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Who were the Soviet Koreans?
The left-right confrontation in Korea – Its origin
Kim Young Sik, Ph.D.

Photo: Kim Alexandra (left) and Maria (a Chinese), circa 1917. Kim’s father a nationalist fighter and was killed in Manchuria. Kim was a close comrade of Lenin and helped organize Korean nationalist armies in Siberia. She was captured and executed by a combined force of Japanese and White Russian troops in 1918. She shouted "Freedom and Independence for Korea!" as the bullets tore into her chest.

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[The following is the fourth excerpt taken from Kim Young Sik's paper "The left-right confrontation in Korea – Its origin."]

The Chosun Dynasty was in its death throes in the 1800’s. After decades of misrule by inept kings, Korea was in a mess. Peasants rose up in armed rebellions against corrupt government officials and armed bandits from China (maj-juk) and Russian Cossacks (maho-jaeng) ran wild pillaging unchecked in the northern regions of Korea. Russians set up illegal timber yards and cut down our forests. The Seoul government was powerless to protect its subjects.

Much of the farmland in Chosun belonged to a small elite class of landlords and a typical tenant farmer owed his landlord debts that were so large that he was in effect a slave of the landlord for eternity. The only way to break from this perpetual bondage was to escape to Manchuria or Siberia. The frozen barren land of Siberia looked like the Promised Land of Milk and Honey for the Korean serfs and tens of thousands of starving peasants trekked to Siberia to start a new life.

The Koreans found vast tracts of land for the taking and the Tsar of Russia encouraged them to cultivate the land and grow crops. By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in the early 1900s, some 300,000 first-generation Koreans lived in Siberia. Korean towns sprang up like mushrooms in Vladivostok, Khabarovk, Irkutsk, Chita and other regions in Siberia. Korean farms dotted the countryside.

While poor Korean farmers saw an opportunity to start a new life in Virgin Siberia, Korean nationalists found a refuge and an eager ally there. Defeated Yi-byong, Tonghak rebels, and other nationalists streamed into Siberia to the welcoming arms of the Korean farmers. Korean armies roamed Siberia, collecting taxes and new recruits.

The best-known Soviet-Korean is Ahn Jung Guhn, the patriot who killed Ito Hirobumi, the archenemy of the Korean people. Ito served as the first Prime Minister of Japan, president of the Privy Council and president of the House of Peers. In 1905, he became the first resident general of Korea. It was Ito who had planned and carried out Korea’s annexation. At 9:30 AM, October 26, 1909, Ahn Jung Guhn shot and killed Ito at a train station in Harbin, Manchuria. The Japanese executed Ahn at 10:00 AM, March 26, 1910.

Ahn Jung Guhn was born on September 2, 1879, in Sunhung, Korea. At the age of 16, he commanded a government militia that put down Tonghak rebels in his home county. By 1890, Korea became a client state of Japan and the Japanese ruled Korea in effect. In June 1906, Choe Ik Hyon and Shin Dol Suk organized a popular revolt against the Japanese and formed an army known as Yi-byong (the Righteous Army). Ahn joined this Army and fought the Japanese, but the Army was defeated, and Ahn fled to Vladivostok. There he joined the Korean Righteous Army in Siberia as a Lt. General. Later he commanded the Korean Independence Corps. He led numerous raids on Japanese police and military posts in Korea.

Ahn’s last testament and will read: “My remains shall be buried near the Harbin Park until the sovereignty of Korea is restored. After its restoration, I shall be taken to my fatherland and laid to rest in peace. I will no doubt continue to do my best in Heaven for the independence of my country. You return home and tell my brothers to inspire their responsibility for the nation and to fulfill their duty with never-ending efforts in unity, so that they may render valuable services and achieve great success for the nation. When I hear the Hurrahs for Korea's Independence from Heaven, I will dance and exclaim Hurrahs in Heaven.”

While Lenin saw an opportunity to form a Russo-Korean united front to expel the Japanese and American troops from Siberia, the Korean nationalists saw an opportunity in Lenin for much needed arms to liberate Korea. Lenin deeply hated the Japanese and provided much help to the Korean independence fighters in Siberia. In July 1917, Lenin sent his trusted comrade Alexandra Kim to Siberia to expedite Korean resistance against the Allied Expeditionary Forces and other counter revolutionaries in Siberia.

Kim Alexandra Petrovna was the first Korean woman to become a Communist. In 1869, an impoverished Korean peasant, Kim Du Suh, left his hometown in South Hamgyong Province and walked across the frozen Tumen River into Siberia. There he set up a farm and raised a family. Alexsandra was born. Kim Du Suh was a patriot and volunteered to fight the Japanese in Manchuria. He left his wife and young daughter behind.

Upon her mother’s sudden death, Alexandra joined her father in China in 1895, but he, too, died soon after. No one knows how many Korean children have been orphaned or abandoned in Siberia and China; how many of them have starved or frozen to death; how many of them became slaves. Fortunately, Kim’s comrade-in-arms, Stankevich, adopted the little orphan girl and sent her to a girls' boarding school in Vladivostok. After graduation, she joined the Russian revolution in 1917 and became a trusted lieutenant of Lenin.

