The date of militaristic Japan’s surrender, August 15, is observed as a holiday in both North and South Korea; however, both countries celebrate different events. The author carefully examines the publications made on this date in South Korea because the Soviet Army was crucial to the liberation of Korea. This is because the mainstreaming of anti-Russian stereotypes may be an indication that the ROK authorities are on track for further deterioration of relations, given the background of tense relations between Moscow and Seoul in the era of global unrest.
In general, there was no sudden shift toward an anti-Russian rhetoric. The article “The ‘August Storm’ and the Double-Dealing of the Soviet Army” by Professor Jug Bong-gwan of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) was the only one deemed problematic. It was published on May 27, 2023, in the ultraconservative Chosun Ilbo, which primarily reflects the viewpoint of the right-wing conservative faction and not so much the Yoon Suk-yeol regime.
However, this article, to which the Russian Embassy in the ROK specifically refuted, offers a collection of myths whose debunking is worth repeating to the readers. Especially considering that the author has been calling them out since 2005 and has previously written on related subjects.
The first myth is that the Soviet Union took advantage and attacked to take a piece of the East Asian pie after the US dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, which is thought to have been a crucial factor in securing Tokyo’s defeat. The belief is also prevalent among Japanese audiences that “the winners and losers were determined before the USSR broke the pact and attacked Japan. Greedy territorial expansion cannot be justified.” Sounds delightful but is readily disputed.
In reality, there are “two myths in one,” the first of which is the idea that the use of the atomic bomb was crucial to the surrender of Japan. Its proponents point to the fact that the Emperor’s speech to end resistance cited the atomic cause, but it’s important to look more closely at the situation because it was really just a convenient way to save face by claiming that we lost because we submitted to a superweapon rather than the enemy’s tactical superiority. Despite the bombing of Tokyo, where a firestorm burned more than 100 people in a single raid and had a more striking effect, the determination to resist persisted.
In addition to the Kwantung Army’s real defeat as the largest remaining land grouping, let’s think about the overall effects of the USSR’s Manchurian operation. During the campaign, Soviet forces
- blocked off the China Expeditionary Army and troops in the South Seas region from Japan, as communication with them required passing via Manchuria and Korea;
- captured territory that was a major source of economic success in Japan. Manchuria and Korea served as the empire’s primary sources of raw materials, manufacturing, and resources, which, coupled with the Japanese islands’ innate reliance on energy, destroyed the economic foundation of the war effort.
- prevented a potentially protracted war through employing Korea as a “reserve airfield.” There is a theory that, in the event that American forces showed up on the islands, the courthouse would have been evacuated to Korea.
- Soviet Army’s quick offensive thwarted “Japanese response to the atomic bomb” in the form of stockpiled biological weapons in Manchuria. It is debatable to what extent its use would actually prolong the conflict and cause unacceptable harm to the United States. Still, unable to use its own wunderwaffe to counter the enemy’s wunderwaffe (the “merits” of Shiro Ishi and Masaji Kitano should not be understated) weakened Japan’s desire to continue the war. This was acknowledged by Otozō Yamada, commander-in-chief of the Kwantung Army, who said that “the Soviet Army’s rapid advance deep into Manchuria deprived us of the opportunity to use bacteriological weapons.”
- the Allies’ united front compelled Japan to reject attempts to exploit the tensions between the US and the USSR and reach a separate peace agreement instead of an unconditional surrender.
Japanese and American assumptions both corroborate these facts. Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki declared at the Meeting of Principals of the Supreme Council for the Direction of War on August 9, 1945 that the USSR’s involvement in the conflict had ultimately rendered Tokyo’s condition hopeless. This wording was also repeated in Emperor Hirohito’s Rescript to the Ministers of War and Navy of August 17, 1945, “Now that the Soviet Union has also entered the war against us, continuing resistance… means endangering the very foundation of our empire’s existence.” We also know President Truman’s prediction that “any time the USSR should enter the war, practically all Japanese will realize that absolute defeat is inevitable,” as well as the relevant estimates made by American generals. Indeed, on March 13, 1945, MacArthur remarked: “From a military point of view, we should make every effort to get Russia into the Japanese war before we reach Japan, otherwise we will have to take the full brunt of the Japanese divisions’ attack and suffer corresponding losses…”.
