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Liberation of Korea: Independence Movement and International Relations

1. Liberation of Korea : Independence Movement and International Relations

Educational materials of Modern Korean History # 1
(National Museum of Korean Contemporary History)

Liberation of Korea : Independence Movement and International Relations

1. Korea Becomes a Japanese Colony Amidst Connivance of Powers

The late 19th century was a century in which strong military and economic powers colonized weaker nations and expanding their spheres of influence.

Imperialism in the late 19th century

International relations were the critical factors that would affect the fates of nations or peoples.
Korea was no exception in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Following the opening of Korean ports to foreign vessels in 1876, world powers turned their attention to Korea. Among them, Qing Dynasty China, Japan and Russia vied with one another for influence over Korea. In 1894, Japan won the First Sino-Japanese War, but wasn’t able to occupy Korea and Manchuria because of interference by Russia, Germany and France. Japan, angered by the interference, turned to the United States and Great Britain.

Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876 / 1876
Trade with Japan is allowed in the ports of Busan, Wonsan and Incheon

First Sino-Japanese War / 1894
A war between Qing Dynasty China and Japan over control of Korea

Tripartite Intervention (1895)
A diplomatic intervention by Russia, Germany and France to pressure Japan, the victor of the First Sino-Japanese War, to return the Liaodong Peninsula to Qing Dynasty China.

When Russia and Japan fought in the Russo-Japanese War for control over the Manchu and Korean Peninsula in 1904, Great Britain and the United States supported Japan.

Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)
A war fought between the Russian and Japanese empires over exclusive control of Manchuria and Korea

Great Britain and Japan signed an alliance treaty in 1902, and the United States followed in 1905 with the Taft-Katsura Secret Agreement, providing support to Japan.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902)
An alliance signed between Great Britain and Japan as part of keeping Russia in check

The Taft-Katsura Secret Agreement (1905)
A secret agreement where both agreed on Japan’s colonization of Korea and the American colonization of the Philippines

Following its victory in the war, and with the connivance of the United States and France and the agreement of Russia, Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
Korea, lacking in the support of any great powers, in the end was stripped of sovereignty.

August 29, 1910
Japan annexes Korea
The Korean Empire loses its national sovereignty

2. Independence Movements Spread (March 1 Movement - 1920s)

Japan’s tyrannical rule during the 1910s fueled the ire of Koreans. As a result, independence movements sprouted not only within the peninsula, but all over the world.

Forced ruling
A ruling policy by Japan that eliminated Korea’s sovereignty and ruled over Korea with force

The Korean Military Corporation

Conference of Korean expatriate representatives (April 14 - 16, 1914)

At the end of 1910s Lenin, the mastermind behind the Russian Revolution, declared that nations deserved the right of self-determination, and US President Woodrow Wilson advocated the principle of self-determination, further stimulating Korean independence activities.

Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov)

Principle of national self-determination
(advocated by US President Woodrow Wilson)
A group that has a national or ethical awareness can create its own country and found its own government

Korean activists in the US decided to dispatch some representatives including Syngman Rhee to the Paris Peace Conference in December 1918, and the Shanghai-based New Korea Youth Party dispatched representative Kim Kyu-sik to the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919 to promote Korean independence, and 39 independence activists issued the Proclamation of Korean Independence in Manchuria.

Kim Kyu-sik

Independence march in Longjing, Manchuria (March 1919)

Proclamation of the national assembly in Russia
A document that proclaims the independence of Korea and a promise of open conflict if Japan disagrees

In Japan, Korean students studying there, who heard the news about the international affairs and various Korean independent activities, made a proclamation for independence on February 8, 1919 in Tokyo.

Korean students in Tokyo who lead the February 8 Proclamation of Independence

February 8 Proclamation of Independence
An independence proclamation made on February 8, 1919 by Korean students studying in Tokyo

Back in Korea, a nationalist movement to galvanize the entire nation took place. Christians, Catholics, Buddhists and students plotted to proclaim independence during the funeral of King Gojong, which was guaranteed to gather many mourners.
This was none other than the March First Movement. 33 representative figures including Son Byong-hi, Han Yong-un and Yi Seung-hoon read the Korean Declaration of Independence at a restaurant named Taehwangwan. Following that, some 1,000 students gathered at Tapgol Park read the declaration and marched down the streets, crying for independence. In no time, a large number of civilians joined them, and Korean cries for independence could be heard all over Seoul.
These protests spread all over the nation to other cities and rural villages, and men and women protestors of all genders, ages and walks of life took part. The movement was the largest independence movement in Korean history, and it made Korea’s desire for independence known all over the world.

The March 1 Proclamation of Independence
A document by 33 representative figures proclaiming that Korea is an independent, sovereign state

March First Movement (1919)
A non-violent demonstration against Japanese oppression of Korea that took place on March 1, 1919 and proclaimed independence from Japan

Map of places where the March First Movement was witnessed

As part of expanding independence activities in the aftermath of the March First Movement, government formation plans began to form within and outside Korea.
In Korea, the Hansung Provisional Government was declared, while in Siberia, the Korean National Assembly was declared, and the Provisional Government of Korea was created in Shanghai. These provisional governments immediately took on independence activities, and in September 1919, these governments were united under the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea.

Seoul - Hansung Provisional Government (April 1919)
Maritime Province of Siberia - Korean National Assembly (March 1919)
Shanghai - Korean Provisional Government (April 1919)
Jilin - Goryeo Provisional Government (April 1919)
Pyongyang - New Korean Provisional Government (April 1919)
Seoul - Korean National Provisional Government (April 1919)
Shanghai - Unified Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (September 1919)

The first interim president of this government was Syngman Rhee, and Yi Dong-hwi was the first prime minister.

