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From the NS archive: North Korea

17 January 1948: Every Korean I met passionately desires an all-Korean unity.

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When Japan surrendered in the Second World War, Korea – which Japan had occupied since 1910 – became a divided state. From 1945, the US occupied the South and the Soviet Union the North; in 1948 they formed separate governments (until the Korean War broke out in 1950). In this despatch from January that year, Anna Louise Strong tours North Korea under Soviet occupation and speaks to its citizens – among whom political alliance was not so easily divided (“No North Korean would admit that the Russians governed him in any sense at all,” she writes). The Soviets were not the only political presence in the North. When Japan surrendered, most of those sympathetic to the Japanese migrated south, to the American zone, and a left-wing consensus emerged. Koreans formed their own Communist Party and a humanist party called Chendoguo was revived. When the first president, Kim Il-sung, took power, it was with a government which “put through revolutionary measures with breathtaking speed”.

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Contrary to common view it is possible to travel in the Soviet zone of North Korea and talk freely to Koreans without any Russians around. One needs the usual military permit to enter the zone; this difficulty surmounted, there are few others. In my trip from coast to coast across the peninsula I travelled with the minister of labour, Oh Ki-sup, who went to survey Social Insurance health resorts on the east coast. I branched off twice with local farm inspectors into the villages. In the capital, Pyongyang, I had talks with writers, reporters and members of the government. In resorts and factories I talked singly or in groups to workers. Everywhere I found them anxious to talk about what they had done.

Such Russians as I met usually declined to comment on the country. “It is the Koreans’ country; you should ask them,” one Russian said. In fact, I did not see many Russians, except at the second anniversary of the Liberation on 15 August, when there was a popular demonstration in Pyongyang, with Russian officers alongside the Korean government, followed by a banquet where Russians and Koreans sang national songs, drank mutual toasts and danced with each others’ wives.

In the provinces, according to a Korean farm inspector, there were “no Russian troops but only the Kommandatura.” Their job, he said, was “just to give advice”. The original hardboiled troops who came in fighting, and who found it hard to distinguish between Japanese and Koreans, had been replaced by small groups of specialists, ten or a dozen to a province, two or three to a county seat. No North Korean I met would admit that the Russians governed him in any sense at all. If I mentioned that the Russians had full charge of Korean foreign policy, and were at the moment discussing with the Americans the future form of the Korean government, the Korean would reply: “Oh, well, foreign affairs,” as if these didn’t count. If I mentioned that the Russian army was their sole defence, and that North Korea had no native army and not even a ministry of defence, the Korean would reply that the treaty with Japan and the agreement with America were not yet made. His attention was fixed on land reform, the nationalised industries, the elections and local governments. In all these “essential matters”, the North Koreans assured me, no Russians ever intervened.

When the Red Army had 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 at the 38th parallel, while the Americans came three weeks after the surrender of Japan and took over from the Japanese officials, continuing much of the former apparatus in power. Hence all pro-Japanese Koreans, former police, civil servants, landlords and any persons averse to change generally, naturally fled south to the American zone.

The flight of these right-wing elements simplified North Korean politics. The Russians did not need to appoint a single official. They merely set free some 10,000 political prisoners and let them go home and organise things. “People’s committees” sprang up in villages, counties and provinces, and coalesced into a Central People’s Committee. In the South the Americans ignored and later suppressed these committees; in the North, they became the provisional government. At the same time peasants’ unions and trade unions were rapidly organised, and presented demands, with which the people’s committees were willing enough to comply.

The two chief groups that emerged from jail and from underground were the communists and a religious party peculiar to Korea known as the Chendoguo. It proclaims a humanist, patriotic, democratic religion. This was the party that had led the revolt of 1919, when hundreds of thousands of Koreans rushed into the streets in white robes, informed the Japanese police that Korea was now independent – and were shot down mercilessly. With communists and Chendoguo energetically organising, and proclaiming tidings of liberation, no Russian pressure was needed to send North Korea to the left.

Kim Il-sung became provisional president. He was a legendary figure who fought the Japanese for 14 years from the northern hills, and set up an anti-Japanese regime in many counties, even before the Japanese surrendered. Surprisingly, the next highest posts in the government, those of vice-president and secretary of the presidium, are today filled by two Protestant clergymen, a Methodist and a Presbyterian, products of American mission schools.

