by Prof. Kathryn Weathersby
We have seen that the members of the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) were deeply concerned about what would happen if they held elections for a new government in the South while the Soviets refused access to their zone. As soon as the Commission arrived in Korea in January,1948 the members understood that if they fulfilled their assigned task of supervising an election, they would solidify the division of the country, which would set the stage for a civil war. This is why they soon decided to send the issue back to the UN Interim Committee for further deliberation.
In New York, as the Interim Committee considered the Korean issue in February, it faced a difficult choice. Elections in the southern zone would clearly harden the division of the country, though many members pointed out that such elections would at least allow 2/3 of the population to create a democracy. The more optimistic members even hoped that the creation of such a government in the South might spark demands among the population in the North for free elections there. On the other hand, if they refused to create a separate government in the South, this would most likely increase the violence and chaos there, which would create ideal conditions for a Soviet takeover of the entire peninsula.
While the Interim Committee deliberated, the United States tried to persuade the governments of each UNTCOK member to agree to separate elections. London initially resisted this pressure from Washington. The British questioned whether, given all the many places over which the allies still had to gain cooperation from Moscow, it was worth antagonizing the Soviets over what they regarded as a secondary issue. We can note that this was the same logic Stalin used when he agreed to the last-minute American proposal in August 1945 to create two occupation zones in Korea; he hoped that concession on this issue would encourage the Americans to concede on his top priority, which was occupation control of Japan. In the end, however, the UK agreed to form a separate government as a solution of last resort.
The newly independent country of India also resisted approving any action that would lead to permanent division of Korea. It was particularly sensitive to the issue since the previous year its independence had been accompanied by a traumatic and violent division into two post-colonial states: India and Pakistan. The US addressed Indian concerns by assuring New Delhi, quite improbably, that once a government had been created in Seoul that represented 2/3 of the population, Moscow would have no choice but to recognize its legitimacy.
What decided the issue was, once again, an event in a far-away country. Czechoslovakia had been occupied by the Soviet Army at the end of the war, but unlike Poland, it had created a coalition government that included both communist and non-communist parties. This political success was widely seen as an indication that it was still possible to cooperate with the Soviet Union despite the deepening Cold War. It was therefore a severe shock when in February 1948 a coup in Prague replaced the coalition government with one completely controlled by communists. This unexpected development appeared to be proof that Moscow would not be bound by popular opinion or international pressure.
Fearing further Soviet aggression, on February 26 the Interim Committee approved the American proposal to hold elections for representatives to a national assembly in the areas of Korea accessible to UNTCOK. Canada and Australia voted against the resolution, while eleven other countries abstained. UNTCOK was now empowered to create a separate government in the southern zone of Korea, an action that it hoped would prevent Soviet domination of the entire peninsula.
In the next post, we will turn to events on the peninsula, examining how Korean political leaders responded to the reality of imminent elections.
[Sources: This post relies on James I. Matray, The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941-1950 (University of Hawaii Press, 1985).]
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