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Cairo Declaration and Korean service in British army commemorated in SOAS conference

Speakers and moderators at the SOAS conference
Speakers and moderators at the SOAS conference

Hands up, anyone who had actually heard of the Cairo Declaration before this SOAS conference designed to mark its 80th anniversary? I certainly hadn’t. Winston Churchill was in Cairo with a contingent of over 100 diplomatic and administrative staff, in late November 1943, where along with Chang Kai-shek and President Roosevelt they were starting to make plans for a post-war regime should the Allies prevail. But, according to Jung Byung-yoon of Ewha Womans University, Churchill didn’t even mention it in his lengthy memoir of the war, and in the British National Archives the Declaration doesn’t seem to feature as a keyword. Further, according to Jung, the Americans later needed to ask the Chinese for their notes of the discussions as their own notes were insufficient. It seems that from the British perspective the meeting with Chang Kai-shek was a side-show to another conference, with Turkey, that was happening in Cairo at the same time, whose aim was to bring Turkey into the war on the Allied side.

The Declaration, announced by radio on 1 December 1943, contained the following text: that American, Britain and China, “mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.” That text clearly contains both good news and bad news for the Korean independence movement, as Yoon Jong-mun of the Academy of Korean Studies explained, with the words “in due course” raising the possibility of an international trusteeship of indeterminate length before the Koreans were thought to be capable of running their own country.

Although Britain and America at the beginning of the century had recognised Japanese interests in the Korean Peninsula, clearly Japan needed to be punished for their military expansion and unprovoked attack on the US, and that punishment should logically be to deprive her of those new possessions. But for imperial Britain, it would be problematic to advocate for the universal freedom of all colonies and imperial possessions from their overlords, and the freedom for Korea and other possessions had to be stated to be as a consequence of Japan’s bad behaviour.

Britain was, of course, having a hard fight against the Japanese over her own imperial possessions in India and Burma, and for these purposes needed to engage on all fronts, both physical and psychological. Paul Wadey of the KCCUK and Richard Duckett of Leighton Park School spoke on the ways the British engaged on the propaganda front, for which clearly Japanese speakers were critically important. Where to get Japanese speakers who were hostile to Japan? Occupied Korea, of course, where the Japanese language was now compulsory. Closer at hand were the armed forces attached to the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai and Chongqing.

Graphic showing the journey of the Korean National Army Liaison Unit supporting the British army in India
Graphic showing the journey of the Korean National Army Liaison Unit supporting the British army in India – in an exhibition accompanying the conference at SOAS

The Korean opposition encompassed a broad range of political affiliations and were united solely in their desire to clear the peninsula of the Japanese oppressors. As it happened, the most suitable source of anti-Japanese propaganda operatives were the men attached to the communist / anarchist general Yaksan Kim Won-bong, but the British could not be picky about the political views of their Japanese speakers, provided they were hostile to Japan.

Dr Duckett talked in detail about the successes of the Korean propaganda team that worked within the Indian Field Broadcasting Units run by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, while Paul Wadey focused on the personal relationships between the Koreans and the British leaders, in particular Alec Peterson, Deputy Director of the SOE’s Indian PsyOps.  According to Wadey, five years later, Peterson was the only surviving senior officer to have worked with the Koreans, and wrote an article for the Spectator magazine in the early months of the Korean War. Based on his knowledge of the committed fighting qualities of these men he knew they would be serving their country in the Korean War, but in the article he was deliberately vague as to which side of the divide they would fighting. As it happens, many did fight for the South, but others, one suspects, might have fought for the North, which is where Kim Won-bong ended his career.

Records of the visit to Chongqing
Records of the visit to Chongqing to recruit members of the Korean National Army Liaison Unit

One point which united the presenters and conference attendees was the regret that none of the members of the Korean soldiers – known as the Korean National Army Liaison Unit – received official recognition of their service for the British cause in India and Burma, despite the valuable role they performed. Paul Wadey speculated that the omission may have been because of the early deaths of their immediate British superiors. This conference, which marked 140 years of UK-Korea relations and the 80th anniversary of the Cairo Declaration, certainly served its purpose in bringing their stories to light.

The conference was held on 20 September 2023 with the support of SOAS and the National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government

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