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What We Teach
By Alan Donohue
This is a suggestion as to what might replace what is currently being taught in American high schools regarding the lead up to the Korean war. This story should be added to the list of omissions and corrections that include the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and exploitation of Africans, (often referenced in discussions as Critical Race Theory), including facts like both Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. US foreign policy, in general, should be viewed from the Spanish-American war to the present; but what the US did in Korea starting immediately at the end of WWII has an echo today in Ukraine.
First, a little background on Korea's history before US troops landed there on September 8, 1945. The Japanese government invaded Korea and ended the 500-year-old Yi, or Chosen dynasty, in 1905. That same year the Taft-Katsura Memorandum was signed in which Japan's hegemony over Korea was recognized by the US in return for Japan's pledge not to interfere with America's control of the Philippines or Hawaii. Japan's occupation was hated. So when a pro-independence rally was called, on March 1, 1919, two million turned out.
Repression followed. Three hundred thousand were arrested and 50,000 were sent to prison. The Colonial land policy had forced many peasants off the land and even as rice exports rose by a factor of 8, from 1912 to 1935, rice consumption for most Koreans fell by over 35%. Wages in 1935 were 50% lower than in 1927, and the work day had increased from 12 to 16 hours. To enforce Japan's rule, the police force had increased from 6,200 in 1910, to 20,800 in 1922 and then to 60,000 in 1941. This police force was used to break up labor strikes and independence rallies, but also to enforce the public ban on the use of the Korean language. Depending on the year 40-50% of the centralized colonial police were Korean.
After Japan's surrender and the war's end on August 15, 1945, there was a massive surge In the Korean struggle for independence. At that time there were over 30,000 Koreans in jail, most of them political prisoners. An anti-Japanese activist, who had spent 3 years in prison, Yo Un-hyong, and others established the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI ). By the end of August 1945, 145 branches were functioning as basic units of government all over Korea, except in four cities where the Japanese military ruled.
On September 6, 1945, activists from the CPKI met in Seoul and established the Korean People's Republic. Unfortunately, the hope for an independent and more democratic Korea was short-lived. The wealthy landowners and businessmen who had profited under the occupation received the backing of the US military when troops landed on September 8, 1945. On September 16, these collaborators formed the Korean Democratic Party. They, however, were tainted by their Japanese connections. But Syngman Rhee, who came to the US after the repression of 1919, and claimed to be a true nationalist, returned to Korea on Gen. MacArthur's plan October 16, 1945, and four days later was denounced by both the Soviet Union and the KPR.
The US Army Military Gov. in Korea was not a neutral actor. That Fall of 1945 it banned a KPR publication, The Traitors And The Patriots. In December it banned strikes, and in January 1946 the activities of the KPR were declared illegal. During this time, Rhee's US-backed party attacked the People's Committees that had arisen out of the KPR. This was done using the Japanese-trained Korean police. These Police had been handed over by the US to Rhee for his use in forcing workers and peasants to give up control of the factories and lands which had been seized from the Japanese.
The political machinery to control an election in South Korea was turned over to Rhee's party and Koreans from the northern part of the country, who had worked or profited under the Japanese occupation. They had fled south and joined in the repression of the KPR and its supporters.
Many peasants did not vote, including the majority on the island of Cheju. One KPR candidate who was elected to the parliament was murdered when he arrived in Seoul. Regarding the repression by the US-backed Rhee regime, it is estimated that up to 100,000 people were killed before June 1950, including at least 30,000 on the island of Cheju in 1948. On October 19, 1948, soldiers of Rhee's government, in the mainland port city of Yosu rebelled, refusing to embark for Cheju, siding with the islanders. The islanders had refused to take part in the election, which they viewed as rigged.
The Koreans living north of the dividing line mostly supported the pro-peasant socialist policies of the KPR, as did the Soviet military. They were also led by Koreans who had been fighting the Japanese in Manchuria. One of those leaders was Kim Il-Sung.
It must have seemed terribly wrong to the American veterans of the war in the Pacific to see Koreans and Chinese, who had been allies during the war, pictured as enemies by 1948. But then again that also happened to America's European ally, the Soviet Union.
Al Donohue is member of VVAW who served in the infantry in 1966.