Korea's Recent History

  • Young Suh KIm
    Professor of Physics, Emeritus
    University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, U.S.A.
    Home page.

  • Toward the end of the 19th Century, the government of Korea was totally paralyzed and was incapable of dealing with foreign influences from China, Japan, Russia and the United States. The government headed by King Kojong was insensitive to the discontents of the people. There were revolts and reform movements.

      Synman Rhee in a Korean prison (1900)(top).

      He became a PhD from Princeton (1910).

  • One Prisoner. One of the leaders of the reform movements was a young man named Syngman Rhee (Yi Seung-Mann). Rhee was imprisoned in 1896 and stayed in prison until 1903. This is a photo of Rhee while in prison. He was 28 years old then. He looks very confident, and was determined to become the president of his country. He indeed became the president in 1948 . This photo is from a Korean daily newspaper called Hankook Ilbo.

    While in prison, Rhee studied the Bible thoroughly and wanted become like Jesus. As Jesus rose from the death, he was thinking of getting out of the prison and leading the nation toward a ideal country where everybody is happy. He was in contact with the Christian missionaries from the United States. One year after he was released from the prison, he went to the United States for study. He received his PhD degree from Princeton University in 1910. Rhee's thesis advisor was Woodrow's son-in-law, but he was known as Woodrow Wilson's best student. Wilson was the president of Princeton University at that time.

  • Woodrow Wilson was an inspirational president of the United States (1913-921). He sent American troops to Europe to fight against Germany in during the European War, known as World War One (1914-18).

    After the War, he wrote the Fourteen Rules for World Peace, and created the idea of the world organization called "League of Nations" (like the United Nations these days). However, the U.S. Congress was strongly against joining this international organization. Americans, until that time, were strong isolationists. George Washington, during his time, was interested in constructing his country totally isolated from Europe.

    While Wilson's idea was totally ineffective in his own country, Koreans became excited about Wilson's Fourteen Rules. They call for self-determination of all nations. Korea at that time was under Japanese colonial rule since Japan occupied the Korean Peninsula in 1910.

    On the first day of March in 1919, inspired by Wilson's Rule of Self-determination, Koreans declared the independence of their own country and revolted against the Japanese rule. However, Wilson's idea was as infective as in his own country, and Japanese authorities brutally put down the Korean revolts and imposed harsher rules to Koreans.

  • In this photo of 1941, Korean school children are bowing toward the Emperor of Japan.

      Nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities, called Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August 6 and 8, 1945. One week later, Japan had to offer the unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces.
    On December 7 (1941), the Japanese navy attacked the U.S. naval base in Hawaii and started the war against the United States. The result was a disaster to Japan.

  • In 1945, Korea was liberated from the 35 years of Japanese occupation after Japan was defeated in the Pacific War.

  • Yalta. In February of 1945, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met at the Livadia Palace in Yalta overlooking the Black Sea. They talked about how to divide up this world after the war (WWII). This historic meeting is known as the Yalta Conference.

        At the same conference, Roosevelt asked Stalin to attack Japanese troops in Manchuria. Roosevelt did not know all combat-capable Japanese troops there had been moved to the Pacific front to fight against Americans.

    1. Roosevelt and Stalin. During the Yalta Conference, they met without Churchill. Roosevelt asked Stalin to join the war against Japan, and open the eastern front against Japanese troops in Manchuria.

      At that time, Americans were planning a landing operation in the main land of Japan, and they thought those Japanese troops would come back to their mainland to fight again Americans. Roosevelt thought the Soviet intervention would weaken the Japanese opposition to Americans. He did not know that those combat-capable Japanese troops in Manchuria had been moved to the Pacific and South-East Asian fronts, and were destroyed the American and British forces.

      I have a Russian friend whose father was a Soviet intelligence officer during the World War II. He told me even Russians did not know Manchuria was that empty. Soviet troops had a free pass on their GMC trucks given by Americans. They moved quickly to the Korean Peninsula. This was the beginning of the present monarchy in North Korea.

    2. Potsdam. In July of 1945, Stalin, Truman, and Churchill got together at the Cecilenhof Palace in Potsdam near Berlin. By that time, the United States had successfully tested a nuclear bomb, but Joseph Stalin had an upper hand because the conference was held at a place under his control. In addition, he had been well informed of the U.S. nuclear project from his spies. Stalin got a large chunk of the world real estate and was thinking of eating up the Korean peninsula.