After Tsar Nicholas’ government fell on March 13, 1917, Siberia became a no-man’s land, plagued by various warlords, most notoriously Grigori Semenov. His bandits pillaged Korean villagers, raped and killed Korean women and children. The Japanese Expeditionary Force in Siberia helped Gregori’s bandits. The Japanese and Grigori used the Trans Siberian Railways to move troops and supplies, and an American army unit managed the Siberian railways for them.

In September 1919, the situation in Siberia took a sudden turn for the worse when the main anti-Soviet army, the White Army led by Admiral Aleksander Kolchak, was defeated in Russia and fled to Siberia. The American army moved the beaten Kolchak soldiers to Siberia. The Soviet Red Army marched right behind the White Army and forced the American troops to leave Siberia. By April 1, 1920, when the last US troops left Vladivostok, the Soviets and Korean allies had captured some 150 Americans. No one knows how many Americans were injured or killed in action or died of natural causes in Siberia.

Gen. Yi Dong Whi, a former officer in the Chosen Army, commanded a yi-byong army in Siberia. Sometime in 1917, he was arrested by the Bolsheviks, accused of being a Japanese spy. Alexandra stepped in and saved him from a firing squad. On June 28, 1918, Gen. Yi Dong Whi organized a Korean army. On September 4, 1918, the Japanese troops aided by the White Russians took Khabarovk and executed scores of the captured Korean communists, including Alexandra Kim.

Following this disaster, Vladivostok and its surrounding towns changed hands more than six times. The Red Army killed pro-Japanese and non-Communist Koreans. And the White Army killed Communist Koreans. Killings begot more killings in a vicious cycle. Terror stricken Koreans poured into Manchuria to escape the anti-Korean pogrom. Gen. Yi managed to escape to Shanghai and joined the Korean Provisional Government as defense minister.

On September 23, 1919, Gen. Yi Dong Whi took over the premiership of the Korean Provisional Government. His effort to regroup the KPG into a united front was bitterly opposed by Rhee Syngman, and Yi was forced to resign and return to Siberia. The South Korean government awarded Gen. Yi a medal in recognition of his patriotism.

Let me introduce to you another Soviet Korean – Gen. Kim Gyung Chun, an unsung hero of the Korean war of independence. Gen. Kim was born on June 5, 1888 in Sinchun, Hamgyong Province. His father, Kim Jung Wu, was a colonel in the Chosen Army. In 1909, Kim Gyong Chun entered the Japanese Military Academy in Tokyo. Japan annexed Korea soon after Kim Gyong Chun arrived in Tokyo in 1909.

The Korean cadets at the Japanese Military Academy saw their motherland disappear right under their feet. Some wanted to quit the Academy and return home to fight the Japanese. Some wanted to commit suicide in front of the Emperor's Castle. But the cool heads led by Ji Chung Chun (his birth name was Ji Dae Hyong, later he command Kim Gu’s army in China) persuaded the Korean cadets to complete the training at the Academy and then after graduation, to use their martial skills to help regain Korean independence.

The Korean cadets at the Academy 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. Years later, Hong Sa Ik became the top-ranking Korean in the Japanese Army. On April 18, 1948, Lt. Gen. Hong was convicted of war crimes and hanged by the US military. Col. Kim Suk Won was awarded numerous medals by Emperor Hirohito for his valor in China and went around Korea making speeches in support of the Emperor’s war effort.

Kim Gyong Chun graduated in the 23rd class of the Academy in 1911 and was commissioned a Japanese cavalry lieutenant. Lt. Kim was assigned to the First Infantry Division of the Japanese Army. In 1919, he deserted his post and escaped to China along with Lt. Ji Chung Chun. In China, he joined the faculty of the Sinhung Military Academy, a nationalist school for Korean military officers. The Korean armies in China were short of modern weapons and Kim was sent to Siberia to obtain modern arms from the Soviets in 1920.

Siberia was in chaos in 1920. The Red Army fought the White Russians, foreign mercenaries, and the armies from Japan. In the middle of all these, there were dozens of Korean independence armies and Chinese bandits. To Kim’s horror, the Korean farmers in Siberia had no way of defending themselves and were at the mercy of the bandits. The Japanese supported and encouraged the bandits to go after the Koreans.

Gen. Kim Gyong Chun decided to stay and organize an army to defend the Korean villages in Siberia. He realized that he could not defeat the well-armed and numerically superior Japanese army in conventional and opted to wage guerrilla war. The Japanese had their own guerrillas: Chinese bandits and the defeated White Russians. Gen. Kim Gyong Chun recruited, trained, and led self-defense units in the Korean villages. His well-trained army killed more than 700 Chinese bandits from 1920 to 1921.