Syngman Rhee
Yi Dong-hwi

The provisional government created a secret communication network, known as “Yeontongjae,“ published a daily newspaper titled ”The Independent” and took part in various diplomatic activities.
However, the provisional government’s leadership fell into disarray due to conflict between the Siberia and Shanghai factions, between theory of diplomatic independence and the doctrine of armed struggle for independence, and between Rhee and Ahn Chang-ho. In 1923, the Korean National Representatives Conference broke down with no consensus, resulting in a loss of influence.

First volume of the Provisional Government’s bulletin “The Independence”
From October 25, 1919, the name was changed to “The Independence News”

A notice sent to Japanese King by Syngman Rhee, the President of the Republic of Korea
(June 18, 1919)

Key figures of the Provisional Government of 1920

Meanwhile, following the March First Movement, within Korea, the Capacity-enhancing Movement took place to develop skills related to economy and culture.

Knowledge is power. One must learn in order to live.

As a result, there was a drive to promote Korean-made goods to combat the flood of Japanese goods in Korea. On the education front, there was a movement to create a Private Korean University and a literacy campaign to combat Japan’s second-rate education for its colonies.

Promotion of Local Goods
Sprouts and raw cotton grow in the fields. Let’s make them and use them ourselves!

A poster promoting Korean-made goods

Private Korean University Movement
A civic movement to create a Korean university in the early 1920s

An anti-illiteracy movement poster

These movements couldn’t give a direct blow to Japan’s hold on its colonies, but helped make Koreans more capable through education and industrialization.
Factions supporting nationalism and socialism became involved in disagreements over ideology and how to continue the struggle against Japan, creating cracks in the independence movement.

An article from the Dong-a Ilbo published on September 27, 1925
“There are two kinds of currents in Korea. One is the current of nationalism, and the other is the current of socialism.”

There was a push to unify the people regardless of ideology and policy under a united national party.

“We feel the vital and urgent need and declare the creation of the Korean Unitary Independence Party.
- Promotive Association of the Korean Unitary Independence Party

In February 1927, nationalist organization Singanhoe was founded with the slogan “To promote national unity under a single party” and it had alliances with socialist and nationalist factions.

Newly-founded Singanhoe based on nationalism announces doctrine
Dong-a Ilbo
January 20, 1927

Main highlights from Singanhoe’s doctrine
“We facilitate politial and economic awakement.
We firmly believe in unity.
We refuse opportunism.“

Singanhoe conducted its activities through branches nationwide, and held lectures and speeches to inspire nationalism. It also supported freedom of the press, Equalization Movement by youth and women and movements to promote saving and thrift, becoming the best-known representative for the national interests.

Naju section of Singanhoe

Andong section of Singanhoe

Seoul section of Singanhoe

Society of the Friends of the Rose of Sharin opening ceremony
A women’s organization founded by Korean women activists
A support organization for Singanhoe

Jinju section of Singanhoe

However 44 core members, including Chough Pyung-ok, Lee Kwan-yong and Lee Won-hyuk were arrested while planning an people’s rally for supporting the Gwangju students’ resistance against Japan in 1929, shaking the organization.

Main officers of Singanhoe

Security Law forbids a national convention of Singanhoe
Dong-a Ilbo
February 1929

Chough Pyung-ok
Lee Kwan-yong

Officers of Singanhoe arrested for their roles in the people’s rally

With most of the leadership gone, socialists disbanded the organization for a class struggle led by workers and peasants in May 1931, 4 years after its formation.

Measure to disband Singanhoe passed in Pyongyang
Chosun Ilbo
December 29, 1930

A plenary session of Singanhoe’s main branch gathered to disband the group

As the ideology of socialism spread throughout the 1920s, youth movements began to gather steam. On June 10, 1926, the funeral of King Sunjong, students following the funeral procession yelled cries for independence.

Funeral of King Sunjong

June 10 Independence March

...and that the Gwangju students’ resistance against Japan, the largest anti-Japanese protest since the March First Movement, had not only student protestors, but also labor unions, resulting in a more organized struggle.

A secret student independence association based in Gwangju

A manifesto written during the student-led independence movements in Gwangju

The growing awareness of socialism prompted movements of tenant peasants for rights to live to spread nationwide, and labor movements to combat long-hours work and Japanese discrimination against Koreans also gathered in strength.

Workers in the 1929 Wonsan general strike

The peaceful March First Movement highlighted on the contrary the need for armed conflict, and numerous armed independence groups were formed in Manchuria.
Hong Bum-do’s Korea Independence Army, An Mu’s Korea National Association Army and Choi Jin-dong’s Army of Governing Office for Military Affairs came together to form the Northern Military Administration Office Army and fought against the Japanese in Bongoh, Manchuria in June 1920. Some 500 Japanese soldiers were killed in this battle.

Students of the Sinheung Military Academy
The Sinheung School was founded in 1911, and became the Sinheung Middle School before changing its name to the Sinheung Military Academy in 1919

Hong Bum-do / Commander of the Korea Independent Army
An Mu / Commander of the Korea National Association Army
Choi Jin-dong / Commander of the Army of Governming Office for Military Affairs

Northern Military Administration Office Army established

Battle of Bongoh (June 1920)
A battle that took place in Bongoh, Manchuria between the united Korean independence armies and Japan and resulted in a great loss for Japan

That year in October, the Battle of Qingshanli took place. The Northern Military Administration Office Army led by General Kim Chwa-chin united with Hong Bum-do’s Korea Independent Army and the Korea National Association Army fought against Japanese forces deployed in Jiandao, Manchuria. The Korean fighters emerged victorious after six days of intense fighting.

