We’ve seen that the Soviets put the Korea issue on hold through the fall of 1945 while they tried to persuade the Americans to grant them veto power over occupation policy for Japan. The long negotiations over that key issue finally ended in early December, with Moscow forced to accept complete US control over Japan. At the same time, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes suddenly proposed to Molotov that the allies hold a second meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, in just two weeks, in Moscow, so that the British, Soviet, and American diplomats could discuss the issues that were causing difficulties among them before the UN General Assembly met in January. Molotov immediately agreed, since he was ready to turn his attention to other areas, including Korea.
A few weeks earlier the American ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, had warned Byrnes that if the Soviets were not reasonably satisfied with their influence over occupation policy for Japan, they would “attempt to build their security in the Far East through other means inimical to our policies and interests.” British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin also worried about the Moscow meeting. He feared that since the British and Americans did not have enough time to prepare for the conference and would be under pressure to reach agreements before Christmas, they would likely conclude settlements they would later regret. Nonetheless, Byrnes pressed ahead, determined to demonstrate continued cooperation with Moscow in order to fend off criticism from his political opponents at home.
The strategy Byrnes worked out for discussions over the Korea issue reveals the great gulf between American and Soviet aims and perceptions. The Secretary of State went to Moscow willing to abandon Roosevelt’s trusteeship idea if he could get a guarantee from the Soviets that Korea would be independent and united. In case the Soviets did not agree to establish an independent Korean government, Washington would advocate establishing a trusteeship under the United Nations for a limited period of time, similar to the arrangement the US had suggested for the former Italian colonies. American diplomats and military leaders understood that their position in Korea was “exposed and untenable…from both a military and political standpoint.” With little awareness of Moscow’s determination to secure control over at least the northern half of the peninsula as a security buffer, they unrealistically viewed trusteeship as a means to reduce the likelihood that the Soviets would dominate Korea. They also hoped that trusteeship would lower tensions between the occupying powers so that American armed forces could withdraw from the peninsula.
The Soviet diplomats were more clear-eyed than the Americans as they approached the Moscow conference, but they nonetheless found it difficult to craft a workable solution for Korea. They needed to continue cooperating with the US in setting occupation policy for Germany and other areas, so they regarded it as politically inexpedient to oppose the establishment of a unified government for Korea. However, accommodating American wishes was dangerous to Soviet security. A briefing paper the Foreign Ministry prepared for the Moscow meeting stated that “if Soviet policy is directed at the destruction of the military capability of the Japanese aggressors, at the eradication of Japanese influence in Korea, at the encouragement of the democratic [meaning socialist] movement of the Korean people and preparing them for independence, then judging by the activity of the Americans in Korea, American policy has precisely the opposite goal.” The US had retained the old colonial administrative apparatus, with many Japanese residents and Korean collaborators left in leading posts and had allowed Japanese residents to enjoy political rights and economic possibilities. As a consequence, the “main obstacle to the restoration of the unity of Korea is the working out and realization of a single occupation policy,” one which must exclude Japan from Korea.
A second problem, in the Foreign Ministry’s view, was that a non-communist, American-influenced government in Seoul would inevitably create pose the risk that the peninsula would be used as a bridgehead for an attack on the Soviet Union. Therefore, “the question of whether Korea will in the future be turned into a breeding ground of new anxiety for us in the Far East” will depend on “the character of the future government of Korea.” Consequently, the “multiplicity of political parties and groups” in southern Korea, “the lack of unity among them and the solicitations of the USA,” were a serious obstacle to creating a Korean government that had the character Moscow required.
Nevertheless, the Soviet delegation to the Moscow conference would have to propose some mechanism for creating a Korean government. In the next post, we will examine the convoluted formula the Foreign Ministry devised to solve this important task.
[Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, Volumes II and VI; Jacob Malik, “On the Question of a Single Government for Korea,” 10 December 1945, Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (AVPRF) Fond 0102, Opis 1, Delo 15, Papka 1, Listy 18-21; Petukhov, Adviser to the Second Far Eastern Department, “Soviet-American Occupation of Korea and the Question of Economic and Political Ties Between North and South Korea,” December 1945, AVPRF, Fond 0102, Opis 1, Delo 15, Papka 1, Listy 8-10]