The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 25      June 28, 2010

Roots of the Korean
fight for reunification
(feature article / First in a series)
Sixty-five years after Washington engineered the division of Korea at the end of World War II, that country is still split into North and South. The desire by working people for reunification is the driving force of politics on the Korean Peninsula today. Six and a half decades of separation have not been able to eliminate the struggle expressed in the slogan “Korea is one.”

The partition of Korea “remains the most important and explosive unresolved national division imposed by the victors of World War II,” notes Jack Barnes, Socialist Workers Party national secretary, in an article titled “U.S. Imperialism Has Lost the Cold War,” published in issue 11 of New International magazine.

The SWP supports the determined fight by working people and youth on both sides of the 38th parallel, Barnes said in a 2005 message to the Workers Party of Korea, for “the withdrawal of all imperialist armed forces from the seas surrounding Korea; for the removal of all U.S. troops from your country; and, in the process, for the restoration of a united and sovereign Korea.”

Korean workers and peasants have a long record of resistance to foreign occupation and imperialist domination. In 1910 Korea became a formal Japanese colony. The Japanese colonial administration suppressed teaching the Korean language and Korean history in schools and denied the Korean people freedom of assembly, speech, and the press.

In 1919 an estimated 2 million people joined a wave of pro-independence demonstrations that swept Korea. The colonial authorities arrested 47,000 people and some 23,000 Koreans were killed or wounded. In the 1920s the Japanese secret police succeeded three times in infiltrating and destroying the communist party in Korea, which was helping to lead the fight against the occupation. Each time the party was reestablished.

Repression by the Japanese imperialists became even harsher in the ’30s and ’40s. All Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and instructed to practice the Japanese Shinto religion. Magazines and newspapers in the Korean language were banned. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were drafted into the Japanese armed forces or to work for its war industry. Resistance, including a guerrilla movement, continued.

The Japanese occupation sped the industrialization of Korea and forged a growing working class; by 1942 some 24 percent of farmland and 80 percent of the forests were Japanese-owned.  
People’s Committees formed
The defeat of the Japanese army in World War II opened the road for a massive resurgence of the fight for Korean independence. Within two weeks of the Japanese surrender 145 People’s Committees were functioning, many with participation from 16,000 political prisoners the colonial authorities were forced to release.

Japanese troops were disarmed, peasants began expropriating large landholdings of Japanese and Korean landlords, and workers committees controlled almost all the Japanese-owned factories in the country.

By Sept. 6, 1945, the People’s Committees met in Seoul and formed a new government, the Korean People’s Republic, led by Lyuh Woon Hyung.

But two days after the formation of the new government and in flagrant disregard for Korea’s national sovereignty, U.S. troops landed in the south. This was part of an agreement with the Stalinist regime in Moscow to divide the country at the 38th parallel to “accept” the Japanese surrender and impose a “trusteeship” in Korea. Soviet troops were already in the north.

While Moscow recognized the Korean People’s Republic, the U.S. Army Military Government declared itself the sole government in South Korea on October 10. It soon decreed that it would enforce the laws put in place by the hated Japanese occupiers. It dissolved the Congress of the People’s Republic, arrested leaders of the People’s Committees, banned strikes, and placed Japanese-owned factories that workers had occupied under military control.

“The population should unreservedly obey the orders issued over my signatures,” decreed U.S. general Douglas MacArthur. “Those acting against the occupation or violating order and tranquility will be mercilessly and severely punished. For the period of military occupation, English is introduced as the official language.”

In the North, meanwhile, a series of radical reforms in the interest of working people were being implemented at least as early as 1946, including a thoroughgoing land reform, expropriation of Japanese-owned property, punishment of Koreans who collaborated with the occupation, and laws guaranteeing formal equality for women.

One indication of the popularity of the revolutionary measures was that some 350,000 Koreans who had been living in Japan, many of them originally from the South, chose to return to the North.

In the South, U.S. forces and their landlord and capitalist allies were doing all they could to stamp out any resistance by workers and peasants there. They kept in power, or returned to positions of authority, Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation.

Mass protests against the occupation in almost every town and city in the South from September to November 1946 were brutally suppressed, including a strike by railroad workers in September that grew into a general strike. By July 1947 there were more than 20,000 political prisoners in the South. After a National Security Law was enacted in 1948, 90,000 people were arrested.

In August 1948 Washington installed Syngman Rhee, already hated for unleashing a reign of terror against workers and peasants, as president of the Republic of Korea in the South. A month later revolutionary forces inaugurated the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and named Kim Il Sung premier. From the very beginning the government in the north declared its determination to win reunification of the entire country.

In 1950 the clash between Koreans’ determination for reunification and U.S. imperialism’s drive to overturn the revolution in the North and quell the resistance in the South erupted in war. That will be the subject of the next article.  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home