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The US-Korea relations: 1910-1945
A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945
Kim Young-Sik, Ph.D.

Photo: Kim Gu's Korean Independence Army 2nd Brigade officers with US OSS instructors in 1945. The man in the middle front row is Lee Bom Suk. Gen. Ji Chung Chun, a graduate of the Japanese Military Academy, commanded the Army.

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[The following excerpt is taken from Kim Young-Sik's paper 'A brief history of the US-Korea relations prior to 1945.']

The Woodrow Wilson Doctrine and the March First Movement of March 1, 1919

On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States proclaimed the Fourteen Points on the principle of national self-determination at the end of World War I. Although the Wilson Doctrine did not apply to the Asian colonies of Europeans, Koreans nationalists were profoundly encouraged by the American president's lofty idealism. Kim Gyu-sik, a graduate of Roanoke College, VA, went to Paris to make a direct appeal to Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference for Korea's independence. Kim Gyu-sik's appeal was in vain, as was Ho Chi Minh's appeal for Vietnam's independence from France. (AianInfo, 2003)

The Samil Anti-Japanese March was led by young students and Christians in Korea on March 1, 1919. It was crushed brutally by the Japanese. A Declaration of Independence, patterned after the American version, was read by teachers and civic leaders in tens of thousands of villages throughout Korea: “Today marks the declaration of Korean independence. There will be peaceful demonstrations all over Korea. If our meetings are orderly and peaceful, we shall receive the help of President Wilson and the great powers at Versailles, and Korea will be a free nation.”

Nearly two million students, patriots and Christians responded and joined the march. The naive Koreans were not aware that the American President Wilson was not quite the good guy he claimed to be: America had years earlier agreed to Japan's annexation of Korea. The 33 organizers of the movement were mostly Christian idealists and had no experience in mass movement and so the March failed disastrously.

The Japanese suppressed the movement with brutal force. They fired into groups of Korean Christians singing hymns. Christian leaders were nailed to wooden crosses and were left to die a slow death – “so that they can go to heaven”. Mounted police beheaded young school children. The police burned down churches. The official Japanese count of casualties include 553 killed, 1,409 injured, and 12,522 arrested, but the Korean estimates are much higher, over 7,500 killed, about 15,000 injured, and 45,000 arrested. (AianInfo, 2003)

The Korean people, in particular Christians, came to realize the international fact of life; so-called self-determination of the Wilson Doctrine was only propaganda for the Western imperialists. Young Korean patriots were forced to join the camps of the Soviets and China for material and ideological support. Thus the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) was established on April 8, 1919, in the French Concession of Shanghai. Rhee Syngman, in absentia, was elected premier, Yi Dong Whi, defense minister, later, premier, and Kim Kyu Sik, foreign minister. The KPG had its own parliament, press, and a military school in Shanghai. The original founders of KPG represented a broad spectrum of the Korean political ideologies united in the common cause of Korean independence.

US Expeditionary Force in Siberia and Soviet Koreans - 1920-1922

Go-chosun ruled parts of Siberia centuries before Christ was born and Korean farms dotted Siberia. The flow of Koreans into Siberia increased as the Chosun Dynasty began to fall apart in the 18th and the 19th Centuries. By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, some 300,000 first-generation Koreans lived in Siberia. Poor Korean farmers saw an opportunity to own a farm in Virgin Siberia and Korean nationalists found a refuge and an eager ally there. There rose Korean towns in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, Chita and other major regions in Siberia.

On October 1, 1917, the Russian Revolution succeeded in Russia proper, but in Siberia, chaos ensued. The Whites (Mensheviks), Czarists, Czechs, Japanese and Americans had armed men fighting against the Bolsheviks and their Korean nationalist allies in Siberia. After the Tsar's government fell, Alexander Kerensky's pro-Western government took over Russia, and the US promptly gave it a $100 million credit for buying American goods.

In September 1917, Kerensky invited the US to run the Trans-Siberian Railway. The US government readily accepted the challenge and formed the Russian Railway Service Corps (RRSC), made of 285 railroad workers with military training. Although these men were not regular soldiers, RRSC was officially a military organization. On November 11, 1917, RRSC left St. Paul, Minnesota and headed to San Francisco. The Americans arrived at Vladivostok in December 1917 but were turned back by the port authority and ended up in Nagasaki, Japan. After several months in Japan, the unit reached Siberia via Manchuria.

