For a brief moment in the summer of 1945 there was joy in Korea.
Koreans, who had suffered 35 years of of brutal Japanese colonial occupation prior to Tokyo’s defeat in World War II, celebrated what they believed was their liberation by victorious US and Soviet forces. Full of hope for a future free of foreign rule, they proudly declared their independence.
That hope was soon dashed. It was announced that the victorious allied powers, the US and the USSR, would be occupying the entire Korean Peninsula. The USSR would take the north, the US the south.
Like so many other imperial endeavors, the division of Korea along the 38th Parallel was an exercise in arbitrariness and utter disregard for the wishes of the people it affected. The people of Korea very quickly realized that they were merely trading one occupying empire for another.
A survey of Koreans in the summer of 1946 found that 77% preferred socialism or communism while only 14% favored capitalism. However, in the South, the US backed the right-wing dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, a conservative Christian and staunch anti-communist who ruled with an iron fist. In the North, the USSR installed former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader and Red Army officer Kim Il Sung.
In 1948, the division of Korea was looking increasingly permanent. And politics was turning murderous.
The killing begins
By early 1950 there were more than 100,000 political prisoners in the South. Summary executions of leftists, both real and imagined, claimed tens of thousands of lives as the South’s police-state reign of terror rivaled the outrages of the communist North.
As efforts to negotiate a unified Korean state failed, nascent anti-government insurgencies grew in the South, notably on Jeju Island. They were brutally repressed.
Brief but bloody border skirmishes escalated. Both Rhee and Kim sought unification through invasion.
Seventy years ago today – on June 25, 1950 – Kim went for broke. Northern forces launched an all-out invasion of the South.
Seoul, the South’s capital, fell three days later. America’s supreme commander in the Far East, Tokyo-based General Douglas MacArthur, was soon convinced that American boots on the ground were the key to repulsing Northern aggression.