By Andrei Lankov
It is a sort of commonplace statement that the U.S. forces which landed in Korea in early September 1945 had almost no local knowledge and no plans of what they were going to do. But it is sometimes stated, that the Soviet forces which had arrived two weeks earlier had some plans. Such statements are especially common on the political right. This is understandable: Human beings tend to see themselves as disorganized and unprepared while believing that their opponents possess diabolic foresight and an uncanny ability to exercise the utmost control over events. Fortunately or not, such a perception, the basis of all conspiracy theories, is usually wrong.
So did the Soviets have a plan when their forces fought their way to Korea in mid-August 1945? Obviously, not. At least this is what I can say from my frequent talks with the participants of those events, and also from the papers which I have seen.
Actually, Korea did not feature prominently in Soviet international strategy before 1945. For decades, Moscow’s policy toward Korea was subordinated to what appeared to be much more important _ its relations with China and Japan. The Soviet Union secretly subsidized and supported the Communist movement in colonial Korea, but this was a relatively small-scale operation seen, first and foremost, as a part of the larger efforts to undermine the Japanese empire.
The situation was exacerbated by Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s. Before that, the Soviet citizens of Korean extraction played a prominent role in formulating the Soviet policy toward the peninsula. However, in the great slaughter of the bureaucrats and military officers that took place in the late 1930s, ethnic Koreans enjoyed especially bad survival chances. Their ethnicity made them suspicious, and few of them survived the bloodbath of 1937-38. As a result, the Soviet Foreign ministry, intelligence agencies, and armed forces lost what little Korea-related expertise they had possessed in earlier days. Those people who were responsible for the Korean policy in the 1920s and early 1930s were mostly shot or had died in various prisons by 1940.
There was also another reason for the Soviet reluctance to draw up plans for the political future of Korea. Nobody expected that the victory over Japan would be that swift. The Soviet military remembered their protracted and bloody battles with the Japanese during the undeclared border wars of the late 1930s, and so they were prepared for a campaign that would drag for many months.
However, the Japanese military machine collapsed in a week. Western readers believe that the reason was the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki _ a claim that was never particularly popular in Russia. Irrespective of their contribution to the outcome of the war, the nuclear bombs hardly changed much in Manchuria and North Korea. The Russian forces had experienced engagement with the Nazis in Europe, while the Japanese troops in the area were weakened by frequent withdrawals of their best forces to the Pacific theater.
Thus, in late August 1945 the Soviet generals suddenly found themselves responsible for a large territory of which they knew almost nothing. The army had few Korean speaking interpreters, and virtually no local political intelligence. Not only was it the local army headquarters that was lacking in this regard, even Moscow itself had only vague ideas about the political forces active in Korea _ and even this inadequate knowledge was largely about Seoul, not the areas of the North.
In the greater context of the post-war world, the future of Korea remained undetermined. The Kremlin expected that its relations with the U.S. would deteriorate ? on the generally correct assumption that any major victory brings about a greater rivalry between the winners.
However, the shape and intensity of this confrontation remained to be seen. In those days, the Soviets also felt a profound insecurity about Japan: the rebirth of Japan as a great power was seen as a potential threat, so Stalin wanted to make sure that Japan would never be able to threaten the Russian Far East if it somehow regained its military and/or economic power in a distant future. Thus, uprooting the Japanese influence in Korea was a major task for the Soviet leaders.
Thus, in late August, the Soviet forces had quite nebulous tasks in front of them. They wanted to ensure law and order (incidentally, threatened first and foremost by their own soldiers), get rid of the Japanese influence, and lay the groundwork for a future friendly Korean government.
The first instructions arrived only in late September, when Stalin sent his famous secret cable to Korea. His cable envisioned a “bourgeois democratic government” for the Soviet zone of occupation, and explicitly warned against attempts to export Communism to Korea. The cable obviously talked about a government in the North, and this can be seen as the first sign of future division. Nonetheless, this was only the first step: Coherent ideas about Korea’s future developed in the Kremlin only in early 1946.
The “September cable” also implied that the Soviets would have to cooperate with the local Right _ and indeed they soon recruited Cho Man-sik, a prominent Christian nationalist _ to act as a leader of the local administration.