Liberation from Japan in 1945

Independence movement activists who were detained in Seodaemun Prison, Seoul, cheer after being released following liberation.
The Japanese flag in front of the Japanese Government-General of Korea building in Seoul is replaced with the U.S. flag.

On Aug. 15, 1945, Korea regained its independence, ending 35 years of Japanese colonial rule over the peninsula. It was a happy day for most Koreans as liberation meant the end of conscription and forced labor in addition to increased freedom to use Korean names¹. On the other hand, for those who had colluded with Japan, independence was a worrisome time amid calls for collaborators to be brought to justice. This conflict in how the public viewed the period after independence was the the cause of a number of tragic events. Both the Daegu Autumn Uprising (1946) and Jeju 4·3 Uprising and Massacre (1948) happened within three years, and the Korean War (1950) followed around two years after independence.


Why did Koreans suffer following independence?

There are many reasons for the tragic events that followed independence including conflict between left-wing and right-wing forces that was compounded by geopolitical competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the region. However, arguably the most crucial reason for the conflict is that Koreans relied on external powers rather than being able to achieve independence without assistance. As is well known, Japan was defeated by the Allies during the Pacific War and it lost control of the Korean Peninsula. It was through this process that Korea became independent, which means that the people did not secure independence from Japan without the help of foreign powers.


Why did the Allies divide Korea following liberation?

The Allies’ fight against Japan was not driven by sympathy for the plight of Koreans under Japanese rule but for geopolitical control of the Asia-Pacific region. Following liberation, the strategic importance of the peninsula meant that the great powers divided it among themselves with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the U.S. occupying the south. Although this has drawn comparisons to the division of Germany in the wake of defeat in World War II, the division of Korea did not follow defeat in war but liberation from Japanese colonial rule.

The U.S. occupation of the southern half of Korea was announced in Proclamation No. 1 by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur on Sept. 7, 1945: “All powers of Government over the territory of Korea south of 38 degrees north latitude and the people thereof will be for the present exercised under my authority.” Following the Proclamation, the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) was the official ruling body for three years until the establishment of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on Aug. 15, 1948.

1 During the Japanese occupation of Korea, the colonial authorities made Koreans adopt Japanese names.