Note: This is a work in progress, and one I am not likely to finish (short of receiving a grant or an offer from a larger publisher) for some time. Everything posted here should be considered a draft. [Main Page, U.S. War Against Asia]
By the time the kingdom of Korea came to be of interest to businessmen and political stategists in the the United States of America, Korea was struggling just to stay independent from neighbors Russia, China, and Japan and global powers like Great Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
In the 13th century the independent kingdom of Korea had been conquered by the Mongols. In the late 16th century an invasion by Japan was repulsed after a difficult struggle. Soon afterwards the Manchus, while involved in the conquest of China, invaded and made Korea a vassal state. The arrival of Europeans (at first Spanish and Portuguese, later English, Dutch, and French) in Asia starting in the 17th century complicated matters. In the 1700's and early 1800's Korea maintained a policy of isolation from all nations except China. The Opium War of 1839 to 1842, in which Great Britain forced China to allow the importation of opium, illustrated the power of the Western nations.
Both private trading ships and military vessels from Great Britain, Russia, and Germany attempted to "open" Korea to trade between 1832 and 1870 [Lee p. 262-263]. While it is likely that U.S.-based trading or whaling vessels attempted to visit Korea earlier, the first known instance of a U.S. visit came in 1866. The merchant vessel General Sherman defied warnings and sailed to P'yongyang on the Taedong River. Soldiers and citizens attacked and burned the ship; all its hands perished. [Lee p. 263]
The U.S. did not retaliate immediately, possibly because it was pre-occupied with occupying the former Confederate States of America. However, in 1871 it launched an expedition hoping to repeat its success in "opening up" Japan in 1854. The U.S. Asiatic Squadron, consisting of five warships, commanded by Rear Admiral John Rodgers, enterred Korea using the Kanghwa Strait. Korean shore artillery batteries had been strengthened with a view to resisting imperialist naval attacks. They shelled the U.S. squadron. U.S. Marines captured two forts on southern Kanghwa Island [or Ganghwa], suffering 3 dead and 9 wounded while using superior rifles and artilery to inflict heavy Korean casualties. The squardron then continued up the Han river, but met further resistance and decided to return to China after another Marine landing was repulsed. [Lee, p. 264-266]
The victory for Korea produced a false sense of security. Korea stuck to its isolationist policy while Japan, the U.S., and Russia rapidly developed industrial economies and the art of war. Japan's rulers decided to emulate the imperialist powers in more than the adoption of science, technology, and industry. Japan's government and businessmen believed they needed both trade and colonies. Dominance of Korea and Manchuria became their objectives.
In 1875 the Japanese engineered a pretext for aggression that would serve as a blueprint for the United States almost a hundren years later in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The Japanese military ship Unyo entered the waters of Kanghwa and was fired upon by Koreans. Japan then sent two warships with troops and an ambassador. The Korean government decided it was better to negotiate than fight. The Treaty of Friendship (or Treaty of Kanghwa) opened three Korean ports to the Japanese trade and allowed for Japanese merchants to live in those ports. [Lee 268-269]
In 1882 the Korean military revolted against the government over its Japan policy and defeated the small Japanese military force in Korea. China used this as a pretext for military intervention and reestablishment of its role as an overlord of Korea. China, though, had already fallen prey to various Western powers. China advised the Koreans to make treaties with them to counter the Japanese threat. The first treat of signed was with the United States and treaties with other European nations quickly followed. [Lee 274-275]
In 1894 the Japanese and Chinese went to war over who would control Korea. Both sides used modern weapons that had been provided by the U.S. or Europeans. Japan won quickly and the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed in 1895. The treaty recognized Korea's independence from China. Japan again became the principal advisor to the Korean government, and was also awarded China's Liaotung Penninsula and Taiwan. [Lee 289-290]
About this time the U.S. and Japan were already rivals, but they also acted as allies at times. Russia was also very much in the picture as it sought to gain control of Manchuria and Korea. The Korean government, beset by the demands of powerful nations, gave away development rights to the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Germany and England in the mid-1880's.
In December 1898, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States of America. The army of the people of the Philippines was attacked by American troops on February 4, 1898; a long guerilla war followed. The United States did not want Japan to interfere in the Philippines. In addition Japan joined the U.S. and European powers in a military adventure in China in 1900 to keep the Chinese subservient (the Boxer Rebellion). Japan signed a treaty of alliance with Great Britain in 1902. When Japan fought a war with Russia over Manchuria in 1904 it suprised the world by winning a clear victory. The secret Taft-Katsuma Agreement with the United States, signed in 1905, recognized Japan's domination of Korea in return for Japanese recognition of the U.S.'s overlordship of the Philippines. [Lee 306-309]
In 1910 Japan openly annexed Korea. While an independence movement within Korea organized and fought a guerilla war, and a government in exile kept up hope, as far as the U.S. was concerned Korea was off limits.
