Soviet occupation and the national division of Korea
In August 1945, when the decision to divide Korea – initially for purposes of military control alone – was made in great haste and with little deliberation, neither the U.S. nor Soviet Union had any far-reaching plans for the peninsula’s future. However, Cold War logic soon made division almost inevitable.
When Soviet troops arrived in northern Korea, they had little knowledge of the country they were to govern; documents confirm that the 25th Army was preparing to fight the Japanese, not to govern Koreans. Nearly everywhere Soviet troops occupied in 1944–45, the Soviet Union attempted to encourage the creation of pro-Soviet, left-wing governments. However, they quickly discovered that northern Korea had rather prominent right-leaning leaders, but was almost devoid of any significant leftists.
The Soviet government understood that Cho Mansik, the venerable leader of the Nationalist Right, was a likely candidate to lead the emergent government in northern Korea (at least as a figurehead). Cho was allowed to establish his own ‘Democratic Party’, but the Soviet occupiers also insisted that communists be given some key positions in the nascent provisional local governing organs that emerged – sometimes spontaneously, and sometimes under the Soviet tutelage
– in late August and early September.
From September 1945, the USSR began to encourage Korean communists from overseas to come home. One such exile was a former guerrilla field commander from Manchuria, whose bold military exploits in the 1930s attracted some attention before he escaped to the USSR and spent 1942–45 as a captain in the Soviet army. The young officer was known by his nom de guerre, Kim Il-sung.
By late September 1945, the Soviet occupation had ensured that these local organs (known as ‘people’s committees’) would include a sufficient number of communists. For a while, the Sovi et authorities flirted with the idea of a broad coalition of local anti-Japanese, left-leaning forces. However, such plans seem to have been aborted by early 1946, with the advent of the Cold War.
In December 1945, the Soviet Union reluctantly accepted U.S. proposals to establish trusteeship on the Korean peninsula in order to ‘guide Korea towards full independence’. The news about this agreement reached Korea in early January and triggered a massive outburst of popular anger: many Koreans saw this as an attempt to deny their country full independence.
Like other Korean nationalists, Cho Mansik could not accept the trusteeship plan and made clear that he would not cooperate with the Soviets on this and other issues. Admittedly, he was a difficult person to deal with from the very beginning, unwilling to show deference to the Soviet generals and unready to compromise. After his refusal to approve the trusteeship plans, Cho was immediately arrested, together with some of his most trusted confidants (to be summarily executed in a Pyongyang jail in October 1950). Most nationalist leaders and their sympathizers ran south.
By that time, the Cold War began to intensify, making the Soviet government even less willing to tolerate non-communist governments in areas under Soviet military control. From the spring of 1946, there was little reason to doubt that the creation of a separate state in northern Korea was the most acceptable outcome for Moscow. The Soviet administration began to promote Kim Il-sung, who by that time had strengthened his position among northern Korean communists. In February 1946, he was appointed to head the North Korean proto-government whose composition was decided by the Soviet commanders and included many recent arrivals to Pyongyang from China and the Soviet Union, as well as some local leftists.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union with respect to the status of Korea took on an increasingly pro-forma quality. It is telling that instructions from Moscow to the Soviet representatives largely dwelt on what should be done once the American side rejected Soviet proposals. These proposals were designed to exclude all rightwing and centrist parties in the proposed joint-Korean government on the pretext that these parties had opposed trusteeship and thus were unacceptable to the USSR.
These diplomatic manoeuvres had little actual meaning. By summer 1946, a separate state began to develop in northern Korea and, by 1947, its military commanders began to draft plans for an attack against South. Very similar developments happened south of the 38th Parallel. The Cold War, combined with local agitation, completely destroyed whatever little chance of unification that might have existed in 1945.