After the surrender of Japan, Korea was divided into two parts. North of the 38th Parallel was the Communist North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union. South of the 38th Parallel was the capitalist South Korea, backed by the United States. Both countries were dictatorships. The North was ruled by Kim Il-sung and the South was ruled by Syngman Rhee. Both countries claimed to be the sole legitimate government of a unified Korea. Because of this, neither country was allowed into the United Nations. The governments of both countries sought the destruction of the other, and they would work to accomplish that goal. However, full scale war, which seemed inevitable to many observers, did not occur.
(Left: Kim Il-sung, Right: Syngman Rhee)
Of the two Koreas, North Korea was the stronger one. North Korea could have defeated South Korea in a war, provided that there was no foreign intervention. There were leftist rebellions in South Korea that were often supported by the North. South Korea was able to put down these rebellions, but they proved to be a major thorn in their side throughout the 40s and 50s. There was also a series of border skirmishes between the two sides during this time. South Korea tried to subvert North Korea, but had much less success. North Korea also supported Communist revolutionaries among China’s ethnic Korean population and was a place where Chinese Communists retreated operated from. In 1952, with the Chinese Civil War wrapping up, China secured its border with North Korea, preventing North Korean intervention in China.
China promised to intervene if North Korea invaded the South. Likewise, the Soviet Union promised to protect North Korea. China continued to support the Korean Independence Party as a vehicle to advance their interests in South Korea. America supported the ruling Liberal Party. In the early years of South Korea there was a debate as to whether Korea should follow the example of the United States or China. Syngman Rhee was an authoritarian and would not allow for free elections. Challenging the Liberal Party at the ballot in Korea was as futile as challenging the Kuomintang at the ballot in China. This was made increasingly clear as Rhee suppressed dissent. Discontent with his rule was widespread, and some began to secretly discuss taking action against the regime.
In 1957, opponents of the Rhee Regime struck. 37-year-old General Paik Sun-yup led a group of officers in a coup against the government. Syngman Rhee was forced to resign. Paik Sun-yup served as interim president but promised free elections in 1958. He kept to his word, except that all Communist or pro-North parties were banned from participating. Several parties competed in the election. The Center-right Democratic Party won a plurality and became the ruling party. Cho Pyong-ok became president and Chang Myon became Vice President. Kim Gu’s Korean Independence Party and Cho Bong-am’s Progressive Party also won many seats in the legislature. South Korea seemed to be on the road to becoming a stable democracy. Whether this would continue remained to be seen, however.
(Left: Cho Pyong-ok, Rght: Paik Sun-yup)