Annexation and the Military Policy
The post-war industrialisation of South Korea cannot be understood in context, without first considering the enormous structural changes Korea underwent during thirty five years of Japanese colonial rule.
Korea was ruled as a colony by Japan from August 1910 till August 1945. Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910, though the peninsula had been in Japan’s sphere of influence since Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/05.
Upon annexation dozens of Korean ‘Yangban’ (aristocrats) and thousands of Korean civil servants were pensioned off from government service and replaced with Japanese officials. The government of the Korean colony had substantial autonomy from Tokyo until the Pacific War took off in 1942. It was led by the Chosen (Korea) Governor-General who was always a military officer. The Governor-General had broad executive powers, both civil and military, excluding major decrees sanctioned by the Emperor, and finance issues which were overseen by the Imperial Diet (Parliament) in Tokyo. He was assisted by an Administrative Director appointed by Tokyo, who headed a powerful ‘Executive Secretariat’, which controlled key strategic activities within the state such as policing and trading monopolies.
The government was composed of a small number of ministries based in Seoul. This grew into a large bureaucracy, and by 1935 there were a quarter of a million Japanese civil servants and technocrats, mainly based in Seoul. Korea had had a very centralised but weak state, now this was replaced by a more extensive, thorough going, harsh Japanese colonial authority. This mainly relied on an expanded police force and bureaucracy. The military was also used when necessary to maintain control.
In the first ten years after annexation the Japanese enforced a heavy handed ‘Military Policy’ (budan seiji).This greatly centralised state power and reduced local autonomy. It was a ‘top down’ system which reached into every village.
An important organ of the system was the National Police Force. It enforced many different aspects of state policy, it was not merely confined to normal policing duties, e.g. it was involved in tax collection, activities of state monopolies such as salt, camphor & opium, promotion of new agricultural policies, land improvement schemes, and many other activities.It has been described as ‘multifunctional’ or as the “backbone of regional administration”. This force was answerable to the central authorities, and highly mobile with its own transport and communication arrangements. It was by no means a purely Japanese affair, in time nearly half of its personnel were Korean.
The regime also had a strong military character. The Japanese maintained a large army force in Korea, its HQ was at Yongsan in Seoul. It started with one division of the Japanese Imperial Army and was soon expanded to two in 1915.
A Japanese local government system was established from Province, to Prefecture, to Township and Village, with all senior and middle level officials invariably Japanese. Japanese was enforced as the language of government and education. Japanese press was set up in every province, while the Korean press & publishing were censored. Some towns and cities were also given Japanese names. Japanese settlers were encouraged to relocate to Korea, with the support of the Japanese owned “Oriental Development Company”. All Korean political groups were banned and there was a move towards cultural assimilation. This suppressive policy was in time to lead to an explosion of mass disaffection. It seems many Koreans never reconciled themselves to Japanese rule.
Japan’s first order of business after establishing the colony was agriculture. The Japanese considered traditional Korean agriculture as too inefficient for their needs. There was also a lot of under-utilised land attached to estates of the aristocrats, the ‘Yangban’, or the royal family. There were also ill-defined areas of ‘common land’.
In the first decade of the colony the Japanese conducted a thorough land survey. It took nine years and cost twenty million Yen. The intention was to determine the precise ownership of Korean land. Many peasants and tenant farmers who tended the land by custom failed to register or could not prove ownership. Large areas of land thus lapsed by law to the Government-General which came to own about five per cent of arable land. Some of this land was transferred to government ownership in lieu of unpaid taxes. Some of this land was leased to Japanese settlers.
The Government-General also used the “Oriental Development Company” as its agent in upgrading these newly acquired estates, land holdings were consolidated, irrigation and drainage schemes were implemented and the intensive use of fertilisers started. The administrative framework of Korean agriculture was modernised. Production of rice and other cereals increased significantly. From 1910 to the early nineteen thirties, rice output increased by about one third.
However as about half of the rice produced was exported to Japan, Korean per capita consumption of rice actually declined. As the Korean population was growing, standards of living for poor Koreans were worsening, this was a major cause of complaints against Japanese rule. There was now a flow of impoverished and landless Koreans into the towns and cities.