Let’s now discuss the moment the USSR decided to enter the war against Japan. The issue was first raised on December 8, 1941, following the Japanese naval attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the Pacific War part of World War II. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt pleaded with the Soviet government to support his country, especially by providing Soviet territory for major bombing raids against Japan.
Stalin refused by stating that it would force the USSR to fight on two fronts at the same time, while the battle of Moscow was underway: “A declaration of a state of war with Japan by the USSR would weaken Soviet resistance to Hitler’s forces and benefit Hitler’s Germany. We think that our main enemy is still Hitler’s Germany. Weakening Soviet resistance to German aggression would lead to the strengthening of the Axis Powers to the detriment of the USSR and all our allies.”
Roosevelt agreed with Moscow’s arguments while stressing his desire “to give the Japanese the impression that the question remains as if unresolved.” As a result, the USSR and Japan both maintained sizeable troops against one another. For example, the Red Army’s grouping in the Far East included more than 1.16 million soldiers, or 45.5 estimated divisions, which compelled Tokyo to maintain equal forces on the Soviet border for the whole four-year conflict.
Stalin agreed in principle that the USSR would launch hostilities against Japan following the defeat of Nazi Germany at a trilateral meeting in Tehran in November 1943 (i.e., following the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, which marked a crucial turning point in the Great Patriotic War), but he affirmed that he would first destroy the Nazis: “… Our forces in the Far East are more or less sufficient only to conduct defense, but for offensive operations it is necessary to increase these forces at least three times. This can take place when we force Germany to capitulate. Then, we will fight as a common front against Japan.”
The Soviet General Staff started creating an operational strategy in the summer of 1944. The first 11 infantry divisions were sent to the Far East in September of that year, and Marshal Alexander Vasilevsky, head of the Soviet General Staff, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of Soviet forces in the Far East.
The Soviet leadership was questioned by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on October 15, 1944, regarding potential dates for the start of hostilities against Japan. The Soviet leadership responded that the operation could start 2.5–3 months after the triumph over Germany. The “Big Three” leaders in Yalta in February 1945 acknowledged this time frame of two to three months, and it is important to note that Japanese intelligence was aware of this. Since the spring of 1945, the Japanese leadership has routinely received thorough information about the redeployment of Soviet troops in the Far East. Prince Fumimaro Konoe, Prime Minister of Japan, made an appeal to the Emperor with a suggestion to “end the war before the Soviets intervene in it” two days after the meeting in the Crimea.
Due to the limited capacity of the railroad in Siberia and Primorye and the need to mobilize and prepare troops for the new operation, Moscow created a logistical miracle on August 9, exactly three months after May 9, when it transferred a million troops to the Far East and started fighting.
The second myth holds that Korea would have been communized from the start by the Soviets. At least two arguments contest this. First of all, the USSR would not have objected to the American proposals of August 11, 1945, whose genesis is well known, if it had wanted to annex the peninsula in an open manner. When the Soviet Union had the chance to take control of all of Korea at once, the Americans grew concerned because they understood that they would simply not have time to intervene in the Korean theater of battle before the Soviet Union had the entire peninsula at its feet.
The offensive’s blistering pace, unmatched in the Pacific theater, resulted in the wholesale surrender of Japanese forces and the defeat of the Kwantung Army in less than a week. Washington had not anticipated this. And for this reason, two American colonels urgently devised plans for the division of the world, including the establishment of two occupation zones on Korean land, at a meeting conducted on August 11, 1945. Three weeks after the Japanese administration had surrendered, and at that point Yö Un-hyöng and the “People’s Republic of Korea” had already taken control of the peninsula, US forces began to show up there.
