KOREA, which is occupied by the American Army in the south and the Soviet Army in the north, is the center of acrimonious controversy on a basis of very few known facts. The few correspondents who have visited South Korea have had glimpses of great strikes and farmers' uprisings ruthlessly suppressed under an American Military Government. No correspondent until my visit, had travelled through the Soviet zone of North Korea at all.
The whole of Korea is thus what is called "iron-curtained" country. But who, one wonders put the curtain up? After I applied for a visa to North Korea and got it, I learned that the big American agencies did not want the news. They told me flatly that they preferred to get the tales of the Soviet zone from the refugees who ran away from it, which is about like getting one's facts about London from Berlin during the war. They assured me that I myself would get no real facts in the Soviet zone, but would be watched and handicapped at every turn.
It is therefore necessary to state first how I got my facts in North Korea. When I reached the airport in Pyongyang, the capital, a courteous Russian major of the army's press department offered me his services in getting about. He arranged a room for me in a hotel with western style beds and food and was useful for first routine contacts. Then I told him that too much guidance would invalidate my observations, and that I wanted to go around alone among Koreans. He got the point; thereafter I made my own plans.
I travelled from coast to coast across the country, visiting villages, industrial plants, rest homes of the social insurance system. I picked up interpreters where I found them; some had learned English in American missionary schools. I talked freely to farmers, workers, factory managers, women, writers, officials. I got my facts entirely from Koreans, all of whom seemed glad to talk and unconstrained. If and when I met Russians they usually declined to comment on Korean affairs, saying: "It is the Koreans' country; ask them." I had freer and closer contact with Korean people in the Russian zone than any correspondent has reported., from the American zone.
My strongest impression was that the Koreans seemed to think that they were running things. They were even naive about it. Again and again I was told that the "democratic government," the universal suffrage, the land reform, the expanding agriculture, industry and education was the work, as one farmer put it, "of our own hands." The Russians, they insisted, were just there because of a treaty with the Americans, and only to give advice.
"The Russians liberated us from the Japanese," said one, "but we Koreans did all the rest."
If I remarked that the Russians still handled their foreign contacts and supplied their defense - for North Korea had, in autumn of 1947, no army of its own(1) - they would brush this aside as if foreign relations and army didn't matter. "In all the running of the country," they would say, "in elections, in police, in courts, in acts oŁ government, we Koreans are the boss." The only concentration of Russians was in the capital, Pyongyang, and they were not very conspicuous even there. The only time I saw Russians much in evidence was at the anniversary celebration of the date of liberation, August 15, 1947. Russian generals stood beside the President Kim Il Sung in the tribune in Pyongyang to review the floats of factories and organizations and receive the plaudits of the marching crowd. In the banquet that followed, Russians and Koreans mingled on equal terms, drank alternate toasts, sang in turn the folk songs of their people - I was struck by the fact that the Russians responded with old Ukrainian love songs rather than with Bolshevik propaganda - and danced with each other's womenfolk. It was a natural, joyous celebration of a joint victory. But it was hard for me to imagine an American occupying army mingling in such easy equality with an Asiatic race. That is one of Russia's strong points in Asia.
As far as I could see, the Russians were popular. What was more important, their popularity had grown. There had been some complaint against them at first, in 1945, for the first troops that came in fighting were tough babies from the German front; liberating armies, even when they are of one's own people are not easy for a civilian population to take. But these shock troops were quickly replaced by small numbers of selected experts in farming, industry, engineering and government, who were dotted around the country, and whose functions were quite clearly circumscribed.
A Korean farm inspector on the east coast told me that there were only ten or twelve Russians in his provincial capital and three or four in his county seat, and that their job was "just to give advice."
"For instance I got the job of farm inspector because I know farming. But I don't know inspecting for no Korean had such jobs before. So I go and ask one of the Russians how to make out reports for the government. They have specialists in all lines. They are good-hearted, simple people who have more experience of government than we."
This almost amusingly naive attitude towards the Russian occupation is partly the brag of a newly liberated people but it must also be credited to the shrewd technique of the Russians. Unlike the Americans in the south, who were always discussing which candidate to support and who, as their own chosen chairman of the Legislature, Kimm Kiu-sek, himself stated, "were always interfering in every little thing," the Russians never appointed or even discussed a single governing official in North Korea nor have they ever discussed the merits of any proposed Korean laws. They took very firmly the position that these things were the Koreans' own affair. The Russians have their own technique of influence - we shall see as we proceed further - but it is always in terms of influence, not of domination. I could not find a Korean who felt that the Russians were "over him" in any sense at all.
