From V-J Day to June 1950
Wartime discussions regarding the post–World War II East Asian order had been brief and amorphous. Nevertheless, there was a general agreement that Japan, once defeated, would be stripped of its overseas territories and placed under foreign occupation. China, at that time the Republic of China (ROC) under Jiang Jieshi's Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) party and identified as one of the Big Five powers, would assume Japan's former role in enforcing Asian stability and order.
Because of the Allies' Germany First strategy, the end of the war in the Pacific in August 1945 left many issues regarding the postwar order in East Asia undecided, including Korea's postwar disposition. According to the 1943 Cairo and 1945 Yalta agreements, Korea, which had been annexed by Japan in 1910, would again become independent under the guidance of an Allied trusteeship. When Japan surrendered, the Allies hastened to cobble together an interim agreement regarding Korea. Soviet and U.S. troops would take the surrender of Japanese forces, Soviet troops north of the 38th Parallel and U.S. troops south of it. This division was to be temporary, pending the independence of Korea.
On 2 September 1945, Japan formally surrendered. According to the August 1945 Potsdam Protocol, the Soviet Union took possession of Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands (the latter never having been Russian before). The United States assumed responsibility for the occupation of the Japanese home islands, with General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), supervising the occupation and implementation of the Potsdam directives governing Japanese disarmament, demilitarization, and democratization.
MacArthur, supported by 350,000 U.S. troops, installed a temporary military government. Japanese armed forces and national police forces were dissolved, the zaibatsu (military-industrial companies) were dismantled, and war criminals were tried and executed. In 1947 a new constitution, along a British-style constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system, came into force. Under MacArthur's guidance, a peace clause was incorporated into the constitution forbidding Japan from waging war and restricting military expenditures to no more than 1 percent of its national budget.
In light of the onset of the Cold War in Europe, Japanese occupation policy was modified. A reverse course was set into motion by 1948, halting dissolution of the zaibatsu and relying upon rapid economic recovery to keep communism at bay. U.S. authorities also carried out drastic reforms in education, land redistribution, and economic liberalization to ensure that Japan would remain firmly in the Western bloc.
The occupation of the Korean Peninsula was, by contrast, frustrating. Because Japan had invaded the Asian mainland through the Korean Peninsula, the Soviet Union sought a pro-Soviet satellite to safeguard its security, as it had sought a cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union installed veteran communist and anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung, who had fought with the Red Army as an officer in World War II, to head the provisional government in its zone. The Soviets also helped organize the Korean Workers' Party (KWP), which ultimately became the sole political party of North Korea.
In their zone, American occupation forces worked to install in power the staunchly anticommunist Syngman Rhee, who had spent a number of years in the United States. Both Kim and Rhee wanted to reunify Korea but under their own leadership. Conflicting ideologies and strategic concerns thus conspired to doom efforts to reunify Korea. In September 1947, the United States handed over the Korean question to the United Nations (UN). In accordance with a November 1947 UN resolution, elections were held in South Korea in early summer 1948 (North Korea refused to admit the UN team), leading to the establishment of the ROK in August 1948, with Rhee as the first president. In response, the Soviets helped create the DPRK that September, with Kim as premier. The birth of these new nations marked the end of the joint occupation, followed by the pullout of Soviet and U.S. occupation forces in the winter of 1948–1949. With European concerns paramount and anxious not to provide Rhee with sufficient arms by which he might begin a war of reunification, the United States pursued a hands-off policy toward Korea. Kim, meanwhile, embarked on an arms buildup using Japanese arms and weapons left behind by the departing Red Army.
Postwar developments in China were both troubling and disappointing. The Allies' vision of a strong, united, and democratic China quickly faded. Indeed, as soon as the war had ended, Jiang renewed the decades-old struggle against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), headed by Mao Zedong. As V-J Day approached, Jiang secured a U.S. pledge to extend Lend-Lease aid in the name of postwar reconstruction. To secure Soviet leader Josef Stalin's neutrality, Jiang made critical concessions to the Soviets in September 1945, including the granting of de facto Soviet control over key industries and communication lines in Chinese northeastern and western provinces, and recognition of Mongolian independence, a buffer between the ROC and the Soviet Union. Having secured support from both the United States and the Soviet Union, Jiang renewed his anti-CCP campaign, culminating in a full-scale civil war (1947–1949).
