South Korean Political History For Foreigners - Part 1

South Korean (ROK) Political History For Foreigners (Part 1): 
The Japanese occupation!

Hello. This is Professor AKIA. If you have some interest in Korean culture, you may have heard things being hot here in the political scene. You know the story about president park geun-hye being impeached. It is rather a complicated mess with multiple factors coming into play. It is easy for foreigners to use their own political backdrop as a reference point to understand this situation. This is not an approach that works well most of the time. So, thought I would provide a brief historical background. Here I go.

Korea --- I should really can it Joseon Dynasty since Korea as a national identity didn’t exist up to that point. --- until the end of the 19th century, Korea was an insular aristocratic caste based agricultural society. A similar example would have been Russia in the 18th century or so. Did I just demean Russia under the Czars? In the Joseon Dynasty, you have a continuously growing aristocratic caste which was supported by what amounts to a surf caste farming a limited amount of land with primitive agricultural technology even for the times. Life was harsh for the surfs. The economy was small with tight restrictions on foreign trade. War, the small ice age, and terrible governance caused the economy to be in on a downfall for basically 2 centuries. I shouldn’t forget to mention horrible amount of government corruption that would make the modern Chinese blush. As a result, there was a lot of conflict and resentment between the classes. Then, the foreigners came followed by the Japanese and forever changed the world that Koreans live in.

There is a lot of bad things said about the Japanese occupation. However, objectively, ordinary Koreans’ lives couldn’t be said to have gotten worse. The period at end of the occupation is an exception. You know the war period: Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific war. It was war after all. I’m not trying to say the Japanese occupation was great but the economy was far more stable and there were far less people starving to death every year. Modern North Korea can be viewed as the Joseon Dynasty on George Orwell’s 1984 steroids! People suffered and died in mass under both regimes. At least, the Joseon Dynasty barely had an international footprint. They were barely even a 3rd world failed country.

Talking about Japanese occupation…for one thing, compared to the traditional Korean aristocrats, the Japanese colonial administration govern the country far more efficiently. With, at the time, modern western understanding of governments, the Japanese tried to run the country in an efficient manner as possible with its limited resources. The colonial administration was small and rather underfunded for what the territory it managed. In addition, the Japanese abolished the caste system in accordance to more modern western ideas. Well, at least according the Japanese version of those ideas. You know the fact that, if you give people a bit of freedom, they’ll end up easier to control as they self-govern to a degree. This social reform opened up the possibilities for upward mobility that didn’t exist under the Korean aristocrats. At the end of the day, the Japanese were far better administrators. In terms of politics, the Japanese had the advantage of not being the traditional Korean aristocrats! Many of the common folks despised the traditional Korean aristocrats – their enslavers -- to a degree than anyone else were preferable. Many, in fact, welcomed the takeover. You have to know, at this point, that the Korean tribal identity had not taken root yet when the Japanese took over. Tribal nationalism that is still going strong to this day had just been imported from the western world. Ironically, it was the Japanese that made the modern Korean identity.

Tribal Nationalist
During the occupation, the Korean tribal national identity started to take root in the Korean political psyche although still in its infancy. Upon that foundation, three political factions came into existence during the struggle for independence. First, there were the “tribal nationalist” who emphasized national identity first and also retained some of the old traditional social/cultural ways. They were the least ideologically sophisticated among the three factions even though the others were not too much more advanced.

Second, there were the “socialists” or “communists”. There wasn’t much differentiation at the time. The early 20th century was when the tsunami of revolutions swept the world and that wave even hit Korea via route like China. China was experiencing a rise in communism also. Looking at them, the socialist faction was a weird mix of former surfs and descendants of the old aristocrats. While their understanding of the socialist ideology was rudimental compared their Russian and western counterparts, their passions were as vigorous.

Then there were the “democrats/capitalists”. This last group were composed of the growing Protestant Christians population which was fostered by mostly Americans and newly forming middle and business classes. The latter were primarily composed of the low born who were elevated by the occupation and were given, for basically the first time, an opportunity to freely amount some wealth. This was not possible during the Joseon Dynasty. The amount of wealth being mentioned here is relatively small compared to what modern Koreans have. It was a house, a shop, a small business. However, it was enough for them to create a different view of the world. Once again, like the socialist, this faction’s understanding of their ideology was rudimentary at best especially in terms of democracy. For most, it was no more than a set of bumper sticker phrases.  Koreans still hadn’t experienced proper democracy and it would take some time for that to come.

During the occupation, these factions tried cooperate with each other to make some contribution to the independence of Korea. Every time, these attempts devolved into infighting and bloodshed. As a result, they did not matter to the Korea independence directly; not the tribal nationalist,  Socialists, nor Capitalists. The Shanghai Korean government in exile didn’t matter! It was the American victory in the Pacific that freed Koreans. This fact would be the cause of a lot of the insecurity one can find in the Korean national psyche. On August 15th 1945, with the first radio broadcast by Japanese Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese occupation of Korea that officially started on August 29th 1910 ended. But what know?


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