01-07-2009 18:18
English Education Under US Military Government (II)


John R. Hodge served as the commanding general of the U.S. armed forces in Korea from 1945 to 1948.
By Kim Eun-gyong
Contributing Writer

This is the 19th in a series of articles about the history of English education in Korea ED.

South Korea was ruled by the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) for less than three years. During this rather short period of time, the military government was able to lay the foundation for South Korea's political structure, which lasted until the 1960s, and the introduction of a capitalist economy. The USAMGIK may have had a lasting impact on almost every aspect of Korean society. Its operation was interspersed with a number of problems that constantly provoked antipathy and dissatisfaction among Koreans. An examination of these issues may shed some light on their ambivalent attitudes toward the use and spread of the English language, the status of which the USAMGIK helped to elevate in South Korea.

One of the major problems that the USAMGIK had was a pre-existing one, that is, the U.S. government's lack of preparation for the Korean occupation. After the Cairo Declaration in November 1943 and the verbal agreement on international trusteeship over Korea at Yalta in February 1945, the U.S. government did not make preparations for the Korean undertaking. Then came the unexpected Japanese surrender.

The Russian Army was moving rapidly into North Korea; the U.S. needed to act quickly. The 24th Corps, with a long record of combat but no experience in civil affairs, was hastily chosen for the Korean occupation. The assignment was mainly due to its location, i.e., Okinawa, Japan; it could be moved fastest to Korea. Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, Commander of the 24th Corps, who had little experience in politics or civil administration, became Commanding General of the U.S. armed forces in Korea.

He and his staff had been given virtually no instruction on the Korean assignment and had almost no prior knowledge of Korean conditions. Worse still, they arrived in Korea with no help from Korean language specialists or interpreters. For nine months after his arrival, General Hodge did not receive workable instructions from the State Department. He looked, to no avail, to General MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), who was officially in charge of the Korean occupation but busy governing Japan.

In addition to the lack of preparation, Hodge was having trouble with inadequate personnel. Thousands of qualified personnel were needed in order to effectively manage the Korean operation, but the troops under his command were far insufficient. Consequently, he held on to the colonial governing system and personnel to make up for the inadequacy of the workforce. The structure of the USAMGIK bore a close parallel to the highly centralized colonial government, with the military governor acting as Governor-General; it took a couple of months to remove the Japanese personnel. Hodge even attempted to keep Governor-General Noboyuki Abe, which caused a strong backlash from Koreans, who were anxious for the removal of colonial legacies and furious over Hodge's blunders and never really forgot about his insensitivity.

More importantly, the U.S.'s adherence to anti-communism, which aimed at preserving its own national interests in the Korean peninsula, frequently caused conflict with Koreans. Blinded by the fear of communism, the occupiers failed to recognize the public's genuine hopes and desires. For instance, in October of 1945, the USAMGIK established a Korean advisory council composed of eleven members, nine of whom were from the Korean Democratic Party (KDP), an ultra-conservative group that represented ``the land-owning community.'' Korea was essentially an agricultural society, with about 75 percent of the population engaged in farming, while two-thirds of the rice lands were owned by only three percent of the population.

Thus, the elevation of KDP members as the major players in the USAMGIK triggered profound dissatisfaction and disappointment among the general population. Harold Sugg, a reporter who served in the USAMGIK under General Hodge observed, ``These mistakes almost destroyed the confidence of the Korean people in Americans and are still hampering all of our efforts.'' Due to its recruitment of conservative, well-to-do Koreans who had benefited from Japanese colonial rule, the USAMGIK was called a pro-Japanese government. Koreans believed they lost the opportunity to clean up colonial vestiges and are still struggling with related issues, such as handling pro-Japanese Koreans and their descendants, who remain in influential positions.