After exterminating the Chinese bandits, Gen. Kim went after other bandits - the remnants of the White Russians that preyed upon unarmed Korean peasants. Kim’s partisans, numbering about 300 regulars at this time, received military supplies from the Red Army. In January 1922, Gen. Kim's army of about 200 men and a Red Army detachment attacked a large White Russian force entrenched in Yiman. The Red Army unit was routed after its commander defected to the other side. Gen. Kim swiftly reorganized the defeated Red soldiers and led a counter-attack. They took the town and wiped out the White Russian defenders.

In July 1922, in recognition of his military achievements, the Red Army appointed him the commander of all partisans – both Korean and Russian - in the region. In late 1922, the Japanese troops withdrew from Siberia. The Soviets declared victory and ordered all Korean armies to disband and all Russian partisans to return home. Gen. Kim’s army was disbanded and he eked out a living teaching military science and translating Japanese military textbooks in Siberia.

On September 29, 1937, a Soviet military court sentenced him three years in prisons on a trumped-up charge of espionage. He was accused of being a Japanese spy! In late 1937, Stalin moved all Koreans in Siberia to Kazakhstan. Stalin feared that the Koreans might be Japanese fifth columns. After serving his prison term, Gen. Kim was reunited with his family in Kazakhstan and took a job growing vegetables at a collective farm. A few months later, he was labeled the people's enemy and arrested again. He was sentenced to 8 years of hard labor.

When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Gen. Kim was moved to a gulag in Siberia and there, he died of heart attack on January 2, 1942. On February 16, 1959, a Soviet military court exonerated him of all charges against him and restored his honor and citizenship posthumously.

Gen. Kim Gyong Chun galloped on a white horse in front of his mounted troops in attacking his enemies. He galloped from one battle to another in defense of the Korean people in Siberia. His fame spread throughout Siberia and North Korea, and he became a legend. Some historians in South Korea claim that Gen. Kim Gyong Chun was the real Kim Il Sung and that North Korea’s Kim Il Sung was a fake.

Japanese police archives and US intelligence records show that North Korea’s Kim Il Sung was indeed the real McCoy and that Kim Gyong Chun was never called ‘Kim Il Sung’. For better or worse, truth must be told as is. It is wrong to cover up one’s good deeds because of his misdeeds. Credits should be given where credits are due. South Korea’s official history now acknowledges, for the first since 1945, that Kim Il Sung led the famed raid on Bochonbo in 1937.

Tong-A Ilbo, Jason Ilbo, Kyongsong ilbo and other major newspapers in Korea reported the news of the battle. The battle was also headlined by the Japanese mass media, such as Domei News, Tokyo Mainichinichi Shimbun, and Osaka Asahi Shimbun. All of these reports blamed the ‘bandit Kim Il Sung’ for the raid.

The Battle of Bochonbo was the last significant raid on the Korean soil by Korean nationalist forces. In the early years of our war of independence, Korean armies were relatively free to roam Siberia and Manchuria. After the Japanese left Siberia in 1922, the Soviets disarmed or evicted the Korean armies in Siberia.

A few years later, Japan occupied much of Manchuria and set up a puppet government of Manchukuo. The Japanese and Manchukuo allied forces effectively eliminated Korean armies in Manchuria as well. By 1940, only small bands of Korean armies operated in Manchuria. The armies of Mu Jong and Kim Gu were in unoccupied regions of China and conducted limited operations.

Who were the Soviet Koreans? They were people like Ahn Jung Gun, Hong Bom Do, Kim Gyong Chun, Yi Dong Whi, and Kim Alexandra. They fought for the Red Revolution in Siberia and for the Korean independence. They were Korean nationalists first and then Communists. Once, Lenin told a group of Korean Communists: “Comrades – you are not true Communists but are nationalists using us.” The Soviets betrayed them and, worse, today, few of them are recognized or honored, or even remembered in Korea.

Were all Soviet Koreans good Koreans? Of course, not! On March 3, 1946, more than 1,000 students from junior and senior high schools of Hamhung staged a march shouting "Red Army Go Home!” “Gen. Kim Il Sung – You are our national hero and stop kissing Stalin’s ass!” “Red Army – stop stealing our rice!” (This incident is known as the Hamhung Students Incident - Hamhung hak-saeng sakun).

The students, my elder brother was among them, broke into the provincial office of the Communist Party. The Korean militia would not or could not disperse the crowd and stood by helpless. A Soviet army detachment rushed in and opened fire on the unarmed student. A Soviet Korean, Kang Sang Ho, issued the order to fire. Kang was a lieutenant with the 40th Rifle Division of the 25th Red Army Group.

In my eyes Kang was a bad Soviet Korean, and I am sure there were many like him. In addition, about 50% of the Koreans in Siberia were pro-Japanese and belonged to the Korea-Japan Friendship Promotion Association (il-jin-hoe). These Koreans sided with the White Russians, Japanese and other counter-revolutionaries in Siberia. But it would be wrong to say that all Soviet Koreans were bad.

Kim Young Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.

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