Getting Out the Vote

In the weeks leading up to May 10th, 1948, the United States run interim Military Government in southern Korea was busy preparing the national assembly elections that create the first legislature of a soon-to-be independent Republic of Korea. Things were not going well, however, for America’s trusteeship in Korea. A general strike broke out in February, a rebellion erupted in Cheju-do in early April, and the only two major alternatives to the aging future president Rhee, Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, frequently voiced their opposition to the elections and went north to Pyongyang to participate, or at least, hang around the entrance of, a political conference in North Korea designed to condemn the separate elections in the south and argue for the creation of a united “democratic” Korea. While much greater violence was to come, several hundred Koreans died in political violence in the first few months of 1948.

Meanwhile, in civil war China, the country’s ruling GMD nationalists were in steep decline, suffering major defeats in the summer of 1947 and as a Communist offensive in September of that year got underway Lin Biao and other commanders of the CCP began to make serious progress in destroying nationalist opposition all over the northeast of China. The partition of India in August of 1947 sparked massive ethnic and religious violence in the migrations that followed. In January 1948, however, both of these countries would have delegates in the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) set up to monitor the May election in Korea (They may have been a Y. K. or a Y. W. Liu for nationalist China and K. P. S. Menon on the India side).

The US Military Government had its hands full with everything from designing ballot boxes (I found nice diagrams of them in State department archival documents), fixed the rules for post-election review procedures, releasing thousands of political prisoners (some half of the political prisoners that UNTCOK expressed concerns about) in an amnesty, and launched a massive public relations campaign to encourage voter registration (including the dropping of at least a million leaflets from the air). The election date was even moved from May 9th to May 10th on UNTCOK Liu’s recommendation because the solar eclipse on that day was seen as a bad omen by some. However, there were several very serious concerns that seem to dominate US discussion about the election in documents from April and early May: 1) A fear of low voter turnout 2) Concerns about Communist and leftist anti-election protests and violence in the lead up to the election 3) Violence and intimidation tactics by the many right-wing “youth groups” around the country (A “Youth” conference which representatives of many of these groups attended was held in late March and US representatives did their best to encourage responsible behavior. They also urged “youths” over 25 years in age to join organizations for grown-ups) and 4) Concerns that Korea’s police officers, whose propensity for random violence and brutal torture somehow reflected, to quote one US report, “oriental ideas about policing” would be a major obstacle to a free and fair election come May.

One despatch to the State department noted approvingly that on March 2nd, 1948, National Police director Cho Pyông-Ok gave a speech arguing that South Korea was not a “police state,” that Korea’s “young” police force was coming along nicely in its development and they would all work to play a helpful and constructive role in the election to come. The very next despatch in the microfilm I was reading through in the National Archives yesterday offered something a little less optimistic in its tone. It was a summary of one side of a conversation between the then Seoul Metropolitan police chief (and often a political rival to Cho), Chang T’aek-sang and America’s military commander in Korea, Lt. General John R. Hodge on March 22nd. Chang opened up and gave his appraisal of the situation:

I speak to you unofficially. I am expressing my private opinion but it is an honest one. Perhaps I am a pessimist but I have become convinced that Korea is doomed. Financially, spiritually, and morally Korea is bankrupt. People speak of emancipation. Emancipation from what? Korea is divided and caught between the Russian-American struggle. She can only be united by one of two ways – turning the country over to the communists or through a Russo-American war. The UN can never unite Korea. The Commission they sent to Korea does not care what happens to Korea. They are here only to hold an election but they can’t even do that without causing confusion. They insist upon “free atmosphere” and blame the police because it doesn’t exist. What is “free atmosphere”? The right to allow communists to burn, plunder, and kill whenever the urge strikes Stalin? Today, three police boxes were burned by the communists. Does the Comission know how many Koreans have been killed by communists since UNTCOK’s arrival? If the police try to prevent such action the UN bellows about infringement upon political freedom. Two-thirds of China is overrun by communists yet that ‘son of a bitch Liu’ is trying to solve Korea’s problems. And as for that Indian Delegate, why, more people are killed in India in one day than in many years in Korea! El Salvador has a population smaller than the City of Seoul. These are the representatives they send to solve our problems.

