Robert S. Kim contributes to a fuller understanding of Asia in World War II by revealing the role of American Christian missionary families in the development of the Korean independence movement and the creation of Project Eagle, the forgotten alliance between that movement and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), called Project Eagle.
Project Eagle tells the story of American missionaries in Korea from 1884 to 1942. They brought a new religion, modern education, and American political ideals to a nation conquered and ruled by the Japanese Empire. The missionaries’ influence inextricably linked Christianity and American-style democracy to Korean nationalism and independence, meanwhile establishing an especially strong presence in Pyongyang. Project Eagle connects this era for the first time to OSS-Korean cooperation during the war through the story of its central figures: American missionary sons George McCune and Clarence Weems and one of Korea’s leading national heroes, Kim Ku. Project Eagle illuminates the shared history between Americans and Koreans that has remained largely unexamined since World War II. The legacy of these American actions in Korea, ignored by the U.S. government and the academy since 1945, has shaped the relationship of the United States to both North Korea and South Korea and remains crucial to understanding the future of U.S. relations with both Koreas.
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The American Christians of North Korea in World War II
By Robert S. Kim
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Robert S. Kim
All rights reserved.
Korea Opens to the United States
Americans and Koreans have a shared history that began far earlier than the Korean War of 1950–53 or the emergence of modern Korea at the end of the Second World War in 1945. Few Americans know that the United States has been connected to Korea since 1882, when the two countries signed a treaty that ended the period of isolation that caused Korea to become known as the "hermit kingdom." Korea had existed as a unified state since 668 AD, and in the 1880s it was in a period of isolation that had begun as a way to protect the country after devastating invasions from Japan and China during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Korea ended its isolation by reaching out to the United States during a period of crisis.
The 1882 treaty followed two decades in which Korea fought imperial powers attempting to pry open the country. The troubles began in 1866, when one European power and then another sent a naval expedition to Korea's shores, beginning an era in which foreign empires fought Korea and each other for influence. The first was from Imperial Russia, which in 1860 had established an outpost on the Pacific Ocean at Vladivostok, only a hundred miles from Korea. Russian ships appeared on the east coast of Korea in January 1866, demanding trade and residency rights. They left without any hostilities, but the next European expedition in October 1866 did not. It was a French fleet that sailed from Tianjin, China (then called Tientsin), to punish Korea for executing French Catholic missionaries earlier that year. The French force of six ships and approximately eight hundred men seized and for a month occupied Gangwha Island, which commands the entrance to the Han River, the sea approach to the capital at Seoul. Korea continued its isolation after the Russian and French expeditions, but they showed that Korea was in danger of sharing the fate of China, which had been defeated by Great Britain in the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60 and fallen into a humiliating period of domination by European colonial empires.
The United States unintentionally entered the situation in Korea in 1866 with a visit by a merchant ship that ended in disaster. In August 1866, only a few weeks before the French naval assault on Korea, a voyage to Korea by the General Sherman went badly awry. The General Sherman was a former Confederate blockade runner that had been captured and used by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, then sold to a British firm in Tianjin. Whether the General Sherman should be considered American is questionable, because it was a commercial vessel, not a U.S. Navy ship, and its owners were British. The General Sherman sailed from Tianjin to Pyongyang with an American captain and chief petty officer and a crew of sixteen Chinese and Malay sailors, in an attempt to meet with Korean officials and negotiate a trade agreement. The General Sherman, armed with cannons, attempted to force its way up the Taedong River to Pyongyang against the orders of the local governor. The ship was doomed when it ran aground in a shallow part of the river, enabling Koreans to set it on fire with flaming boats and kill everyone on board.
The sinking of the General Sherman, forgotten in the United States, lives on a century and a half later in North Korea as part of the mythology of the ruling family of Kim Il Sung. After the division of Korea, propagandists in North Korea created a fictional history in which an ancestor of Kim Il Sung led the sinking of the General Sherman, a story that has no evidence to support it. North Korea has further connected the story to the modern era by using the site where the General Sherman is believed to have burned as the mooring place for the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence ship captured off North Korea in 1968. For Americans, the General Sherman incident is the first act in a history of Americans inKorea that has been completely forgotten, or perhaps better described as never actually known in the first place so that it could be forgotten.
An official U.S. mission to Korea followed five years later, when a U.S. Navy expedition sailed to Korea in 1871 to determine the fate of the General Sherman and deliver a diplomatic mission to establish political and trade relations. The U.S. Asiatic Squadron, with five ships and 1,230 sailors and marines, sailed from Shanghai to Korea bearing the U.S. minister to China. The expedition ended up repeating the experience of the French in 1866, however. The squadron arrived at the mouth of the Han River on June 1 and attempted to sail to the capital at Seoul, but it found itself fired upon from Korean forts on Gangwha Island. The sailors and marines, mostly veterans of the American Civil War and armed with modern breech-loading rifles and artillery, succeeded in storming and capturing the forts, at a cost of three Americans and over three hundred Koreans killed. The tactical victory did not lead to any contact with the Korean government, and after waiting for a month, the squadron weighed anchor and departed on July 3. No further U.S. attempts to contact Korea occurred for the remainder of the decade.
