Korea was a largely agriculture society until industrialization really started to kick in the 1960s. Land was traditionally owned by the king and granted to his subjects. Although some land was passed down by families from one generation to the next, land use patterns often varied greatly from place to place and were defined by murky legalities. The Japanese introduced standardized land ownerships laws. Farmers that could not prove ownership, even though their families occupied the land for generations, often lost it. may moved to the cities.

The technology of rice cultivation was brought to the northern parts of the Korean peninsula from China, probably late in the second millennium B.C., but rice became a staple of the Korean diet only in the Silla period. The government of the Korean Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) used a 28-day lunar month calendar that granted days off on the 1st, 8th, 15th and 23rd days. There was daylight savings time in the summer and servants worked from 9-to-5 hours.

The earliest recognized historical period in Korea is the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). Korea was strongly influenced by China at this time, and Chinese in fact occupied much of the Korean peninsula until around A.D. 400. Confucianism, Chinese writing, and other aspects of Chinese culture were introduced from China during this period. The Three Kingdoms were: Koguryo (37 B.C.–668 A.D.), Silla (57 B.C.–935 A.D.), and Paekche (18 B.C.–660 A.D.)

The territory south of the Han River is relatively distant from the Asian continent; hence, the people living there were initially able to develop independently, without much involvement with events on the continent.The early settlers of this region gradually organized themselves into some seventy clan states. Their economies were predominantly agricultural, and their level of development was such that they built reservoirs and irrigation facilities. These tribal states began to be affected by what was happening in the region north of the Han River around the first century B.C. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Throughout the period before 645, and continuing thereafter as well, there was extensive travel and exchange of people, goods, and technologies between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese islands. From the Nihon shoki report, in the 663 migration wave, four hundred Paekche commoners were settled in the province of Omi, probably where new land was opened up for cultivating rice. Many of the immigrants were members of the elite, and among the Korean migrants flooding Japan were artisans, builders, administrators and various specialists whose special knowledge and services were used to strengthen the state, increase revenues and implement controls. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~]

Silla Dynasty (57 B.C. - A.D. 936) Trade and Salaries

The Silla (Shilla) Kingdom (57 B.C. - A.D. 936) evolved in the southeast during the Three Kingdom Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 668). At the height of the Silla Dynasty in the 8th century, Gyeongju was the center of one of the largest kingdoms in Asia, and home to possibly a million people. Ancient historians who visiting the city described Chinese, Muslim and Korean merchants doing business side by side and kings that had four palaces — one for each season — with treasures from the four corners of known world: tortoise shell from the Philippines, glass from Persia and pearls from Japan. Items produced in Gyeongju that were coveted by other kingdoms included bronze temple bells and smooth silk paper.

Muslim traders carried the name "Silla" to the world outside the East Asia via the Silk Road. Geographers of the Arab and Persian world, including ibn Khurdadhbih, al-Masudi, Dimashiki, Al-Nuwayri, and al-Maqrizi, left records about Silla. An ancient Persian epic poem, the Kushnameh, contains detailed descriptions of Silla. Korea's and Iran's long-standing ties go back 1,600 years to the Three Kingdoms of Korea era. A dark blue glass found in the Cheonmachong Tomb, one of Silla's royal tombs, and an exotic golden sword found in Gyerim-ro, a silver bowl engraved with an image of the Persian goddess Anahita; a golden dagger from Persia; clay busts; and figurines portraying Middle Eastern merchants are all artifacts from Persia that made their way to Silla. [Source: Wikipedia]

A stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled endured for centuries in Korea. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty, which succeeded Silla, instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Sinmun of Silla (ruled 681 – 692) was the 31st king of Silla. Once of his first acts was cracking down on the power of the aristocracy. Sinmun eliminated the official salary system, called the nogeup. Under the nogeup system, officials did not receive a salary, but rather were alloted large areas of land, along with the people living on them, and the gained their living expenses by taxing the residents of their plots of land. In place of the nogeup, Sinmun instituted a system wherein officials were allotted only "office land" or jikjeon, from which they were allowed to procure only taxes on grain. This was clearly meant to sever the landed power base of aristocratic officialdom. In time, however, the aristocracy, who were united in their determination to protect the old system, won out against this royal decree, and eventually (though not in Sinmun's reign) the old stipend village system would be revived. [Source: New World Encyclopedia]

Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 936-1392) Economic Activity

During the Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 935-1392), Korea remained independent until the kingdom was invaded by the Mongols in 1231. The founder King Taejo (918-39) was a merchant and military leader who reunified the peninsula. He Wang Kon forged his kingdom in part by marrying 29 women from influential families in provinces brought under his domain. Some of the women were used as "hostages" to prevent rebellions in rival provinces. Under these conditions Wang Kon unified Korea.

The Koryo Dynasty elite fused aristocratic privilege and political power through marriage alliances and control of land and central political office, and made class position hereditary. This practice established a pattern for Korea in which landed gentry mingled with a Confucian- or Buddhist-educated stratum of scholar-officials; often scholars and landlords were one and the same person. In any case, landed wealth and bureaucratic position were powerfully fused. This fusion occurred at the center, where a strong bureaucracy influenced by Confucian statecraft emerged. Thereafter, this bureaucracy sought to dominate local power and thus militated. By the thirteenth century, two dominant government groupings had emerged: the civil officials and the military officials, known thereafter as yangban. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

The Koryo leaders actively sought to imitate the Song's advanced culture and technology. Stimulated by the rise of printing in Song China, Koryo also made great headway in printing and publication, leading to the invention of movable metal type in 1234, two centuries before the introduction of movable type in Europe.

According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Supported by the court and the nobles, the Koryo sa gha enjoyed considerable economic prosperity. Large monasteries became major landowners after the donation of land and serfs by the kings and influential families, and many monasteries developed into financial powers by pursuing various commercial enterprises. The sa gha's economic power became so immense that it generated much complaint and criticism toward the end of the dynasty. Lesser bureaucrats were especially strong critics, influenced by neo-Confucianism, a new ideology introduced from Song China in the late thirteenth century. [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

Social Classes in the Koryo and Choson Period (936-1910)

In the Koryo Dynasty and Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910) until it was outlawed in 1894, society was dived between the yangban (nobility) class, comprised mainly of scholar-officials. They were largely exempt from doing the manual labor performed by commoners. Confucianism and traditions divided society further along gender lines, with men doing the heavy outside work and women doing domestic chores.

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. The Koryo Dynasty instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

By passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. This system continued during the Chosun Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler. *

Land Reforms in the Early Chosun Period

General Yi Song-gye overthrew Koryo Dynasty and Mongols and established the Chosun — or Yi or Joseon — Dynasty in 1392. The country was renamed Chosun ("Land of Morning Calm") and the capital was moved to Hanyang (also known as "Seoul" or capital). Despite invasions by Japan and Manchu (Qing) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, Chosun continued for more than five centuries until 1910, when Japan colonized Korea. As was case in Japan from the 1650s to the 1850s, Korea was culturally isolated during the Chosun dynasty.

The Koryo Dynasty had suffered from a number of internal problems; Yi and his followers implemented drastic reforms to place the new dynasty on firmer ground. One of these problems revolved around the deterioration of land administration, a basic issue in a predominantly agrarian society. Contrary to the law specifying public (governmental) ownership of land, powerful clans and Buddhist temples had acquired a sizable proportion of farmland. By exacting a disproportionate share of crops in the form of rents, the "landlords" were causing economic destitution and social discontent among the peasants. By illicitly removing the farms from tax rolls, these clans and temples reduced the government's income, thus straining the treasury. Yi had sided with reformists even before he took power, hence it was natural for him to rectify past inequities after ascending to the throne. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The reform of the land system, however, had direct repercussions on the practice of Buddhism, because Buddhist temples and monks had been among those exacerbating the land problem. The economic influence of the temples was eliminated when they lost vast lands. The rectification went beyond economic reform, however, because the dominant forces in the new dynasty were devout Confucianists who regarded Buddhism as a false creed. The fact that Buddhist monks had wielded a strong influence in politics, the economy, and society during the latter part of the Koryo Dynasty — and that many of them had been corrupted by power and money — strengthened the opposition to Buddhism. Accordingly, the new dynasty launched a sweeping attack on Buddhism and its institutions, an attack that had profound and enduring effects on the character of civilization on the peninsula.

