On August 15, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Korea’s national holiday, Liberation Day. Putin’s telegram stated that Russia honors the memory of soldiers of the Red Army and the Korean patriots who gave their lives in the struggle for the freedom of Korea. The good traditions of friendship strengthened in those hard years remain a reliable foundation for developing relations between Russia and North Korea.
On the same day, Kim Jong-un sent a wreath to the Liberation Monument on Mount Moranbong, laid by Party Central Committee Secretary Ri Il-hwan. On the ribbon of the wreath was written, “We keep the memory of the deeds of the fallen Soviet soldiers.” According to the KCNA, participants in the laying down “observed a moment of silence for the fallen Soviet soldiers who gave their precious lives, with noble international duty, in the holy war for the liberation of Korea.”
This monument is not far from the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. It fits into the ensemble of Pyongyang’s memorial sites. They continued to take care of it even during hard times, when relations between Yeltsin’s Russia and North Korea were not the best, to put it mildly.
Savvy liberal journalists immediately pointed out that although August 15 is celebrated in both parts of divided Korea, the Russian president openly congratulated the leadership of the North but ignored the leadership of the South. This led to accusations that Russia supports the “totalitarian” North. The author had to comment on this: the holiday falls on the same date. It is connected with liberation from the Japanese yoke. Yet in fact, the North and the South celebrate for different reasons.
The DPRK (North Korea) celebrates “National Liberation Day” when Japanese troops in Korean territory ceased their resistance. However, the Japanese “surrendered unexpectedly early.” As of August 15, parts of North Korea and all of South Korea had not yet been liberated by the Soviet army. For those territories where the Red Army had not reached, the victory looked like a sudden change of power, to which the Korean fighters for the liberation of the motherland had no direct relation. This is a very bitter topic of a “victory not actually achieved” because Kim Il Sung’s guerrillas did not appear in Korea at the same time as the Soviet troops. The armed nationalist formations did not have time to participate in World War II under their flag, becoming a hypothetical analog of the Polish People’s Army.
Moreover, sometime before that date, on August 11, 1945, the United States had proposed dividing Korea along the 38th parallel into two occupation zones. The Soviets accepted the offer, after which they gained a foothold in the North. At the same time, a power vacuum was formed in the South, which left-wing nationalists soon filled. Because Japan needed a provisional government that could ensure evacuation and prevent pogroms, a government with some legitimacy and pursuing a somewhat left-wing policy appeared in the South in the three weeks between Japan’s surrender and the arrival of the Americans.
However, neither Moscow nor Washington recognized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nor the so-called “Provisional Government of the Korean Republic,” which had existed in China since 1919. It was created “on the tail end” of the March 1st Day movement, and for a long time, was relatively successful in its role as a “government in exile.” This government named its state “Daehan Minguk” (Republic of Korea), the same way South Korea has been officially called since 1948.
The first president of the interim government was Syngman Rhee, but he was soon enough “asked out.” The displeasure was caused, among other things, by his proposal to approach the United States to make Korea a mandated territory.
As a result, much of the government’s existence was controlled by nationalists who were equally suspicious of Moscow and Washington. Their leader was Kim Gu, who had serious merit as a fighter for independence. Still, after August 1945, his group’s interests were not taken into account. Upon his return to the country as a private citizen, Kim Gu actively advocated preserving the country’s unity. He openly opposed Syngman Rhee, who was among the first to declare the need for a state on his half of the peninsula amid the outbreak of the Cold War.
Wanting to preserve a unified Korea, Kim Gu went to Pyongyang and met with Kim Il Sung, but historical processes were against it. When a separate election was held in South Korea, Kim Gu and his supporters did not participate.
Of course, one could speculate on the backdrop of how history would have changed if Kim Gu had gone to the polls. Some believe he had a chance to surpass Syngman Rhee due to his reputation and many supporters. But some believe the US may have secured a victory for its proxy. For Washington, Syngman Rhee was an advantageous candidate due to his anti-communism, high charisma, and political cunning. Kim Gu, on the other hand, was perceived by them as a dangerous competitor.
On October 15, 1948, specifically on the third anniversary of liberation, the Republic of Korea was proclaimed on the steps of the former Governor General’s Office, which then housed first the parliament and then the national museum (the building was dismantled in 1997 as a legacy of the occupiers). This holiday has a rather specific name – Day of Nationhood, referring to 1919.
In recent years, however, the name of the holiday has become the subject of separate discussions, as more right-wing forces have proposed converting it to “State Foundation Day.” From the point of view of supporters of this version, the Republic of Korea of the 1948 sample is not related to the ROK of the 1919 sample, except for the common name. Roughly speaking, it was not a project of Kim Gu, who Syngman Rhee treacherously assassinated in 1949. Still, the task of “founding president Rhee” whose personality cult in the 1950s and until his overthrow by the April revolution in 1960, was far ahead of the nascent cult of Kim Il-Sung.
Moreover, in the mass consciousness of many South Koreans, the image of the American liberator is associated not with the end of World War II, when they did not fire a single shot to defeat the Japanese in Korea, but with their role in the Korean War of 1950-1953, when, according to the official version, the troops liberated the South from “communist aggressors.”
Thus, although the two holidays fall on the same date, they are actually celebrated differently in the North and South. The holiday, which corresponds to South Korea’s Statehood Day on August 15, is celebrated in the North on September 9 – as the state of the North was formed after the South.
And that’s what explains the Russian move.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.