The situation for Korean owned business at this time was unfavourable as well. At first the Japanese attempted to impede the development of Korean owned businesses. Laws passed in 1910 inhibited the formation of Korean firms and set limits to the amount of paid up capital in a firm which could be Korean owned. Already by 1910 Japanese capital was dominant in the colony with seventy per cent of all firms wholly Japanese owned. Only eighteen per cent of companies were wholly Korean owned, but even this gives an exaggerated impression of the scale of Korea business as the value of paid in capital was minute compared with that of the Japanese firms. In addition the Government-General set up trading monopolies, causing the closure of some Korea firms and further stifling the development of other Korean businesses.
During World War I there was a boom in exports which led to high rice prices. The result was Japan now had a lot of capital to invest in the colonies. Korean Yangban also did well from the high rice prices. Many used the proceeds to expand their land holdings. The result was an increasing trend towards tenancy, including the phenomenon of absentee landlords and more peasants being made landless. Yangban landlords came to be seen as beneficiaries of, and collaborators with the Japanese colonizers.
Then in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, many colonial territories around the world were rocked by political activism and mass movements. The war settlement for Europe was based on principles vigorously advanced by US President Woodrow Wilson, of ‘self-determination of peoples’. This caused many colonised peoples in Asia to seek similar treatment. They were to be disappointed.
On 1 March 1919 a group of thirty three intellectuals petitioned for independence from Japan, touching off nationwide mass protests. At least half a million Koreans took part in demonstrations in March and April. These protests continued for months and the national police force could not contain the revolt. They had to call on the army and navy for support.
A number of horror stories concerning atrocities emerged from this period. One was the burning to death inside a church of protesters by Japanese police. Japanese estimates say 553 were killed, while Korean nationalists claim 7,500 were killed.
These events happened at a time when domestic politics in Tokyo were moving in a liberal and democratic direction under the Taisho Emperor. Often called the ‘Taisho Democracy’. It was a period when parliament and political parties were more influential politically. Given the aspirations of the Japanese Government to be seen as modern and progressive, and the attacks on their conduct of colonial administration by prominent foreign political leaders such as US President Wilson, the Japanese instituted a new policy in Korea. From mid-1919 the Japanese authorities adopted the so-called ‘Cultural Policy’ (‘bunka seiji’) in Korea.
Korea under the Cultural Policy
The espoused intention of the ‘Cultural Policy’ was to prepare Koreans for independence in the future. Korean language newspapers and books became available again, some promoting Korean culture and even some with a Korean nationist outlook. Koreans took advantage of relaxed restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly to organise a variety of nationalist, socialist and communist political groups, some open and some clandestine.
During the nineteen twenties under the “Cultural Policy”, Korean commerce also began to grow. Nurturing a Korean capitalist class was an integral part of the policy of the gradual transition to self-rule. The Korean Industrial Bank was important in giving a start to early Korean entrepreneurs, especially while under the direction of Ariga Mitsutoyo (1919-1937).
The Honam region (North and South Cholla provinces in South West Korea) became a particularly important breeding ground for Korean capital. It was a region of intensive rice production and export through the ports of Kunsan and Mokpo. Here some aristocratic families had accumulated enormous land holdings which gave them substantial funds to invest in industry. A number of wealthy Honam landlords entered urban commerce, such as Chong Yong-chol of Mokpo, who started a rubber company or Kim Song-gyu, thought to be the largest landowner in Mokpo, who started the Kwangju Agricultural & Industrial Bank. Biggest of all at this time may have been Kim Song-su who started the Kyongbang Textile Company.
Many people from Honam formed a nucleus of political activity in the post-War Republic of Korea. Kim Song-su and his associates founded and led the “Korean Democratic Party” (KDP) after 1945. Many such individuals were also recruited as officials by the “American Military Government” (AMG) (1945 – 48), immediately after the Pacific War. They became a centre of moderate political opposition to Rhee Syng-man and later Park Chung-hee.
In 1921 the Government-General’s industrial commission recommended support be given to Korean textile firms for the promotion of exports to the Asian mainland. This commission had Koreans on its board, who also pressed for ‘infant industry’ protection of the Korean home market.
For example in 1924 the government-general started giving subsidies to Kim Song-su’s Kyongbang Textile Company equivalent to four per cent of its capital. This continued until 1935 (except for 1932/33, the depression years). The cumulative total was one quarter of the company’s capital. Kim Song-su also got a number of generous loans from the Korean Industrial Bank throughout the nineteen twenties. These loans enabled a major expansion of his textile firm.
