Japan’s imperialist desires did not stop with the invasion of Joseon, a kingdom that ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1392 until the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910. Using Joseon as a foothold, Japan sought to invade China, and succeeded in subjugating it in part with victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Afterward, China groaned under brutalities such as the Great Nanjing Massacre, and Chiang Kai-shek dedicated his life to preventing such atrocities. Uniting a China divided by warlords, he joined hands with the Korean independence fighters and fought to oust the Japanese occupiers. Who was he, and what were the beginnings of the link between his fate and Korea’s?
The Republic of China rose with the fall of the Qing Empire in the Xinhai Revolution of October 1911. However, the fate of the republic was inevitably rough without a nationally conscious guomin. The betrayal of the revolution’s leader, Sun Yat-sen, by the president of the republic, Yuan Shikai, who sought to establish himself as emperor, clearly showed the limits of the Republican Revolution. After Yuan’s sudden death by illness in 1916, China entered a period of rule by local warlords and their private armies, known as the Warlord Era, and the goal of ending this period through unification became the highest goal of the Chinese National Revolution from 1924-28. The revolution set the immediate goal of realizing national unification by subjugating the warlords. The leader who emerged from this struggle for unification was Chiang Kai-shek.
Chiang took a relatively proactive stance toward creating the First Chinese United Front and cooperating with the Soviet Union, which formed the starting point of the Chinese National Revolution. He was made commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy, which was established with financial and military aid from the Soviets, and later commander in chief of the National Revolutionary Army, which was based on the young officers graduating from the Whampoa Military Academy. After two years of war, he finally achieved the national unification of China, entering Beijing in June 1928. Based on this achievement, he was able to create the first centralized national government since the fall of the Qing, the Nationalist Government, with Nanjing chosen as the capital.
As the supreme leader of this government, Chiang had taken the leading role in building an independent, unified, and strong and wealthy nation for more than three decades from 1928 through 1949, when he fled to Taiwan after his defeat to the communists in mainland China.
Hero of the war against Japan
The Manchurian Incident of 1931, itself an expansion of the Japanese intent to invade China since the 1910s, lit the fuse for the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Before the defeat of Japan in August 1945, the sacrifice borne by China throughout eight, if not 15 years of total war was incalculable. Excluding the northwest and some agricultural areas, most Chinese territory was under Japanese control.
After the capital of Chiang’s Nationalist government in Nanjing fell in December 1936, it was moved to Wuhan, halfway along the Yangtze River, and again to Chongqing in Sichuan province, further upstream along the Yangtze River, in August 1938. From then on, despite all the hardships they suffered Chiang continued to resist the Japanese as supreme commander until their defeat in 1945.
Compared to Japan, the military ability of his forces, particularly their weaponry and tactics, were significantly weaker. Chiang thus turned to a war of attrition as his basic strategy, constantly struggling to preserve the life of the nation. In particular, Chiang suffered a severe blow when the Nationalist government’s second in command, Wang Ching-wei, left Chongqing with his cohort to establish a pro-Japanese government in Shanghai. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941 which began the Pacific War and saw U.S. participation not only provided the opportunity to revive China, but was the decisive factor in bringing about Japan’s defeat.
With the victory from in the war with Japan, Chiang became the people’s hero. However, civil war soon erupted between the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party, with the latter’s victory resulting in Chiang fleeing to Taiwan and giving up the mainland in 1949. With the hero of the war against Japan ousted, Chiang was forced to live with his unattainable dream of recovering the mainland until his death in Taiwan in 1975.
Aiding the Korean independence movement
After the forced annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910, the independence movement moved to China, which had more Korean patriots than any other region. Although they were interested in the Chinese Republican revolution in seeking to establish a new nation, they had also moved there partially based on expectations of traditional Korea-China amity between two countries.
Chiang established close ties with the exiled Korean patriots and supported them in several stages. First, he accepted them as students in Whampoa Military Academy, which was the origin of his own military and political rise. In 1925, he established a special class for the many Korean recruits. The fact that the Academy accepted many Korean students was deeply related to Communist International’s strategy of international revolution, which played a decisive role in the making and running of the Academy.
As forming a united front based on the Communists allying with Nationalist forces was necessary for the communist revolution of the oppressed nations under colonial rule, Communist International thus promoted mutual solidarity within the independence movement on one hand while forming a united front of colonized nations in an “anti-imperialist alliance.”
With these official aides from Communist International and the Whampoa Military Academy, Korean graduates actively participated in the National Revolution and Northern Expedition with the expectation that their contributions to the success of the Chinese Revolution would be repaid with Chinese aid for Korean independence.
In their view, the Chinese Revolution was not the revolution of another country but the revolution of Korea. However, with the suppression of the Communists and labor movements in the coup of April 12, 1927, by Chiang’s military, the large number of Korean losses pushed the leftist Korean independence fighters to ally with the Chinese Communists instead of the Chinese Nationalists.
Support of the provisional government in the Second Sino-Japanese War
Despite this, the Korea-China Alliance, or the Korea-China Mutual Aid, flourished during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In particular, Yun Bong-gil’s bombing of Japanese dignitaries in Shanghai’s Lu Xun Park in April 1932 decisively induced Chiang to take a more proactive stance toward Korean independence. That same day, Chiang wrote in his diary that the Japanese invaders should reflect and awaken themselves, and praised Yun’s patriotic martyrdom as a great contribution to Korean independence. Chiang then not only helped the head of the Provisional Government of Korea (PGK), Kim Koo, take refuge but also actively aided the government when it moved to Hangzhou and several other regions after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937 until settling in Chongqing in August 1940.
The ultimate goal of the PGK was twofold: 1) to organize a Korean Liberation Army as an independent PGK military organization and 2) gain international diplomatic recognition. Although achieving these goals was only possible with the support of Chiang’s government, Chiang’s government itself lacked international leadership. China could not act independently from other superpowers such as the United States to recognize the PGK due to the massive military support it received from the U.S. and Great Britain, nor could it permit a foreign-run independent army within its territory, which engendered much controversy within the Chinese Nationalist government. Chiang eventually put the Korean Liberation Army under the command of Chinese Nationalists, and could only take a passive stance toward recognizing the PGK.
Supporting Korean independence in the Cairo conference
The mentioning of the issue of Korean independence after Japan’s defeat, first raised in the November 1943 Cairo Conference, captured the public’s attention. However, it was Chiang who advocated for Korean independence. The U.S., which led of the conference, saw the recovery of China’s international leadership as necessary to reestablish postwar international relations in Asia. Chiang, who was included as a member of the Four Great Powers in the Cairo Conference thanks to the consideration of the U.S., needed the U.S.’ cooperation above all else. Thus, although Chiang advocated for immediate Korean independence from the outset, he was obliged to accept the U.S.’ opinion during the editing of the Cairo Declaration that Korea be administrated by an international trusteeship.
In the end, Chiang’s advocacy was edited by Roosevelt, who attached the line “in due course” for Korean independence. Despite this, it was thanks to Chiang’s active support and great interest that the issue of Korean independence was first mentioned and Korean independence was declared in an international conference, even if the conference declaration contained a provisory clause. In great appreciation of his contribution, the Korean government awarded Chiang the Order of Merit for National Foundation, the Daehan Minguk Jang, First Class in 1953.
By Bae Kyoung-han
Professor of history at Silla University