Battle of Qingshanli (October 1920)
A battle in which Kim Chwa-chin’s Northern Military Administration Office Army and Hong Bum-do’s Korea Independent Army fought against and defeated Japanese troops deployed to suppress independence fighters

Kim Chwa-chin / Commander of the Northern Military Administration Office Army

Kim Chwa-chin and the Northern Military Administration Office Army after the end of the Battle of Qingshanli

Retreating Japanese forces after the end of the Battle of Qingshanli

Independence activities flourishing within and outside Korean borders played an important role in arousing dormant anti-Japanese sentiments held by Korean people and helped lead to a unified front against Japanese occupation.

3. Western Powers Supporting Japan until the 1920s

So far as the Western powers supported Japan until 1920s, Korea‘s independence was a very difficult task. Even the United States, which adopted a principle of self-determination of peoples during World War 1, did not support Korean independence.

Principle of national self-determination
(advocated by US President Woodrow Wilson)
A group that has a national or ethical awareness can create its own country and found its own government

When World War I broke out in 1914, Japan took part under the pretext of being an ally of Great Britain and became a victor.

World War 1

With World War 1 breaking out in 1914, Japan participated in the war as an ally of the Great Britain and became a victor of the war.
The victors of the war emphasize the principle of self-determination and forced the dismantlement of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary. Poland and Czechoslovakia debuted as a new independent nation.
But that was all.
This principle didn’t apply to the colonies held by the victors. It’s same for Korea.

German Empire
Austro-Hungarian Empire

To usher in a new world order of peace, the Paris Peace Conference opened. While Kim Kyu-sik was present as a representative of Korea, the United States and most of the West focused on issues relevant to them.

Paris Peace Conference (January 1919 – January 1920)
An international meeting among the victors of World War 1 to decide on the peace terms for the Central Powers

Kim Kyu-sik

Independence documents submitted to the conference by Kim Kyu-sik

Lee Seong-hwan, Professor of Japanese Studies
Keimyung University
At that time, the principle of self-determination was applied throughout Eastern Europe, while it had no effect in Asia. The Great Britain and France opposed the notion as they had numerous colonies in Asia, and the United States had the Philippines as its colony. Hence, I believe that even the United States felt burdened at the idea of applying the principle in Asia.

Lee Hye-jeong, Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Chung-ang University
At the time, the worldview favored imperialism and held racial prejudices, and looking at the international political landscape from an objective point of view, Korea had no opportunity to gain independence at the time.

4. US-Japan Tensions Erupt into the Pacific War

Throughout the 1930s, Japan annexed Manchuria, followed by parts of northern and central China. This triggered an end of alliances between Japan and the West, and it provided an avenue of support for Korean independence.
In the internal and international chaos resulting from the Great Depression of the 1930s, Japan tried to find an escape way, invading the Asian Continent.

Great Depression
A prolonged economic recession that took place in industrialized nations worldwide from 1929 to 1939

Japan, who triggered the Manchurian Incident in 1931, took over Manchuria and set up a puppet state called Manchuko.

Manchurian Incident (September 1931)
A war where Japanese soldiers invaded Manchuria, China’s northeastern region

Japan also began the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, expanding invasion operations against the Chinese mainland. Japan started from northern China and moved towards southern China, grabbing territory along the way.

Manchuria / Beijing / Nanjing / Korea / Japan / Taiwan

Second Sino-Japanese War / July 7, 1937
A war that was meant for Japan to take over the Chinese mainland

Japanese Invasion went hand in hand with Germany’s victory in Europe. With Germany defeating France in June 1940 and expanding its borders, Germany, Italy and Japan became allies that September.

Japan, Germany and Italy become the Axis Powers
September 27, 1940

After that, Japan invaded Southeast Asia, which was part of the British and French spheres of influence
Japan’s first target in Southeast Asia was Vietnam, then under the control of the pro-Germany Vichy France.

Burma / Thailand / Vietnam / Malay Peninsua / Hong Kong / Taiwan / Philippines

Then tensions between the United States and Japan worsened. The United States established a steel and oil embargo against Japan, and called on Japan to withdraw from China and return to pre-war boundaries.
To Japan, this was tantamount to giving up its empire. Militaristic government members wouldn’t take those demands, and chose to go to war against the United States.

Manchuria / Beijing / Nanking / Korea / Japan / Taiwan

Hideki Tojo / Prime Minister of Japan

Japan believed that by destroying the US Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii, Japan could conquer all of Southeast Asia, and the United States would be forced into new rounds of negotiation.

Lee Hye-jeong, Professor of Political Science and International Studies
Chung-ang University
In that situation, Japan needed Dutch-controlled Indonesia in the south for oil, and Indonesia was its only choice.
There was no chance of negotiation with the United States, and no advance to Indonesia without incapacitating the United States’ military force at the back. For that reason, Japan decided to hit the United States’ Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.

In the early hours of December 7, 1941, Japanese naval planes struck Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii without any previous declaration of war.

Attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)
An attack on Pearl Harbor, the base of the US Pacific Fleet by the Japanese Navy

President Franklin Roosevelt called that day “a date which will live in infamy” and declared war on Japan following Congress’s approval.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

His declaration raised the curtains on the Pacific War and changed the dynamics of World War 2.

The United States had been supporting the Allied war effort by lending weapons through the Lend-lease Act, but not directly engaging Germany and Japan in war.