These policies should be understood from the Japanese perspective. Japan had an overall economic plan for its empire which conceived an economic division of labour between different colonies. The rationale used in 1921 to explain this policy was the benefits of developing targeted industries in Korea for the wider empire.
In the nineteen twenties the Japanese economy was struggling. Under the “Taisho Democracy” Japan pursued free trade policies and prepared to compete in world markets. The origin of Japan’s ‘administrative guidance’ approach to a national industrial strategy involving the state and industry working together, has been traced back to this period.
There was a turn towards an export drive. In 1925 in Japan the Export Association Law stimulated industrial reorganisation, cartel formation and state subsidies to exporters. Mechanisms were developed such as state-sponsored loans at preferential interest rates to direct industrial development. Companies operated with high debts compared to paid in capital
Industrial finance was much less through issuing shares on the stock market, more through loans from state banks, which gave state bureaucrats much power over the direction of business investment. By the mid-1930s this type of financing was standard practice in the Japanese Empire. A similar approach was to be adopted by President Park Chung-hee in the nineteen sixties and seventies to drive South Korea’s industrial development.
Part of the plan for the Imperial division of labour involved companies exploiting ‘product cycles’. New technology, higher value-added activities would start off in the Japanese home islands, then older, lower technology, lower value-added production methods would diffuse out to colonies such as Korea with lower labour costs.
In textiles there was to be a division of labour with Japanese firms making fine silk and cotton clothing and Korean firms producing cheap rough clothing for export to Manchuria. Korean textile manufacturers were sold second-hand British machinery, by Japanese company C. Ito, while Japanese firms replaced these with new Japan made machines. The Korean firms could combine cheaper labour and cheap second-hand machinery to sell cheaper clothing in China, including military uniforms.
In spite of all these changes, by 1930 Koreans still only owned three per cent of paid up capital nationally and most Korean businessmen were still wholesalers, brokers or merchants in the grain or grain derived liquor trades.
During the nineteen twenties Japanese investment in Korean heavy industry began. Most notable were the activities of Noguchi Shitagau who owned the Japan Nitrogenous Fertiliser Company, commonly called ‘Nichitsu’, today still extant as ‘Chisso’. In 1924 he decided to expand into Korea. In time he was to become known as the ‘King of Korean Industry’ and at his peak his business empire accounted for over one third of all Japanese FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in Korea. In 1926 he set up two companies, one to construct hydroelectric power plants along the tributaries of the Yalu river. The other was to mass produce nitrogen fertilizer. In 1927 construction of a huge chemical complex at Hungnam near the north east coast of Korea began. The complex depended on cheap hydroelectricity production especially from the Changjin (‘Chosin’) reservoir. The aim was to export the fertiliser back to Japan.
At the end of the nineteen twenties the great depression hit world markets sinking Japan’s export trades. Japan’s response was to adopt a policy of hiving off their empire to form an autarkic, (‘self-sufficient’), region which would provide all its own raw material and energy needs, and carryout all its own industrial production. The policy equated to a Keynesian one of the government stimulating economic growth through borrowing or printing money, and investing or spending it in the economy. This was seen in the policies of farm village relief, a large military build up, and a “big push” in heavy industry
During the depression per capita rice consumption fell dramatically. Many left the Korean countryside because they had no work, others because they thought they could earn more in the cities. Many intended to remit funds back to families in the countryside.
The biggest out flows of population came from the more densely populated provinces of the south, for example the provinces of North and South Kyongsang and North and South Cholla, which hundreds of thousands of people left. Less populous provinces in the north east, which were centres from the new heavy industries witnessed large in flows of people, for example North Hamgyong received 260,000 immigrants in 1940 alone.
The southern provinces also provided most the workers who were sent to Japan. By 1941 1.4 million Koreans lived in Japan over half of these were actively employed in the workforce, in agriculture, construction, manufacturing or mining. About two thirds of the mining labour force in Japan was composed of Koreans. Here men and women worked under horrendous conditions.
Korea in Japan’s War Economy
In 1931 the expansion of Japanese forces into Manchuria and the subsequent creation of the state of Manchukuo, in practice part of the Japanese Empire, marked a new and ominous phase in the fate of Korea. Each of Japan’s colonies had a planned role to play in the empire’s new economic division of labour. For Korea this meant a new emphasis on building up industry, especially heavy industry.