Many of the outstanding temples were permitted to remain intact; indeed, a few Chosun monarchs were devout Buddhists. Nevertheless, Buddhism exerted little influence over the religious life of Korea under the Chosun Dynasty; nor did any organized religion replace it. Although many people adhered to shamanism, geomancy, fortunetelling, and superstitions, Korea effectively became a secular society.

On Land by Chong Tojon

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “By the end of the Koryo dynasty, arable land had come to be concentrated in the hands of wealthy families and powerful Buddhist temples, leading to a situation in which many people were forced to become tenants or to cease farming altogether.Land reform was one of the first priorities of Chosun founder Yi Songgye (1335-1408; later known as King Taejo), and as a result, in 1390, even before the official proclamation of the new dynasty, he had the old land records burned and proceeded to revamp Korea’s land ownership system. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ^^^ ]

Describing the rationale for the reforms, Chong Tojon (1337- 1398), a Neo-Confucian scholar-official close to King Taejo, wrote: “In ancient times, all the land belonged to the state, and the state then granted land to the people; thus, all the land that the people cultivated had been given them by the state. There was no one who did not receive land, and there was no one who did not cultivate land. Therefore, there was no excessive differentiation between the rich and the poor and between the strong and the weak. Because all the produce from the land went to the state, the state was prosperous. [Source: translated by Yongho Ch’oe, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 576-578.

“But as the land system began to disintegrate, powerful individuals acquired more and land. While the land of the rich extended far and wide, the poor had no land even to stand on. The poor thus were forced to lease land from the rich to till. Even though they worked hard and diligently all year round, they still did not have enough to eat. The rich, however, did not cultivate their land and remained idle. Instead, they hired men to work their land and collected more than half of the yield. The government took no measures to alleviate the plight of the poor and did nothing to bring benefit to the state. Thus, both the people and the state became increasingly poor. It was this situation that gave rise to the theories of limited land and equal land. These theories are, however, no more than makeshift measures. The best land policy is for the state to grant land to the people to cultivate. …

“According to the land system of the Koryo dynasty, there were lands for royal descendants, government officials in active service, merit subjects, graduates of the civil service examinations, soldiers, and officials. They maintained their living by collecting rent from these lands. The people who worked the land were allowed to reclaim new land for their ownership, and the government did not intervene. Those who commanded considerable manpower extensively reclaimed new lands; those who were weak and lacked manpower were obliged to submit to the powerful in order to lease land from them. After cultivation, the harvest was divided, half going to the landowner and half to the tillers. This was how there came to be two consumers for every tiller. The rich thus became richer and the poor poorer until the poor became unable to support themselves and were eventually forced to abandon their land and become vagabonds. It was these people who turned to petty occupations and, in extreme cases, even became thieves and bandits. Alas, how can one describe the evil effects of all this? …

“His Majesty King Taejo had personally witnessed the evil effects of this chaotic land situation while he was still a private person and was determined to abolish the private land system as one of his future missions. He believed that all the land in the country should revert to the state and should then be given to the people based on careful account, in order to revive the rectified land system of ancient times. But the old families and the powerful lineage groups, realizing that His Majesty’s plan would work against their interests, slandered and obstructed the plan with all the power at their command. Because of their obstructions, the people were unable to gain the benefits of this reform. It was indeed lamentable! His Majesty, however, together with two or three like.minded ministers, investigated the laws of the former dynasties, deliberated about what would be good for the present situation, and surveyed and measured all the land in the country in terms of kyol.1 [His Majesty then instituted the land reform in the year 1390.] He established court land, military provision land for state use, and office land for civil and military officials. Also, off.duty military men residing in the capital as guards for the royal court, widows remaining faithful to their deceased husbands, government workers in the local magistracies, postal station workers, and river ferry workers, as well as commoners and artisans performing public duties, have all been granted land. Although the distribution of land to the people may not have reached the standard set by the ancient sages, the new land law has restored equity and balance. Compared to the evil system of the former dynasty, the new land reform has brought infinite improvement.”

