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The Free City (Amur River – Hukgang) Incident
The left-right confrontation in Korea – Its origin
Kim Young Sik, Ph.D.
While the Korean armies in Manchuria waged desperate battles against the superior Japanese troops, the Korean armies in Siberia had recovered from the 1918 disaster and become potent forces by 1920. In October 1920, a Korean partisan unit took Nikolayevsk after a bloody battle, and murdered several hundred Japanese prisoners and civilians. Japan was enraged and threatened retaliations against the Soviets. Japan demanded the removal of all Korean military from Siberia.
This incident came at a sensitive moment for Lenin, for he was trying to negotiate Japanese withdrawal from Siberia and told Japan that there were no Korean military units in Siberia; that all Korean armed men belonged to the Soviet Red Army. The Korean armies in Siberia were split into two factions: the Soviet-Koreans (Irkutsk group) who took orders from the Soviets and Gen. Yi's nationalists who wanted to be on their own.
At the time when Lenin was about to abandon his long-time Korean allies, the Korean armies in Manchuria, after being defeated in a series of battles with the Japanese, fled to Siberia en masse. By 1921, there were at least 36 independent Korean armies in Siberia. Gen. Yi regrouped some of these into a single army, the Greater Korea Independence Corps (Taehan Tong Lip Dang). The Corps was loosely allied with the Soviet Army and received Soviet equipment and training – but it did not take orders from the Soviets as Lenin had wished. At about the same time, the Soviet-Koreans formed their own military unit - the Korean Revolutionary Military Congress.
In early 1921, the Soviets declared Alekseyevsk (a small military town near Irkutsk, Siberia) an open city for all Korean armies and announced that the Korean armies would receive free arms and training in this ‘Free City’.
Accordingly, some 7,000 Koreans showed up there. But contrary to the expectation of the Koreans, Soviet officers tried to organize them into regular Soviet army organizations, divisions, regiments, battalions, companies and squads, and a modern military command structure.
Some of the Korean commanders became suspicious and refused to go along. They suspected that the “Free City” was a Soviet plot to disarm the Korean armies. On June 27, 1921, they began to march out of the Free City but the Soviet Army and pro-Soviet Koreans blocked them. Fights broke out and hundreds died in bloody battles – Koreans killing Koreans.
Yi Dong Whi, Hong Bom Do, Kim Jwa Jin, Ji Chung Chun, and several other army commanders managed to break out and escaped to Manchuria. Many Koreans were killed or wounded. More than 1,700 Koreans were captured by the Soviets. The Korean communities all across Siberia and Manchuria were shocked and angered, and held Lenin responsible for this treachery.
On January 21, 1922, the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East convened in Moscow with delegates from China, Japan, and Korea. Gen. Yi Dong Whi led the Korean delegation, which included Yo Un Hyong and Park Hyon Yong. Yi angrily aired his grievances on the Soviet duplicity in the Free City Incident. The Comintern ordered the Korean factions to merge; all prisoners at the Free City be released henceforth and restored to their positions prior to the incident; and the key ring leaders be banished. But it was too late; the damage had been done beyond repair.
Today, this infamous affair is known as the Free City
Kim Young Sik is editor of Korea WebWeekly.
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