In 1934 a new double tracked railway bridge was built over the Yalu River between Sinuiju & Antung to strengthen land lines of communications between Korea and Manchuria. There was an increase in Korea of coal mining, iron ore mining and non-ferrous mineral extraction
The Annexation of Manchuria by Japan was an opportunity for Korean businessmen as well as Japanese ones. In May 1932 in Seoul, the Chosen Business Club held a celebration of the new Manchukuo regime, it was attended by many leading Korean businessmen.
Many Koreans were involved in the colonisation of Manchuria in rice farming, administration, soldiering, and business development. By 1940 nearly 1.5 million Koreans were living in Manchuria. The Japanese deliberately settled thousands of Korean families in Manchuria to farm rice because they believed the Korean’s methods were more efficient.
From 1931 to 1936 the Governor-General of Korea was Ugaki Kazushige. He was an ultranationalist who was deeply committed to the idea of creating Japan’s autarkic Empire. Korea was industrialised out of the depression with an average annual growth rate for the period of over ten per cent per annum.
Korea was a ‘capitalist paradise’ with minimal business taxation, minimal regulation of business activities and minimal regulation of working conditions. Japanese FDI poured in and the Zaibatsu, (large industrial conglomerates), including, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Nissan and Sumitomo were well represented. By 1940 investment in Korea by Japanese Zaibatsu far outstripped that by the original colonial corporations of Korea, they held three quarters of total capital investment.
The dominant conglomerate in Korea however remained Nichitsu, considered one of a new wave of Zaibatsu. Nichitsu had firms dealing in chemicals manufacturing, non-ferrous metals, coal, oil and explosives. Noguchi’s companies also built ninety per cent of Korea’s electricity production capacity. This included the great Suiho Dam on the river Yalu, used for hydroelectricity production. It was the world’s second largest dam at the time. Noguchi also founded the second largest chemical complex in the world at the time. It was to be the basis of North Korea’s chemical industry after the Pacific War.
Thus there was a massive increase in heavy industry in Korea from the nineteen thirties into the early nineteen forties. From 1932 to 1943 the number of people employed in heavy industry more than tripled. From 1936 to 1943 the value of heavy industrial production rose from just over one quarter of total industrial output to half of the total. Although many important heavy industry plants were concentrated in Northern Korea, many such industries also did grow in Southern Korea, for example machine building, electrical machinery, heavy vehicles, mining tool manufacture etc.
The sense of a buoyant economy in Korea in the late nineteen thirties and early nineteen forties was also helped by a succession of bumper harvests in 1936, 1937 and 1938, which even brought some wealth to the normally impoverished countryside.
The trend of Japan investing in Korean transport infrastructure continued and intensified. Railways, seaports and roads were all developed. This combination of communications accelerated the modernisation of the country as traditional methods were replaced with new mechanised ones. The new railways linked Korea, Manchuria, China and Russia. The growing seaports linked all these to Japan.
Many small villages grew to become busy cities as a result of becoming an important rail link or seaport, for example Taejon a small village grew into a city once it became a key rail junction. The village of Najin of five hundred people, near the Russian border, increased in population five fold from 1927 to 1937 because it became a base for the export trade. Chongjin, a small coastal settlement of one hundred people, mushroomed from 1900 to 1938 over seven hundred fold as it became a major seaport for trade with Japan.
The combination of rail / road / sea port development opened up the previously isolated land of Korea to the outside world. In terms of regional development, the opening of trade with Manchuria brought prosperity to the previously impoverished north east region of Korea.
Academics are divided on whether or not a Korean middle-class truly developed during this period. There were many Korean individuals who were entering activities such as urban commerce, journalism, overseas study and politics. There were also many Korean individuals who built business empires under the Japanese, some were to become important later in the post-war Republic of Korea, others were to be reviled as collaborators.
The year 1937 marked another ominous way point in the future of Korea as the Japanese were drawn into a massive war throughout China. There was a large flow of people from farms into the cities. It represented a significant shift of employment from agriculture to industry. This trend really took off from 1937. In the decade 1935 to 1945 Korea went through an accelerated industrial revolution which was accompanied by the usual processes of uprooting of peasants from the land, emergence of an urban working class, urbanisation and population movements.
The compression of the process into such a short timeframe resulted in remarkable population movements. Few if any agrarian societies have ever been subjected to such immense population shifts and dislocations as happened in Korea in the last decade of Japanese rule. By 1944 twelve per cent of Koreans lived abroad. There were also great internal movements, about forty per cent of working age adults were living elsewhere than where they were born.