While rightists were championed by the USAMGIK, leftists, such as the Korean People's Republic (KPR), who enjoyed wide popularity thanks to their advocacy for land redistribution and the confiscation of colonial collaborators' property, was ostracized and eventually swept away by the USAMGIK. The Committee for Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI), later renamed as KPR, was the de facto government when the U.S. troops arrived. People's Committees were formed in hundreds of cities and villages nationwide. Unfortunately, the U.S. government perceived the KPR as part of a Soviet plot to take over the Korean peninsula and decided to suppress it in spite of its popularity. In September 1945, President Truman denounced the KPR's attempts to attain instant independence. General Hodge subsequently declared war on the KPR in December 1945, and it was gone. During its rule, the USAMGIK harshly repressed political dissent and agitators with the help of the Korean national police, who were intensely hated and condemned by the general public for their brutality and past collaboration with the colonial police.

Moreover, the Koreans fervently anticipated immediate independence when Japan surrendered, but their expectations were not met. Instead, they were treated as enemies of the Allies, and the 38th parallel was drawn without consideration for the Koreans' true wishes. Occupational troops of the two superpowers took over the peninsula, and Korea soon became an ideological battleground between the two great powers. The USAMGIK's main concern was preventing the peninsula from falling under the control of the Soviet Union. Accordingly, establishing a ``bulwark'' against communism in South Korea was its supreme goal, and the Koreans' long desire for independence was given little attention. Koreans didn't attain freedom from Japan alone and have paid a heavy price for their incapacity.

If the USAMGIK was having such difficulty in the social and political arena, economic woes exacerbated their problems. Daily life deteriorated after liberation. The division between the north and the south led to an economic crisis. The two regions were interdependent and complementary in economic development heavy industry in the north and light industry and agriculture in the south Additionally, in the two years or so after liberation from Japan, over two million refugees crossed into the south from the north or returned from China or Japan. Furthermore, the USAMGIK swiftly introduced the free market system to a people that lacked preparedness for it.

For example, the government announced in October 1945 that all rice transactions be made in a free market. As such, Koreans were thrust into a capitalist economy without proper preparation. As a result, with severe shortages of almost every necessity, exponential inflation was unavoidable during the USAMGIK's rule. According to a government's report on August 29, 1946, food prices were a hundred times higher than prior to the occupation.

The political turmoil and economic chaos helped ignite a major uprising in the fall of 1946, beginning with the Korean Federation of Trade Unions petitioning the USAMGIK to raise wages and ration rice and no response from the government. Several civilians were killed and many were wounded in the confrontations between the protestors and police in Daegu.

The fighting escalated and spread over different regions. The USAMGIK declared martial law on October 4, 1946. Eventually, 1,342 civilians were arrested, 16 of who were sentenced to death. Korean newspapers severely criticized the USAMGIK, and even some anti-communist politicians admitted that it was to blame for the conditions that led to the massive rebellion.

The USAMGIK was comparable to the Japanese colonial government, and perhaps an even worse oppressor. General Hodge came to realize that if South Korea was to be stabilized safely from communists, the nation's economic condition needed improvement. He was determined to avoid another uprising that would threaten to foil U.S. efforts to build an anti-communist base against the Soviet Union. Therefore, he actively pursued U.S. aid, and support was finally provided to the Korean economy to the tune of 528 million dollars.

In short, in its three years of existence, the USAMGIK often adopted and implemented ill-considered, contradictory, biased policies that yielded catastrophic results. It is true that the military government helped establish many of the foundations for contemporary Korea, and since its rule, English has functioned as the most important foreign language in South Korea. Nonetheless, the USAMGIK's relentless pursuit of its own interests with little regard for Koreans' true desires bred disappointment and mistrust, and the controversial U.S. occupation may lie at the root of Koreans' ambivalent attitudes toward English, the language of the occupiers.

Kim Eun-gyong is an associate professor of applied linguistics and Associate Dean of the Center for International Affairs, Information and Communications University (ICU) in Daejeon. She can be reached at egkimrivera@icu.ac.kr