This week, the NK News Study Guide goes to the root of the Korean question, taking a look at the years of Japanese colonial rule (1905-1945). For centuries, before North and South were divided, Korea had been a unified and mostly independent country, until the late of the 1800s, when Japanese navy forced the hermit kingdom to open its ports to international trade. This was the first step towards the establishing of a protectorate over Korea in 1905 and then a full annexation in 1910, which would drastically alter the fate of Korea, hijacking its journey into modern times. The importance of forty yeas of Japanese rule, between two world wars and the rapid development of new technologies, can hardly be overestimated, as it is essential to understand what North Korea is today and why it behaves the way it does on the international scene.
(North) Koreans in Japan, Comfort Women, Naisen Ittai, Korean Nationalism, North Korean Ideology, North Korea-Japan Relations, Repatriation of Zainichi Koreans, Korean Diaspora, Koreans in Manchuria, Sakhalin Koreans, Ethnic Koreans in Northeast China (Joseonjok – 조선족).
Japanese colonial troops gathering Korean workers
Common Roots of Rivalry
Today, students in both South and North Korea learn, albeit in different tones, that the Japanese tried to invade their country for centuries, bringing destruction with each visit and finally succeeding at the end of the 1800s, with some tacit consent from major world powers. The opposition to Japan is perhaps one of the few points over which North and South Korea tend to have a unified position. Whether it is about the territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks (Dok-do in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese) or the apology on wartime issues, both North and South identify Japan as the wrongdoer. But what exactly did the Japanese do in Korea, and where does today’s residual animosity between the two countries stem from?
Pyongyang in 1903 (renamed ‘Heijo’ under Japanese Rule).
The Eternal Enemy
Modern Japan (Meiji-era) turned to Korea at the end of 1800s, in an attempt to bring the country out of a protracted period of self-imposed isolation, when Korea was nominally a tributary state of China yet leading a largely independent life, with little or no interaction with other states. After imposing the unequal Kanghwa treaty on the peninsula in 1876 and establishing a formal protectorate in 1905, Japan annexed Korea in 1910, ruling over the country with repressive policies, until its defeat in 1945. When the Japanese arrived in Korea, they found a weakened Choson dynasty, whose only aim in foreign policy seemed to be the strict limitation of contacts with the outside world. The economy was sluggish, with nearly no international trade, and most of the people in the countryside lived in conditions that resembled those of feudal Europe.
Granted, there had been sporadic contacts with the outside world and a few attempts of modernization, but none of these had brought changes. The Japanese opted for a drastic reshaping of the state, using Korea as a stepping stone towards the conquest of Northeast Asia. The first ten years of Japanese rule were quite brutal and led to a revolutionary uprising, demanding independence in 1919. Korea’s call to the outside world however went largely unheard and after suppressing the rebellion, Japan started to adopt a more pervasive method of assimilation: military coercion was partially replaced with cultural policies aimed at turning Koreans into loyal and proactive subjects of the Japanese empire. This practice, known as Naisen Ittai – 内鮮一体1, propagandized a new version of Korean history, and introduced Koreans to concepts of nationalist pride, which were not as popular then as they later became. It was a crucial moment in Korean history.
A poster for the Naisen Ittai campaign
The 1920s and the 1930s in fact, saw Korean elites, functionaries and intellectuals, split between those who were in favor of Japanese rule and the modernization it brought, and those who fiercely opposed it2. In these two decades, Koreans all over the peninsula remained divided over the matter and while many Koreans in the north chose to migrate to Northeast China to escape Japanese rule (according to the official historiography, this was also the case of Kim Il Sung’s father, who left Pyongyang with his family around 1920), many others welcomed co-optation into the Japanese empire as a much-needed change after decades of political stagnation. Those adverse to Japanese rule were also split into two factions: a communist guerrilla movement in Manchuria and a nationalist government in exile, located in mainland China.
A unit of the The Ui Byong (의병) the ‘righteous armies’, 1910 ca.
