If this author had to pick the most important year in East Asian history, it would probably be 1945 – the year the fall of the Japanese Empire dramatically changed the situation in the entire region.
Many different possibilities were considered for Japan’s former possessions, including the colony of Korea.
One such document on the peninsula’s fate was “A Note of Former Japanese Colonies and Mandate Territories” (Записка к вопросу о бывших японских колониях и подмандатных территориях).
Composed by the Head of the Department of the United States of America in the Soviet People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, Semyon Tsarapkin, on September 5, it showed that by that time, the Soviet Union either did not have exact plans on what to do with Korea, or, at least, these plans were so secret that even some high-ranking bureaucrats were not aware of them.
The note was written on the premise that, eventually, the peninsula would be divided into four occupation zones – that of USSR, UK, U.S., and China. Such a plan was implemented in “mainland” Germany and Austria, which saw its independence returned, and was also planned to be implemented in the Japanese mainland. Perhaps Tsarapkin believed that Korea was to be treated as Austria was.
The note featured many uncommon names for Korean cities and places – either Japanese or those which preceded colonization. Korea, as most non-state entities, was not given much attention from other nations, including the USSR, and this was the result.
Tsarapkin suggested that Quelpart (Cheju) island become part of the Chinese occupation zone, suggesting that Soviet diplomats could allow China to use the island to strengthen the Soviet-Chinese base in Port Arthur. Moscow-Nanjing relations at the time were quite friendly, so this support for the ROC was not unusual.
He also suggested that Tsushima island should be given to Korea, given the official reasoning that this island “was a base for Japan’s aggression against the continent, including Korea.”
The Soviet occupation of northern Korea was to be maintained for as long as the American occupation of the southern part, after which Korea was to be put under an international trust, ruled by all the four powers, after two years of occupation, i.e. in 1947.
But Moscow also wanted the four ports of Fuzan (Pusan), Chinkai (Chinhae), Quelpart (Cheju), and Chemulpho (Inchon) to be controlled by the Soviet military command even after 1947. Notably, all were located to the South of the 38th parallel.
In case the Americans did not agree – and Tsarapkin thought they would not – joint Soviet-Chinese control was to be suggested as an alternative.
None of the ideas Semyon Tsarapkin suggested were ultimately put in motion. There were no British or Chinese occupation zones of Korea. There were talks and further plans to make Korea a UN trust territory – but these plans ending in failure. Finally, there was no motion to give the USSR control of any ports in Korea, and the Port-Arthur territory was also returned to China in 1955, with arguably the only major consequence of Soviet rule there being that this was the place where a future Russian Prime Minister, Sergey Stepashin, was born.
What, however, this note does show, is that the creation of a separate North Korean state was not a set policy: Tsarapkin clearly had the Austrian example in the mind when he was writing about Korea.
As we know, of the three divided nations – Austria, Korea, and Germany – Austria was the only one where Allied occupation ended with the creation of a unified and democratic country. So why did Korea fail to become an Austria?
The key figure in securing Austrian independence and unity was undoubtedly Karl Renner. Renner, a left-leaning social democrat, was the leading figure in creating the first independent Austrian state after the collapse of Austro-Hungary and German-Austria.
In April 1945, immediately before the collapse of the Hitler regime, Renner organized a group of politicians from the pre-1938 parties to form a provisional government in Vienna. A broad coalition – from conservatives to communists – led by a left social democrat generally perceived as the father of the nation, did look like a credible attempt to create a national government, acceptable to both the Soviets and the Anglo-Americans.
The Soviets were the first to recognize it, and on October 20, it was recognized as the government of all Austria by the Western Allies, too. After the Communist Party did terribly in the national elections, and Moscow calculated that the creation of East Austria would make the small country an economic burden on the USSR, while West Austria would become a much more prominent member of the Western world, the USSR decided that a neutral, unified country would be more in line with its interests. The final agreement was signed on May 15, 1955 – and an independent Austria was born.
Why couldn’t this happen in Korea? The closest individual to be Korea’s Renner was Yo Un-hyong. A left-wing independent activist, he even met Lenin in Moscow – but was not himself a Communist.
Importantly, it was Yo who was tasked by the last Japanese Governor-General, Abe Nobuyuki, to oversee the transfer of power. The last colonial ruler of Korea deserves a lot of credit for making the process of power transfer in Korea as smooth and bloodless as possible.
Yo established the proto-Government called “the Central People’s Committee of the Korean People’s Republic,” but he made a major error. Instead of appointing himself to lead it, he proclaimed Lee Sung-man as its president. The newly appointed leader was probably the most pro-American figure in Korea – the Westernized form of his name that he adopted, “Syngman Rhee”, was vivid evidence of this. A government led by this man could not be acceptable to the USSR, and ultimately, was not recognized by the United States either.
Interestingly, the Soviet Union tried to promote Yo Un-hyong as the leader of a united Korea again in 1946. Moscow was willing to discard Kim Il Sung as the head of the state, making him a war minister in the unified government instead. However, the cabinet itself had its key positions reserved for the left, and this was unacceptable to Washington.
Thus, no entity to represent Koreans at the talks was created, and they became solely a Soviet-American issue. Yo himself was murdered in 1947 by a right-wing radical.
History developed in Korea in a way completely different from Austria. And while the European state became unified in 1955, one can only wonder if this will happen to Korea in our lifetime.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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