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Contemporary Korea
Home > Korea in brief > Contemporary Korea


Korea was liberated from Japanese rule on Aug. 15, 1945, 36 years after Japan forcibly annexed the country in 1910. At the end of World War II, however, the southern half of Korea was occupied by the U.S. forces and the other half by the Soviet Union. Thus, the liberation brought with it a tragic division of the country. For the ensuing three years, the nation, halved at the 38th parallel arbitrarily drawn up as a border line, lived under foreign military rule.


The postwar political situation in Korea was marked by mushrooming political organizations and their power struggles. The ensuing confusion arising from the clashes of conflicting power groups cast dark pall over the political horizon of the infant country. Among political parties emerging, the most cohesive was the Korean Communist Party which, first organized in 1925 as one of the underground anti-Japanese resistance groups, was reinaugurated on Sept. 14, 1945, with Pak Hon-yong at its helm bringing virtually all leftist groups under its control.

On the other hand, conservative nationalists led by Song Jin-u and Kim Song-su formed the Korea Democratic Party on Sept. 16, 1945, as a major political force opposed to the Communists. At this point, it became apparent that the nation was divided ideologically as well as territorially under the full impact of a new alignment then shaping up in the world. While confrontation involving opposing political forces continued unabated, it was a Moscow Foreign Ministers conference of major powers that sparked major violent clash between the Communists and nationalists.


Meeting in Moscow in December 1945, the four Great Powers agreed to place Korea under a 4-power trusteeship for five years under the supervision of the United Nations. They also decided to create a U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission to help form a provisional Korean government in consultation with political parties and social organizations in Korea and to work out an arrangement to carry out the trusteeship plan with the participation of the projected Korean provisional government. The announcement came as a shock to the people in Korea. The nation rose up in unison in the common cause of spurning the humiliating trusteeship by the Big Four Nations including China. The dramatic unity of the nation was soon broken when the Communists, in a sudden about-face, switched their position to declare full support for the trusteeship plan. From then on violent clashes between the two opposed political forces became a daily affair.

Meanwhile, another development helped quicken the pace of events. The U.S.-Soviet Joint Commission, provided for at the four-power foreign ministers confernece, held its first plenary meeting in Seoul on March 20, 1946. At the meeting the Soviet side insisted that the Commision invite only those parties and organizations accepting the trusteeship. As everybody except the Communists who were small in number in reality was opposed to the plan, this would be tantamount to leaving the Communists alone qualified. The United States rejected the Soviet bid. The meeting broke off without any agreement after 50 days of heated dispute.

The Commission opened its second and last series of talks on May 21, 1947. The meeting broke off again in 20 days. The breakdown of the meeting served as a signal for the Communists to launch full- fledged subversive campaigns to disrupt and discredit the U.S. military government. They renamed their party as the South Korea Labor Party on Nov. 23, 1946, absorbing some minor leftist groups. They resorted to every possible means available including assassination, sabotage, strike, riot and rebellion in their all-out subversive campaign. Their aggressive tactics prompted the U.S. military government to outlaw virtually all leftist groups in the southern half of the country.


In the meantime, the United Nations began to deliberate the Korean question at the initiative of the Unted States in 1947. The United Nations resolved, on Nov. 14, 1947, to hold general elections throughout Korea in May 1948 and to create the U.N Temporary Commission on Korea to supervise the elections. The Commission arrived in Korea in January 1948, but the Soviet occupation forces denied the Commission's access to North Korea. The Commission then recommended that the elections be conducted in such parts of Korea as are accessible to the Commision. In compliance with the U.N. resolution, the U.S. military government announced on March 1, 1948 that the elections would be held in South Korea alone on May 10.

The Russian occupation forces and the North Korean Communists led by Kim Il-sung denounced the plan as a plot to turn South Korea into a base for U.S. expansion. The South Korean Communists and middle-of-roaders joined in opposing the projected elections. Kim Gu, the erstwhile head of the Korean provisional government in exile in Chungking, and his Korea Independence Party also joined the campaign against an independent government in South Korea alone, together with Kim Gyu-shik, then chairman of the Legislative Assembly under the U.S, military government.

This meant that the rightist political groups were split into two, one led by Dr. Syngman Rhee supporting unilateral elections in South Korea and the other advocating negotiated settlement with North Korea, which came to be called South-North Negotiation Group. Top leaders of the group journeyed to Pyongyang for a futile negotiation with the North Korean Communists for the purported goal of achieving a coalition government.

Despite the complete failure of their parley with the North Korean Communists, the negotiationists boycotted the U.N.-sponsored general elections on May 10 in South Korea on the ground that the election would perpetuate the division of the Korean Peninsula. After the elections, Kim Gu was assassinated by an army lieutenant in Seoul.