Lend-lease Act (March, 1941)
A program under which the United States could lease weapons and materiel to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China and other members of the Allies. As the public opinion was not favorable to the United States fighting in World War II, this program allowed the United States to indirectly support war efforts

Until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States provided Allied nations with war materials under the Lend-Lease Policy, while not directly engaging with Japan and Germany.
Following the attack, the Great Britain declared war on Japan, while Germany declared war on the United States. The stage was set for the battles between the Allies including the United States, and the Axis Powers.

Great Britain declares war on Japan
Germany declares war on the United States

Allied Nations including the United States vs Axis Powers (Japan / Germany / Italy)

Lee Seong-hwan, Professor of Japanese Studies
Keimyung University
Because the American people were against US participation in World War 2 before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States couldn’t take part in the war. Then the Japan’s attack made the US become involved in World War 2, and thereafter Germany and Japan lost the war in the end.

After attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and New Guinea one after another.

Burma / Thailand / Vietnam / Malay Peninsula / Singapore / East Indies / Hong Kong / Taiwan / Philippines / New Guinea

By February 1942, Japan took over the British colonies of Malaysia, Burma and Singapore. By May, Japan had Manchuria and the coastal part of China up north, Southeast Asia and New Guinea in the south and the southern Pacific under its rule.

5. Independence Activities Continue Despite Hardships

Independence activities continued amidst rising Japanese militarism throughout the 1930s. 
In Manchuria throughout the 1930s, armed independence fighters with socialist leanings expanded their activities and joined forces with Chinese resistance fighters against Japan.
The stagnated Provisional Government also gained newfound vigor.
They found ways to attain large gains with little sacrifice, and in 1931, the Korean Patriotic Legion was established. 

Lee Bong-chang’s written affidavit for the Korean Patriotic Legion
Kim Koo and a bomb maker of the Korean Patriotic Legion

Korean Patriotic Legion
An independence organization whose objective was to assassinate key figures in the Empire of Japan

The Korean Patriotic Legion took part in armed resistance through events like independence activist Lee Bong-chang's assassination attempt of Japanese King Hirohito of January 1932 or Yoon Bong-gil's bombing of Japanese dignitaries in April that year.  These activities provided a morale boost to independence activities. 

Scene of Lee Bong-chang’s assassination attempt of Japanese King Hirohito

Yoon Bong-gil’s bombing / Hongkou Park, Shanghai

Yoon Bong-gil
Lee Bong-chang

Nationalist and socialist organizations active in mainland China, along with the Korean Independence Party and the Organization for the Independence of Joseon came together in 1935 in Manchuria to create the Korean National Revolutionary Party. Conservatives of the Provisional Government like Kim Koo did not take part, and some members of the new party left, but the formation signified efforts to unify independence movements. 

Cho So-ang / Korean Independence Party
Kim Du-bong / Korean Independence Party

Yoon Se-joo / Organization for the Independence of Joseon
Kim Won-bong / Organization for the Independence of Joseon
Park Hyo-sam / Organization for the Independence of Joseon

Yoon Ki-sup / New Korean Independence Party
Shin Ik-hee / New Korean Independence Party
Lee Chung-chun / New Korean Independence Party

Kim Kyu-sik / Korean Independence Party of the Americas
Kim Hak-kyu / Korean Revolutionary Party
Choi Dong-o / Korean Revolutionary Party

Choi Chang-ik / Socialist
Heo Jeong-suk / Socialist

Korean national Revolutionary Party founded

Amid the onset of the second Sino-Japanese War, the Korean National Revolutionary Party created the Korean Volunteers Army with the support of the Kuomintang and fought the Japanese. This was the first time Korean armed forces were based in China. 

Korean Volunteers Army
An independence army formed by General Kim Won-bong and the Korean National Revolutionary Party

The volunteer army successfully engaged in psychological warfare against Japan and attached Japanese rear lines. 
However, the lack of substantial support from the Kuomintang for Korean activities against Japan prompted a shift of troops northward to take a more active role. The Korean Volunteers Army established itself in Northern China and played an integral role in the Battle of Hujiazhuang and efforts to counter Japanese annihilation operations.

Chiang Kai-shek
Director-General of the Kuomintang

In 1933, young socialists joined the Chinese Communist Party's Northeast People's Revolutionary Army.  
The group was reorganized as the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army in 1936 and was active along the border along Korea's Hamgyeong Province. On June 4, 1937, a guerrilla force lead by Kim Il-sung crossed the Yalu River, infiltrated the Kapsan region in South Hamgyeong Province and attacked the local post office, police substation and local government office. 
Japanese troops based in Guandong increased their attacks against anti-Japanese forces in Manchuria. Subsequently, Kim's forces retreated into Soviet-controlled territory. 

Leading figures of the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army in the 1930s

Members of the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army

Kim Il-sung’s forces in the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army in 1937

Police substation in Pochonbo

Japanese government offices on fire as a result of battle

Some 200 armed with machine guns retreat northward
Arson in the streets of Pochonbo
Police substation, post office, school and town office set on fire
Judged to be the work of Kim Il-sung’s forces
Dong-a Ilbo / June 6, 1937

Kanto Special Forces are established to eliminate anti-Japanese fighters

Kim Il-sung and his forces in 1940

In Korea, a movement for Korean cultural preservation was in full swing to combat Japan's policies of Korean cultural annihilation. 
The Research Society for the Korean Language, established in 1921, changed its name to the Korean Language Society in 1931. They established a standard Korean orthography and began compiling the Grand Dictionary of the Korean Language. 

