Kim Gu on Reunification and War, 1948

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A recently unearthed conversation with veteran independence activist Kim Gu (Kim Koo) provides new details on how leaders in southern Korea saw North Korea in 1948 and their predictions about the likelihood of a war in Korea.

“Even if the Communists stop expanding the Korean Red Army for three years to come, all the efforts in South Korea will hardly be able to build up an army to the present strength of the red army.”

This is what Kim Gu (Kim Koo), a well-known Korean nationalist who worked hard during World War II for Korean independence, ominously told the Chinese Minister Liu Yuwan in July 1948. A south Korean based leader, Kim’s warning arose out of what he had seen during a visit to the northern zone of occupation of Korea in April 1948.

The U.S. Military decided to divide Korea in 1945, mainly as a matter of convenience. The United States would administer territory south of the 38th parallel, while the Soviet Union would bear responsibility for the northern zone. Although Korea’s division was meant to be only temporary, the Americans in the south and the Soviets in the north never came to an agreement over the future of Korea. After the collapse of the US-Soviet Joint Commission in 1947, the matter was handed over to the United Nations. The United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) then declared that elections would be held in Korea in May 1948.

At the same time, the then ruling indigenous body in the north, the North Korean People’s Committee, announced that it would convene a meeting for Korean leaders from both zones of occupation. Held in Pyongyang from April 19-22, 1948, the meeting’s organizers claimed to want to find a Korean solution for Korea’s problems. Most of the individuals in attendance announced that they would not participate in the UNTCOK organized elections, Kim Gu and other leaders from the south among them.

Kim Gu’s work with Korean leaders from the north in order to achieve reunification was controversial, to say the least. Liu Yuwan alluded as much when he remarked to Kim that, “A damage has been done to that record by your recent activities in connection with the so-called North and South Korean Leaders’ Conference held in Pyongyang.”

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Kim Il Sung (left) and Kim Gu in Pyongyang in April 1948.

Kim, however, did not consider himself a communist. He justified his participation in the Pyongyang summit by stating that he wanted “to see the actual things happening in North Korea,” not because he fully supported the policies of the North Korean People’s Committee.

Kim probably even left Pyongyang with a worse view of the north than he held prior to the April summit. In addition to his alarmist commentary about the strength of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), Kim was convinced that if the Soviet Union wanted war on the Korean Peninsula, they would achieve total victory—and quickly. “The Russians will easily set it [the Korean People’s Army] on its southward swoop without incurring the blame for the moment a government is set up here, the People’s Republic will be proclaimed.” Kim fretted, at least in private with Liu Yuwan, that a socialist republic could soon rule across the peninsula.

In retrospect, Kim Gu was only partially right. The Soviet Union did give a conditional greenlight for an invasion of southern Korea in early 1950, but it was only after the constant badgering of Kim Il Sung. The initiative for war came, in large measure, from Koreans, not the Soviets or the Americans.

Likewise, Kim Gu did not anticipate a firm American commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea. Because of America’s intervention in summer 1950, a peninsula-wide “People’s Republic” never came to be, despite some of the Korean People’s Army’s stunning victories during the early stages of the war.

Kim Gu, of course, did not live long enough to see how his predictions panned out. He was killed by an assassin in 1949, nearly one-year from the fateful day of June 25, 1950.

This article was originally published on the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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