History of North Korea- What started the Korean war?

US planes bombing Wonsan, North Korea, 1951

The history of North Korea started at the end of World War II in 1945. The surrender of Japan led to the division of Korea at the 38th parallel, with the Soviet Union controlling the north, and the United States extending the south. The Soviet Union and the United States failed to agree on a way to unify the country, and in 1948 they established two separate governments – the Soviet-aligned Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Western-aligned Republic Korea – each pretending to be the legal government of all of Korea.

Before the Partition:

From 1910 to the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was under Japanese rule. Most Koreans were peasants engaged in subsistence farming. In the 1930s, Japan developed mines, hydro-electric dams, steel mills, and manufacturing plants in northern Korea and neighboring Manchuria. The Korean industrial working class expanded rapidly, and many Koreans went to work in Manchuria. As a result, 65% of Korea’s heavy industry was located in the north, but, due to the rugged terrain, only 37% of its agriculture.

A Korean guerrilla movement began in the mountainous depths and Manchuria, harassing the Japanese imperial authorities. One of the most prominent guerrilla leaders was the Communist Kim Il-sung.

Northern Korea had little exposure to modern, Western ideas. One partial exception was the penetration of religion. Since the arrival of missionaries in the late nineteenth century, the northwest of Korea, and Pyongyang in particular, had been a stronghold of Christianity. As a result, Pyongyang was called the “Jerusalem of the East”.

The Division

At the Tehran Conference in November 1943 and the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Soviet Union promised to join its allies in the Pacific War within three months of victory in Europe. On August 8, 1945, after three months to the day, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. Soviet troops advanced rapidly, and the US government became anxious that they would occupy the whole of Korea. On August 10, the US government decided to propose the 38th parallel as the dividing line between a Soviet occupation zone in the north and a US occupation zone in the south. The parallel was chosen as it would place the capital of Seoul under American control. To the surprise of the Americans, the Soviet Union immediately accepted the division. The agreement was incorporated into General Order No. 1 (approved on 17 August 1945) for the surrender of Japan. The division placed sixteen million Koreans in the American zone and nine million in the Soviet zone.

Soviet forces began amphibious landings in Korea by August 14 and rapidly took over the northeast, and on August 16 they landed at Wonsan. On August 24, the Red Army reached Pyongyang. US forces did not arrive in the south until September 8.

During August, People’s Committees sprang up across Korea, affiliated with the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, which in September founded the People’s Republic of Korea. When Soviet troops entered Pyongyang, they found a local People’s Committee established there, led by veteran Christian nationalist Cho Man-sik. Unlike their American counterparts, the Soviet authorities recognized and worked with the People’s Committees. By some accounts, Cho Man-sik was the Soviet government’s first choice to lead North Korea.

On September 19, Kim Il-sung and 66 other Korean Red Army officers arrived in Wonsan. They had fought the Japanese in Manchuria in the 1930s but had lived in the USSR and trained in the Red Army since 1941. On October 14, Soviet authorities introduced Kim to the North Korean public as a guerrilla hero.

In December 1945, at the Moscow Conference, the Soviet Union agreed to a US proposal for a management over Korea for up to five years in the lead-up to independence. Most Koreans demanded independence immediately, but Kim and the other Communists supported the trusteeship under pressure from the Soviet government. Cho Man-sik opposed the proposal at a public meeting on January 4, 1946, and disappeared into house arrest. On February 8, 1946, the People’s Committees were reorganized as Interim People’s Committees dominated by Communists. The new regime instituted popular policies of land redistribution, industry nationalization, labor law reform, and equality for women.

Meanwhile, existing Communist groups were reconstituted as a party under Kim Il-sung’s leadership. On December 18, 1945, local Communist Party committees were combined into the North Korean Communist Party. In August 1946, this party merged with the New People’s Party to form the Workers’ Party of North Korea. In December, a popular front led by the Workers’ Party dominated elections in the North. In 1949, the Workers’ Party of North Korea merged with its southern counterpart to become the Workers’ Party of Korea with Kim as party chairman.

Kim established the Korean People’s Army (KPA) aligned with the Communists, formed from a cadre of guerrillas and former soldiers who had gained combat experience in battles against the Japanese and later Nationalist Chinese troops. From their ranks, using Soviet advisers and equipment, Kim constructed a large army skilled in infiltration tactics and guerrilla warfare. Before the outbreak of the Korean War, Joseph Stalin equipped the KPA with modern medium tanks, trucks, artillery, and small arms. Kim also formed an air force, equipped at first with ex-Soviet propeller-driven fighter and attack aircraft. Later, North Korean pilot candidates were sent to the Soviet Union and China to train in MiG-15 jet aircraft at secret bases.

In 1946, a sweeping series of laws transformed North Korea on Stalinist lines. The “land to the tiller” reform redistributed the bulk of agricultural land to the poor and landless peasant population, effectively breaking the power of the landed class. This was followed by a “Labor Law”, a “Sexual Equality Law”, and a “Nationalisation of Industry, Transport, Communications and Banks Law”.

As negotiations with the Soviet Union on the future of Korea failed to make progress, the US took the issue to the United Nations in September 1947. In response, the UN established the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea to hold elections in Korea. The Soviet Union opposed this move. In the absence of Soviet cooperation, it was decided to hold UN-supervised elections in the south only. In April 1948, a conference of organizations from the North and the South met in Pyongyang, but the conference produced no results. The southern politicians Kim Koo and Kim Kyu-sik attended the conference and boycotted the elections in the South. Both men were posthumously awarded the National Reunification Prize by North Korea. The elections were held in South Korea on May 10, 1948. On August 15, the Republic of Korea formally came into existence. A parallel process occurred in North Korea. A new Supreme People’s Assembly was elected in August 1948, and on September 3 a new constitution was promulgated. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was proclaimed on September 9, with Kim as Premier. On December 12, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly accepted the report of UNTCOK and declared the Republic of Korea to be the “only lawful government in Korea”.

By 1949, North Korea was a full-fledged Communist state. All parties and mass organizations joined the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, ostensibly a popular front but in reality dominated by the Communists. The government moved rapidly to establish a political system that was partly styled on the Soviet system, with political power monopolized by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

What happened next? We will find out in the next article.

Source: North Korea Archives- Oxford Press, Wikipedia

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