The Emergence of a Modern Society

The Emergence of a Modern Society

In 1894 a program of social reforms, known as the Kabo Reforms, was initiated by pro-Japanese Korean officials. Yangban and commoners were made equal before the law, the old Confucian civil service examinations were abolished, and slavery and ch'ommin status was ended. Modern forms of government and administration, largely borrowed from Japan, were adopted. In the years before annexation, a self-strengthening movement and government reforms attempted to regain Korean control of the pace and direction of change. However, it was only following the Japanese annexation in 1910 that the rapid social transformation of Korea began.

Rural society was radically transformed. Traditionally, all land belonged to the king and was granted by him to his subjects. Although specific parcels 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 often were legally ambiguous and widely divergent from one part of the country to another. There was no institution of private property during the Choson Dynasty. The Japanese, however, conducted a comprehensive land survey between 1910 and 1920 in order to place landownership on a modern legal footing. Farmers whose families had tilled the same soil for generations but could not prove ownership in a way satisfactory to the colonial authorities had their land confiscated. Such land came into the hands of the colonial government, to be sold to Japanese land companies, such as the Oriental Development Company, or to Japanese immigrants. As research by Edward Graegert has shown, however, the survey also helped to confirm, or in some cases even to improve, the position of some members of the existing Korean landlord class. Many were former yangban who cooperated with the Japanese. Those yangban who remained aloof from their country's new overlord often fell into poverty. The farmers themselves either became tenants or were forced to leave the land. During the depression of the 1930s, thousands emigrated to the cities or overseas. Many others fled to the hills to become "fire-field" (slash-and-burn) farmers, living under extremely harsh and primitive conditions. By 1936 this last group numbered more than 1.5 million people.

The Japanese built railroads, highways, schools, and hospitals and established a modern system of administration. These changes were intended to link the colonial economy more effectively to that of Japan. The new, modern sector required technically trained experts. Although the top positions were invariably occupied by Japanese, Koreans worked on the lower levels as secondary technical and administrative personnel. Thus, while the number of Korean high officials in the colonial administration increased from only 354 to 442 people between 1915 and 1942, the number of junior officials increased from 15,543 to 29,998 in the same period. Japan's industrial development policies during the 1930s and 1940s, though concentrated in the northern half of the peninsula adjacent to Manchuria, created a new class of workers and lower-level industrial managers that played an important role in the industrial development of South Korea after 1945.

The great majority of Koreans suffered under Japanese rule. A large number of farmers were forced off their land after 1910; industrial workers and miners working for Japanese-owned firms were often treated little better than slaves. Under colonial agricultural policies, rice cultivation was maximized, although most rice was grown for consumption in Japan.

Nevertheless, development under Japanese colonial rule provided some foundation, however unintentionally, for South Korea's impressive post-1945 economic growth. A small group of Korean entrepreneurs emerged who fostered close ties with the colonial government, and Japanese business interests established family-held firms that were the precursors of South Korea's present-day chaebol, or business conglomerates. It is a tribute to their acumen that these entrepreneurs were able to survive and prosper in a colonial economy dominated overwhelmingly by Japanese capital.

Three developments after 1945 were particularly important for South Korea's social modernization. The first was the land reform carried out by United States and South Korean authorities between 1945 and 1950. The institution of private property was retained, but the American occupation authorities confiscated and redistributed all land held by the Japanese colonial government, Japanese companies, and individual Japanese colonists. The Korean government carried out a reform whereby Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. A new class of independent, family proprietors was created.

The second development was the great influx from North Korea and other countries of repatriates and refugees. In the 1945-49 period, between 1.5 million and 2 million Koreans returned to South Korea from Japan, the northeast provinces of China, and other foreign countries. With the establishment of a communist state in North Korea, a large number of refugees fled to South Korea and were joined by many more during the Korean War. A conservative estimate of the total number of refugees from the north is 1.2 million. Most of the northerners settled in the cities--new recruits for the country's industrial labor force.

The third development was a direct result of the Korean War. Traditionally Koreans, like their Chinese and unlike their Japanese neighbors, considered the military to be a low-status occupation. Korea did not have its own armed forces during the colonial period, although some Koreans served in the Japanese military, especially after 1941, and a handful, such as former President Park Chung Hee, received officer's training. The North Korean invasion of June 1950 and the three years of fighting that followed cast the South Korean military establishment into the role of savior of the country. And since the coup d'état of May 1961 that established Park Chung Hee, the military establishment has held considerable political power. Roh Tae Woo, elected president in 1987, was a retired general with close connections to the military elite.

Universal military conscription of men has played an important role in South Korea's development, both in political socialization and in integrating a society divided by strong regional prejudices. It also has exposed the nation's young men to technical training and to a disciplined way of life.

During the three decades after Park's 1961 coup d'état, the goal of the military elite was to create a harmonious, disciplined society that is both technically advanced and economically efficient. Economic modernization, however, has brought social changes--especially in education and urbanization- -that have had a corrosive effect on the military's authoritarian view of society and have promoted the emergence of a more contentious, pluralistic society than many in the military have found desirable.

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