On March 3, 1918, the Russian Provisional Government under the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany and gave the Ukraine to Germany, which was in desperate needs of the Ukraine minerals, wheat and oil on account of the British blockade. This treaty meant 40 extra German divisions to fight the Anglo-French allies. The US feared that the war material stockpiled by the Allies in Siberia might fall into the German or the Soviet hands. The Allies shipped and stockpiled war materials at Vladivostok. By 1914, over one billion dollars of worth, 400,000 tons, of construction material, barbed wire, rails, vehicles, machine tools, and munitions were waiting to be moved to the front lines in Europe. (Great War Society, 2003)

In addition to safeguarding the war supplies, the US wanted to help anti-Soviet forces in Siberia topple the Soviets. The US decided to send combat troops to augment the RRSC soldiers in Siberia. The American Expeditionary Force Siberia (AEFS) was made of 5,000 men from the US 8th Infantry Division in the US and other US units in the Philippines. Major General William Graves was the commander. (The US sent troops to Archangel, a separate operation in another region of Russia. These troops were forced to leave Russia on June 27, 1919).

Gen. Graves was ordered to proceed to Siberia promptly to assist the Czech Legion being pursued by the Red Army. The Allied wanted the Legion moved to Europe via Siberia to fight against the Germans. The Legion was made of Czech and Slovak POWs and Austro-Hungarian deserters to fight the Germans during World War I. When Lenin withdrew the Russian troops from the War, the 40,000-man Legion was stranded in Ukraine. Lenin agreed to ship the Legion to Vladivostok, from where they would find a sea passage to Europe, and in return, the Legion agreed to leave the weapons behind. However, the Legion went wild in Siberia and took control of many towns and established military governments hostile to the Bolsheviks.

Graves and his troops left San Francisco on August 15th aboard the Sheridan and Thomas and reached Vladivostok on September 1, 1918. The American troops joined 70,000 Japanese, 829 British, 1,400 Italian, 107 French colonial troops and a Canadian brigade already in Siberia. Japan, the US and China signed the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement in November 1918, under which the Trans-Siberian Railways would be taken over and managed by these nations. The railway systems were divided up among the three 'expeditionary' forces.

Since 1905 when Japanese troops occupied Korea, Korean nationalist armies waged guerrilla war from military bases in Siberia and Manchuria. Lenin provided arms and training to the Koreans and most of the Koreans sided with Lenin in the Russian civil war. There were nearly 10,000 Korean soldiers based in Siberia when the Japanese and American forces arrived in Siberian in 1918, and the allied Red Army and the Korean nationalists attacked the foreign invaders.

In September of 1919, the situation in Siberia took a sudden turn for the worse when the main anti-Soviet army let by Admiral Alexander Kolchak was defeated in Russia and fled to Siberia. The American RRSC came to their rescue and Kolchak's defeated army was ferried to Omsk and other towns in Siberia. However, the Soviet Red Army marched right behind the White armies and forced the RRSC and Gen. Grave's troops to leave Siberia. On April 1, 1920, the last US troops left Vladivostok. The Soviets and their Korean allies captured some 150 Americans and killed perhaps twice as many Yanks in Siberia and Northern Russia. No one knows how many Americans were injured or died of natural causes in Siberia.

Because of racial prejudice prevailing in the 1800-1900s in America, college-educated Koreans in America had limited employment opportunities. The US military needed Korean interpreters in Siberia in order to deal with the hostile Korean armies and employed a number of Korean-Americans with college education. Park Yong Man was one of these lucky Koreans.

Park Yong Man was one of the few Koreans who came to America as a student, not as a laborer as in the case of most other Korean immigrants in the early 1900s. He came to America in 1904 and studied at the Hastings Institute in Nebraska. After graduating from Hastings, he studied political science and military science at a college in Lincoln, Nebraska. Upon graduation, he moved to Hawaii and established a Korean military school and formed a Korean paramilitary unit. In October 1917, he represented Korea at the World Conference on Small Nations in New York.

