Where do Ajosshis Come From? Part 2: The Colonial Origins of the South Korean Military

East Asia Map 1930s(Source: DavidCC BY 2.0)

Update, February 2014: In case of any confusion, Part 1 on Korean workplace culture has since been deleted sorry!

Switching from the office politics of Korean workplaces to the Japanese colonization of East Asia may seem like quite a jump at first, especially to those whose primary interest is gender issues, but then to fully understand the present-day impact of conscription on Korean society it is obviously necessary to study the military as a whole first. Doing so invariably leads to colonial Korea, for the Korean military regimes of 1961 to 1987 had uniquely pervasive roles in and control of Korean society, and any accounting for those cannot avoid the fact that the bulk of their military officers and bureaucrats in the 1960s had served in the Japanese colonial state in some capacity. Once in power they had no hesitation in recreating a state model that had, in their experience, demonstrably delivered high growth under an authoritarian, top-down control of society, and both features tied in well with and were ultimately considered essential to the new state ideology of anti-communism. Indeed president Park Chung-hee had spent most of his impressionable twenties as an officer in the army of colonial Manchukuo, a vast social laboratory of state control that 1960s Korea increasingly began to resemble.

I’ve frequently mentioned the profound similarities between Japan and Korea in this blog, but in many senses the colonial origins of these are still like the elephant in the room here, their presence still keenly felt in economics, state-society relations and domestic politics, but something that Korean social-science scholars have only just begun acknowledging – let alone the Korean public – lest Korea’s post-colonial achievements be viewed as nothing more than the product of a much disliked and particularly brutal colonial rule. Hence while nobody in any country likes having foreigners explain their history to them, in this particular case Korea specialists outside of the country, with more job security, really do seem to have a much more balanced and objective view of the period than Koreans themselves.

With that note on being objective in mind, it is important to begin by putting all stereotypes and preconceptions of other military regimes out of one’s mind, especially for North Americans (the bulk of my readers) who may be very familiar with Latin American cases and tempted to equate those of South Korea with them. In those cases (with the important exception of the huge social and economic transformations begun under Pinochet in Chile), militaries generally merely took over state organs, either for the sake of preventing leftists coming to power, preventing the socialization of the economy, and/ or for the sake of their own enrichment, but overall they left state and elite structures largely intact. In contrast, a more accurate picture of the level of control and transformation wrought by South Korean military regimes would be of China under the Chinese Communist Party, and this is by no means a coincidence as I’ll explain later.

Ultimately, by outlining this historical context in this post and the next, I hope to demonstrate both why it’s so important to treat the Korean military as a special entity and why it’s reasonable to describe Korea as a “militarized” (if not technically military) regime even now, and having done so then hopefully readers will be more convinced of the truth of the seemingly outlandish assertions about the effects of conscription on Korean men that I’ll make in Parts Five and Six.

For the sake of space then I’m going to assume that readers know a little about the history of Japanese colonialism and how Japan had been trying to catch up economically and militarily with the West since at least 1868. If not then no problem, the Wikipedia articles linked to above are perfectly adequate, if basic introductions; this provides some additional information and links too. Instead, I’m going to start off here with some facts about the former that I’ll hazard that most readers probably don’t know, but which proved very influential on the ultimate development of its colonies and of Korea in particular. Ironically, considering the government’s largely empty rhetoric on the subject today, back then Korea was a very real hub for the movement of soldiers, immigrants and materials between Japan, its other colonies and then front-lines in China, and as such it was also a natural supplier of mineral resources, hydroelectricity and forced labour.

But first, a note on sources before I begin properly. I actually studied all this as an undergraduate, but as most of my notes are back in New Zealand then for now I relied on the book The Developmental State, edited by Meredith Woo-Cumings (1999) for the first half or so of this post, and used the chapters “Introduction: Chalmers Johnson and the Politics of Nationalism and Development” by Meredith Woo-Cumings and “Where do High-Growth Political Economies Come From? The Japanese Lineage of Korea’s Developmental State” by Atul Kohli in particular, and for the second last section I used the chapter “Colonizing Manchuria: The Making of an Imperial Myth” by Louise Young in Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, edited by Stephen Vlastos (1998) and especially the journal article “Imitating the Colonizers: The Legacy of the Disciplining State from Manchukuo to South Korea” by Suk-Jung Han in the July 2005 volume of Japan Focus (available online here).

