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A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945 (Part I)
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.

the author Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.

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[Note: This paper will be presented in sections over the coming weeks.]


This paper chronicles some of the major events that have shaped the US-Korea relations. Even though Korea is well known for the Korean War (1950-53) and the "axis of evil" designation, most Americans know little about the US-Korea relations prior to the Korean War. This paper begins with a brief history of Korea, including the story of the first white-man, the first Korean Christians, the first Americans in Korea, and the first Koreans in America.
It covers the US-Korea relations from the 1700s to the end of World War II (1945): the ginseng trade war between Korea and the American colonies (before the United States was born), the 1866 burning of the American merchant-ship General Sherman, the 1871 US invasion of Korea, the 1882 US-Korea amity and trade treaty (the Chemulpo Treaty), the ensuing pro-Americanism in Korea, the American betrayal and abandonment of Korea (the Taft-Katsura secret agreement) in 1904.

This paper describes how Koreans and Americans came into armed conflicts in Siberia in the 1920s. It tells the story of the war crimes committed by some Koreans in the Japanese army against American POWs during World War II. It tells the story of the Koreans in China working with the US OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and other Americans against Japan. Lastly, this paper describes how the decision to divide Korea along the 38th Parallel was made in 30 min by two American colonels.


The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States have been close allies since 1948 when ROK was established under the watchful eye of the US Military Government in Korea (USMGIK). Since the formation of the alliance, the two nations have fought two wars - the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the Vietnam War - together as allies. Today ROK troops are in Afghanistan on the side of the US troops. The US-ROK friendship is like 'lips and teeth', inseparable and firm - at least for now.

How did this unlikely friendship between a superpower and a tiny nation, oceans apart, begin? The road to this friendship has been anything but rosy. There have been bloodsheds and treacheries as well as altruism and heroic sacrifices. Today, the US Congress debates waging war on North Korea. History does repeat itself, for in 1872, more than 120 years ago, the US Congress hotly debated attacking the Kingdom of Corea (Speer, 1872):
"The Congress of the United States has this winter to consider and adjudicate some very important questions relating to a strange and distant race, which have been forced upon the national attention by certain warlike collisions between some of our people with theirs. We are taking a breathing spell after a long war, paying off a mountain of debt, starting afresh a thousand forms of the enterprises of peace, and are most anxious to be at peace.
It does not pay to fight a nation on the opposite side of the globe from us, and so opposite in most of all circumstances and characteristics. That nation is equally indisposed to fight. Its most anxious policy is to have peace with Western races, at the sacrifice of all else. It has got into trouble by its very efforts to compel non-intercourse and peace. We are in a perplexing position. After our little brush with her, what are we to do with Corea? This Congress has to say; and this our people too should consider." (Speer, 1872)

This paper briefly touches upon some of the critical events that have shaped the US-Korea "teeth-to-lips" and "axis of evil" relationships.

Since few people in America know of the past history of Korea, a brief history of Korea is given in Section I. Some of the known footprints of the white-man in Korea in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the early US-Korea contacts during 1700-1945 are traced in subsequent sections. The history of Korea from 1945 to the present day is extremely complex and is still being written and rewritten, and so, it is not covered in this paper.

* Kim Young-Sik is editor of the Korea Webweekly web site.

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