Park translated the March First declaration of 1919 into English for publication in Hawaii. In May 1919, he joined the American Expeditionary Forces in Siberia as an intelligence agent. His job was to spy on the Koreans in Siberia. The Americans were allies of Japan in Siberia at the time, and so, Park became a Japanese spy in effect. Paradoxically, Park helped establish a Korean nationalist army at Nikolsk, Siberia. (Hyatt, 2003)

After the Americans left Siberia in April 1920, Park went to Shanghai, where he allegedly negotiated a secret “mutual defense pact” with the Soviets on behalf of the Korean Provisional Government in 1920. After 1920, Park devoted his time to financial affairs and provided funds to Kim Wong Bom's Yiyuldan, a leftist terrorist group, while at the same time, working with pro-Japanese elements in China and Korea. He went to Korea in 1924 with a group of pro-Japanese military and business leaders of the Japanese puppet government of China. On October 17, 1928. Park was executed on the order of Gen. Ji Chung Chun, the military commander of the Korean Provisional Government. Park Yong Man was accused of being a Japanese spy.

Korean GIs in World War II

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, there were about 6,000 Koreans in America, and about 100 of them joined the US army, many of them as linguists and intelligence officers. . Rev. Hyun came to Hawaii in March 1903 with the second group of Korean immigrants and helped establish several Korean churches in Hawaii and became pastor of the Korean Methodist Church in Kapaia, Hawaii, in 1905.

He returned to Korea in 1907 to preach at the Chung Dong Church, Seoul, noted for its central role in the March First Movement of 1919. Upon collapse of the March First movement, he fled to Shanghai and participated in the Korean Provisional Government as deputy foreign minister. He returned to Hawaii in 1921 as the official representative of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, and later worked for US intelligence during World War II. He sired Peter, David, Alice and two other children in Shanghai.

Peter Hyun joined the US Army during World War II and landed in Korea as a major, with the US occupation force in 1945. Alice Hyun, too, joined the US Army during Work War II and came to Korea with the US military in 1945. Both Peter and Alice worked for the US CICK (Civilian Information Control) in Seoul. Their job was to open private letters and wiretap phone conversations for the US military.

Alice Hyun grew up in Shanghai and met Park Hyon-Young, South Korean Communist Party boss, and Yo Un-hyung, and it was easy for her to get these leaders' confidence in Seoul. Later in 1943, Alice was sent to North Korea using a cover story of being exiled for sedition in the US. Alice worked for about a year in Pyongyang as a private secretary of the Foreign Minister (Park Hyon-Young). In April 1950, Alice was arrested at the Moscow airport by Kim Il Sung's secret police. In her possession were Kim Il Sung's secret war plans. (Lee Wha Rang, 2000b)

Gen. Donovan (OSS) and Kim Gu

On Sept. 17, 1940, Kim Gu formed the Korean Independence Army (Kwang-bok Army). Ji Chung Chun was appointed the Supreme Commander and Lee Bom Suk the Chief of Staff. Chinese dignitaries from Mao and Chiang groups – including Chou En Lai – attended the army foundation ceremony. In 1941, Kim Gu declared war on Japan. In 1942, he formally asked China, the US and Britain to recognize his government. Only China did so. The United States refused to recognize Kim Gu's government in China. In 1944, the US military was faced with the possibility of fighting the Japanese in Korea and began to recruit Koreans in China.

Thus, on August 7, 1945, Gen. Donavan, the head of the US Office of Special Services (OSS), met Kim Gu at Sheyang, China, and agreed to send a US OSS team to work with Kim Gu’s army. Donavan wanted to use the Koreans as spies and saboteurs in preparation for land battles in Korea. Kim Gu saw a golden opportunity for military aids from America and to liberate Korea with his Independence Army.

But Japan surrendered too soon for Kim Gu's army. The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan and the Soviet Army began to move into Manchuria. Emperor Hirohito saw the handwriting all over the wall and decided to capitulate. The sooner Japan surrendered, the OSS detachment assigned to Kim Gu left China. The US abandoned Kim Gu.

The US military in Korea refused to allow Kim Gu and his army to return to Korea in any official capacity. They were allowed to return home only as private citizens. Even those Koreans trained by the OSS received no special consideration by the US military. Some historians say that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander in the Far East, disdained the OSS and kept the 'spooks' far away. President Truman, too, felt the same way and ordered the OSS disbanded. (Lee Wha Rang, 2000c)

After liberation, Lee Bom Suk and his followers returned to Korea. Since the US military did not allow them to return as a unit, they had to come back in small groups and then grouped into private armies. Gen. Lee had served as Prime Minister of Rhee Syngman's government but he had falling out with Rhee and quit the post.