Finally, for any readers also interested in Latin American studies and in particular what made the Pinochet regime so unique in the region, I strongly recommend reading the journal article “Reconceptualizing Latin American Authoritarianism in the 1970s: From Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism to Neoconservatism” by Hector E. Schamis in Comparative Politics, January 1991, pp. 201-220. I usually wouldn’t bother mentioning something so off-topic, but then it’s one of those articles that made three years of Latin American Studies suddenly all make sense in fifteen minutes of reading, and so it should be much more widely known (Part Three will be based on a similarly revelatory journal article for East Asian Studies). Speaking of which, the best comparative study remains Chapters Five and Six of Capitalist Development and Democracy by Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Elelyne Huber Stephens and John D. Stevens (1992), one of the first books I made sure to buy as soon as I received my first ever paycheck.

Japanese Colonization in Comparative Perspective
(Source: Wikipedia)

Again, please put aside all preconceptions. First, those of Japanese strength back then based on its position as an economic superpower today. While European powers were at the height of their technological, military and economic superiority to the rest of the world by the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, it’s important to remember that Japan, in contrast, barely avoided being colonized itself. The developmental passion that this provoked in the Japanese was very important, and combined with its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the benefit of hindsight then its ultimate rise appears somewhat inevitable. But in reality that victory was a very close-run thing, against the most backward of European powers, and in contrast to their then global empires this only granted Japan a very limited corner of the world to just begin to colonize. Even four decades later Japan was by no means fully developed, and the consensus of historians is that even if Japan had, say, won the Battle of Midway or even occupied Hawaii, an ultimate US victory in the Pacific (and Europe) was still somewhat inevitable, albeit one heavily army-based involving hopping from the Aleutian Islands, the Kamchatka Peninsula, and finally the Kuril Islands, involving a transfer of resources that may have stalled the development of atomic weapons and their attendant technologies.

(The Aleutian Islands. Source: Wikipedia)

Yes, I am a big fan of alternate history fiction and counterfactual history. Meanwhile, Japan’s quite weak position at the turn of the Nineteenth Century forced a uniquely intensified form of colonialism, which again any preconceptions based on European colonialism would give quite a false impression of. Japanese colonialism was different in several crucial ways:

1. It began much later, and was initiated, led and controlled by the Japanese state for the sake of Japanese development rather than by private companies and business interests in pursuit of profit.

While it’s true that all European powers were in a mad scramble for colonial possessions in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, this belies the fact that for centuries they generally only gained territories with the greatest reluctance, usually after becoming entangled in disputes between natives and trading companies and having to stay for the latter’s protection and continued free pursuit of trade. In contrast, in Kohli’s words, Japan stands out amongst colonizing nations “as nearly the only one with a successful record of deliberate, state-led political and economic transformation” (the other would be Germany, as it was also a late developer), and given their circumstances as described then the Japanese were forced to make “ruthless use of [this] state power to pry open and transform Korea in a relatively short period.”

2. It only occurred in those areas geographically closest to Japan, and, not unimportant, culturally and racially closest to Japan too.

This proximity both facilitated and encouraged many more Japanese to play a direct role in colonial rule than was ever the case in European colonies. To give some comparisons, there were 87,552 government officials in Korea in 1937, 52,270 of whom were Japanese, whereas the French state in Vietnam (relatively large itself compared to British colonies in Africa) only had 3000 French officials. In other words, for geographically-similar sized colonies the Japanese had fifteen officials for every French one. Also, there was a police force of 60,000 in 1941, just under half of whom were Japanese. Kohli gives no figures for Vietnam, largely as having a large colonial police force isn’t all that unique, but again this belies the unusually close personal supervision of it by the Japanese: in 1915-20, about one in ten police officers were sternly disciplined for transgression of police rules. In contrast, you virtually need the direct intervention of the president for that in Korea today.

This proximity also led to a great deal of movement of ordinary civilians from Japan. Grand state narratives of colonial settlement before the 1930s were more propaganda then reality, genuine examples only being confined to places like Okinawa and Hokkaido (much less historically “Japanese” than people think) in the 1870s and 1880s, and after that emigration was primarily to other places like Hawaii, California and Latin America (by coincidence, Brazil recently celebrated 100 years of Japanese immigration) until the racist natives increasingly restricted their numbers. After that the state certainly encouraged farmers to colonize the new overseas territories, but few actually did until the agrarian pressures and poverty engendered by the depression, combined with the newly acquired territory of Manchukuo, persuaded no less than 321,882 to settle there in a decade or so. Even more extraordinarily, roughly 720,000 Koreans settled there between 1932 and 1940 too.