Yangban and Farmers During the Chosun Dynasty

▪. Members of the Confucian-educated, scholar-official elite yangban class were very powerful in the Chosun Dynasty,. The civil service examination became a sham, and corruption ran rampant. Royal relatives and members of powerful factions increased their landholdings, which became exempt from taxes and thereby reduced the dynasty's sources of revenue. The farmers suffered more and more from tax burdens and other extractions imposed by greedy officials and landlords. In short, the country was not being effectively governed. To make matters worse, Japanese attacks in 1592 and 1597 and Manchu assaults in 1627 and 1636 ravaged the country's economy and turned much of the farmland to waste for a long period thereafter. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

James B. Palais, a widely respected historian of the Chosun Dynasty, has shown that conflict between bureaucrats seeking revenues for government coffers and landowners hoping to control tenants and harvests was a constant during the Chosun Dynasty, and that in this conflict over resources the landowners often won out. Controlling land theoretically owned by the state, private landed interests soon came to be stronger and more persistent in Korea than in China. Although Korea had a centralized administration, the ostensibly strong center was more often a façade concealing the reality of aristocratic power. The so-called literati purges, a series of upheavals beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and lasting more than 100 years. The losers found their persons, their property, their families, and even their graves at risk from victors determined to extirpate their influence.

One interpretation suggests that Korea's agrarian bureaucracy was superficially strong but actually rather weak at the center. A more conventional interpretation is that the Chosun Dynasty was ruled by a highly centralized monarchy served by a hereditary aristocracy that competed via civil and military service examinations for access to bureaucratic office. The state ostensibly dominated the society, but in fact landed aristocratic families kept the state at bay and perpetuated local power for centuries. This pattern persisted until the late 1940s, when landed dominance was obliterated in a northern revolution and attenuated in southern land reform; since then the balance has shifted toward strong central power and top-down administration of the whole country in both Koreas. The disruptions caused by the Korean War magnified the sociopolitical consequences of these developments.

Chosun Era Economy and Social Classes

During the Chosun Dynasty the economy diversified as the transplant of rice seedlings boosted harvests and some peasants became enterprising small landlords. Commercial crops such as tobacco, ginseng, and cotton developed, and merchants proliferated at big markets like those in Seoul at East Gate and South Gate, at the gate to China at iju, and at the gate to Japan at Tongnae, near Pusan. The use of coins for commerce and for paying wages increased, and handicraft production increased outside government control. The old Koryo capital at Kaesng became a strong center of merchant commerce and conspicuous wealth. Finally, throughout the seventeenth century, [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Western learning filtered into Korea, often through the auspices of a spreading Roman Catholic movement, which especially attracted commoners by its creed of equality. The resulting social and economic depression of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fostered the rise of a new intellectual movement advocating the practical use of human knowledge. As historian Ki-baik Lee has noted, Sirhak thought encompassed a variety of intellectual activities and several diverse viewpoints. These included proposals for refinement of the traditional administrative and land systems, advocacy of commercial and manufacturing activity, and a renewed interest in Korean history and language.

