Korea Under the American Military Government, 1945-1948. Edited by Bonnie B. C. Oh. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002. ISBN 0-275-97456-1. Map. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 178. $64.95.
Judging only by the introduction by the editor, Professor of Korean Studies Bonnie B. C. Oh of Georgetown University, Korea Under the American Military Government sounds as if it is just another trashing of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), 1945-48. "The U.S. policy in postwar Korea demonstrated a lack of vision, planning, and coordination between the branches of the U.S. home government and with the U.S. personnel in Korea, as well as a paucity of consideration for the people of the land. Overall, the policy was comprised of reactive, incremental stop-gap measures" (p. 2). Since this anthology includes essays by James I. Matray and Bruce Cumings, one awaits another revisionist attack on American intentions and policy execution. William Stueck's essay is more balanced but still critical. Been there, read those before. No thanks to the American contributors, however, the other essayists provide a more complex picture of Korean-American relations in the southern occupation zone. At least, the other authors, all Korean academics, give the reader some sense of American [End Page 285] difficulties, Soviet intransigence, and bitter Korean political rivalries.
The level of original contribution by the four Korean authors varies, but ends with accumulated insight. Choi Sang-yong reviews the postwar trusteeship issue as an expression of American anticolonialism. No Korean, however, will admit that Korea could not have governed itself without a fratricidal civil war, whether the Russians and Americans came to disarm the Japanese or not, and Choi is no exception. However, he is careful to show how nationalist political leaders (of whom Syngman Rhee is the only one familiar to Americans) could make the antitrusteeship position a rallying point for opposition to the USAMGIK and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Joint Commission (1946-47). Jeon Sang Sook's essay examines the effort to create a Left-Right Coalition movement in 1946, led by Kim Kyu-sik and Yo Un-hyong, that would stop political polarization in the American zone. Bonnie Oh continues this investigation in "Kim Kyu-sik and the Coalition Effort," the book's best essay. Park Chan-pyo investigates the USAMGIK's "Koreanization" in 1946-47 and discovers American and Korean progressive reformers hard at work to give at least South Korea responsible, effective government, not just anti-Communism as a substitute for democracy.
However important, Korea Under the American Military Government
does not provide a full picture of occupied Korea. There is no discussion
of law-and-order issues and the high level of postwar violence, including
the Autumn Harvest Uprising (October-November 1946). Although American
military and diplomatic records (the dominant source for all the essays)
are packed with incident reports, there is no discussion of terrorism,
smuggling, counterfeiting, black marketeering, street violence, and
police corruption. No author deals with the role of nonofficial Americans
like the missionary community or the issue of the political preference
afforded English-speaking American-educated Korean Christians of whom
Syngman Rhee was the least favorite. Although I do not favor the high
level of conspiracy theory that characterizes Korean political history,
these essays make a strong case that personalism shaped postwar South
Korea as well as North Korea. Professor Oh's volume should encourage
others to return to the primary sources in our search for the real Korea
after World War II.
Allan R. Millett
Ohio State University