This division constituted the basis for the subsequent opposition between nationalists and communists, which split the country in two rival blocks at the end of WWII, while American and Soviet troops were occupying the North and the South as a provisional measure, unsure of what to do with a country that had been part of the Japanese empire for forty years and showed no sign of political cohesion in 1945.
Nationalism, the proper way: a young Kim Il Sung exposing the wrong views of others
The Legacy of Colonial Times
Nearly seventy years after the end of colonial rule, a number of unresolved issues remains as living testimony of a past that has never really abandoned Korea; all of these constitute very important study topics, deserving more attention than what insofar received. During forty years of lost sovereignty, Korea saw Japanese attempts to destroy its culture and language, policies of brutal coercion (forced labour for man and women alike as well as sexual slavery for many Korean women), and a hemorrhage of people, either migrating or being deported to Japan or other parts of the empire. North Korea today has no official relations with Japan, while South Korea re-established diplomatic ties with Tokyo in 1965, amidst widespread protests, as the memory of wartime sufferings was still vivid, especially in the southern provinces.
Park Chung Hee signs the Korea-Japan amity treaty in 1965
It’s important to remind, though, that for all its brutality the Japanese colonial era had a significant impact on Korea in terms of infrastructure and economic development, especially in the north. This was obviously done in a perspective of exploitation of both natural and human resources, nevertheless, it is undeniable that when Japan surrendered, it left a network of communication lines, railroads, mines, factories; such heritage, together with the concentration of natural resources in the northern part of the peninsula, constituted a significant advantage for the DPRK’s economic development after 1953.
1) North Korean Ideology
Some of aspects of the colonial era are crucial to understand North Korean ideology. The resistance to Japanese aggression is a founding principle of the North Korean State and one of the primary characteristics of Kim Il Sung in the collective memory of North Koreans (and surprisingly, of a good number of South Koreans as well). So important is this fact that it was actually enshrined in one of the preambles of the DPRK Constitution, with other articles referring to the existence of the Country as an antagonist to ‘imperialism and colonialism’. The DPRK is a country that promised its citizens a number of things, most of which have vanished today, except for one: the fact that never again in its history a foreign power would have violated its sovereignty and independence.
Anti-Japanese propaganda poster (DPRK)
Children in the DPRK have learned for decades that their country was forged by Kim Il Sung’s in the blood anti-Japanese struggle. Japanese landlords are a common villain figure in many DPRK literary works and movies; people with family ties (up to the third generation) with former landlords or collaborators of Japanese authorities are labeled as ‘state enemies’ and subject to deportation into labor camps. Literally, had Japan not invaded Korea, the North would have much less of a reason to exist nowadays. Is it all true though? Not all of it. A common belief on both sides of the peninsula depicts the North Korea as having started on the right foot by clearing its administrative ranks of any former collaborator, something the South never really did. However, much to the dismay of North Korea propagandists and some South Korean scholars as well, the DPRK did not behave all that differently from the South when it came to ‘recycling’ former collaborators, at least in the years before the Korean war. Few people in fact seem to remember that Kim Il Sung’s brother worked for a number of years as an interpreter for Japanese forces in Manchuria, and that Kim Il Sung himself held an ambivalent stance towards former collaborators.
Photo: Chosun Ilbo Archive. Left to right, top-bottom: Korean comfort women; Kim Gu; killing of civilians during the Korean War and people standing trial on charges of being involved the People’s Revolution Party plot; the Samchung Re-education Work Camp.