Pledge of the Imperial Subjects

Members of the Research Society for the Korean Language

A meeting of the Korean Language Society regarding the standardization of the Korean language

Grand Dictionary of the Korean Language
A standardization of Korean orthography

On the history front, efforts were made to illuminate Korean history in Korean’s perspective.
There were great advances in fields like nationalistic historiography by figures like Park Eun-shik and Shin Chae-ho, as well as the Korean studies movement to clarify Korean spirits and culture, Socioeconomic history in view of Marxist.

Claims of Japanese officials confiscating and burning 200,000 Korean books
Chosun Ilbo
October 4, 1935

Park Eun-shik
The Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement

Shin Chae-ho
The Early History of Joseon

Lee Byung-do
Sohn Chin-tae

Chintan Hakpo
A journal by the Chintan Society that researches Korean history from a Korean point of view

6. Independence Activity Picks Up After the Sino-Japanese War

As Japan engaged in the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific theater of World War 2, Korea’s independence movement began to expand into military and foreign diplomatic fields.
On one side, various independence organizations came together, while collaboration between rightist and leftist elements increased. In May 1940, 3 nationalist independence organizations unified to create the Korean Independence Party and supported the Provisional Government of Korea. The Provisional Government appointed Kim Koo as President in September, and proclaimed the creed for the foundation of Korea.

Korean National Party / Korean Revolutionary Party / Korean Independence Party
Korean Independence Party

Kim Koo
Appointed as President of the Provisional Government (September 1940)

Creed for the foundation of Korea is proclaimed (November 1940)

The Provisional Government of Korea established the Korean Liberation Army in September 1940 with three divisions.

The Provisional Government of Korea establishes the Korean Liberation Army
September 1940

In May 1941, Kim Kyu-sik, leaders of the Korean National Revolutionary Party based in China and leaders of other socialist organizations joined the Provisional Government.
This established collaboration between leftist and rightist elements among independence organizations based in China.

Collaboration between leftist and rightist elements in independence activities within China
Korean National Revolutionary Party, socialist groups, Kim Kyu-sik
=> Provisional Government of Korea, Korean Independence Party, Kim Koo

The provisional government joined China, the United States and England on December 9, 1941 following Japan’s triggering of the Pacific War and declared war on Japan.

Declaration of war against Japan by the Provisional Government (December 9, 1941)

The Korean Liberation Army fought at the India-Burma front in 1943 by the request of England army, and allied with the United States Office of Strategic Services, created special forces to infiltrate Korea, and looked into advanced operations within Korea in 1945.

The Korean Liberation Army takes part in the Burma Campaign (1943)

Alliances formed with the Office of Strategic Services, special forces for infiltrating Korea are formed

Korean expatriates established the United Korean Committee in Hawaii in April 1941 and the North American Diplomatic Commission as a diplomatic institution. Syngman Rhee was appointed to be in charge of it.
The United Korean Committee supported the Provisional Government and diplomacy efforts through fund-raising .

United Korean Committee / (April 1941)
A unified independence group based in Hawaii

Syngman Rhee
Chairman of the North American Diplomatic Commission

Hong Seon-pyo, Senior researcher
Journal of Korean Independence Movement Studies
The United Korean Committee became a strong independence organization, supporting the Provisional Government and diplomacy, and the North American Diplomatic Commission headed by Syngman Rhee was instrumental to the Provisional Government in applying for the United States’ Lend-Lease policy of military aid and its approval.
Such support by Korean expatriates in the United States and active diplomacy in the United States allowed the Provisional Government to establish the Korean Liberation Army on its own.

US-based Syngman Rhee conveyed news of Japanese losses and Korean independence activities through very high frequency broadcast station Voice of America for a number of weeks during June of 1942.

A broadcast made by Syngman Rhee to Korean expatriates (June 1942)
Very high frequency broadcast by the Voice of America (VOA)

There are good signs of our independence, so let’s band together and overcome the Japanese enemy...

Rhee mentioned Japan’s historically militaristic tendencies, and warned of a Japanese attack against the United States in his book “Japan Inside Out,” published in the summer of 1941 in New York.

Japan Inside Out / by Syngman Rhee
Published in 1941 in New York

Japan’s “Divine Mission” and War Psychology
Tanaka Memorial
Japan Ready to Unmask Herself
The Beginning of the Sino-Japanese War

Japan’s March of Conquest and its Repurcussions
The United States Naval Increase
Japanese Propaganda Should be Checked

There were factions fighting against the Japanese Empire with the Soviet Union’s Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party. The socialist-leaning Korean Independence Alliance was founded in 1942 in northern China. The group’s military wing, the Korean Volunteer Army, allied with the Chinese Communist Party’s Eighth Route Army and fought against the Japanese.

Korean Independence Alliance founded (1942)

Korean Volunteer Army

In Korea, activist Lyuh Woon-hyung organized an underground organization the Korean Restoration Brotherhood in August 1944 in anticipation of Japan’s defeat and Korea’s independence.

Lyuh Woon-hyung

Korean Restoration Brotherhood (August 1944)
An underground organization created by Lyuh Woon-hyung

7. The Allies’ plan about Korea after the War

With the US counterattack the decline of Japan was inevitable.
Following the victory at the Battle of Midway, the United States began military operations against Japan. As Japan had control of the southern part of the western Pacific Ocean, the United States started its operations by focusing on the Solomon Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean.

New Guinea
Solomon Islands

In February 1943, US troops won a hard fought campaign lasting six months in the southernmost island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

Battle of Guadacanal / August 7, 1942 - February 9, 1943
A battle between Japanese and American forces in the southeastern island of Guadacanal in the Solomon Islands. This marked the beginning of the American counterattack

Following its victory, the United States counterattacked Japan, landing in and won Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other Pacific islands.

