The Colonial Transformation of Korean Society

The Colonial Transformation of Korean Society

The social strata of the Chosn Dynasty and the family system were sustained by a highly stable environment composed, for the most part, of rural communities. The Hermit Kingdom, as it was called by Westerners, had very little contact with the outside world even in the late nineteenth century. Rapid changes, however, occurred during the Japanese colonial period, which disrupted the centuries-old ways of life and caused considerable personal hardship.

These changes were particularly disruptive in rural areas. Traditionally, all land belonged to the king and was granted by him to his subjects. Although specific tracts of land tended to remain within the same family from generation to generation (including communal land owned by clans and lineages), land occupancy, use, and ownership patterns were often ambiguous and varied from one part of the country to another. Land was not privately held.

Between 1910 and 1920, the Japanese carried out a comprehensive land survey in order to place land ownership on a modern legal footing. Farmers who had tilled the same land for generations but could not prove ownership had their land confiscated. Such land ended up in the hands of the colonial government, to be sold to Japanese enterprises such as the Oriental Development Company or to Japanese immigrants.

These policies forced many Koreans to emigrate overseas or to become tenant farmers. Still other Koreans fled to the hills to become "fire field," or slash-and-burn, farmers, living under extremely harsh and primitive conditions. By 1936 there were more than 1.5 million slash-and-burn farmers. Other former farmers moved to urban areas to work in factories.

The fortunes of the yangban elite were mixed. Some prospered under the Japanese as landlords or even entrepreneurs. Those yangban who remained aloof from their country's new overlords, however, often fell into poverty. A few Koreans educated in modern Japanese or foreign missionary schools formed the nucleus of a modern middle class.

The Japanese built railroads and highways--a logistic system- -and schools and hospitals. A modern system of administration was established to link the colonial economy more effectively with that of Japan. These changes also fostered employment for Koreans as mid- and lower-level civil servants and technicians. During the 1930s and early 1940s, industrial development projects, especially in the border area between Korea and China, employed thousands of Koreans as workers and lower level industrial managers. All the top posts were held by Japanese; prewar and wartime industrialization nevertheless created new classes of workers and managers.

At the end of World War II, Korea's traditional social fabric, based on rural communities and stable social hierarchies, was tattered but not entirely destroyed. In South Korea, the traditional social system survived, although drastically altered by urbanization and economic development. In North Korea, an occupation by Soviet troops, the communist revolution, and the rule of Kim Il Sung, transformed the society.

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