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

Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society, Part 2: We’re not in Kansas Anymore


The ParadoxSong Hye-gyo sofa

For new readers, Part 1 was an outline and discussion of the first part of the 2003 journal article Neo-Confucian Body Techniques: Women’s Bodies in Korea’s Consumer Society by Taeyon Kim. To quickly recap it, she argues that women weren’t really thought of as individuals in Joseon Dynasty Korea, as the state ideology of Neo-Confucianism considered them incapable of the spiritual transcendence that men were. Instead, the best they could aim for in life was continuing a husband’s “ki”, or spirit, through the production and upbringing of sons and the efficient management of his household. Hence Kim describes them as “subjectless bodies,” as not only were they not really individuals but their physical bodies were not really their own either, merely being vessels for and tenders of the more precious ki instead (source, right: jingdianmeinv)

In terms of the ideals for women’s appearance, this meant that the physical attributes required for those were prized more than beauty. On top of that, adornment and/or alteration of the body was not condoned for either sex, as the physical body was one’s inheritance of ancestors’ sacred ki. And herein lies the paradox, as on the one hand Neo-Confucianism still pervades all aspects of Korean life today (I’ll take readers knowing and agreeing with this as a given), but on the other hand, modern Korea appears to be in the midst of a decidedly non-traditional celebration of youth and the female form. What gives?


Neo-Confucian Consumption Motives

The short answer is that appearances can be deceptive. It is certainly true that modern media images of Korean women are not Neo-Confucian in the 19th Century sense described above, and it’s difficult to argue just by looking at them that advertisements, for instance, are any different to their counterparts in Western countries. Of course, systematic cross-country analyses of numbers and types do reveal significant and telling differences, and if readers are interested in those then I highly recommend reading the 2006 journal article entitled “Content Analysis of Diet Advertisments: A Cross-National Comparison of Korean and U.S. Women’s Magazines” by Minjeong Kim and Sharron Lennon, downloadable here. But surveys like those do not chronicle average Korean and Western women’s reactions to them, and herein lies the essential differences between them.

Barbie Dolls ConformityAs a rule, in Western countries most (although not all) advertisements for a product have to actively suppress and disguise the notion that people may feel compelled, influenced or forced into purchasing that product, whether by the ad, by peer pressure, or some other unwritten social rule. Instead, people are encouraged to conceive their purchase in terms of personal choice, individuality, empowerment, and — especially if the target consumer is young — maybe liberation and rebellion too. And of course, these advertising norms undoubtedly operate for a good proportion of advertisements in Korea too. But in the case of advertisements for products related to one’s appearance, be they cosmetics, clothes, or plastic surgery, it turns out that a great number of Korean women make purchases for precisely the opposite reasons. Indeed, not only is there no stigma in doing so, but they positively embrace the opportunity to conform to and harmonize with social norms through their consumption choices (source, right: Kiran Foster).

Lest that assertion sound like a typical exaggeration of a Caucasian male, surveys that Kim cites indicate that most Korean women explicitly justify their choices in those Neo-Confucian terms, and definitely not the individual empowerment, entitlement, and personal assertion of one’s individual choice that Western women tend to do in similar surveys. That is not to say that Western women (or men) can’t and don’t also passively follow fashions, and it’s not necessarily a negative or dehumanizing thing either. But very few Westerners would admit to it.

I see no reason to doubt the results of those surveys (which I can provide the details of if readers wish), and while my own female Korean friends for instance, are certainly as liberal and free-willed as any Westerner in their clothing and cosmetic choices — and lifestyles; indeed, that’s why we’re friends — they can’t counter the mass of empirical evidence Kim provides, and even the anecdotal evidence from the media and on the streets of Korea. If Neo-Confucianism is pervasive in modern Korean life then, and Korean women consume cosmetics, clothes, and undergo plastic surgery operations largely for the sake of Neo-Confucianist motives, then it’s time to call a spade a spade and argue that Korean society’s new emphasis on women’s appearances is (somehow) Neo-Confucianist too. Indeed, it would be strange if only this particular aspect of Korean life was so different.

Enjoy Capitalism T-shirtHence the second part of Kim’s article is about how this modern phenomenon is a warping of and adaptation of Neo-Confucian ideals of women’s roles to new capitalist and consumerist circumstances. But while I originally wanted to outline and discuss that in this post, I’ve moved that to Part 3, because first I wanted to place those circumstances in their historical context, which I think considerably adds to and strengthens Kim’s argument (source, right: Jacob Bøtter).