In the early nineteen thirties many moved voluntarily but as international tensions grew during the thirties, especially after the expansion of the war in China in 1937, mobilisation of labour was being centrally organised by the Japanese authorities. From 1937 Japan sought to organise every aspect of Korean life to serve the war effort. In 1940 the last two Korean language newspapers were closed down.
From 1942 with the eruption of the Pacific War, Korea entered a new short lived but extremely intense phase of colonialism. In 1942 Korea lost its autonomy as a colony and started to be administered as part of Japan by the Japanese Home Ministry. It was now considered to be a province of Japan.
The new policy towards Koreans was “naisen ittai” (“ilche” Korean) meaning “two peoples one body”. That was the assimilation of Koreans into Japanese culture and identity. Korean culture was to be erased. For the first time Koreans were expected to take Japanese names, speak Japanese and worship Shinto.
By 1942 Korean labour was being conscripted. Koreans like the Japanese at home were subject to the “National General Mobilisation Law”, which could mean military conscription, assignment to work details and active participation in political organisations. Thus in early 1942 following ‘Pearl Harbour’, general mobilisation was greatly escalated. Budgetary provisions for mobilisation were four times higher than in 1937. They doubled again from 1942 to 1943. Colonial authorities enrolled 2.5 million young Koreans in thousands of different ‘Youth Organisations’.
The governing of Korea had mutated from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. Koreans became a ready pool of labour to be moved around the Japanese empire as and where needed to serve the war effort. The process for labour selection was harsh and divisive, each province got quotas for the mobilisation of workers according to job role, according to population size, after that it was down to local officials to fill their quotas. The Japanese generally took a back seat, supervising from behind, while Koreans carried out the selections. Labour mobilisation offices, usually in local police stations picked labourers from among the poor, and from weaker clans. The Korean officials involved were much hated individuals.
Labour selection included from 100,000 – 200,000 Korean girls selected as so-called ‘comfort girls’ (forced sex workers). This fact was covered up even by Koreans, perhaps because of the complicity of so many Koreans who worked for the Japanese. These facts only came out into the public arena in 1979.
Ironically the shortage of Japanese manpower as the war progressed opened new opportunities for some Koreans, including opportunities for training, career development and upward mobility. Most Koreans drafted into the Japanese armies were humble foot soldiers, however a small number achieved officer status, for example Tagaki Masao, who was in fact a Korean better known as Park Chung-hee. He was later to become dictator of the post-war Republic of Korea. He served as a Lieutenant in the Japanese Kwangtung Army in the closing months of the Pacific War. Many Koreans served in the police and military of the Manchukuo state. Some Koreans achieved high ranks in the Japanese military.
The man power shortage also meant some civil service positions now became open to Koreans. Thus in the last few years of Japanese rule a substantial cohort of Koreans got administrative experience in central government, local administration, the judiciary, economic planning agencies, banks, etc. There was never a strict correlation between ethnicity and job description within the Japanese Empire, and by the nineteen thirties this limited correlation was fading dramatically as Koreans were encouraged by the Japanese to take on more roles within the colonial state. The point of contact for many Koreans with the Japanese controlled authorities was increasingly another Korean. This was to lead to similar bitter divisions and recriminations within post-war Korea to those that existed, for a European example, in France.
In 1944 the Kyongbang Textile Company” became Korea’s first MNC (Multinational Corporation) by building a plant in Manchuria. By this time the company had interests including numerous ginning, spinning, weaving and dyeing factories in southern Korea and Manchuria. The company also had diversified interests in ball bearings, brewing, real estate, metals, oil refining and engineering. Thus it was a model of the ‘chaebol’, (Korean form of industrial conglomerate), to appear after the Pacific War. It was bad timing as the Manchurian factory was soon seized by invading Soviet forces and US$ 45 million of equipment removed to the USSR.
On 15 August 1945 Japan surrendered. It may seem unfeeling to attempt to draw up a balance sheet for the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, but it had a great bearing on the future development of Korean politics and economy.
On the positive side Korea was transformed in some ways from an isolated traditional society with largely static populations into an increasingly urbanised economy with strong contacts with the outside world. The extensive development of transport infrastructure stimulated the development of urban centres for trade, industry and commerce. The Japanese instigated an industrial revolution, with investment in heavy industry and energy generation, albeit geared to Japan’s self-interest. The productivity of the land increased, and land improvement schemes involving irrigation and drainage had lasting benefits. The Japanese invested in education, public health programmes and hospitals. Much human capital was developed as Koreans gained training and experience through public service or industrial employment. Korean entrepreneurs, some of them extremely successful rose up, and there were signs of the beginnings of an urban middleclass.