There were dozens of private armies in Korea in 1945-46. Many of the nationalist leaders returned with their private armies from China and vied amongst themselves for funds and recruits. In 1946, the US military banned all private armies in Korea and established a Korean regular army.

Lt. Gen. Hong Sa-Ik Hanged by the US

While less than 100 Koreans in America enlisted in the US military during World War II, more than 100,000 Koreans served in the Japanese army as officers and soldiers. There were two Lt. generals: a Chosun prince, whose rank was honorary and who commanded no troops; and Lt. Gen. Hong Sa-Ik, who was a professional military man from the old Chosun army.

In 1910 when Japan annexed Korea, there were a dozen or so Korean cadets at the Japanese Military Academy. The Korean cadets spilt into two factions: a pro-Japanese faction led by Hong Sa Ik and Kim Suk Won, and an anti-Japanese faction led by Ji Chung Chun and Kim Gyong Chun. After graduation, the pro-Japanese Koreans led Japanese troops in China and later in the Pacific battlefields. Hong Sa-ik commanded an army division in China in the early days of World War II, and later, he was put in charge of the POW camps in the Philippines. In contrast, the anti-Japanese officers led anti-Japanese Korean armies in Siberia and China.

Among the Koreans in the Japanese army were college students who spoke English well, and they were assigned to POW camps on Java. In addition, the Japanese command deemed Korean soldiers untrustworthy in combat and assigned many of them to guard POW camps. The Japanese command believed that the Korean guards would mind a Korean general and picked Lt. Gen. Hong to supervise the POW camps. Unfortunately for Hong, some of his Korean guards committed atrocities against the POWs.

When Japan surrendered, Lt. Gen. Hong was tried as a war criminal and sentenced to hang. During the trial, Hong refused to talk and accepted the sentence with a stoic smile and muttered - "I passed the test for hanging." He was in prison for 165 days awaiting for the execution. During this time, he read the Bible and became a Christian. As he was led to the hanging platform on April 18, 1948, he handed his Bible to his American guard, Ivan Kay, and climbed the gallow. There he asked the presiding minister to read passages from the Old Testament (Psalm 51). His body was cremated and the ashes were dumped in the ocean. Years later, Ivan Kay gave Hong's bible to Hong's son, Hong Guk-sun. Ironically, Hong's window and another son of Hong's came to America to live because they were not welcome in Korea. (Lee Gyu-Tae, 2003)

The Song of Ariran

Strange though it may sound, an American woman (Helen Foster Snow, aka Nym Wales) met a Korean nationalist (Kim San, aka Jang Ji Hak) in the caves of Yenan in 1937, where Mao Zedong and his troops were holed up. Nym Wales accompanied her husband Edgar Snow to Yenan on month-long stay with the Chinese Communists. Edgar wrote the Star over China and Nym wrote the Song of Ariran. (Wales & Kim, 1941)

Her book was published in 1941 and became a best-seller in America. However, during the peak years of McCarthyism, the US government deemed it a Communist propaganda and banned it from public libraries. Nym and her husband were labeled Communist sympathizers. Her book was translated into Korean and published in South Korea in the late 1940s becoming a best-seller.

Several prominent Korean historians performed detailed verification of the events chronicled in her book and have published several revised editions in Korea and America. When the book came out in 1941, Nym was not aware that her hero and coauthor Kim San had been dead for sometime. Kim San was executed by Mao's secret police.

Her book details some of the major achievements of Korean nationalists in China. For example, she gives a gripping account of the March 28, 1922 attack on Gen. Tanaka, the main architect of the Japanese imperialism in China and Korea. Her account involves two American women. The plot involved three Korean nationalists: Oh Song Yun (aka Chon Kwang) with a pistol, Kim Ik Sang with a bomb, and Yi Chong Am with a sword. Oh Song Yun fired at Tanaka at which moment, an American woman who happened to be next to Tanaka grabbed Tanaka in terror and was hit, thus saving Tanaka's life. Oh ran from the scene believing that Tanaka was dead.