Most of China's former allies adopted a neutral stance toward the civil war except for the United States, which provided additional assistance to Jiang under the Economic Cooperation Act of April 1948. By late 1948, however, the Americans were convinced that Jiang would lose the war due to his unpopularity, dictatorial nature, lack of meaningful reforms, and the corruption in the GMD government. The CCP, meanwhile, was able to win mass support. Concurrently preoccupied with the Berlin Blockade (1948–1949) and believing that it had done enough, Washington refused to provide additional assistance to Jiang. Beginning in early 1949, the United States withdrew its personnel from China, and in August 1949 it declared a hands-off policy.
On 1 October 1949, Mao proclaimed the PRC, which was immediately followed by Soviet recognition and the conclusion of the February 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. The defeated Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan, refusing to concede defeat and acting as if they were still the legitimate rulers of China.
On 25 June 1950, having secured the approval of Stalin, Kim ordered his troops to cross the 38th Parallel to bring South Korea under his control, provoking the Korean War. When U.S. and UN forces defeated the invading North Koreans and then began their own invasion of North Korea, the PRC entered the war. The war soon became a protracted three-year-long military confrontation between the United States and the PRC. The Korean War came to a halt on 27 July 1953 when both sides signed an armistice that virtually restored the status quo ante bellum. No peace settlement has yet been concluded.
The Korean War, widely perceived as an unanticipated hot war in an area of peripheral concern, dramatically polarized East Asia into another Cold War front. Perceiving Kim's attack as the beginning of Soviet expansionism in Asia, Washington drastically reoriented its Asian foreign policy, which evolved from indifference into overt commitment and even military activism. Japan was assigned a new strategic role as a military base and arsenal for U.S. forces and as a bastion to contain communism. As a consequence, the United States hastened a peace treaty with Japan, culminating in the 8 September 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty that ended the occupation in 1952 and granted full Japanese sovereignty. Later the same day, the United States–Japan Security Treaty was signed. Japan was now required to rearm to cope with internal threats and disorder, while the United States maintained the right to deploy military forces on Japanese soil. As a sovereign power, Japan was entitled to seek out foreign and collective defense assistance in case of external invasion. By these terms, the Americans assured themselves of a military presence in East Asia.
Regarding South Korea, the United States also reversed its previous policy of disengagement. The Americans extended substantial military assistance to enhance the ROK's armed forces. In October 1953 the two states concluded the U.S.-ROK Mutual Security Treaty, the terms of which were similar to those of the U.S.-Japan pact. This in effect shifted the U.S. defensive perimeter onto the East Asian mainland to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel of Korea, part of a forward deployment strategy to contain communism.
The Korean War simultaneously consolidated Soviet-PRC-DPRK ties. Although Soviet wartime contributions were limited to small-scale aircraft and air force assistance, the Soviets nonetheless solidly confirmed their commitment to their socialist allies in Asia. Stalin had encouraged Mao and the Chinese to intervene when the war had turned sour for the DPRK in the fall of 1950. During the war, the Soviet Union greatly accelerated its assistance to North Korea and the PRC.
This solidarity began to recede following the Korean War, however. Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin, who died in March 1953. The new Soviet leader's policies of peaceful coexistence with the West, de-Stalinization, collective leadership, and economic liberalism deeply irritated both Mao and Kim. Perceiving Khrushchev as a revisionist, both the PRC and DPRK decided to pursue their own paths. While Kim kept a low profile, Mao chose to openly compete with the Soviet Union as leader of the communist bloc, sowing the seeds for the Sino-Soviet split.
To enhance its international standing and to lessen its reliance on the Soviets, the PRC sought diplomatic relationships with nonsocialist nations. At the 1955 Bandung Conference, the PRC cultivated ties with the developing world and opened a dialogue with the United States to discuss the Taiwan issue. At home, Mao accelerated the socialist transformation, ending the First Five-Year Plan a year ahead of schedule.