        I saw the Soviet trucks looking like this in the Soviet occupied area in Korea in 1945. My family moved to Seoul in May of 1946 to avoid the communist regime being set up there. I then saw the same kind of trucks driven by the American troops. It took me some years to understand why the armies of two different countries had the same kind of trucks.

    3. During the World War II, Americans sent many trucks to Europe to fight against German troops. After Germany's surrender in May of 1945, 8000 GMC trucks, looking like this, were given to the Soviet Union to encourage Russians to attack Japanese troops in Manchuria.

    4. Berlin now. There still is a giant stature of a Soviet solder with a Mosin-Nagant rifle (with a foldable bayonet) hanging on his right shoulder. At the bottom of the statue, there are two T-34 tanks, and one of them is seen in this photo. One of the two Soviet 155-mm guns is also seen. This stature is near the Brandenburg Gate.

        A man with an old Soviet flag in Berlin (2005). He was not a Russian soldier but wearing the Soviet uniform. He was standing there to show that East Berlin was occupied by Soviet troops until 1989..

        In 1900, while Russia was still the Soviet Union, I noticed these Soviet soldiers in Moscow. Their uniform was the same as the on I saw on the northern side of Korea.

    5. 1945 and 1990. In 1990, during my first trip to the Soviet Union, I spotted three Soviet soldiers on Moscow's Arbat Street. I immediately pulled out my camera and took this photo. I was excited to see them because I saw the soldiers like them 55 years earlier in Korea (on the northern side).

      In 1945, American and Soviet troops came to Korea to disarm the Japanese army. They came to the south and the north of the 38th parallel respectively. I was on the northern side then, but my family to the South in May of 1946 to avoid the communist regime being installed there by the joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. The Soviet soldiers I saw in the North were wearing the uniforms looking exactly like these I saw in Moscow in 1990.

    6. Russian Soldiers again. I met these Russian soldiers again while I was in Minsk in 1994. It was indeed a pleasure to meet them and exchange friendly greetings with them. I still wonder why we were thinking of having wars with them for so many years.
    7. American Soldiers came to the South, on jeeps of the same model as this car which I spotted in Sweden in June of 2002.

  • Click here for a more detailed explanation of how Korea was divided in 1945.

  • Wilson Park in Geneva. In the South, a pro-American government was set up in 1948 headed by Dr. Syngman Rhee. Rhee was Woodrow Wilson's PhD student at Princeton University, and he served as the first president of the Korean provisional government in Shanghai (China) while Korea was under Japanese occupation (1910-45). Rhee went to the 1933 meeting of the League of Nations in order to appeal Korea's independence to the world. Nobody paid any attention to him except an Austrian lady named Francesca Donner who shared a table with him in a crowded restaurant. She became Mrs. Rhee in 1934 and typed thousands of letters for Dr. Rhee's cause. The 1933 meeting of the League of Nations took place in the red-yellow-red building seen in this photo. With me in the photo is an Austrian student who wanted to be kind to a Korean-born professor working in the United States. She appears to be from a conservative family. This photo was taken in July of 1999.
    1. Rhee's House in Washington. Rhee continued calling himself the President of the Republic of Korea while living in exile in the United States until 1945. He was skilful enough to collect "taxes" from less than one thousand Korean residents living in the United States, and bought a luxury house on the 16th Street in Washington, DC (about 5 km north of the White House). From this house, Rhee staged a effective campaign for Korea's independence, and built his political base in the U.S. before returning to Korea in 1945. This photo was taken in 1992, and the house is still in good shape.


    2. Republic of Korea in the South. According to the United Nations resolution of 1947, Korea's first general election was held in May 10 (1948) in the South, and the Korean government was inaugurated on August 15 (1948). Syngman Rhee became the first president of the Republic of Korea.

    3. Syngman Rhee with Harry Truman in Independence (Missouri) during his visit to Truman's house (1954). On July 20, 1965, the day after Rhee died in Hawaii, the New York Times gave a full-page coverage of Rhee's life, including this photo which presumably was the best Rhee photo the Times had at that time. When this photo was taken (1954), Dr. Rhee was 79 years old. He did not know he was becoming old until April of 1960, when Korean students brought him down. He spent the rest of his life in Hawaii.

    While in the White House (1944-1953), Harry Truman made three of the most difficult decisions for the U.S. in the 20th Century. The first one was to drop nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities in 1945. The second one was to send American troops to Korea in 1950. The third and the most difficult decision was to fire Douglas MacArthur in 1951. All three played crucial roles in shaping up the modern history of Korea. I respect Harry Truman as a very honest president, and visited his house in Independence (Missouri) in 1968, even though I was not invited in. I have a photo of the Truman House which I took then somewhere in my house. I will add the photo to this web page as soon as I find it.