Midway / Marshall Islands / Gilbert Island / Iwo Jima / Saipan
Guadacanal / Solomon Islands / New Guinea / Philippines / Taiwan / Japan / Korea / Nanking / Beijing / Manchuria / Burma / Thailand / Vietnam / Malay Peninsula / Singapore / East Indies

In order to end the war against Japan, the United States needed the participation of the Soviet Union against Japan.

Nanking / Beijing / Manchuria / Korea / Japan

The Soviet Union would have pushed southward through Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula and the United States in the meantime would have fought northward from the South Pacific Ocean.
The problem with this plan was what to do with the former Japanese colonies like Manchuria and Korea. The United States set a policy that the Allies would jointly administer Korea.

Franklin Roosevelt
U.S. President

This was coded into the Cairo Declaration.
In November of 1943, the leaders of the United States, the Great Britain and China met in Cairo to discuss how to proceed in the war and how to handle the aftermath.

Cairo Conference (November 22~27, 1943)
A summit meeting of the United States, Great Britain and China in Cairo, Egypt to discuss how to fight Japan and how to proceed after the war

The meeting, which lasted for six days, resulted in the Cairo Declaration on December 1, 1943.

Cairo Declaration issued (December 1, 1943)

The declaration explicitly mentioned the independence of Korea.

“The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”
- from the Cairo Declaration

The aforesaid three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.
The key issue in this statement was that Korea would be independent, but only after due course.
The expression “due course” here refers to joint administration and trusteeship under the Allies.
This was a part of the US plan of world order after the war. After its participation in the World War 2, the United States wanted to completely reorganize the global order following the capitulation of Germany and Japan.
The United States envisioned the world in which the US would become the only global super power and the other allied nations would undertake the role of regional powers. The US intended to prevent another World War and make existing colonies falling under the joint control, trusteeship of the Allies.

Lee Hye-jeong, Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Chung-ang University
The United States’s concern was the fact that all major powers had empires, and how these empires could be broken up smoothly. The United States eventually decided not to ignore this issue. They have experience from World War 1 that by employing the principle of self-determination, colonies could fight for independence and the United States could lose control.
Following that were racial prejudices. The general rule at that time was that colonies, including Korea, were incapable of self-rule.
In short, the decision to establish a trusteeship for the Korean Peninsula was based on how empires could be smoothly dismantled on the global stage.

Of course, Korean independence activists in the Provisional Government of Korea played some important roles in writing explicitly the independence of Korea into Cairo Declaration. Premier Jiang Jieshi of China mentioned the free independence of Korea in the conference, with the intention of restoring China’s traditional influence over Korea. But Jiang also was affected by the repeated appeals for international support of independence of Korea from Kim Koo and his colleagues in the Provisional Government of Korea.
The United States gained the agreements of China and the Great Britain for joint trusteeship of Korea in the Cairo Conference.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin did not participate in the Cairo Conference. He attended the next Tehran Conference, a summit meeting of the United States, the Soviet Union and the Great Britain. Roosevelt secured Stalin’s agreement for joint trusteeship of Korea in that Conference.

Joseph Stalin / Leader of the Soviet Union

Tehran Conference (November 28 – December 1, 1943)
A summit meeting of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the Iranian capital of Tehran

Following the occupation of Saipan in June 1944, the United States liberated the Philippines from Japan in February 1945.

June 1944
US forces occupy Saipan

February 1945
The Philippines is liberated

Roughly one month later, the United States took over Iwo Jima, an island about 1,000km away from Tokyo and located in the middle between Saipan and Tokyo.

Japan / Tokyo / Iwo Jima

Battle of Iwo Jima
US forces landed on February 19, 1945, and secured victory in 36 days

Amidst the looming Japanese defeat, the heads of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union met in the resort city of Yalta in the southern Crimean peninsula near the Black Sea in February 1945.

Yalta Conference (February 4 – February 11, 1945)
A summit meeting of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the Black Sea resort town of Yalta where leaders discussed how to proceed after the defeat of Germany

In this conference Soviet operations against Japan in the Far East were also discussed.

Kim Yong-ung, Director of Far Eastern Studies
Russian Academy of Sciences
The Soviet Union was still at war with Germany, so it couldn’t deploy many soldiers in the Far East. The Soviet Union lost 27,000,000 soldiers and civilians during the long war, so to open a front against Japan was not an easy decision. However, as the Soviet Union pledged to help the Allies, it decided to fight against Japan.

The United States and Great Britain agreed on granting the Kuril Islands to the Soviet Union following its victory against Japan.
Moreover, the agreement to joint trusteeship of Korea was confirmed among the three leaders again. As Roosevelt mentioned at least 20~30 years of trusteeship, Stalin replied that the shorter, the better.

Discussions about the Far East issue during the Yalta Conference (February 1945)
The Soviet Union will declare war against Japan within 3 months of German surrender
In return, the Soviet Union will get back the southern part of Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands, which were lost to Japan
The Soviet Union will take part in invading Japan through invading Hokkaido Island
Re-confirm the agreement for joint trusteeship of Korea

Franklin Roosevelt / U.S. President
Korea will be under trusteeship for 20 to 30 years.

Joseph Stalin / Leader of the Soviet Union
The shorter the trusteeship period of Korea is, the better.

8. Japan’s surrender and the end of the World War 2

With the sudden death of US President Franklin Roosevelt due to a stroke in April 1945, Vice President Harry Truman took over the presidency.