Responding to the growing stature of the PRC, in 1957 Khrushchev promised to share nuclear technology with that country. Mao, however, continued his antipathy toward the Soviets. In 1958, without consulting the Soviet leadership, Mao provoked the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis and launched the Great Leap Forward program to accelerate socialization. These actions enraged Khrushchev, who then withheld nuclear and other technology. In 1960, Khrushchev withdrew all Soviet personnel from the PRC. Mao continued to challenge the Soviet Union by provoking a border crisis in 1960, establishing private trade ties with Japan in 1965, and intensifying attacks on Khrushchev's revisionism while waging the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Kim, on the contrary, preferred self-reliance, an ideology known as juche that is built on four principles: ideological autonomy, political independence, economic self-sufficiency, and military self-reliance. Kim's first goal was to tighten his control over North Korea. Countering de-Stalinization and collective leadership, Kim carried out massive political purges in 1956 to eliminate communist Chinese and Soviet elements. This upset Mao, who in 1958 withdrew troops stationed in the DPRK, an act that only reinforced Kim's streak of independence.
To achieve self-sufficiency and independence, the DPRK adopted a neutral stance in the developing Sino-Soviet split, intending to play one nation against the other. During 1956–1959, North Korea secured several agreements from the Soviets and Chinese to develop nuclear power. In 1961, when the Sino-Soviet split became permanent, Kim negotiated separate mutual security treaties with the PRC and the Soviet Union, securing continued economic and technical assistance. When Soviet and PRC aid diminished in the mid-1960s, Kim turned to other nations to obtain nuclear technology. North Korea's neutrality did not last long. In view of the PRC's 1964 detonation of its first atomic bomb and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Kim moved closer to the Soviet Union.
Similar nationalistic sentiments also developed in Japan and in South Korea. Capitalizing on constitutional restraints on rearmament, Japan pursued a course of minimalism in international affairs, allowing the country to concentrate on economic recovery. The Korean War was a tremendous assist in this. During the war, Japanese industrial output doubled. This progress encouraged Japan to adopt an omnidirectional economic foreign policy, enabling it to rejoin the world community and rebuild its international status. During 1954–1959, Japan concluded peace treaties with its former victims, including Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Vietnam. In 1956, Japan restored normal ties with the Soviet Union.
Throughout the 1960s, Japan joined a number of international economic organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund. In 1964 Japan hosted the Olympic Games, and in 1966 it hosted the inaugural meeting of the Asian Development Bank, which launched the country's status as a regional economic power.
At the same time, Japanese-U.S. relations were showing signs of strain, centering on two issues. First, Japan saw the U.S. military occupation of Okinawa as an infringement of Japanese sovereignty. Moreover, the potential installation of U.S. nuclear facilities there aroused deep resentment among pacifists. Mounting anti-Americanism culminated in large-scale street protests on the eve of the renewal of the United States–Japan Security Treaty in 1960. Given the mutual desire to keep a U.S. military presence in Japan, some revisions occurred to pacify the Japanese public. In the revised January 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, Japan became an equal partner with the United States. Despite U.S. concessions, the treaty nevertheless proved incapable of mollifying the Japanese electorate. The second issue plaguing U.S.-Japanese relations was the Japanese export of textiles to the United States, which accounted for the growing trade deficit between the two nations.
To the South Koreans, American commitments were a blessing. As with Japan, South Korea secured U.S. assistance to build a mighty economic engine while leaving costly defense responsibilities to the Americans. Politically, occasional armed clashes along the DMZ and North Korean subversion and infiltration activities gave ROK presidents the justification to rule in dictatorial fashion, ranging from Rhee's to Park Chong-hee's (1961–1979) authoritarianism.
This bilateral harmony, however, was undermined in the mid-1960s, thanks to America's changing Cold War strategy and growing anti-Americanism among the South Korean public. Owing to American preoccupation with the Vietnam War, the Park government concluded that South Korea should become more self-reliant in defense matters. In 1965, South Korea normalized diplomatic ties with Japan in order to gain Japanese economic assistance and investment especially in steel and chemical production, both of which were sources of national strength.