By the beginning of the 1880s, Korea's situation had changed dramatically, and its monarchy began to abandon its centuries-old policy of isolation. Always surrounded by larger and more powerful states, Korea was now especially vulnerable after falling behind the economic and military development of the industrialized powers. Korea became the first target for the imperial ambitions of Japan, industrializing and building a modern army and navy after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Gunboat diplomacy by Japan, including another attack on Gangwha Island in 1875, resulted in Korea agreeing in 1876 to an unequal treaty opening the country to trade with Japan and giving extraterritorial rights to its subjects. The 1876 treaty exposed Korea's weakness as decisively as Commodore Perry's mission had done for Japan in 1854. It caused the Korean monarchy to consider reopening the country in order to learn from the Western powers and modernize, to preserve national security during an age of imperialism.
The second U.S. attempt to establish relations with Korea came in peace and succeeded in concluding a treaty after two years of patient negotiations. Rear Adm. Robert Shufeldt, acting as the U.S. envoy to Korea, sailed into Pusan twice in April and May 1880 to initiate treaty discussions but was rejected. Relocating to Tianjin, he initiated negotiations with Korean representatives through the Chinese viceroy, culminating in the signing of a treaty in Inchon on May 22, 1882. Called the Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation, it was the first treaty between Korea and a Western power. Similar treaties followed with Britain and Germany in 1883, Italy and Russia in 1884, and France in 1886. The first U.S. diplomatic representative to Korea, Lucius Foote, presented his credentials to King Kojong of Korea on May 20, 1883. A naval attaché, Ens. George Foulk, followed in December 1883.
For Koreans, the new relationship with the United States was a historic opportunity. King Kojong and his advisers saw the United States as the one major power with no territorial or political ambitions in Korea and therefore uniquely suited to assist in the modernization of the country and the preservation of its independence. Excitement was so high that the king reportedly "danced for joy" when Foote arrived. The king soon issued a request for the United States to provide high-ranking advisers to be placed in Korea's army and foreign ministry, which Foote sent to the secretary of state in Washington on October 19, 1883. Through Foote and his own emissaries, the king reached out to Admiral Shufeldt, who had impressed his Korean counterparts during the negotiation of the treaty, and persuaded him to return to Korea as an adviser. Korea also placed an order for four thousand modern breech-loading rifles from the United States. The presence of these American advisers and weapons would have given the United States considerable influence over the foreign affairs and armed forces of Korea.
The U.S. government far away in Washington showed no interest in fulfilling this modest request, however, not even bothering to send a reply for over a year. The secretary of state, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, finally wrote a response to Foote on November 6, 1884; it did not arrive in Seoul until January 1885. It explained that Foote's dispatch from October 1883 had been mislaid, delaying the secretary's response, and thanked Foote for his efforts without approving the request. With this total indifference, Washington ignored the first invitation by Koreans to intervene and serve as a positive influence on their country. It set the pattern for what the U.S. government would do in Korea for the next six decades.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Korea soon degenerated into a farce. In July 1884 Congress downgraded the diplomatic position in Seoul from minister plenipotentiary to minister resident, causing Foote to resign when he learned of the demotion. Without informing the State Department, Foote appointed Ensign Foulk as the chargé d'affaires and departed on the day after Christmas in 1884. In this way, a twenty-eight-year-old holding the lowest officer rank in the Navy became the official representative of the United States in Seoul, alone with only an interpreter. He had no official funds because Foote had taken them away with him, and the State Department would not authorize sending its funds to a military officer. Foulk stayed on the job for over a year before the State Department sent a new minister in June 1886. The new minister turned out to be chronically drunk, and the State Department made Foulk return to Korea, where he continued to serve until January 1887. Ill health from overwork and the loss of years from his Navy career caused Foulk to resign his commission and settle down in Japan, where he died six years later at the age of thirty-seven.
U.S. military advisers finally came to Korea in April 1888, with the arrival of a short-lived training mission led by William McEntyre Dye. A veteran of Indian campaigns on the frontier, Dye became a brevet brigadier general of volunteers in the Union army during the Civil War, then resigned his commission and went to Egypt in 1873, where he served as a colonel in the Egyptian Army. Returning to the United States in 1878, he served in senior civilian positions, including superintendent of the Metropolitan Police of Washington DC and head of the Army and Navy Division of the Pension Bureau. In 1888 Dye and a team of three retired officers attempted to create and train a modern Korean army, but the mission ended and disbanded the following year. Having gained the trust of the Korean royal family, Dye stayed in Korea for another ten years, serving as a military adviser training the royal palace guard until 1899. During the 1890s he would witness the darkest days of the end of Korean independence.
Death of the Korean Monarchy
While the United States stumbled through its arrival on the stage in Korea, the monarchy of Korea became engulfed in a long state of crisis that ended with the destruction of the Korean state and the start of half a century of foreign occupation by Imperial Japan.