The next stage in U.S. aggression against Korea commenced during the maneuvering leading up to World War II. United States President-for-Life Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the usual coterie of geo-political strategists were alarmed at the increase in Japanese power. They demanded that the Japanese government withdraw from China and return Indochina to the French. They did not make any demands about Korea (that this researcher is aware of), but the restoration of Chinese power, entrusted to America's puppet Chiang Kai Shek, would probably also result in Korea being handed over to the Chinese. Japan offered to return Indochina to the French and join the Allies in fighting Germany if its possession of much of China could continue. President Roosevelt instead embargoed Japan, issued the Hull Ultimatum, and stationed the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii in preparation for an attack on the Japanese.
Korean independence activists, of course, were hoping for a Japanese defeat at anyone's hands. There was still a government in exhile in China, Korean freedom fighters in Manchuria, and underground democacy and socialist organizations in Korea itself. After Pearl Harbor for a time the war went well for the Japanese, who seized the Philipines and much of southeast Asia. As Russia turned the tables on Nazi Germany and the U.S. crippled the Japanese fleet and air force, hopes in Korea for independence soared.
The Cairo Declaration of the Allies of December 1, 1943 promised the independence of Korea, which was incorporated into the Potsdam Declaration. Koreans believed they would become independent immediately upon the defeat of Japan. [Lee 373] During the war Russia trained two divisions of Korean troops in Siberia [Years of Decisions, Vol. 1, by Harry S. Truman, p. 317]. At this point I cannot confirm when these Korean troops returned home, but it is likely they participated in what is called the Soviet invasion of Korea in August or September 1946.
Japan surrendered on August 15, 1946. The USSR had invaded Manchuria on August 10, 1946. The U.S. ambassador to the USSR, Pauley, urged U.S. President Harry Truman to "occupy quickly as much o fthe industrial area of Korea and Manchuria as we can, starting at the southerly tip and progressing northward." [Years of Decision, Vol. 1, by Harry S. Truman, p. 433]
Some Koreans awaited the Korean Provisional Government's return from exile in China. Others sought to immediately establish a democracy and organized the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence. Communists and democrats split and prepared two separate incipient governments. None of this mattered. Neither the U.S. nor the USSR had fought World War II simply to give Asians their independence.
The Russians saw no reason to stop marching at the border of Manchuria and Korea; they occupied cities in northern Korea as rapidly as they could. The U.S. invaders landed on September 8 at Inchon and quickly occupied Seoul. To avoid conflict the occupiers divided the nation at the 38th parallel. Note that with Japan having surrendered, there was no Korean army capable of resisting the great powers.
The U.S. immediately set up a military government, to be administered by U.S. personel, rather than working with either the Korean Provisional Government or the local provisional government. However, the U.S. occupiers did not attempt to prevent the formation of political parties in occupied Korea. Numerous small parties formed; neither did the return of the Provisional Government from exile bring a sense of unity. At the same time the economy, which had been heavily dependent on trade with Japan, was also thrown into disarray.
Next, in December 1945, the British, Chinese, Soviets and Americans declared that the Koreans were not capable of self-government and would be governed by a "trusteeship," that is to say, foreign powers. Boycotts, demonstrations were organized by Koreans in both northern and southern Korea. The Provisional Government held an assembly to create an independent Korean government. In January 1946 the Soviets and the United States, in talking about how the would rule Korea, could not come to an agreement. By May 1946 no progress had been made; talks ceased. Various Korean organizations, including the Provisional Government, proposed their own solutions, mostly involving reunification of Korea and an exit by Russians and Yanks alike. [Lee 373-377]
The U.S. military ordered Communist leaders to be arrested in May 1946. The U.S. military government eventually picked puppets who became the South Korean Interim Legislative Assembly in 1947; they also appointed a chief justice and chief civil administrator. However, the U.S. did permit elections in May, 1948, supervised by the United Nations. Soon the new Republic of Korea was formed and recognized by the international community. However, U.S. troops remained. The U.S. was unwilling to provide modern equipment to the Republic of Korea, resulting in it's inability to defend itself against North Korea without U.S. military intervention.
The U.S. military still occupies South Korea as this work is written. North Korea appears to not be occupied by any foreign military power..
Learn More links:
Basic Korea information at Wikipedia
South Korea (Republic of Korea) official site
North Korea (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) official news site
Korean Friendship Society (adds insight even if you don't want to be friendly with the North Koreans)
[Main Page, U.S. War Against Asia]