In the Choson Period there were four rather distinct social strata: 1) the scholar-officials, collectively referred to as the yangban; 2) the chungin (literally "middle people"), technicians and administrators subordinate to the yangban; 3) the commoners or sangmin, a large group composed of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants; and 4) the ch'ommin (literally despised people)," at the bottom of society. To ensure stability, the government devised a system of personal tallies in order to identify people according to their status. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Korea's traditional class system also included a peasant majority and minorities of petty clerks, merchants, and so-called base classes (ch'ommin), that is, castelike hereditary groups (paekchng) such as butchers, leather tanners, and beggars. Although merchants ranked higher than members of low-born classes, Confucian elites frowned on commercial activity and up until the twentieth century squelched it as much as possible. Peasants or farmers ranked higher than merchants because they worked the land, but the life of the peasantry was almost always difficult during the dynasty, and became more so later on. Most peasants were tenants, were required to give up at least half their crop to landlords as tax, and were subject to various additional exactions. Those in the low-born classes were probably worse off, however, given very high rates of slavery for much of the Chosun period. One source reported more than 200,000 government slaves in Seoul alone in 1462, and recent scholarship has suggested that at one time as much as 60 percent of Seoul's population may have been slaves. In spite of slavery being hereditary, however, rates of escape from slavery and manumission also were unusually high. Class and status hierarchies also were built into the Korean language and have persisted into the contemporary period. Superiors and inferiors were addressed quite differently, and elaborate honorifics were used to address elders. Even verb endings and conjugations differed according to station.

Chosun Slaves

During the Chosun period, most Koreans were slaves (noye) or slave-like serfs (nobi) who toiled for greedy, land-owning Buddhist monks or feudalist noblemen. As late as the late 19th century half of Koreans were slaves that were bought, sold, given away and killed at the owners discretion. "Slavery in Korea was indeed a demeaning and degrading experience," the Korean historian Yu Hyong-won wrote, "stemming from the complete control masters could exercise over their slaves if they wished."

Slavery was an important institution in Koryo and Chosun society. Exactly how it worked is still not fully understood by scholars today. Slaves, of course, stood at the very bottom of the social hierarchy; the existence and perpetuation of this status was an aspect of the continuing importance of hereditary status.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The institution of Korean slavery was passed on from Koryo to Chosun and showed little sign of weakening by the seventeenth century. Indeed, though the “80 or 90 percent” that this text suggests as the proportion of slaves among the total population was probably an exaggeration, slaves were numerous and economically central in Korea in a way they were not in other East Asian countries, and despite significant differences from, for example, American slavery, pre-modern Korea has been considered a “slave society” along with ancient Greece and Rome, the antebellum U.S. South, the Caribbean during European colonization, and a few other historic instances. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ^^^ ]

The scholar Yu Hyongwon (1622-1673) argued for reform of several Chosun economic institutions, including slavery. On abolishing slavery he wrote in the Pangye surok: “But if the government of a true moral king is put into practice, and he rectifies the various institutions of government and washes away all partiality and vulgarity, then it is clear that the law governing slavery would definitely have to be abolished....What I mean by abolishing it, indeed, does not mean a sudden and total abolition of presently existing slaves. Just order that slavery stop with the slaves that exit at the presenttime.” [Source: translated by James B. Palais, “Sources of Korean Tradition,” edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 159-161]

Inherited Slave Status in the Chosun Period

A passage from the Koryo called “Inheritance of Slave Status” goes: “In the past, our founding ancestor, setting down instructions to posterity on the question of inheritance, stated: “In general, the offspring of the lowest class (ch’onnyu) are of a different stock. Be sure not to allow the people of the lowest class to become emancipated. If they are permitted to become free, later they will certainly get government positions and gradually work into important offices, where they will plot rebellions against the state. If this admonition is ignored, the dynasty will be endangered.” [Source: translated by Hugh H.W. Kang and Edward J. Shultz, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 327.

“Accordingly, the law of our country provides that only if there is no evidence of lowborn status for eight generations in one’s official household registration may one receive a position in the government. As a rule, in the lowborn class, if either the father or mother is low, then the offspring is low. Even if the original owner of a lowborn person frees him, allowing him to achieve commoner status, the descendants of that freed individual must return to low status. If the owner has no heirs, the descendants of his freed lowborn belong to his clan. This is because they do not want to allow lowborns to achieve permanent commoner status.

“Still there is fear that some may flee and escape their status, becoming commoners. Accordingly, even though we take preventive measures, many take advantage of the situation and become crafty. There is also fear that some, relying on power or merit, will dare to take the law into their own hands and plot rebellion against the state, but eventually they are destroyed. Although we know it is not easy to heed the founder’s admonition, we still fear there is no way to check all disloyal feelings.”