The royal house that had opened diplomatic relations with the Western powers and invited U.S. advisers split into factions that set traditionalists against modernizers, with China and Japan contending for influence by intervening in the power struggle. King Kojong had assumed the throne in 1873 seeking to modernize the country following the example of Japan. The majority of the ruling family and the upper class (the yangban) were opposed to the entry of foreign influences, however, and they supported maintaining Korea's traditional close relationship with China. They included Kojong's father, who had preceded Kojong as Taewongun (regent) until forced to step down, and the influential family of Kojong's wife, Queen Min. Divided against itself, the Korean monarchy was doomed.
An armed rebellion and an attempted coup in Seoul brought intervention by Chinese and Japanese troops at the same time that the United States sent its first diplomatic representatives and then ignored them. In July 1882 Koreans soldiers mutinied over favoritism toward a newly formed elite unit, killing its Japanese military adviser and attacking the Japanese legation in Seoul. After a conservative faction exploited the turmoil by calling for the restoration of the Taewongun to power, China sent three thousand troops who established forts at the royal palace and other strategic points around the city. Japan sent four warships and an infantry battalion to protect the Japanese legation. In December 1884 a group of reformist officials, educated in Japan, attempted a coup at a time when China had withdrawn half of its force in Seoul for a war with France in Indochina. Called the Gapsin Coup, it failed when Japan did not provide military support and the remaining Chinese troops crushed it. The coup plotters were given refuge by the Japanese legation and went into exile.
China and Japan finally went to war over Korea a decade later. The Sino-Japanese War began in July 1894 after China and Japan each dispatched troops to Korea during a peasant revolt, called the Tonghak Rebellion after the religious movement that the rebels followed. Japan's modern Western-style army drove China's troops out of Korea and invaded Manchuria, while its small but well-trained navy destroyed the Chinese fleet in the Battle of the Yalu River. Japan had finally eclipsed China as the great power in Northeast Asia and displaced it as the dominant power in Korea.
The Sino-Japanese War also brought about the entrance of the final great power to become involved in the contest for control over Korea. Russia was a recent arrival in the Far East, having established its first permanent presence on the Pacific Ocean when it founded Vladivostok in 1860. Russian interests in Asia were precariously distant from the center of Russian power in Europe, but Russia was working to connect them, beginning construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1891. Russia began to contest Japanese influence in Manchuria and Korea immediately after Japan's victory over China in 1895, and for a decade Korea would be a battleground in the rivalry between these two great powers.
Imperial Japan set about dominating Korea through a group of reformist officials, some of them leaders of the 1884 Gapsin Coup returned from exile. To preside over the government, Japan installed the Taewongun, who was now useful to them as an opponent of his own son. From 1894 to 1897 they passed a series of laws known as the Kabo Reforms. They first ended Korea's centuries-old tributary relationship with China, then addressed a wide range of issues including creating a modern education system, establishing a modern judicial system, eliminating the privileges of the yangban class, and abolishing slavery and child marriage. The Taewongun and the reformist cabinet, supervised by Japanese advisers in every cabinet meeting, reduced King Kojong to a puppet. As a symbol of the new order in Korea, in January 1895 Kojong went through an elaborate Japanese-directed ceremony in which he announced to his ancestors the advent of a new era and swore to follow the new laws created by Japan.
Although it brought reforms, Japan also was bringing a regime of great brutality, which showed itself just after midnight on October 8, 1895. That night Japanese agents and hired Korean thugs following the orders of the Japanese minister to Korea, Viscount Miura Goro, stormed into the Gyeongbokgung Palace, killed the palace guards at the main gate, and murdered Queen Min and her ladies-in-waiting in the royal residence. After hacking the women to death, the assassins identified Queen Min's body and desecrated it by setting it on fire. The murder of the queen was so appalling that reports in American and European newspapers led to a wave of international outrage toward Japan, which felt compelled to recall Viscount Miura and place him and fifty-five others on trial. A Japanese court acquitted them all, however, and Japan's policies aimed at dominating Korea continued uninterrupted.
The barbaric assassination signaled the end of Korea's monarchy. Kojong and then his son would continue to occupy the throne until 1910, but in reality they were powerless in the face of Japanese military power and influence. Kojong, living like a prisoner in his palace, took refuge in the Russian legation in Seoul under the protection of Russian troops for an entire year, from February 1896 to February 1897. When he reemerged and returned to his own palace, he did it with Russian soldiers guarding him. Kojong took on the grand new title of emperor in October 1897, intended to signify his independence and equality with the emperors of China and Japan, but he was an emperor who had lost sovereignty over his own country. Dominated by Japan, and protected only by Russia in furtherance of its own ambition for influence in the Far East, the Korean monarchy had become a pawn of two competing empires.
Excerpted from Project Eagle by Robert S. Kim. Copyright © 2017 Robert S. Kim. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
Note on Terminology,
Part 1. Jerusalem of the East,
1. Genesis, 1882–1919,
2. Kim Ku and the Korean Liberation Movement,
3. Americans of Korea: Clarence Weems and George McCune,
Part 2. Crusade in Asia,
4. The OSS and the Korean Provisional Government,
5. Project Eagle,
6. Lost Crusade: The End of Project Eagle,
7. End of Innocence: The U.S. Military Government in Korea,
8. After the Mission,