My budget for books is large but not unlimited, so I don’t have any figures for the numbers of settlers from European nations to their colonies sorry, but I’d be surprised if those figures didn’t compare well to those for, say, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, which took much longer and lacked such large and/or vulnerable indigenous populations. Moreover, there is a clear agricultural and psychological ease in colonizing areas similar climatically to the mother country (obvious, but strangely rarely pointed out), and given their geographical proximity and racial and cultural affinities with the natives then the Japanese could realistically consider their rule to be permanent, leading eventually to a full integration of colonies into an expanded Japan. This, indeed, was the idea of the official ideology of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere“, even if the racism of the officials charged with implementing it did seriously undermine this vision in practice.

(Source: Moeyyo. Good review available here.)

3. Given the above, then Japanese colonization ultimately involved the complete transformation and development of colonies’ economies and the establishment of modern bureaucratic states where none had existed before, and while all this was purely for the sake of Japan, this involved much more investment and establishment of infrastructure and industry than the extractive industries of European colonies ever did.

In Kohl’s words, its impact was “more intense, more brutal, and deeply architectonic: it also left Korea with three and a half decades of economic growth [at an average of 3%] and a relatively advanced level of industrialization (nearly 35% of Korea’s national production in 1940 originated in mining and manufacturing).” No, the word “architectonic” isn’t in my dictionary either, but you get the idea. One of the first and most important things I learned in my Southeast Asian history classes at university was that coloring, say, England, Malaysia and Burma red in an atlas didn’t imply that the latter in anyway resembled the former, but in very real senses Korea at least was indeed a mini-Japan by the 1940s.

It is natural and correct to point out that a great deal of this development was destroyed in the Korean War, but although the developmental mindset passed on was ultimately a much more influential colonial endowment as I’ll explain in Part Three, the remaining industry and infrastructure was by no means insignificant. In brief, this included:

– As the hub of the colonial empire, Korea’s roads and railways were among the finest that a developing country could inherit from its colonial past.

– Although technically “human capital”, the Japanese made significant investments in primary education, and the benefits of these would have largely been felt by North and South Korea rather than the colonial state itself.

– The exhaustive land survey of 1910-1918, which “mapped all plots of land, classified it according to type, graded its productivity and established ownership” both provided a reliable source of taxation and the information upon which Korea’s agricultural revolution was based, Korea going from a land of regular famines to the granary of the empire in two decades. Certainly this never meant that Koreans actually ate more themselves, and however important clearly delineated land ownership is to developing economies today it was obviously of little use in Korea after the Korea War. But still, the postcolonial state knew its subjects and resources intimately, whereas most governments of former colonies today still haven’t mapped their territories adequately.

– The geographical distribution of industries established did have impacts later. Most chemical, metal, and electricity-generating industries were in the North, and the remainder of those, combined with communist regimes’ strengths in producing industries but not consumer goods, in large measure accounts for the economic superiority of the North over the South until the late-1960s. But these were largely highly capital-intensive industries “that were not well integrated into the local economy…much more likely to evolve into white elephants, requiring continuous protection, rather than into nimble, labor-intensive exporters of consumer products”. In contrast, the South actually had 60% of total industrial production in 1938, and what’s more this was concentrated in such fields as food production, textiles, machines and tools, and tobacco-related industries, not coincidentally much better suited to export than anything produced in the North.

– And export they did. In 1938 Korea was exporting twice as much as other similar-sized economies, and what’s more almost half of its exports were in manufactured goods. And as anybody who studied history in school should know, the whole idea of most colonies was to extract raw materials from them, send them back to the mother country, make things from them, then sell them back to the colonies, a captive market. No wonder then, that South Korean military and bureaucratic elites in 1961, largely the same people that had previously occupied the lower rungs of the colonial state, relished the chance to restart a high-growth economic system for the sake of Korean rather than Japanese development and capital accumulation.