The provisional government put through revolutionary measures with breathtaking speed, but always in response to demands presented by peasants’ unions or trade unions. Landlords’ land, which was 62 per cent of all farmland, was confiscated and distributed to peasants in March, 1946, in response to the demands of the peasants’ congress, which –after a winter organising campaign – met in late February to present its demands to the government. Seventy-two per cent of all peasants had been paying rent for all or part of the land they tilled. Rents had ranged from 50 to 70 per cent of the crop. They now became owners, paying a 25 per cent crop tax to the government. They are a bulwark of the new regime.

Ninety per cent of all industry – it had belonged to Japanese individuals or corporations – was given by the Russians “to the Korean people” in a single much-applauded gesture, and nationalised by a law passed on 10 August 10, 1946. A Labour Law had been passed some weeks earlier, establishing the eight-hour day – seven in injurious trades – with two weeks’ paid vacation, abolition of child labour, and a social insurance code. Many Japanese summer resorts were turned over to the department of labour and used for free vacations for workers.

The first general elections were held in November, 1946. By that time a People’s Party of peasants had been formed and had merged with the Communist Party to form the “North Korea Labour Party”, the largest party in North Korea. The Chendoguo remained the second strongest party, with large support among the peasants. A Democratic Party had also been formed, mildly progressive, small in size but including many influential intellectuals.

These three parties formed a coalition ticket and put up a single list. As far as I could learn, there was considerable discussion and many public meetings before the list was formed. Once formed, the voters registered merely approval or disapproval, by dropping their ballot tickets into a white or a black box. Actual voting was secret, behind a screen. In 13 districts the coalition candidate was rejected, and new elections held. Village and township elections, held in February 1947, were competitive – with many candidates, nominated not by parties, but in peasant meetings.

The most important achievement of the new regime has been the improvement of agriculture. For the first time in decades, North Korea supplies all its own feed. Under the Japanese the area developed as a source of water power and a centre of mining and war-supporting industry. North Korea today has an unpaid bill against South Korea for 1,000 million kilowatt hours of electric power supplied during the past two years, but has tried in vain to get paid in food. A two years’ drive to increase food production, following on the land reform, has increased the sown area. In the three provinces whose boundaries have not changed since Japanese days, and whose statistics are comparable, the cultivated area has grown from 3,015,000 to 3,549,250 acres since 1945, a 17 per cent growth in two years, The fields are also much better fertilised, since North Korea owns its fertiliser works, and a Farmers’ Bank lends money for fertiliser.

The standard of living has risen, especially in rural districts. In a village of 97 houses near Pyongyang, the peasants told me that ten families had built new houses in the past two years, six had replaced straw roofs with slates, and six more had built summer pavilions – platforms above the treetops to catch the breeze on summer nights and grant the luxury of good sleep. There were 20 new radios and 40 new sewing machines in that village – all bought within the past two years. Electricity, paid for by the village, was now in every home.

Industrial production is a harder problem. The Japanese wrecked the factories thoroughly before surrender. Eighty per cent of the locomotives were put out of commission; blast furnaces and coke ovens were ruined by simply letting the charges cool inside them to a solid mass. The first job of the trade unions was, therefore, to get industry going again. Figures of industrial production for 1947 show tremendous gains over 1946. In many cases production had doubled. Comparison with industry under the Japanese is impossible, for the nature of the industry has been converted from war industry to peace production, and from industry tied to Japan – in all Korea there was formerly not one finished industrial process – to a self-sustaining industry. The number of workers employed is larger – 430,000 against 400,000, according to the minister of labour – but output is undoubtedly less, since a large proportion of the workers are still carrying out reconversion and repairs.

Koreans have been migrating from the American zone to the Russian one at the rate of 1,500 a day, according to figures from the quarantine stations along the parallel. People in the American zone claim that the migration is the other way. This the Koreans of the North deny. Figures are complicated by the large movement of Koreans formerly living in Manchuria, who moved across North Korea to their ancestral homes in the South. It seems, however, clear that there has been migration in both directions, the migration from the North having been earlier, and of a different class. In any event, I met large numbers of workers in North Korean factories who had fled from the American zone, alleging that there was unemployment and police suppression there.

The gap between North and South Korea has therefore been increasing, not lessening, in the two years since America occupied the South and Russia the North. The 38th parallel, at first only an artificial demarcation, has become a boundary polarising two different forms of life and government. The polarisation began with the southward flight of former officials and a right-wing element, generally two years ago. It continues with the northward flight of unemployed workers and left-wing elements, fleeing the South Korean police. Every Korean I met passionately desires an all-Korean unity. But the barriers to that unity – not only the outward but the inner ones – seem to grow with every week.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)