for the prosecution of pro-Japanese collaborators. By 1950 tens of thousands of people were arrested and imprisoned under the National Security Law, even executed under fabricated charges of treason.
That is exactly what happened to Kim Suim. Born in 1911, Kim went to American missionary schools and graduated from Ewha College, the only women’s university in Korea that offered a degree in English literature. Newspapers and journals of the time featured her as a “modern girl” who later worked as an English translator at Severance Hospital. She was romantically involved with Yi Gangguk, a German-educated leftist intellectual who later defected to the North, and she also maintained a secret relationship with Colonel John E. Baird, a fifty-six-year-old American military police chief who sired her son. He eventually cast her off when his American wife joined him in Seoul in 1949. Vilified as a notorious seductress and South Korea’s Mata Hari, Kim was charged by the military court with abetting Yi in the theft of classified information from Baird and passing it on to North Korean agents. The state executed her on June 15, 1950. The US military investigators tasked with reviewing Kim’s case concluded that Baird had no access to any classified documents and that the South Korean military had concocted everything. Such tactics of bullying opponents into forced confessions and cultivating the spectacle of public executions exacerbated left-right tensions and repressed any large political and social upheavals in the South by leftist groups. Taking advantage of America’s ignorance of the political and social realities in the South, right-wing forces engaged in terrorism and assassination of prominent leaders such as Yeo Unhyeong in 1947 and Kim Gu in 1949, both of whom had wanted to play a role in the country’s reconstruction after liberation from Japan despite their political orientations. The number of civilians displaced by divisive and oppressive politics ran into the hundreds of thousands as they were forced to flee their towns to avoid political reprisals or arbitrary arrests. More than one hundred thousand civilians were killed even before the Korean War.
Meanwhile, in North Korea, Kim Il-sung resolved to unify the peninsula and liberate the South from what he viewed as a reactionary regime. Initially the Soviet Politburo did not believe that North Korea had the military capabilities to overthrow the South; however, by August 1949 the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin began to see some promising possibilities if there was a quick victory with the support of the newly established People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong. Having secured assurances from the Soviet Union and China, Kim Il-sung ordered a preemptive attack on June 25, 1950. The North Korean People’s Army, with eight divisions and 75,000 soldiers, crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, seizing Seoul in three days, a...

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