Oh Song Yun hijacked a car and sped away but ran into another car (Oh did not know how to drive) and was arrested. A Japanese girl friend of his smuggled a steel knife to Oh and he escaped after cutting out the lock on his cell door. Oh hid in an American friend's house for three days after which he managed to escape to Canton, from there to Germany on a forged passport; from Berlin, Oh traveled to Moscow and joined the Communist Party.

Today, the United States maintains close friendly contacts with China and Vietnam, but such was not always the case. In Viet Nam, the US military backed Ho Chi-ming and his nationalists fighting the Japanese occupation army during World War II. Uncle Ho not only believed in the American democracy but also worshipped George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. When Japan surrendered, Uncle Ho proclaimed an independent republic of Viet Nam and fully expected the United States to recognize the republic, but instead, the United States opted to back the return of French colonial power in Viet Nam. After years of bloody warfare, the US military was forced out of Viet Nam and Ho's dream came true.

In China, the United States backed the wrong side in a long protracted civil war. Like Uncle Ho, Mao Zedong admired America and wanted to join forces with the US military against the Japanese army, but the United States spurned Mao's friendship and poured billions upon billions into Chiang Kaisek's corrupt regime. In the end, Chiang was driven out of China in 1949, and the United States turned China into an enemy nation for no good reason.

Nym Wales depicted many Korean nationalists, though Communists on paper, who admired America and wanted to be friends with Uncle Sam.

What would have been the outcome, had the United States backed Ho Chiming, Mao Zedong, and other Asian 'Communists'? Millions of Vietnamese and Chinese wouldn't have lost their lives and both nations would have reached where they are today many decades earlier.

The Yalta Conference and the Vivisection of Korea

As World War II began to wind down, the Allied Powers - the United States, China, and the Great Britain - met in Cairo in 1943 and agreed that: "The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent." A year later, the Soviet Union joined the Big Power circle and earned a say on Korea.

To the United States, Korea had little if any strategic significance, because Korea had a tiny population of less than 30 million and no important natural resources or industries. In contrast, the Soviet Union coveted Korea's warm water ports as a gateway to the Pacific. At the Big Powers conference held at Yalta in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Stalin that Korea should be managed as a joint control area by the United States, China, and the Soviet Union for 20-30 years. Stalin had no objection except he wanted the Great Britain to to be a trustee as well. However, this informal oral agreement was not included in the Yalta declaration.

On July 26, 1945, the Allied Powers met again at Potsdam (Germany). Roosevelt died earlier and Truman took over Roosevelt's seat at the Big Power Conference. Korea was hardly mentioned at the conference. The Powers discussed the final strategies to defeat Japan and the general division of military chores. The Soviet Union was assigned the task of occupying Manchuria but the question of who would occupy Korea was left hanging. The US military implied that the United States had no military plan for Korea, and thus indicated that Korea was under the Soviet zone of operation. (US Army, 2003)

The Red Army invaded Manchuria on August 9, 1945, and the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito was forced to send out a surrender feeler, and on August 10, 1945, the US War Department Operations Division was asked to draft a surrender document - General Order No. 1 - as soon as possible. The Chief of the Policy Section, Col. Charles H. Bonesteel, had thirty minutes in which to dictate Paragraph 1 (dealing with disarming Japanese troops) to his secretary. Col. Bonesteel was aided by Lt. Col. Dean Rusk, who later become assistant secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs 1947-1960, Secretary of State 1961-1969, and the main architect of the Vietnam War.

Col. Bonesteel and LTC. Rusk believed that the line separating the US and the Soviet zones of occupation in Korea should follow the provincial boundary, but the only map of Korea they had was a small wall map, and so the officers cut Korea into two equal parts along the 38th Parallel. Stalin had no objection to the 38th Parallel. The 38th Parallel runs about 190 miles across Korea and the Allied Powers cut up Korea without "any regard for political boundaries, geographical features, waterways, or paths of commerce. The 38th Parallel cut more than 75 streams and 12 rivers, intersected many high ridges at variant angles, severed 181 small cart roads, 104 country roads, 15 provincial all-weather roads, 8 better-class highways, and 6 north-south rail lines. It was, in fact, an arbitrary separation." (US Army, 2003)

The decision to cut Korea into two halves was made in 30 minutes by two US Army colonels under great pressure from their superiors in 1945, nearly 60 years ago. The line, although somewhat altered by the Korean War, still divides Korea.

Kim Young-Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.

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