North Korea Table of Contents

The colonial period brought forth an entirely new set of Korean political leaders, spawned by both the resistance to and the opportunities of Japanese colonialism. In 1919 mass movements swept many colonial and semicolonial countries, including Korea. Drawing on Woodrow Wilson's promises of self-determination, on March 1, 1919, a group of thirty-three intellectuals petitioned for independence from Japan and touched off nationwide mass protests that continued for months. These protests were put down fiercely by the Japanese, causing many younger Koreans to become militant opponents of colonial rule. The year was a watershed for imperialism in Korea: the leaders of the movement, predominantly Christian and Western in outlook, were moderate intellectuals and students who sought independence through nonviolent means and support from progressive elements in the West. Their courageous witness and the nationwide demonstrations that they provoked remained a touchstone of Korean nationalism. The movement succeeded in provoking reforms in Japanese administration, but its failure to realize independence also stimulated radical forms of anticolonial resistance. In the 1930s, new groups of armed resisters, bureaucrats, and--for the first time--military leaders emerged. Both North Korea and South Korea were profoundly influenced by the political elites and the political conflicts generated during colonial rule.

The emergence of nationalist and communist groups dates back to the 1920s; it was in this period that the left-right splits of postwar Korea began. The transformation of the yangban aristocracy also began during the 1920s. Although the higher scholar-officials were pensioned off and replaced by Japanese, landlords were allowed to retain their holdings and encouraged to continue disciplining peasants and extracting rice. The traditional landholding system was put on a new basis through new legal measures and a full cadastral survey shortly after Japan took over, but tenancy continued and was systematically deepened throughout the colonial period. By 1945 Korea had an agricultural tenancy system with few parallels in the world. More traditional landlords were content to sit back and let Japanese officials increase output; by 1945 such people were widely viewed as treacherous collaborators with the Japanese, and strong demands emerged that they share out land to their tenants. During the l920s, however, another trend began: landlords became entrepreneurs.

Some Korean militants went into exile in China and the Soviet Union and founded early communist and nationalist resistance groups. A Korean Communist Party (KCP) was founded in Seoul in 1925; one of the organizers was Pak Hn-yng, who became the leader of Korean communism in southern Korea after 1945. Various nationalist groups also emerged during this period, including the exiled Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai, which included Syngman Rhee and another famous nationalist, Kim Ku, among its members.

Police repression and internal factionalism made it impossible for radical groups to exist for any length of time. Many nationalist and communist leaders were jailed in the early 1930s (they reappeared in 1945). When Japan invaded and then annexed Manchuria in 193l, however, a strong guerrilla resistance embracing both Chinese and Koreans emerged. There were well over 200,000 guerrillas--all loosely connected, and including bandits and secret societies--fighting the Japanese in the early 1930s; after murderous but effective counterinsurgency campaigns, the numbers declined to a few thousand by the mid-1930s. It was from this milieu that Kim Il Sung (originally named Kim Sng-ju, born in 1912) emerged. By the mid-1930s, he had become a significant guerrilla leader whom the Japanese considered one of the most effective and dangerous of guerrillas. They formed a special counterinsurgent unit to track Kim down and put Koreans in it as part of their divide-and-rule tactics.

Both Koreas have spawned myths about the guerrilla resistance: North Korea claims that Kim single-handedly defeated the Japanese, and South Korea claims that the present-day ruler of North Korea is an imposter who stole the name of a revered patriot. Nonetheless, the resistance is important for understanding postwar Korea. Resistance to Japan became the main legitimating doctrine of North Korea: North Koreans trace the origin of their army, leadership, and ideology back to this resistance. For the next five decades, the top North Korean leadership was dominated by a core group that had fought the Japanese in Manchuria. (Kim Il Sung's tenure in a Russian reconnaissance brigade also would have had an influence.)

Japan declared war on China in 1937 and on the United States in 194l. As this war took on global dimensions, Koreans for the first time had military careers opened to them. Although most Koreans were conscripted foot soldiers, a small number achieved officer status and a few attained high rank. The officer corps of the South Korean army during the Rhee period was dominated by Koreans with experience in the Japanese army. At least in part, the Korean War became a matter of Japanese-trained military officers fighting Japanese-spawned resistance leaders.

Japan's far-flung war effort also caused a labor shortage throughout the empire. In Korea this situation meant that bureaucratic positions were more available to Koreans than at any previous time; thus a substantial cadre of Koreans received administrative experience in government, local administration, police and judicial work, economic planning agencies, banks, and the like. That this occurred in the last decade of colonialism created a divisive legacy, however, for this period also was the harshest period of Japanese rule, the time Koreans remember with the greatest bitterness. Korean culture was quashed, and Koreans were required to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. The majority suffered badly at the precise time that a minority was doing well. This minority was tainted by collaboration, and that stigma was never lost. Korea from 1937 to 1945 was much like Vichy France in the early 1940s: bitter experiences and memories continued to divide people, even within the same family. Because it was too painful to confront directly, the experience became buried history and continued to play on the national identity.

In the mid-1930s, Japan's colonial policy entered a phase of heavy industrialization that embraced all of Northeast Asia. Unlike most colonial powers, Japan located heavy industry in its colonies and brought the means of production to the labor and raw materials. Manchuria and northern Korea got steel mills, automotive plants, petrochemical complexes, and enormous hydroelectric facilities. The region was held exclusively by Japan and tied together with the home market to the point that national boundaries had became less important than the new transnational, integrated production. To facilitate this production, Japan also built railroads, highways, cities, ports, and other modern transportation and communication facilities. By 1945 Korea proportionally had more kilometers of railroads than any other Asian country save Japan, leaving only remote parts of the central east coast and the wild northeastern Sino-Korean border region untouched by modern means of conveyance. These changes were externally induced and served Japanese, not Korean interests. Thus they represented a kind of overdevelopment.

The same exogenous changes fostered underdevelopment in Korean society as a whole. The Korean upper and managerial classes did not develop; instead their development was retarded or swelled suddenly at Japanese behest. Among the majority peasant class, change was advanced. Koreans became the mobile human capital used to work the new factories in northern Korea and Manchuria, mines and other enterprises in Japan, and urban factories in southern Korea. From 1935 to 1945, Korea began its industrial revolution with many of the usual characteristics: uprooting of peasants from the land, the emergence of a working class, urbanization, and population mobility. In Korea the process was telescoped, giving rise to comparatively remarkable population movements. By 1945 about 11 percent of the entire Korean population was abroad (mostly in Japan and Manchuria), and 20 percent of all Koreans were either abroad or in a province other than that in which they were born, with most of the interprovincial movement being southern peasants moving into northern industry. This was, by and large, a forced or mobilized movement; by 1942 it often meant drafted, conscripted labor. Peasants lost land or rights to work land only to end up working in unfamiliar factory settings, doing the dirty work for a pittance.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Korea's colonial experience was the manner in which it ended: the last decade of a four-decade imperium was a pressure cooker. The colonial situation built to a crescendo, abruptly collapsed, and left the Korean people and two opposing great powers to deal with the results.

When the colonial system was abruptly terminated in 1945, millions of Koreans sought to return to their native villages from these far-flung mobilization details. But they were no longer the same people: they had grievances against those who had remained secure at home, they had suffered material and status losses, they had often come into contact with new ideologies, and they had all seen a broader world beyond the villages. It was these circumstances that loosed upon postwar Korea a mass of changed and disgruntled people who deeply disordered the early postwar period and the plans of the United States and the Soviet Union.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress