1945 to 1950

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Korea may well be called the "Belgium of the East" because being located between the great powers of China, Russia, and Japan, it has been caught up in their conflicts such as the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905.

The Koreans are an ancient, hardy, and talented people who developed movable metal type, devised a 26-letter alphabet (although it failed to gain wide usage), an ironclad ship, and produced a body of skilled workers.  Their peninsula was a pathway for cultural, educational, religious, scientific, and industrial exchanges between Japan and continental Asia.  Twice in the late sixteenth century, Japan invaded Korea, caused appalling levels of brutality, death, and destruction, and took many of the Korean skilled artisans back to Japan.  Unfortunately for the Korean people, foreigners once again would bring war, misery, and suffering to their country on an unprecedented scale. 

However, U.S. troops landing in the south in 1945 brought much needed assistance in the form of Government Aid and Relief in Occupied Areas (GARIOA).  Because of Soviet intransigence in eastern Europe, President Truman set aside a previously agreed plan for a trusteeship, which included the Soviets, to oversee Korea until self-rule could be established.

Feeling fully capable of governing themselves, most Koreans initially were against the trusteeship.  But when the Soviets called for the trusteeship, those factions with communist sympathies sided with the Soviet Union.  No agreement could be reached on free elections since the Russians wanted to deny the vote to those who were against the trusteeship and those accused of collaboration with the Japanese, while the U.S., of course, felt everyone should have a vote.

The U.S. sought to dissolve the barrier at the 38th parallel between North and South, but the Soviets refused to do so until a united Korean government had been established.  Also, the industrial North (population 9 million) added to the chaos in the agricultural South (population 21 million) by greatly curtailing the supply of coal, electricity, and other goods, such as fertilizer, to the ROKs.  Additional hardships had to be borne because approximately two million people fled to the South to escape the atrocities and plunder of Russian troops, and to avoid persecution because of their opposition to Soviet occupation policies.  These refugees had to be fed and housed in the South.  Several thousand crossed over from South to North.

The U.S. measured each action in its sector so as not to offend the North; allowed political dissent, which was mostly restricted in the North; and refused to recognize any political action until free elections could be held, although these groups continued to multiply causing political confusion and instability.  Syngman Rhee, an exile, who had lived in the U.S., arrived against State Department wishes.

Unable to reach an agreement with the Soviets, the U.S. turned the problem over to the United Nations in September 1947.  Elections, under the auspices of the U.N., were held in May 1948, but North Korea refused to participate.  A National Assembly of 198 members was elected.  One hundred seats were left vacant for North Korea to fill, but without response.

Syngman Rhee was elected president, while in the North a Soviet style election was held which chose a Korean exile who had lived in the Soviet Union, Kim Il Sung, as premier.  Both leaders advocated unification, by force if necessary.  The North became a closed society.  A British minister, who was a well experienced Asian hand, visited the South and declared the ROK government the most encouraging he had seen.  It did have flaws, however, but democracy had no tradition in the Orient.

The Russians trained and equipped an army in the North, withdrew, and challenged the U.S. to do likewise.  The South Koreans wanted the American troops to stay, however the Army had neither the will to leave troops on the Asian mainland nor funds to provide them for both Korea and the newly forming North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe.  They were withdrawn.

Most everyone agrees that had the U.S. troops remained, there would have been no war.  U.S. troops remained in West Germany and Communist East Germany did not invade.  Clearly, the Korean War could have been prevented by an adequate peacetime defense budget.

Hearts were saddened in the North, as well as in the South, over the division of their country.  Kim Il Sung pointed out how his Communist comrades had fought with the Chinese to help defeat the hated Japanese.  They now would fight to unite Korea.  The youth developed a zeal for this reasonable, desirable goal and great crusade.

According to Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, which were published in 1970, Kim went to Moscow for Stalin's approval.  Russian staff officers planned the details, but Stalin, fearing Americans would detect Soviet involvement, withdrew most of the 7,000 Russian advisors in Korea.  Khrushchev believed that had they remained, the North would have succeeded.  Kim had promised that the war would last only a short time because the South Koreans would rise up against Rhee's oppressive government and overthrow it.  This never occurred.  For the most part, South Koreans remained loyal to their government.

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