I’ll cover the colonial period in a little more detail in Part Three, but only on a macro-level so to speak, so anyone further interested in the Japanese colonial period and grassroots Korean history in general, I recommend the Korean section of Frog in a Well for many interesting posts, and Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling has written a great deal on that period too (although without a category section his posts can take some time to find sorry). Meanwhile, as so many of those elites mentioned and especially Park Chung-hee had served in Manchukuo in some capacity, then an examination of that colony really does become almost as important as colonial Korea itself to understand Korean military regimes.

Part Three

10 thoughts on “Where do Ajosshis Come From? Part 2: The Colonial Origins of the South Korean Military

  1. James…

    nice post as usual. I hate reading your stuff because it increases the list in my head of “books I should read but never will.” ;-)

    Did you notice the post by Linda Dwyer over on the KS listserv? It sounds like they are asking for abstracts that might be right up your alley.



  2. Thanks, on both counts. But seeing as you’re the only one that mentioned back in January that you would like to read more about developmental states, I’d be very disappointed if my next post on precisely those didn’t at least inspire you to buy some books!


  3. James, an interesting if aborted read. I look forward to the final product of this as well as parts II-V.

    Re: the uniqueness of Japan’s colonial rule, another point of difference, albeit less significant that the ones you listed, was religious aspects. Pretty well no Japanese were interested in spreading religion in Korea, unlike so many European colonists. Yes, Shintoism came over with the Japanese, and Buddhism and Christianity had to make way sometimes, but this hardly factored into colonial motivations. It’s also interesting how at the time of take-over, a disproportionate number of Korean elites were Christian, meaning that Christians were over-represented in the leadership of the resistance movement. I’m not sure if they were also over-represented amongs colonial officials, as well.

    Some American Protestants, as we know, were very interested in Korea, and were it not for other regional powers these people would have helped open Korea to America a great deal more. They were also largely behind the first wave of Korean emmigration to the new world, namely to Hawaii.

    In any event, it seems that apart from Christians forming a disproportion of the elete and thereby resistance leadership, religious issues weren’t really something the Japanese had to deal with, especially in terms of the coloniser having to take its own religious institutes’ concerns into consideration.


  4. Yeah, sorry for that. The computer problems proved quite serendipitous in the end though, at least for this series of posts anyway, as that end section of the post needed a serious rethink. I’ll get into it more once it’s (finally) up, but it a nutshell I was stuck for a while on how best to explain and discuss a journal article that I’d expect the vast majority of people reading the post would go on to read anyway.

    I am not surprised by but didn’t know that religious element, so thanks for mentioning it. I wonder if the disproportionate number of Christians in the leadership of the resistance movement had any later impact on the high popularity of Christianity in postcolonial Korea at all, or if that would be reading to much into it?

    Being more interested in the post Korean War period I confess that despite the post topic I’ve only ever really studied the colonial period at a macro level, so I find tidbits like that quite interesting.


  5. It’s really hard to gauge the significance of Christianity to Korea’s colonial development, but its impact on Korea’s pre-colonial development is quite marked. Modern university curricula, female education, and modern medicine all came by way of American (and a few European) Christians.

    With re: to gender, it’s kind of strange. Without doubt it strove towards liberating and equalising things for women to a certain extent. Yet, even though today Korea is the most Protestant nation in Asia (and has one of the highest rates of Protestant church-goers in the world) it remains very patriarchal and male-driven. Why would this be, with so many people’s life goal to be part of a kingdom where ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’?

    Well, it’s not as though many western lands that embraced Christianity weren’t also very patriarchal for centuries. However, in the modern era Christianity has served to advance the status of women in various ways. But one can hardly see evidence of this in Korea. The reason, I think, is the indigenous leadership of Korean Christianity – or Koristianity, as I like to call it. Except for a brief era c.1885-1910, western leadership has not been a part of Koristianity. The clergy in most countries in which Protestantism has a recent history have kept fairly close ties to western clergy. This has not been the case with Korea. Even Roman Catholicism, which necessarily requires a strong connection to Rome, spread largely through literature, initially translated from Chinese to Korean. The few western and Chinese priests who made it into Korea in the eighteenth century to baptise and ordain usually didn’t last long after planting the necessary seeds. While American missionaries were very dominant in early Protestant leadership, the Japanese take-over made it almost impossible for American missionaries to continue their work and influence. Hence, Koristianity was advanced by Korean leaders doing things Korean-style. To be sure, there were lots of things common to western Christianity that suited Koreans’ tastes: singing together, listening to lectures from authority figures, opportunities for collective release of emotion, etc. But, fundamental social relations within the church had very little western influence. Perhaps Koristianity even served to strengthen the male social role you outlined in part one – I don’t know as much about the post-colonial development of Koristianity, so perhaps that’s an area you’ll have to look into.


