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Yuri Vanin

PhD in History, Leading Researcher, Department of Korea and Mongolia, RAS Institute of Oriental Studies

Earlier this September Beijing hosted a great parade commemorating the end of the Second World War. Prior to this major event there was yet another one, no less important. Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of its liberation on August 15 this year. This achievement is a key part of the history of World War II.

Earlier this September Beijing hosted a great parade commemorating the end of the Second World War. Prior to this major event there was yet another one, no less important. Korea celebrated the 70th anniversary of its liberation on August 15 this year. This achievement is a key part of the history of World War II.

The end of 40 years of Japanese colonial rule in Korea resulted from several factors, including the Korean people’s struggle for liberation in their own country and abroad.

There is little doubt that 4 years of war waged by the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific and on the Asian mainland, did play a part in this. The impact on Japan of the nuclear bombs dropped by U.S. aircraft on August 6 and 9, 1945 was undeniably an important factor.

Although these factors should be acknowledged, it was arguably the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan on August 9, 1945 that was the most decisive factor in forcing Japan to surrender unconditionally, and, in the process, liberate Korea.

The Soviet army was the only army that fought the Japanese on Korean soil and paid with its blood for Korean liberation.

Foreign historians often describe the Soviet Army’s liberation campaign in Korea as easy. But nothing could be further from reality. The Soviet army faced a powerful adversary in Korea: Japan’s 17th Front (9 divisions). There were 4 well-equipped fortified areas along the Soviet border. Well-defended major naval bases were located on the northeast coast and the 5th Air Army provided air cover for Japanese troops.

It was the Soviet Union’s 25th Army of the 1st Far Eastern Front (commanded by Colonel General I.M. Chistyakov) that saw action in Korea. On August 9, 1945 its Southern Group commanded by Major-General G.I. Shanin liberated the first Korean town, Kyonghun, and fought its way forward along the Korean peninsula coast.

The 25th Army’s main forces moved to Korea through North-eastern Manchuria, threading their way through impassable taiga, climbing mountains and crossing turbulent currents of mountain rivers. Its advance was hampered by the beginning of the rainy season, which turned the roads into impassable swamps.
Soviet Army, October 1945, Korea

The Pacific Fleet and the Soviet Air Force operated on Korea’s northeast coast. By August 12, 1945 25 Japanese troop-carriers and 2 torpedo-boats had been sunk, and a number of enemy military facilities had been destroyed.

Successful amphibious operations supported by ground forces resulted in the capture of the Hamhung, Najin, Chongjin, and Wonsan naval bases. A Pacific Fleet HQ’s reconnaissance detachment commanded by Hero of the Soviet Union V. Leonov distinguished itself in action in the battle for them. The seizure of these ports deprived the enemy of their means of evacuating their forces stationed in Korea to Japan, their opportunity to retreat from Manchuria and any possibility of removing plundered goods from the country en masse.

On August 14, 1945 Japan announced its unconditional surrender. On August 15 news of this reached Korea. Since then, August 15 has been celebrated as Liberation Day in the country. At that time, U.S. troops were nowhere near Korea: situated in Okinawa and the Philippines, they only landed in Korea on September 8, 1945.

The United States feared that the Soviet army would clear Japanese forces from the Korean peninsula and capture it. On August 15, 1945 U.S. President Harry Truman sent Joseph Stalin his draft “General Order No. 1” to Commander of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific Douglas MacArthur, which stated, inter alia, that the U.S. commander would take responsibility for accepting the surrender of the Japanese troops in the part of the Korean peninsular south of the 38th parallel, and the Soviet commander would receive the surrender north of that line. Joseph Stalin commented on other elements in the draft order, but left the Korean issue without comment, was and the U.S. side viewed this as agreement.

The 38th parallel between Soviet and American troops during the liberation of Korea quickly became, and to this day remains, the boundary between North and South Korea.

From the earliest days of the war, the Japanese resisted the advancing units of the 25th army and naval troops, in places even after the promulgation of the Imperial Rescript on Surrender has been signed by the Japanese Emperor.
38th Parallel

In late August – early September 1945, the Soviet army achieved the agreed objective of the 38th parallel, taking surrendering Japanese soldiers prisoners on their way. This also happened beyond the agreed demarcation line. Soviet troops took Kaesong, Korea’s ancient capital south of the 38th parallel, a few dozen kilometers from Seoul. Soviet commanders had to take steps to return our troops north of the 38th parallel.

The Soviet Army paid dearly for accomplishing the liberation mission in Korea. The 25th Army’s losses in Manchuria, on the way to Korea and in Korea itself exceeded 4,700 people. The combined losses (killed and wounded) of the 25th Army, Pacific Fleet and Air Force in Korea amounted to 1,963 people [1]. Although these figures may look somewhat modest in comparison with our armed forces’ losses in the fight against Germany, but they attest to the blood shed by Soviet forces in their battle for the liberation of Korea.

The Soviet soldiers involved in this combat zone were recognized for their military achievements:38 were awarded the highest honorary title of the Soviet Union – Hero of the Soviet Union; V.N. Leonov became a Double Hero of the Soviet Union. More than 15,000 soldiers, officers and generals were awarded orders and medals of the USSR. In 1948, when the Soviet army left North Korea, North Korea established a medal “For the liberation of Korea,” which was awarded to all participants in the country’s liberation. 115 Soviet generals and officers have received the highest awards of the DPRK.

The Korean people felt profound gratitude toward the Soviet Union for this considerable contribution toward their liberation. “The heroic Red Army of the Soviet Union, having ousted Japanese imperialists from our homeland, has brought our people freedom and independence and opened the door to a brighter future. We will never forget the fraternal aid” said Kim Il-Sung in December 1945 [2].

1. History of Korea (from ancient times to the present day). Volume 2, Moscow, 1974, p. 162. [in Russian] Secrecy lifted. The losses of the Armed Forces of the USSR in wars, combat operations and military conflicts. Statistical research. Moscow, 1993, p. 325. [in Russian]

2. Kim Il-Sung. Selected Works. Volume I. Pyongyang, 1970, p. 11.

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