April 12, 1945
US President Franklin Roosevelt passes away

Vice-president Harry Truman becomes President

However, Truman was not aware of what his predecessor and Stalin discussed on. Moreover, unlike Roosevelt, who kept to the agreements made with Stalin, Truman worked towards keeping the Soviet Union in check. In the Potsdam conference for the issue of Japan’s surrender Truman evaded discussing about what the Soviet Union would get after the Soviet Union’s operations against Japan.
All the more he decided to get Japan’s surrender before the Soviet Union began fighting against Japan.

Potsdam Conference (July 17 - August 2, 1945)
A summit meeting of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the German town of Potsdam, located in the outskirts of Berlin. The objective of the meeting was to agree on how to proceed following the end of World War 2

To ensure an unconditional surrender, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

August 6, 1945
Atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima

Lee Hye-jeong, Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Chung-ang University
Stalin did a complete about-face, looking at the deployment of the atomic bomb against Japan. Stalin believed that the United States would not leave Far-east Asia, and that this would be a long-range contest. Also the United States believed that the Soviet Union would not back away and instead create satellite states. Stalin immediately declared war on Japan following the atomic bombing because he believed the United States would begin reconstruction in Germany and Japan.
The United States then claimed that it alone would demilitarize Hokkaido, and the United States said it would occupy all of Japan by itself. On paper, this was supposed to be a joint occupation, but it became a sole occupation.

The Soviet Union, which had dragged its feet over fighting Japan, immediately declared war on Japan on August 8, following the drop of the atomic bomb, and began its push into Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula.

August 8. 1945
The Soviet Union declares war on Japan

Manchuria / Korea / Japan / Beijing / Nanking

As the Soviet war machine picked up steam and the United States dropped another atomic bomb in Nagasaki, Japan finally notified its intention to surrender on August 11.

August 9. 1945
Atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki

August 11. 1945
Japan conveys its intentions to surrender

9. The United States and the Soviet Union Agree to the 38th Parallel Division

Japan’s notification of intention to surrender pressed the United States’ stance, as US troops were farther from Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula than the Soviet Union troops.
While Soviet troops occupied Manchuria, they cross the Tumen river on August 9 and entered North Hamgyeong Province. Soviet troops proceeded to Kyungheung August 9, to Woongi 12, and then to Najin 14.
In contrast, the US troops that were the closest to the Korean Peninsula were 1,000km away in Okinawa. No matter how quickly the United States could move its troops, it was difficult to stop a complete Soviet occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

Korea / Japan / Manchuria / Beijing / Nanking / Okinawa / Taiwan
August 9 - Tumen River
August 9 - Kyonghung County
August 12 - Unggi County
August 14 - Rajin

In response, the United States decided to establish a military demarcation line along which Korean Peninsula would be divided and occupied by the US army and the USSR Army.
On August 14, the United States proposed the 38th parallel as a demarcation line to the Soviet Union, which the Soviet Union accepted.
However, taking the speed at which the Soviet troops was progressing into account, Soviet Union didn’t have to agree with the United States’ proposal. Nevertheless Soviet Union accepted it willingly. What was the Soviet Union hinting at?

Former chair-professor of the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy
Konkuk University
Stalin wanted to jointly occupy Japan instead of Korea. However, at that time, the Soviet Union could not overcome the atomic bomb or MacArthur’s resolve, putting it in a disadvantageous position.
As the United States remained firm, the Soviet Union had no choice but to occupy the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. They settled for the occupation of Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands.

10. Deep gratitude of Liberation

The streets of Seoul were oddly quiet on the morning of August 15, 1945.

August 15, 1945

Every Korean was fixated on the radio.
Even though everyone had desired for Liberation, the people were quiet.

Park Seong-su, Professor Emeritus (born in 1931)
The Academy of Korean Studies
I heard the surrender broadcast myself. I couldn’t understand what was being said, except the fact that Japan surrendered. The announcement of liberation was made on the 15th, but we only knew about it on the 16th through flyers.

On the afternoon of the next day, political prisoners jailed in Seodaemun Prison were freed.
Only then did people recognize their liberation, and take to the streets with Taegukgis, or Korean flags, praising their independence.
Some people drew the Taegeukgi on Japanese flags and expressed their joy for liberation, and others spent the day drawing Taegukgis and handing them out. The streets were flooded with Taegukgis.

11. The Soviet Influence above the 38th Parallel

Once the demarcated occupation along the 38th parallel was decided, the Soviet Union moved quickly.

August 24, 1945
Soviet forces are stationed in North Korea (Pyongyang)

They deployed guard troops along the demarcation line, cut railway and communication lines and restricted movement of residents, establishing a blockade. The Soviet Union did all this unilaterally even prior to the United States occupying the southern part of the Korean Peninsula.

The Soviet Union dispatches security forces along the 38th parallel
Railroad, telephone and electricy are all cut
Residents are restricted

The belated American soldiers called on the Soviet Union to lift the blockade and made three requests for negotiations for a unified administration of Korea, but the Soviet Union refused all requests.

September 8, 1945
U.S. forces are stationed in South Korea (Incheon on September 8, 1945; Seoul on September 9)

Yang Dong-an, Professor Emeritus
The Academy of Korean Studies
The Soviet Union also occupied parts of Europe with the United States in a similar manner with Korea, and partially occupied Germany and Austria. There were 3 United States-Soviet Union partial occupations after World War 2, and they were in West Germany, Austria and Korea. However, in Germany and Austria, the Soviet Union did not immediately set up a blockade. The Soviet Union established a blockade in Germany in 1948, and in Austria, the Soviet Union didn’t set up a blockade until 1955, when they withdrew. However, in Korea, the Soviet Union occupied its side and set up a blockade all in the span between August 23 and August 27, 1945.
It can be assumed that the Soviet Union strongly wanted to set up a Communist government in Korea in particular compared to other regions jointly occupied with the United States.