In my honest opinion no more than 25 to 30 per cent of the eligible voters will vote in the coming election. Americans fail to realise that 80% of the Koreans are illiterate. Will they walk many miles with a lunch box under their arms to vote for someone they don’t know or care about or for his political program which they will never understand? How does General Hodge think we manage to fill the stadium every time a demonstration is held? Those people didn’t go there willingly nor will they vote willingly. If the police don’t force the people to turn out for election day the government elected will never be recognized by the General Assembly. A government elected by 25% of the people will make nice propaganda for the Soviets and poor propaganda for the Americans when it is declared void by the General Assembly. It is necessary that the police ‘interfere’ in the election or the majority of the Korean people, who are little more than animals due to their educational deficiencies will sit in their ‘bloody, stinking rooms’ and not budge one foot to vote. The police should not attempt to tell the people how to vote but if they are not forced to the polls the Americans are due to be greatly embarrassed. (National Archives RG59 Department of State 895.00/3-29 49, p2)

It is hard for me to judge how much of this is a version of Chang’s views or Chang’s ideas mixed up with Hodge’s own similar hard-nosed pragmatic anti-communist views. Just as interesting in my view is the fact that the record of this meeting said nothing whatsoever about Hodge’s own replies to Chang. How did the US respond to this Seoul police chief’s plea to allow his men to engage in a massive herding of people to the polls—though without, of course, making any suggestions about who the people should vote for?

On May 10th, about 90% of the registered voters cast their ballots. Despite non-trivial election violence, an election boycott by many on the left and some other parties, localized irregularities and plenty of accusations, both the United States and at least some of the delegates UNTCOK were pleased with the results. Other delegates in UNTCOK voiced serious concerns about the election, including the high turnout, but did not launch any significant challenge to the election’s legitimacy in the aftermath. Since Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik did not participate in the election and had suffered a considerable blow to their popularity upon their return from the pre-election anti-election and pro-unification conference in North Korea, two of “the big three” found themselves quickly marginalized and Rhee continued his bumpy political rise towards authoritarian rule. The 1948 election is now remembered mostly as one big step on the road towards a permanent division of the Korean peninsula. In my next posting here, I’ll post some more contemporary views about the degree of “free atmosphere” in pre-invasion South Korea.


  1. I realize that my last post sounds a little flippant but I am serious. I realize that getting solid facts on what went on up north is difficult, but it would certainly provide some context for what was going on in the south.

    In any case, I am glad that General Hodge was wrong in his appraisal of what was going to happen with the Korean election. In retrospect, we know that it is pretty common for people to turn out for there first chance to choose their government (as we have seen recently in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq).

  2. Hi Andy,

    There were plenty of US reports from the North that I read through, and information coming in from the many refugees flowing south. Things were ugly up North, and there are good reasons why refugees from the North often became the most die-hard anti-communists and most notorious and violent right-wing elements in the south. On future trips to the national archives I’ll be spending more time looking at Korean language materials captured in the North (or from Northern forces) during the Korean War. A. Lankov and C. Armstrong both have great books on early postwar North Korea. For my own part, I’ll be specifically looking at political retribution in the North against accused collaborators and may post on that here at some point in the future.

    I didn’t actually post anything here about Hodge’s appraisal though as I hinted, it is possible that some of his views were incorporated into the summary of the Chang’s.

    The 90% turnout is very suspicious even given the “first vote” aspect of it, given the conditions of May 1948, and I suspect police forces, right-wing “youth” groups etc. played a strong coercive role, along the lines of what Chang is suggesting, in getting people to the polls. Many contemporary sources say as much but things are so politicized it is hard to get a trustworthy overview.

  3. Andy, one indicator of the amount of intelligence coming out of the North is the fact that a sizable opposition to the KIS government had grown up in Hwanghae province that apparently went unreported in US circles. After the Incheon landing and the drive north, U.S. forces simply took for granted that they would remain. After the Chinese surprised them, and drove them south, a general evacuation of Hwanghae began, led by guerrilla bands that would later become the nucleus of the “United Nations Partisan Forces – Korea”. The first that the U.S. Far East Command ever heard of this was in Mar 51, when the Royal Navy discovered swarms of refugees at a Yellow Sea port, whose evacuation was being covered by organized (and armed) guerrilla bands. Later organized into groups advised by what became the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, the Partisans continued to conduct operations behind Communist lines until the end of the war. Their legacy is the islands constituting the Northern Limit Line.

Leave a Reply to AndyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.