On the debit side, despite increased productivity of the land, the mass of the Korean rural population did not benefit. Japanese rule reinforced the impoverished conditions of the average farmer, condemning the majority to tenancy and a marginal subsistence existence. The majority of the Korean population, estimated as seventy per cent in 1945 still lived and worked in the countryside. Thus any modernisation of Korea was at best partial.
The severe effects of the last decade of Japanese rule, turning totalitarian as the Empire found itself in an intensifying, and increasingly desperate war, was to divide and scar Korean society for generations and to polarise it sharply politically. After the Pacific War millions of Koreans sought to return to their villages from distant postings, they were dislocated populations traumatised by their experiences.
Aftermath of War and Partition
Following the Pacific War the occupying powers, the USA and USSR, agreed to divide responsibility for administering Korea between them. North of the 38th parallel the Soviets developed an administration based around local people’s committees. South of the 38th parallel the American Military Government (AMG) was hastily established.
Although Korea had suffered relatively little damage as a result of the Pacific War, the situation in Korea straight after was unstable and violent. Fearing communist infiltration of newly emerging Korean political groups, the US attempted to resurrect the Japanese colonial administrative structure. They brought back many of the much hated Japanese trained police, causing some political tensions.
In March 1948 the AMG began to redistribute 240,000 hectares of formerly Japanese owned lands to the tenants who worked them at ‘low’ rates of twenty per cent of annual output for fifteen years. This transfer accounted for nearly twelve per cent of total cultivated land.
In May 1948 the Americans held elections in the south, amid accusations of bribery and corruption to establish the “Republic of Korea” (ROK). In the north the Soviets also arranged elections that September to found the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK). Following this occupying forces were withdrawn from both sides of the 38th parallel, leaving two hostile competing regimes facing each other.
In the South the Rhee Syng-man government was often seen as corrupt and ineffective, problems multiplied in the ROK. The US military administration and the ROK government were both incapable of stabilising the social tensions and economic chaos in Korea after the Pacific War.
Korean society was riven with conflict, peasant opposed landlord. Those who resisted the Japanese opposed those seen as collaborators. There were deep divisions between peasants and uprooted labourers on the one hand and the small conservative Korean elite cultivated by Japan on the other.
These tensions were exacerbated by the economic problems resulting from the partition of Korea, trade with Manchuria and Japan came to an abrupt halt. There was no one to immediately replace the Japanese management skills and entrepreneurship suddenly lost. The south was cut off from the raw materials and heavy industrial capacity of the north. When large numbers of workers returned to their homes in the south from mines, factories and power plants in the north, they found a situation as bad as the one they had left.
Before the Korean War there was great labour unrest in the ROK. In 1945 the “National Trade Union Council”, ‘Chun Pyung’ was formed. It was a politically oriented union with affiliations to the far left. At its peak it had over half a million members and organised some 3000 strikes from 1945 till 1948, involving nearly a million workers. In 1946 the AMG attempted to restrict unions from ‘political’ activity, confining them solely to promoting the employment terms and conditions of their members.
In 1947 right-wing politicians and business leaders established the ‘Daehan Dogrib Chockseong Nodong Chongyeonmyeng’ or ‘No-Chong’, the “General Federation of Korean Trade Unions” (GFKTU). It was associated with Rhee’s Liberal Party. The aim was apparently to establish a rival system of ‘tame’ unions to draw away support from more militant unions like those of ‘Chun Pyung’.
Strike activity was particularly intense in 1947 with the ‘September National Strikes’, which started at the Kyungseong Railway Factory in Seoul. Strikes then spread throughout the South involving some quarter of a million workers. It has been suggested that ‘Chun Pyung’ was retaliating for the creation of ‘No-Chong’.
Finally in 1947 ‘Chun Pyung’ was banned amid accusations it was being used by communists to destabilise the ROK. Thence the GFKTU became the only legal federation of trade unions in the ROK.
Analysts have cited evidence that the GFKTU was to work more for the interests of the state and employers than for its own members. For example the breaking of a strike at the Chosun Textile Company in 1957 has been blamed on the allegedly duplicitous role of the GFKTU. Those unions independent of it then had to operate on a fragmented local level.