Japanese Period in Korea (1910-1945)

The Japanese instituted vast social and economic changes and built modern industries and railroads, but their rule — from 1910 to 1945 — could be harsh and exploitative. The first three decades of Japanese occupation alternated between cycles of strict repression and periods of relative openness.

Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Before the 1900s, Koreans lived as subsistence farmers of rice, barley, sorghum, and other crops and satisfied most of their basic needs through their own labor or through barter. Fishery products in the coastal villages were popular. The Japanese introduced some heavy industries, locating them in the north, and improved Korean infrastructure for obvious reasons. In the meantime, the south remained mainly agricultural, with some light industry. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

The Japanese had hoped to export Japanese settlers and make Korean into a mini-Japan. The Japanese irrigated land and, introduced new seeds and doubled rice yields. Most of the rice was shipped off to Japan, while Koreans went hungry and in some cases survived by collecting wild plants in the mountains.Coal, forests and other resources were harvested to feed the Japanese economy. Industry was developed with Japan’s interests in mind not Korea’s.

The Imperial Japanese government built roads, ports, dams, power plants, roads, hospitals and schools, improved agricultural output, created an industrial infrastructure and improved health care. Seoul's central train station was built under Japanese imperial rulers in 1925. Some conservative Japanese politicians are angered that Koreans are not grateful for all that the Japanese did for them.

The relation between Japan and Korea is sometimes compared with that of Britain and India. The Japanese general generals lived in huge colonial buildings and were chauffeured around in Rolls Royces and horse drawn carriages and escorted by guards with long ceremonial swords. But some argue Japanese rule in Korea was much more brutal.

Japanese Colonialism in Korea

Korea did not escape the Japanese grip until 1945, when Japan lay prostrate under the Allied victory that brought World War II to a close. The colonial experience that shaped postwar Korea was intense and bitter. It brought development and underdevelopment, agrarian growth and deepened tenancy, industrialization and extraordinary dislocation, and political mobilization and deactivation. It also spawned a new role for the central state, new sets of Korean political leaders, communism and nationalism, and armed resistance and treacherous collaboration. Above all, it left deep fissures and conflicts that have gnawed at the Korean national identity ever since. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Colonialism was often thought to have created new countries where none existed before, to have drawn national boundaries, brought diverse tribes and peoples together, tutored the natives in self-government, and prepared for the day when the colonialist power decided to grant independence. But all this had existed in Korea for centuries before 19l0. Furthermore, by virtue of their relative proximity to China, Koreans had always felt superior to Japan and blamed Japan's devastating sixteenth-century invasions for hindering Korean wealth and power in subsequent centuries.

Thus the Japanese engaged not in creation, but in substitution after 19l0: substituting a Japanese ruling elite for the Korean yangban scholar-officials, colonial imperative coordination for the old central state administration, Japanese modern education for Confucian classics, Japanese capital and expertise for the budding Korean versions, Japanese talent for Korean talent, and eventually the Japanese language for Korean. Koreans never thanked the Japanese for these substitutions, did not credit Japan with creations, and instead saw Japan as snatching away the ancient regime, Korea's sovereignty and independence, its indigenous if incipient modernization, and above all its national dignity. Koreans never saw Japanese rule as anything but illegitimate and humiliating. Furthermore, the very closeness of the two nations — in geography, in common Chinese cultural influences, and in levels of development until the nineteenth century — made Japanese dominance all the more galling to Koreans and gave a peculiar intensity to their love/hate relationship.