Curiously, among Russian “ultra-patriots,” there is a notion that the Soviet Army liberated the entire Korean peninsula or at least seized Seoul. Unfortunately, neither Soviet papers from the war years nor South Korean civilians’ memories corroborate this logic, notwithstanding the fact that an event like the arrival of Soviet troops in the Korean capital would have left a massive media trail.
Second, historical documents contradict the myth of communization. In particular, Directive from the Supreme Command Headquarters to the Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Forces in the Far East on the Start of Combat Operations, No. 1130 signed by Joseph Stalin and Alexey Antonov, of 20 September, 1945, gave unambiguous instructions to this effect: “On the territory of North Korea, not to establish councils and other bodies of Soviet power, not to introduce Soviet orders, not to prevent the formation of anti-Japanese democratic organizations and parties in the occupied areas of Korea and to assist them in their work; the troops should strictly observe discipline, not offend the population and behave correctly, not interfere with the performance of religious rites and ceremonies, not touch temples and other religious institutions.”
Until early 1946, Moscow relies on the centrists, led by Cho Man-sik. Cho’s opposition to the decisions of the Moscow summit in December 1945 marked the beginning of Kim Il Sung’s ascension, which began only after Cho was expelled from politics after opposing the decisions of the Moscow Conference in December 1945, which provided for shared custody of the country. What may be called communization occurred only against the backdrop of the Cold War, when both the North and South became ideological bulwarks of their “suzerains.”
The third myth is about the unprecedented atrocities of the Soviet army committed in the occupied territories. For instance, British historian Michael Breen reiterates a series of rumors about how the local populace in Korea was looted and raped. Another historian and journalist Max Hastings goes so far as to say that the Soviets “treated the population so badly that they soon found themselves forced to move deep into the night to protect themselves from offended locals.” The fact that he states in the very next sentence that “American soldiers in the South were little better” indicates that he is making reference to overtly propagandistic material.
This myth’s impact is based on the belief that, given the constrained length of an article or other piece of writing, two or three vivid examples will suffice for the reader to grasp the concept, even if there were only three.
People are not faultless, and excesses are unavoidable when an army of millions invades a foreign nation. Even if unworthy acts were committed by a tenth or a hundredth of a percent of a notional million soldiers, in absolute numbers, it would be hundreds or thousands of cases.
By manipulating these numbers, it is very simple to pass off such excesses as a mass practice that encountered no resistance from the command. It is therefore only worth looking at other things. First and foremost, at how much the command supported or deliberately refrained from using violence. How quickly were the offenders apprehended? How severe were the penalties? Were the offenders extradited to the local authorities, or were they put on military trial? How much of a given type of crime committed by the occupants against locals, such as robbery or rape, was greater or less than the locals committed against each other?
The Soviet records provide a clear resolution in this case. Looters and rapists were dealt with harshly by shooting them according to wartime law. In addition, in comparison to what had been occurring in Germany six months previously, trophy hunting and other despicable activities against the local populace were far less severe. At the same time, a limited number of violations committed in various locations by various individuals were viewed as an urgent situation requiring a high degree of investigation, and swift and severe action was taken to punish the offenders. According to Andrey Lankov, the instances of looting had ended by September.
The Soviet leadership also made an effort to prevent a situation where everyone with a rifle would declare themselves the head of the local police and begin persecuting and lustrating those who they believed to be the enemies of the people.
As a result, all three myths are simply disproved, and readers of the New Eastern Outlook will find it simple to reproduce these documents for offline and online discussion.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”
 Korean War and Modern History. Sese Publ. House. Seoul, 2006 С. 109.
 USSR and Korea. USSR and Eastern Countries Series. M., 1988 P. 133.
 Breen, Michael. Kim Jong-Il: North Korea’s Dear Leader. Who He is, What He Wants, What to Do about Him. New York, 2004. P. 22.
 William Stueck. Korean War. P. 43.