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History of U.S. Occupation of Korea

March 30, 2013

Recent exposures of atrocities committed by the U.S. military during the Korean War have again provided a glimpse of the typical methods used by U.S. imperialism. Such monstrous crimes against the people are the inevitable product of the aims of U.S. imperialism.

U.S. imperialism launched the Korean War in order to deprive the Korean people of independence, permanently partition the country and occupy South Korea. This war was part of U.S. imperialism's post-World War II strategy to suppress communism and the movements for national liberation and to extend its own colonial empire to the four ends of the earth. To this day, the U.S. maintains its occupation of Korea just as it remains, on a world scale, the center of counter-revolution and main obstacle to the peoples' struggles for national liberation, progress and emancipation.

The struggle of the Korean people against U.S. occupation and for the reunification of their country – a struggle which the people have persisted in for more than 60 years – is an inseparable part of humanity's struggle for progress and peace. The struggle of the Korean people deserves the support of people everywhere.

The following article provides a political history of U.S. intervention in Korea.

The Partition of Korea and U.S. Military Occupation

In early August, 1945, just prior to the surrender of Japanese forces throughout Asia, U.S. officials decided to partition the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. In the weeks following Japan's unconditional surrender on August 14th, U.S. military forces moved quickly into the southern half of the Korean peninsula. John Hodge, commander of the US Army's XXIV Corps, was appointed Commanding General of Korea by General Douglas MacArthur, the Commander of all U.S. military forces in the Pacific.

Although U.S. officials had previously expressed support for "a free and independent Korea," such as in the statement issued at the 1943 Cairo Conference, it soon became apparent that the US government and its army commanders in Korea were following an entirely different agenda.

The US army had moved into Korea, for example, under the stated goal of "disarming the Japanese military." But rather than disarming them, General Hodge and MacArthur did just the opposite. Hodge declared in early September, for example, that although Japan had surrendered, its colonial government in Korea would continue to function, and he stated that he doubted Koreans would ever be able to govern by themselves since "they were the same breed of cat" as the Japanese. American officers commented frequently about the "camaraderie that existed between the Japanese and American officials" throughout the early months of U.S. occupation. The US army eventually replaced most of the Japanese officials, but many of the Korean officials who had collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation were retained. U.S. army officials admitted that the Japanese continued to "play an important role as advisors" for quite some time, and the national police force setup in Korea by the Japanese during the war was reestablished, and granted immense power and authority by the Americans.

The U.S. thus established a military occupation of South Korea while retaining much of the old colonial government. The U.S. also setup a refurbished colonial bureaucracy throughout the south. Many of the Korean magistrates appointed by the U.S. to occupy the top judicial and police positions were either previous collaborators with the Japanese or were linked with wealthy upper-class Korean families or the large-landholding classes. Many U.S. army officers reported that such individuals, along with the previous Japanese officials, played a key role in providing the U.S. with "lists of Korean people who were viewed as friends or enemies."

For the new U.S. occupiers of Korea, such "lists" were important since what they saw when they entered Korea in the fall of 1945 was a people organized everywhere into local self-governing bodies and "peoples committees." Thousands of workers and peasants committees existed in every town and village throughout the north and south. These committees had developed in the course of resistance to Japanese occupation and represented the new, democratic and independent Korea which the people were trying to bring into being. Hodge immediately outlawed these democratic organizations and proclaimed on October 17, 1945 that "the military government office is the sole government of Korea...if there is any person who complains of the orders or deliberately slanders the military government, he shall suffer punishment."  The Communist Party was also outlawed and in 1946, in order to further suppress democratic rights and freedom of association, the U.S. proclaimed the "Political Party Registration Law" under which "every political party or organization with more than three members" was required to provide membership lists to the U.S. authorities. Tens of thousands of Koreans were arrested and imprisoned as a result of such laws, and the U.S. military government, in collaboration with the pro-U.S. Korean militias, unleashed a savage war of repression against all Koreans calling for independence and an end to U.S. occupation. Thousands of Korean communists and democratic activists were killed by U.S. military forces between 1945-1950.

In opposition to the Korean peoples' demands for independence and end to colonial enslavement, the U.S. installed its own puppet-government led by Syngman Rhee. Rhee was known by many Koreans as a staunch reactionary and a traitor who had "begged U.S. officials for the Korean mandate" throughout the 1920s and 30s. He was educated at Princeton, had many friends in the OSS (the U.S. military intelligence division and forerunner of the CIA), and during World War II he lived comfortably in America where he promised various mining and other U.S. capitalists economic rights and concessions in Korea in return for political favor. In 1945, MacArthur flew Rhee back into Korea, and the U.S. immediately took steps to install a separate government in the south and to guarantee a permanent colonial military base.

The establishment of a permanent military base in Korea was an important part of U.S. imperialism's strategy during the post World War II years. The "Cold War" ideology and the imperialist program of "containing communism" and suppressing the peoples' independence movements throughout Asia shaped U.S. foreign policy in the region.

In 1947, the U.S. pushed a resolution through the United Nations calling for the establishment of a "temporary commission" and an election in Korea "under UN supervision."  The proposal was opposed by the Soviet Union and by many Koreans as it was seen as a tool by which the U.S. would permanently divide Korea, and solidify its colonial rule on the peninsula by setting up its own puppet government.  Despite such objections, however, in January, 1948, the UN commission was established in south Korea and formally announced that an election would be held in May.

In response to the UN announcement, millions of Koreans came out in struggle against the US occupation.  Strikes and demonstrations broke out everywhere, and the US military authorities responded with unprecedented suppression.  Armed struggles occurred in many places between US soldiers and Koreans opposed to the division of their country. In May of 1948, as a result of widespread strikes and demonstrations, the US mobilized enormous numbers of tanks, battleships and bombers to the region. Barricades and machine guns were setup around the polling stations. On May 10, the day of the "election," the US authorities declared a state of emergency as millions of Koreans demonstrated and workers declared a general strike. Even the highest "official" US estimates indicated that only about 10-20 percent of Korean voters participated in the election.

Despite the widespread opposition to the election, however, US authorities established a Korean "National Assembly" on "the basis of the election results," and in August officially announced "a victory for democracy" and the establishment of the "South Korean Government." Syngman Rhee was declared by the US military government as the south's new head of state.

In response to the fraudulent elections and creation by the US of a separate government in the south, Koreans in the north and south held elections to a Supreme Peoples Assembly, which on the basis of the election results was created in September. On September 9th, Kim Il Sung was elected Head of State and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) was officially established north of the 38th parallel. The main points of the DPRK's program included the struggle for national reunification and the withdrawal of US armed forces from Korea, as well as the democratization of the entire country and the establishment of an independent national economy.

(to be continued)