The Developmental Context of East Asian Consumption

I’ve already demonstrated that although Korean women and, say, American women, can both be labelled as “consumers,” they can and do both make radically different consumption choices; or, make the same choices, but for radically different reasons. Sure, this is obvious, but I’m as guilty as anyone in generalizing and using labels here, so it’s good to remind ourselves of it. But if we shift our attention to the differences between most Westerners and most Koreans (and East Asians) as a whole, the first fact of note is the fact that most Korean university students’ parents easily recall the days when possession of some must-have items like a fridge, radio, color TV and car were essential signifier that one’s family had made it into the then swelling ranks of the middle-class. On that basis, it may be fair to say that they still imbue their consumer goods with much more status and importance than most Westerners do. (Hell, many of the university students themselves too.) This explains Koreans’ love affair with big cars and SUVs for instance, and in one of the most oil-lacking, mountainous and densely-populated countries in the world.

(Update, April 2013: Actually, the Korean preference for big cars is more due to the [inordinate] social status they provide.)


On top of that, Korean governments since 1961 have explicitly and fervently extorted Koreans to consume these items, provided that they were made in Korea. It’s easy to simply attribute this to and write off as mere nationalism, only different in degree to, say, the “Buying Kiwi-Made” campaign in New Zealand, or Democratic presidential candidates in the US criticising NAFTA in election year. But this is quite wrong. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, to properly understand women’s fashions in Korea you need to understand a little of it’s well, political history first. No, really.

When Park Chung-hee/박정희 took power through a coup in 1961, while his military regime of course relied on the use of force, it would be naive to assume that it didn’t have a great deal of popular support. And so, originally at least, his military regime’s sole claim to legitimacy was its perceived ability and capacity to produce the economic development seen as necessary for national security after the chaotic years of the Syngman Rhee/이승만 presidency. While linking the economy and security this way may sound absurd in 2008, it’s important to be aware that North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea economically until the late-1960s, and in addition to this Park was (justifiably) deeply concerned about the US possibly withdrawing its security guarantees to South Korea in the wake of its foreseeable withdrawal from Vietnam. Hence the development of POSCO and the Korean steel industry for instance, which, far from being the carefully planned and coordinated developmental success story it is often touted as today (it is the third largest steel producer in the world), was pursued despite the advice of Korean economists at the time, let alone American ones. Instead, as Mark Clifford explains in chapter five of this must-have book, Park didn’t care about the economics of it; he simply wanted the ability to produce tanks and ships should the US no longer provide them.


This is why Korea is often known as a “Developmental State,” as too are Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, which faced similarly dire circumstances in the Cold War and reacted in similar ways. Neo-liberal economists in particular are loath to admit that state-led development can be successful, and so they continue to critique the economic policies of these Developmental States decades later, but this excessive focus on economic minutiae has overshadowed the fact that they were and are primarily socio-political, not economic, phenomenons (right: Posco Center, Seoul, by Ian Muttoo).

Hence consumerism has links to national security in Developmental States, and all the choice government slogans like “Consumption is Virtuous” that I saw in old photographs of Korea from the ’70s in economic journals in the archives room of my university library. And while the corollary of Park’s developmentalism was authoritarianism, and average Koreans were expected to be content with and prolific buyers of Korean goods, imports being shut out by high tariffs in order to develop Korea’s own industries (which is why such a stigma remains on imports today), what I want you to take away from all the above is that:

  • Koreans are used to being told what to buy.
  • These choices have often been couched in terms of contributing to a higher purpose.
  • Those that didn’t subscribe to these higher purposes were given few alternatives, and the state was encouraged in stigmatizing them.

It is no great conceptual leap for Neo-Confucian women to go from being subservient to the higher purpose of ki, and their bodies to be imperfect versions of men’s, to furthering the higher purpose of improving the economy and maintaining national security by consuming Korean goods, and finding common identity in a turbulent century by following the new fashion industry’s edicts to improve their imperfect bodies by following their rules for fashion, cosmetics, and body shapes. Those will be the subject of Part 3.

(Update, April 2013: An important rejoinder to my fuzzy memories of reading in my university library is the book Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea by Laura Nelson (2000), which I describe here as:

…essential reading for anyone wanting to know more about the 1990s in Korea, and in particular the frequent government and media campaigns against over-consumption (in practice aimed almost exclusively at women, these were important precursors to the “beanpaste girl” stereotypes of the 2000s)

See my “Revealing the Korean Body Politic” series for more on those campaigns and stereotypes in the 2000s, especially Parts 3 and 4.