  6. Thanks again. I did know about the missionary impact on early Korean education – Ehwa University’s founding and so on – but enjoyed reading about early Korean Christianity.

    I’d have to disagree though, on any link between protestantism and gender equality, regardless of how diluted it was so to speak in Korea. Particularly in light of very recent developments in the Church of England, in all likelihood soon splitting between liberal, Westerm churches that accepted gay bishops before women and traditionalist ones mostly in Africa. Not that I’m against either, but if liberal chruches were indeed egalitarian then presumably they would have allowed the latter first. But I should stop there, as it’s getting off-topic.

    I’m afraid I won’t be able to cover religion at all in the series, partially because it’s never mentioned in the sources I’m using and primarily because the militarization of society seems a much more convincing and pervasive cause. But please feel free to add any religious angle to it, as it will be much appreciated and definitely read!


  7. Well, I’m no expert on religion in Korea. I can say with some certainty that in modern history many elements of Protestantism have pushed for equality in many fields – just look at the civil rights movement in the US. What I do know about Christianity in Korea is that is that the ‘new woman’ of the early twentieth century was very often facilitated by Christian educational institutions and the western educational curricula that came with it, even if she didn’t always go on to live a very pure Christian life when she grew up. Yet, today, there seems to be very little evidence of Christianity in Korea doing much to empower women, as has happened to a great extent in post-war America. Unfortunately I don’t know a great deal first hand about how Korean churches today work; as interested as I am in religion, Koristianity is not something I want to get dragged into! However, it does seem as though very few Korisitian churches have places for women in leadership posistions. I wonder if women can even be ordained in the Korean Presbyterian or Methodist churches? (the two largest denominations in Korea). On the Christian channels on TV you rarely ever see women doing anything related to leading or teaching unless they’re teaching children.

    Another thing I doubt exists in Korisitianity are women’s-based Christian interest / lobby groups, like Concerned Women for America and the Eagle Forum. Of course, there’s a lot of debate in academic feminism over whether such women form a particular wing of feminism or are anti-feminists who prefer to wear their balls and chains. However, they do serve to empower American Christian women in certain respects and I doubt too many of their subscribers would tolerate an ajoeshi husband who comes along to church on Sundays but can be found in soju tents or even the rooms salon during the week.

    The liberal-conservative divide you mention is interesting because it’s something that hasn’t really happened in Korea. In America many denominations have split into a conservative and liberal wing. The vast majority of Korean Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists would fall very comfortably into the conservative camps over in the US, or may in fact find they’re not conservative enough. In fact, it seems to me that there really is no liberal Christianity in Korea. Don’t you think that this has some correlation to male-female relations and male dominance in Korea?


  8. Again, appreciated and read but, hmmm…what to add? :) I acknowledge that elements of modern Protestantism pushed for equality in many fields, and wonder to what extent religious motives were involved in American reforms to the education system in that regard? I’ll have to dig out Michael Seth’s Education Fever. Regardless, I mean in the religious make-up of the reformers themselves and in the motives of the secular authorities concerned…was “White Man’s Burden” even out of fashion by 1953?

    Tracing the history of feminism and women’s movements is a long-term project I’ve been inspired to do by all the reading I’ve done for this series, so I’ll keep an eye out for women’s-based Christian groups. Having said that, I haven’t seen any mention of any so far though, and I suspect that those that did/do exist would be more wives’ clubs rather than anything else, where husbands that are pious for one day a week at most would be the very thing that drives many members to them.

    Of course I think that the absence of liberal Christianity has some correlation to gender relations here, but I think that that absence is more of a reflection than a cause. Is that what you meant? Adopting a religion is, of course, all about cherry-picking the parts you agree with really, so I’m not surprised that a sexist or, at best, a version of Prostentatism that didn’t seriously challenge pre-existing notions of gender relations became popular here.


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