The second issue straining U.S.–South Korean relations was a growing ROK resentment toward the U.S. military presence. Having been ruled by foreigners for centuries, the South Koreans were eager to be rid of the Americans. To pacify the nationalists, the United States negotiated the 1966 Status of Forces Agreement, which legitimized the deployment of U.S. forces on the peninsula to cope with the threat from the DPRK. Pursuant to this agreement, an ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Committee was established in 1968 that met annually to discuss defense matters of common interest and on an equal basis.
The year 1969 proved difficult for East Asia in that the solidarity of each bloc was on the verge of collapse. First, the Sino-Soviet split culminated in a series of large-scale armed clashes along the Sino-Soviet border. By late summer, these two communist nations were on the brink of a nuclear confrontation, rendering North Korea a likely battlefield. Second, in the U.S.-led camp, resentment against American troops on Okinawa resurfaced as American-Japanese negotiations for the renewal of the 1960 security treaty were under way.
The years 1969–1970 also marked the beginning of détente in East Asia, with the initiative coming from the big powers. In September 1969, the Soviet Union reached an agreement with the PRC to settle their ongoing border dispute through peaceful means. The Nixon Doctrine of July 1969 was of far-reaching significance, altering the geopolitics of East Asia.
Because of declining economic performance and military setbacks in the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon intended to curtail America's overseas obligations through a division of defense responsibility, regional alliances, and rapprochement with the communist bloc.
The renewal of the 1960 Mutual Security Treaty with Japan was the first U.S. attempt to induce its client states to assume more defense responsibility. In November 1969, Nixon urged Japan to expand its Self-Defense Forces and assume an active part in maintaining East Asian stability. As a gesture of goodwill, Nixon promised to return Okinawa, provided that America retained the right to deploy military forces and introduce nuclear facilities there in case of emergency and after prior consultation. Japan agreed to revise the security treaty as such, and on 15 May 1972 Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty. In return, the Self-Defense Forces were expanded. Nixon had also mentioned the problem of Japanese textile exports during the summit meeting and pushed for the imposition of a voluntary quota. Japan, however, refused to yield. It was left to Nixon's successors to resolve these differences. In 1976, the United States successfully pressed Japan to share patrolling duty in Japanese waters. In 1981, the Americans secured Japan's commitment to defend its sea-lanes up to 100 miles. The dispute over textiles was resolved in 1979 when the Japanese government voluntarily restricted exports.
The Sino-American rapprochement of the 1970s did much to stabilize East Asia. On 15 July 1971, after one and a half years of secret contacts with the PRC, Nixon announced his plan to visit Beijing in 1972. To show its sincerity, the United States lifted its veto of the PRC's UN membership and reduced military forces in South Korea by one-third in early 1971. In February 1972, Nixon made the historic visit to Beijing, resulting in the Shanghai Communiqué of 27 February 1972, which pledged the mutual desire to normalize PRC-U.S. relations and to maintain peace and stability in Asia. On 1 January 1979, the two nations established formal diplomatic relations.
The PRC-U.S. détente triggered a reorientation of America's client states' policies toward their neighbors. Following the American lead, Japan sped up its efforts to formalize its ties with the PRC, largely for economic reasons. In September 1972 Japan and the PRC reached an agreement on normalization and in August 1978 concluded a Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
The Sino-American rapprochement, on the other hand, alarmed both the North and South Koreans, who felt betrayed and abandoned by their protectors. Both Korean governments then pursued their own course to stabilize the peninsula. In August 1971 the two sides opened a dialogue through their respective Red Cross societies, resulting in the July 1972 Joint Commmuniqué. They agreed on three principles for reunification: unification by independent effort without foreign interference, denial of the use of force for unification purpose, and mutual respect of the existing differences in ideology.