Japanese Governance in Colonial Korea

Japan built bureaucracies in Korea, all of them centralized and all of them big by colonial standards. Unlike the relatively small British colonial cadre in India, there were 700,000 Japanese in Korea by the 1940s, and the majority of colonizers worked in government service. For the first time in history, Korea had a national police, responsive to the center and possessing its own communications and transportation facilities. The huge Japanese Oriental Development Company organized and funded industrial and agricultural projects, and came to own more than 20 percent of Korea's arable land; it employed an army of officials who fanned out through the countryside to supervise agricultural production. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

The official Bank of Korea performed central banking functions such as regulating interest rates and provisioned credit to firms and entrepreneurs, almost all of them Japanese. Central judicial bodies wrote new laws establishing an extensive, "legalized" system of racial discrimination against Koreans, making them second-class citizens in their own country. Bureaucratic departments proliferated at the Seoul headquarters of Japan's Government-General of Korea, turning it into the nerve center of the country. Semiofficial companies and conglomerates, including the big zaibatsu (commercial conglomerates) such as Mitsubishi and Mitsui, laid railroads, built ports, installed modern factories, and ultimately remade the face of old Korea.

Japan held Korea tightly, watched it closely, and pursued an organized, architectonic colonialism in which the planner and administrator were the model, not the swashbuckling conqueror. The strong, highly centralized colonial state mimicked the role that the Japanese state had come to play in Japan — intervening in the economy, creating markets, spawning new industries, and suppressing dissent. Politically, Koreans could barely breathe, but economically there was significant, if unevenly distributed, growth. Agricultural output rose substantially in the 1920s, and a hothouse industrialization occupied the 1930s. Growth rates in the Korean economy often outstripped those in Japan itself; one estimate suggested an annual growth rate for Korea of 3.57 percent in the 1911-38 period and a rate of 3.36 percent for Japan itself.

Koreans have always thought that the benefits of this growth went entirely to Japan and that Korea would have developed rapidly without Japanese help. Nonetheless, the strong colonial state, the multiplicity of bureaucracies, the policy of administrative guidance of the economy, the use of the state to found new industries, and the repression of labor unions and dissidents provided a surreptitious model for both Koreas in the postwar period. Japan showed them an early version of the "bureaucratic-authoritarian" path to industrialization, and it was a lesson that seemed well learned by the 1970s.

Japanese Development in Korea

Before the Japanese arrived there was hardly any industry in Korea. Most of the industry the Japanese introduced was built in the north near coal and metal sources. The location of industry there played a role in dividing the north and south. Before the Japanese occupation both had traditionally been agricultural.

Seoul got its first electricity, running water and modern hospital in 1908, thanks to the Japanese. It was one of the first cities in Asia to have trolley cars, a water system, telephones, and telegraphs. In 1910, the Japanese made Seoul the capital of colonial Korea and changed its name to Keijo. Much of the old city was razed, partly in attempt to obliterate Korean culture, and all but 10 of the 200 buildings that made up the Chosun Dynasty's Kyongbok Place were destroyed. In 1926, the Japanese built the governor's palace between the Chosun throne and the gate of the city, breaking the city’s feng shui line of power on which the city was founded.

The Korean economy underwent significant change under the Japanese. Japan's initial colonial policy was to increase agricultural production in Korea to meet Japan's growing need for rice. Japan had also begun to build large-scale industries in Korea in the 1930s as part of the empire-wide program of economic self-sufficiency and war preparation. Between 1939 and 1941, the manufacturing sector represented 29 percent of Korea's total economic production. The primary industries — agriculture, fishing, and forestry — occupied only 49.6 percent of total economic production during that period, in contrast to having provided 84.6 percent of total production between 1910 and 1912. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

The economic development taking place under Japanese rule, however, brought little benefit to the Koreans. Virtually all industries were owned either by Japan-based corporations or by Japanese corporations in Korea. As of 1942, Korean capital constituted only 1.5 percent of the total capital invested in Korean industries. Korean entrepreneurs were charged interest rates 25 percent higher than their Japanese counterparts, so it was difficult for Korean enterprises to emerge. More and more farmland was taken over by the Japanese, and an increasing proportion of Korean farmers either became sharecroppers or migrated to Japan or Manchuria. As greater quantities of Korean rice were exported to Japan, per capita consumption of rice among the Koreans declined; between 1932 and 1936, per capita consumption of rice declined to half the level consumed between 1912 and 1916. Although the government imported coarse grains from Manchuria to augment the Korean food supply, per capita consumption of food grains in 1944 was 35 percent below that of 1912 to 1916.