In the newly formed ROK there was peasant rebellion, labour strife, guerrilla warfare and clashes along the 38th parallel between opposing Korean forces. It is estimated that from the end of the Pacific War till the outbreak of the Korean War about 100,000 Koreans died from fighting and economic hardship.
The Korean War
In late June 1950 the Korean War broke out. By the time it ended it had left the peninsula devastated. At first the North Korean army swept down the peninsula, with the Southern Army holding out in a restricted area around the port of Pusan. Thus much of the ROK was occupied by communist forces throughout the summer of 1950.
In the communist occupied south, thousands of Korean communist cadres from both the north and south set about restoring the peoples’ committees disbanded by the AMG in 1945-46 and also began redistributing land. There is evidence the re-emergence of the people’s committees was stage managed by the northerners, using procedures designed to ensure the members conformed to policy. In some areas political prisoners released by the northern forces exacted violent revenge, but otherwise CIA reports indicate the North Korean officials maintained law and order. The redistribution of land was carried out in every province outside the Pusan perimeter. It seems the northerners experienced some difficulties carrying out land reform in the south in the middle of fighting a war.
The Americans under the UN Flag then launched a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon in late September 1950, followed by a general offensive in October, which drove the northern forces back up to the Yalu River. There was tremendous destruction due to fighting and heavy bombing campaigns. Following the fall of Inchon and the panicked retreat of the north’s Korean People’s Army, there are reports that their discipline broke down and massacres and the burning down of buildings occurred.
With American forces coming close to the Chinese border, the Chinese intervened en masse, driving the UN forces back to near the 38th parallel. The war descended into a violent stalemate which gradually cooled and the front line stabilised, bringing the war to a practical, but not a legal end. Technically the war has never ended.
Once the war front had stabilised in the spring of 1951 it is reported that US officials began to pressurise Rhee to actively implement the “Land Reform Act” (1949, amended 1950) which had been passed by the ROK National Assembly. A disaffected peasantry could prove a fertile breeding ground for anti-government insurgents as happened in the Chinese civil war, where the communists had recently triumphed.
In March 1946 North Korea and the Soviet occupation had implemented a sweeping land reform in a way that destroyed the basis of landed wealth that had existed in Korea for
centuries. Land reform in North Korea confiscated landholdings of about 5,000 Korean landlords as well as Japanese landholdings. However, many of the northern landlords had already fled by the time the reform was undertaken making the task easier. It is widely held that this land reform proved extremely popular with the majority rural population in Korea.
To senior American officials it must have seemed a question of competing with the communists for the hearts and minds of the rural poor at a time when at least two thirds of the Korean population still lived in the countryside. Rhee was thought to be dragging his feet about this as many of his supporters and high party officials came from wealthy landowning families.
Rhee complied. All rented land and all owned land over three ‘Chongbo’ in area (approximately three hectares) was to be purchased by the government and sold to tenants. The government paid the owners in bonds worth one and a half times the annual output of the land. The purchasing tenants had to pay thirty per cent of annual yield for five years. By 1952 the ROK government had redistributed 330,000 hectares.
A major part of the redistribution took place by direct sales from landlord to tenant. The government actually encouraged direct sales through private channels. One reason for the large volume of such sales was the fall in value of the government land bonds paid in compensation. The government proved slow to redeem such bonds and the private market in their resale witnessed a dramatic fall in price. The sellers were dissatisfied with the return for their land, while the purchasers were dissatisfied with the onerous terms of payment for the land. It made sense for both parties to cut a deal with each other. As the seller had no option of holding onto the land in the light of the laws, many sales were efficiently expedited.
As much as 550,000 Ha of land changed hands by direct purchase, together with the other transfers, just over half of all cultivated land in South Korea changed ownership. The overall effects of land reform in South Korea have been seen as greatly positive. A countryside populated by impoverished tenant farmers and farm labourers was transformed in short order into one populated by relatively prosperous, small proprietor farmers.
An armistice agreement was signed in July 1953. One estimate is that four million Koreans, Chinese and UN soldiers were killed in the war. In the south alone it has been estimated that 1.3 million were killed, missing or taken as prisoners of war. An economic estimate of the damage put it at about one year of Gross Domestic Product.
It is often forgotten today just what a large, intense, destructive and bloody conflict the Korean War was. It is forgotten how for a few years Korea became the central focus of the world’s attention, and how it brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.