Regional tensions continued, however, with the major threat coming from the Soviet Union, which found itself in an increasingly isolated position. To counter the PRC-U.S. rapprochement, the Soviet Union accelerated its military buildup along the border of North Korea and in southern Sakhalin. To break their diplomatic isolation, the Soviets renewed their attention on North Korea, which was once again caught between the Sino-Soviet split.
North Korea continued its policy of oscillating between the PRC and the Soviet Union to advance its interests. Earlier in 1971, when the PRC decided to normalize its relationship with the United States, the Chinese assured Kim of their continued friendship by concluding a fifteen-year agreement on military assistance to North Korea. Meanwhile, Kim did not preclude continued cooperation with the Soviet Union in nuclear development. Owing to historical-cultural ties and the Soviet nuclear threat, Kim valued the PRC even more. In 1975, however, Kim reversed his policy by staying close with the Soviet Union and protesting the PRC's refusal to support his decision to renew the Korean War, an ambition inspired by the fall of Saigon and the unification of Vietnam. Beginning in the late 1970s, in line with the juche ideology, North Korea launched a nuclear weapons program, seeking aid from the Soviet Union and West European nations.
The DMZ remained a dangerous spot despite the calm brought about by the PRC-U.S.-Japan détente. Beginning in 1974, U.S.-ROK forces discovered several North Korean–constructed tunnels under the DMZ, giving rise to the suspicion that Kim was planning an underground attack. This suspicion became real as DPRK troops intensified disturbances along the DMZ during 1976–1977. In response, U.S.-ROK forces increased their forces along the DMZ and tightened their military alliance. In November 1978, the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command came into being to improve logistics and coordination in case of an invasion. In 1981, the Americans increased their military presence in South Korea. On its own, South Korea expanded its forces and sought cooperation with France to develop nuclear power to counter North Korea. As a result, South Korea's military expenses in 1979 dramatically expanded.
Meanwhile, the PRC touted itself as an "honest broker" between South Korea and North Korea as a way to ease tension on the peninsula, but neither side showed interest. Breakthroughs in resolving North-South differences finally came in the mid-1980s. In 1984, North Korea offered relief assistance to South Korea, which had suffered massive casualties and damage in a disastrous flood. In 1985, both sides exchanged hometown visiting groups. The greatest impetus for the easing of tensions came from the Soviets. In July 1986, new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union intended to reorient its East Asia policy. To prevent economic depression at home, Gorbachev slashed Soviet military budgets and overseas obligations and pursued economic liberalism and détente with the West. In view of its economic success, Gorbachev approached South Korea. To show his goodwill, he had pressured North Korea a year earlier to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thereby lessening the threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.
The new Soviet initiative was welcomed by other East Asian nations. In July 1987, the PRC announced that it would not support any North Korean military action on the peninsula and simultaneously began secret negotiations with South Korea with a view toward speeding up Chinese economic modernization. In South Korea, military rule gave way to a new liberal democracy with the 1987 election of Roh Tae Woo. On assuming the presidency, Roh actively pursued a policy called Norpolitik, or northern policy, that sought détente and cooperation with the communist bloc. In 1989 and 1990, South Korea established formal diplomatic ties with East European nations and the Soviet Union.
Beginning in 1988, South Korea established informal trade ties with North Korea, the economy of which was in serious trouble. At the same time, both the PRC and the Soviet Union stepped up their efforts to persuade North Korea to pursue North-South détente. Finding itself being increasingly isolated, North Korea finally yielded. In December 1988, North Korea and the United States began nonofficial negotiations in Beijing; the North Korean nuclear weapons program proved to be the most irreconcilable issue.
As the 1990s opened, North Korea made greater progress toward seeking a rapprochement with South Korea. It first lifted its objection to the dual entry of both Koreas into the UN. In September 1991, both North and South Korea were given UN membership, and for the first time each recognized the legitimacy of the other. That same month they opened a dialogue at the prime ministerial level in Seoul that resulted in two understandings: the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Exchanges, and Cooperation—also called the Basic Agreement—and the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Progress proved illusory, however. By the end of the decade, with the Cold War but a memory, the DPRK had once again become isolated and increasingly belligerent. Law Yuk-fun
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