I found in fact an almost mystical belief in the "power of the Korean people." One farmer actually told me that the landlords submitted without resistance to the confiscation of their lands, not because of the Red Army but because "it was a just law and the will of the Korean people." A factory worker told me that the "pro-Japanese traitors ran away to the south," not because of the Russians but because "they feared the wrath of the people." The North Koreans seem hopeful adolescents in politics who still have to learn some international facts of life. But their attitude showed an awakened sense of their own political power.
This North Korean atmosphere is not due to Russian control of the news reaching the Koreans. Every village has plenty of radios that can listen to American army broadcasts from Tokyo. They are ex-Japanese radios especially geared to Tokyo propaganda; they can't get Moscow programs at all. There are also twenty-four newspapers of three political parties, including one privately owned paper run merely for profit. There is - if one can believe the unanimous assurance given me by reporters, writers and editors at a banquet they threw in my honor - no censorship in North Korea at all!
"It is not needed in the north, for everyone here is progressive and patriotic," was the incredible claim they made!
The idyllic, and rather unrealistic self-assurance that one finds among the North Koreans is due, in my judgment, to the ease with which farmers got land and workers got jobs and the people got the Japanese industries, houses and summer villas without any class struggle. And this in turn is due to the events of the last month of the war.
When the Red Army entered Korea in early August, 1945, heavy battles took place in the north, but the Japanese rule remained tranquil in the south, for the Russians stopped by the Yalta agreement at the 38th parallel, while the Americans came several weeks after the surrender of Japan, and ruled at first through the Japanese and then through the Japanese-appointed Korean officials and police. So naturally all of the pro-Japanese Koreans - former police and officials, landlords and stockholders in Japanese companies - fled south to the American zone.
The flight of all these right-wing elements amazingly simplified North Korean politics. The Russians did not have to set up any left-wing government, assuming that they wanted one. They merely set free some ten thousand political prisoners and said, by implication; "Go home, boys, you're free to organize."
Under Japanese rule all natural political leaders either served Japan or went to jail. With the pro-Japanese gone, the ex-jailbirds became the vindicated heroes of their home towns. They were all radicals of sorts, including many Communists. Anyone who knows what a tremendous reception was given to Tom Mooney when he was released to come home to the workers of San Francisco, may imagine the effect on the small towns and villages when ten thousand of these political martyrs came home. North Korea, just naturally took a great swing leftwards, and the Russians had only to recognize "the choice of the Korean people."
People's Committees sprang up in villages, counties, and provinces and coalesced into a provisional government under the almost legendary guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung. Farmers organized, demanded the land from the landlords and got it in twentyone days by a government decree. (Compared to the land reforms of other corintries, this sounds like a tale of Aladdin's lamp!) Ninety per cent of all big industry - it had belonged to Japanese concerns - was handed over by the Russians "to the Korean people" and nationalized by one more decree. Trade unions organized, demanded a modern labor code, and got it without any trouble frorrl their new government, with the eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, and social insurance all complete. Another decree made women equal with men in all spheres of activity and another expanded schools. Then general elections were held and a "democratic front" of three parties swept unopposed to power. The natural opposition had all gone south, to be sheltered - and put in power - by the Americans.
This is the, reason, I think, for the almost exaggerated sense of "people's power" that the North Koreans express. Their real class struggle is coming; it hasn't fully hit them yet. The reactionaries all fled, south, where they are bloodily suppressing strikes. In North Korea the farmers are building new houses and buying radios because they no longer pay land rent, while the workers are taking vacations in former Japanese villas.
The North Koreans assume that this is just what naturally happens when once you are a "liberated land." "They aren't yet liberated down south," they told me. "The Americans let those pro-Japanese traitors stay in power."
The American Military Government of South Korea will consider this charge fantastic. They have been hunting for rulers who were not compromised by association with the Japanese. But the Americans are thinking of a few figureheads at the top, whom they call the government. The Koreans think of the whole civil service and police apparatus that served Japan and that remained to serve America with the same brutal technique.
All this apparatus was thrown out in the north by what they call the "people's rule." And since it was thrown out, all North Koreans that I met insisted that they were "free."
1. Since my visit the North Koreans have organized their own army, stating that this was necessary because of the large force of "right reactionary terrorists," armed by Americans in South Korea. The Americans were justifying their action by claiming that the North Koreans had an army of 250,000, but there was no army at all in the north at the time - late 1947.
Next: 3. Government and Elections