Coal, forests and other resources were harvested to feed the Japanese war-time economy. Industry was developed in Korea with Japan’s interests in mind not Korea’s. The Imperial Japanese government built roads, ports, dams, power plants, roads, hospitals and schools, improved agricultural output, created an industrial infrastructure and improved health care.

Not only was the economy reorganized onto a war footing, but the Koreans were to be totally assimilated as Japanese. The government also began to enlist Korean youths in the Japanese army as volunteers in 1938, and as conscripts in 1943.

World War II

Japan's far-flung war effort also caused a labor shortage throughout the empire. In Korea this situation meant that bureaucratic positions were more available to Koreans than at any previous time; thus a substantial cadre of Koreans received administrative experience in government, local administration, police and judicial work, economic planning agencies, banks, and the like. That this occurred in the last decade of colonialism created a divisive legacy, however, for this period also was the harshest period of Japanese rule, the time Koreans remember with the greatest bitterness. Korean culture was quashed, and Koreans were required to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. The majority suffered badly at the precise time that a minority was doing well. This minority was tainted by collaboration, and that stigma was never lost. Korea from 1937 to 1945 was much like Vichy France in the early 1940s: bitter experiences and memories continued to divide people, even within the same family. Because it was too painful to confront directly, the experience became buried history and continued to play on the national identity.

In the mid-1930s, Japan's colonial policy entered a phase of heavy industrialization that embraced all of Northeast Asia. Unlike most colonial powers, Japan located heavy industry in its colonies and brought the means of production to the labor and raw materials. Manchuria and northern Korea got steel mills, automotive plants, petrochemical complexes, and enormous hydroelectric facilities. The region was held exclusively by Japan and tied together with the home market to the point that national boundaries had became less important than the new transnational, integrated production. To facilitate this production, Japan also built railroads, highways, cities, ports, and other modern transportation and communication facilities. By 1945 Korea proportionally had more kilometers of railroads than any other Asian country save Japan, leaving only remote parts of the central east coast and the wild northeastern Sino-Korean border region untouched by modern means of conveyance. These changes were externally induced and served Japanese, not Korean interests. Thus they represented a kind of overdevelopment.

Korean Forced Laborers in Japan

An estimated 4 million Koreans were forced to work as slave laborers between 1910 and 1945 in mines, factories, construction sites and battle zones in Korea, Japan and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. During World War II they dug trenches and tunnels, cleared mines and performed other duties, and were often the victims of Allied bombing raids.

The forced laborers lived in squalid camps, were poorly fed and were often beaten by brutal guards. There were promised meager wages which were deposited in postal saving accounts but many of them never saw the money.

Around 40,000 Koreans were taken to Sakhalin island in present-day Russia as part of a slave labor force that worked in Japanese coal mines there. One man who was dragged from his home while having dinner with his parents in 1943 told TIME, the last thing he said to his family was, "I don't know where I'm going but I'll be back."

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Army invaded Sakhalin. Ethnic Koreans were separated from ethnic Japanese and the Japanese were allowed to return home while the Koreans got stranded because they were not covered by repatriation programs and Stalin needed coal miners. Many never returned home and many of those that did didn't get the opportunity until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The man who was dragged from dinner didn't return until 1998.

In July 2015, Japan's Mitsubishi Materials apologised and agreed to pay compensation to Chinese victims of forced labour during World War II days after the firm made a landmark apology to US prisoners of war. AFP reported: “More than 3,700 Chinese who were forced into hard labour in the company's wartime mines will be eligible for compensation of 100,000 yuan (about $15,000), Kyodo News and Jiji news agencies said. Mitsubishi Materials, a sprawling conglomerate which makes everything from cement to electronics, expressed “deep remorse” and “sincere apologies” to the victims and built a $75,000 monument honouring them, Kyodo reported. The Japanese firm apologised earlier to US prisoners of war used as forced labour during the second world war. [Source: Agence France-Presse, July 24, 2015 *]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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