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