12. The First Council of Foreign Ministers, where US-USSR Tensions Grew

An event that had significant influence on the future of the Korean Peninsula took place.

Event Reenactment

The foreign ministers of the five Allied powers of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China and France met in London in September 1945 to discuss post-war efforts.
The heroes were the American, British and Soviet ministers.

London Conference of Foreign Ministers
September 12-October 2, 1945

The United States and Great Britain were against the Soviet Union establishing Communist governments in Eastern Europe. As for the Soviet Union, it did not agree with the occupation of the Mediterranean Sea and Japan by the United States and Great Britain.
The Soviet Union demanded joint trusteeship of Japan, free access to the Dardanelles Strait as part of gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea and cessation of Libya’s Tripolitania.
However, the United States and Great Britain rejected these demands.

Japan / Korea / Manchuria
Black Sea / Dardanelles Strait / Tripolitania

Soviet demands
1. Rights to joint trusteeship of Japan
2. Free access to the Dardanelles Strait in Turkey
3. Cessation of Libya’s Tripolitania

A substantial split between the United States and the Soviet Union appeared during this conference, and Stalin pushed for the Communization of East Asia.

13. The Soviet Union’s Secret Orders

Firstly, amidst the London meeting, Stalin issued secret orders to the Soviet troops stationed in the Far East.
Stalin ordered the formation of a democratic bourgeois government with the anti-Japanese groups in North Korea. It was an order to establish a government in northern Korea as an unit.

Establish a bourgeois government based on anti-Japanese factions

Secondly, Stalin ordered the Chinese Communist Party to resume the Chinese Civil War.

Andrei Lankov, Professor of Korean Studies
Kookmin University
The Cold War era opened up, and hopes for cooperation and agreement disappeared.
Pro-Soviet governments were being fostered in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In December 1945, Soviet Colonel-General Iosif Shikin, who was in charge of North Korea’s political policies, was ordered to implement bourgeois reform like land reform, establish political policies in the benefit of the Soviet Union, and a centralized ruling system.

Implement land reform and other bourgeois reform
Establish political policies that will benefit Soviet interests
Establish a centralized ruling system
- Report of the Soviet Politburo / December, 1945

14. North Korea’s Transformation into Socialism

These series of events meant that a separate regime was being established in North Korea. For the sake of it the Soviet Union pulled Kim Il-sung into North Korea in September and established the North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea in Pyongyang in October. The Soviet Union wanted to lead communists in North Korea without going through the Communist Party of Korea in Seoul. The Soviet Union tried to established a separate communist party in Pyongyang, but due to the communist principle of the one-party system it could make a communist party in North Korea in form of a branch bureau of the Communist Party of Korea in Seoul. The branch bureau was independent of the Seoul-based Communist Party of Korea led by Park Heon-young.

Kim Il-sung comes to North Korea
September 19, 1945

North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea established
October 10, 1945

Park Heon-young, leader of the Communist Party of Korea

In December 1945, the bureau changed its name to the Communist Party of North Korea, and Kim Il-sung was named chairman. It made clear that the communist party organization in North Korea was completely independent from the communist party in Seoul and Kim Il-sung was chosen by the Soviet Union.

North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party of Korea decides to change name to Communist Party of North Korea
December 1945

Kim Il-sung appointed as chairman

In February 1946, the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of North Korea established the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea and appointed Kim Il-sung as chairman. It was, for all intents and purposes, a single government responsible for creating and implementing laws.

North Korean Provisional People’s Committee established
February 8, 1946

Kim Il-sung appointed as chairman

The committee’s first task was land reform, meant to completely change North Korean land division and society.

North Korean land reform / implemented in March 1946
All privately owned land confiscated with no compensation and divided among farmers for free
Landowners are expelled from their homes

In March 1946, the North Korean government unilaterally confiscated land from landowners and divided and distributed the land freely among farmers. The land reform ended within 20 days, and landowners were deported. The 90,000-strong Farmland Committee, which was responsible for the reform, registered for the Communist Party and became an important pillar for North Korean socialism.
The land reform was something that was naturally needed, but it was something that should have been discussed as a nation after a unified government was established.
The Soviet Union implemented social reform following the land reform. Those who were against Communism were billed as pro-Japanese collaborators, reactionaries and anti-nationalists, and were all purged.
In August 1946, 90% of North Korea’s major industrial facilities were nationalized.

North Korea’s social reform
Anti-Communists purged
90% of major industries nationalized

Ahn Chan-il, Expert
The World Institute for North Korea Studies
The implementation of land reform and return of land to farmers, as well as the nationalization of industries and establishment of laws that granted factory employees control of the factories mean the nation was all but adopted socialism.

15. Epilogue

However, in contrast to North Korea’s rapid transformation towards socialism, South Korea still lacked direction.
U.S. forces arrived in South Korea much later than Soviet forces did in North Korea, and prominent figures like Syngman Rhee and Kim Koo weren’t able to return in a timely manner.
The U.S. Army government insisted on waiting for consensus from the victors of World War 2 regarding Korea instead of implementing a new ruling order.
In a few months after the liberation a dense fog lay over the Korean Peninsula due to the diverging paths of the two Koreas.

How will this crisis be overcome? Korea once again needs courage and wisdom.

North Korea goes on its own path after liberation
What is the way to establish an unified government?