  • Kim Il-Sung in Japanese army uniform. In the North, a Soviet-style communist government was set up in 1948, headed by Kim Il-Sung whose real name was Kim Sung-Ju. He was a captain of the Soviet Army when he came to Korea in August of 1945. Kim went to the Siberian city of Khavarosk from Manchuria in 1940 or 41, but nobody knows what he did before he crossed the Manchu-Soviet border. This photo presumably was taken while he was in Manchuria. He was a young man at that time. Why was he wearing a Japanese army uniform?
    1. Triumph Speech. Kim Il-Sung came to Pyongyang as a captain of the Soviet Army. His real name was Kim Sung-Ju. He changed his name to Kim Il-Sung, which was the legendary name of a brave Korean general who could perform miracles while fighting against the Japanese army. Korean were thoroughly disappointed because he looked quite different from what they had expected. One of the patriotic Koreans threw a hand grenade to him, and a number of the Soviet body guards were injured. But Kim was untouched and finished his "Triumph Speech" on October 14, 1945, and ruled North Korea until his death in 1994.
    2. Gazza (false) Kim Il-Sung. An article from Hankook Ilbo (one of major daily newspapers in Korea). To all Koreans, the name "Kim Il-Sung" meant a legendary figure with magical power who fought against Japanese during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-45). This young man stole his name. His real name was KIm Sung-Ju.

    3. Kim Il-Sung set up in the North his country called the "Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea" in September 1948, 25 days after the government of the Republic of Korea was inaugurated in the South on August 15, 1948.

  • Kim Il-Sung's Christian Background. In spite of his anti-American slogans, Kim Il-Sung in his later years tried to align himself with Korean nationalists, such as Ahn Chang-Ho, respected by all Koreans. Here is an article he wrote about Rev. Sohn Jung-Do who was the paster of Seoul's Chung-Dong Methodist Church before he fled to Manchu. There was the leader of a Korean Christian community, and one of those devoted Korean Christians was a lady named Kang Ban-Suk, who had a son who later became Kim Il-Sung of North Korea. In this article, Kim Il-Sung tells his real name was Kim Sung-Ju.
    Kim Il-Sung with his Mother. This is a propaganda drawing (not photo). The caption says Kim is learning patriotism from his mother, but it is more likely that the mother was telling Bible stories to him. Very common practice in Korean Christian families at that time.

    While in Seoul, before moving to Manchu, Rev. Sohn had a Christian friend named Syngman Rhee, who later became the first president of Korea in the South and Kim Il-Sung's sworn enemy. Rev. Sohn was so close to Rhee that Rhee appointed his son, Sohn Won-Il, as the first chief of staff of his Korean navy. Admiral Sohn later became the defense minister and arranged a mutual defense treaty with the United States in 1953. Rev. Sohn's widow used to come to my house often (presumably whenever turned off by her domineering daughter-in-law) to talk with my mother. His two grandsons were on my wedding party in 1963.
    Admiral Sohn Won-Il (far left) at the signing ceremony of the mutual defense treaty in 1953. With him are Prime Minister Paek Doo-Jin and President Syngman Rhee. The treaty was signed by Foreign Minister Pyun Yung-Tae and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles of the United States.

  • Ahn Chang-Ho. Kim Il-Sung talks about Ahn Chang-Ho and other Koreans whose names are familiar to us.

  • Gifts from the Soviet Army in North Korea (1945-48).

  • from the North. I met these Koreans from the North in Moscow in 1990. They were very friendly and polite to me. They also told me where the Pyongyang Restaurant was.

  • Pyongyang Restaurant, near the Sukharepska metro station in Moscow. I went there several times. The manager of this restaurant, known as Mr. Lee, is one of the kindest persons I have ever met. The waiters are also very kind.

  • 50 Years after Separation. Many Korean families were separated in 1950 during the first year of the Korean War. In this photo, the husband from the South and his wife in the North met in Pyongyang thanks to the South-North dialogue (2000). After 50 years of separation, they are not able to talk to each other. Their daughter is working hard to bring her parents to get closer. Photo from Hankook Ilbo.

  • Korean War (1950-53). Click here for the Korean page.

copyright@2022 by Y. S. Kim, unless otherwise specified.