2) The Korean diaspora
This term describes the scattering over Northeast Asia of a large number of ethnic Koreans, as a result of deportations, forced or spontaneous migration and military campaigns under Japanese rule. The two largest Korean communities in Asia today (in Northeast China and Japan respectively) are directly linked to the diaspora occurred between the early 1900s and 1945. There are also smaller numbers of Koreans located elsewhere, who have largely gone forgotten after the war. The two most important groups are known as Koryo Saram and the Sakhalin Koreans. Most ethnic Koreans abroad either chose or were forced to remain in their place, causing a significant decrease of population in the peninsula. Koreans in China, for the most part, decided to remain in Manchuria and adopt Chinese citizenship at the end of the civil war In 1949. As for the Koreans in Japan (known as Zainichi Koreans), their story developed in a different way: starting from 1946, they found themselves divided into two groups, Mindan and Choren (later to become Chongryon). The split was based on political reasons and had nothing to do with territorial ties: a large part of Chongryon members in fact have family ties in the South, while other Koreans born in Northern provinces have chosen over time to acquire south Korean nationality.
Korean coalminers in Sakhalin
3) The great Juche swindle: repatriating 93,340 Koreans from Japan to North Korea between 1959 and 1984
In 1959, North Korea and Japan started a massive repatriation program for ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Whilst presented as a humanitarian venture under the auspices of the International Red Cross, the program turned out to be a journey with no return to a bleak future of poverty and distress for many of the 93,340 who were lured into it, from 1959 to 1984. The majority of these ethnic Koreans in fact, had their family roots in the South (many of them as far as Jeju island or the Kyŏngsang provinces), and had lived all their lives in Japan, as a result of the massive migration from Korea to Japan in the colonial times. Their life in Japan was not easy, but it covered at least some of their basic needs and allowed them to live in a free country, with a vital economy.
Very little did they know about North Korea, which was nevertheless presented to them by the General Associations of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) as a socialist paradise for all Koreans alike, with free education, healthcare, housing and jobs for all. Among these Koreans, a few thousand Japanese spouses were repatriated as well. Most of the returnees came from middle and low class families, and lost everything they had in their journey to the ‘promised land’. Among them, the case of Kang Chol Hwan (author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang) is probably the most famous. Repatriates from Japan were initially met with some enthusiasm in North Korea, as the country was ahead of the South in economic terms in the early 1960s and could boast about this ‘homecoming’ on the international scene; however, after South Korea established diplomatic ties with Japan in 1965, returnees started to face discrimination and political persecution in the North.
Thousands of them disappeared in the labour camps described by Kang. Others managed to get by, like the family of Ko Young-hee, mother of Kim Jong Un. The ‘exodus to North Korea’ has been studied in depth by British author Tessa Morris-Suzuki, as it represents one of the many unresolved issues between North Korea and Japan. A few movies, particularly a trilogy by Yang Young-Hee (two documentaries: Dear Pyongyang and Sona, The Other Myself and one recent movie: Kazoku No Kuni – Our Homeland) depict the real life life of one of these families, divided between Japan and North Korea. The two documentaries are available online (with Japanese and Korean audio and Korean subtitles), while Our Homeland was released a few months ago and was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. NK News has recently presented the story of a Japanese woman living in the North, who has received a personal letter from Kim Jong Un, in a dubious act act of ‘informal diplomacy’ between the DPRK and Japan.
4) The comfort women, wartime apologies and the compensation issue.
During the colonial era the Japanese army instituted a system of regimented prostitution in order to keep the morale of its army high all across the empire. An unspecified number of women (estimates vary from the most apologetic 20,000 made by some Japanese scholar to the 400,000 and over calculated by Chinese and Korean experts) were lured into military brothels throughout East Asia, deported and forced to serve Japanese soldiers until the very last days of the war. Many of them were Korean. After reestablishing ties with Seoul, Tokyo has issued a number of apologies for its war crimes, including the issue of sexual slavery; however, many of these apologies have almost immediately been withdrawn, corrected or balanced back home with inflammatory statements by Japanese politicians (notably Taro Aso and Shinzo Abe, who recently won a landslide victory in Japanese elections), once more reinforcing the idea in the general public that North Korea is at least right in its mistrust of Japan and that the South should and could have done more.
Another issue related to the colonial era pertains to the colonial reparations that Japan should have paid to both Korean states for its wrongdoings. In 1965, Seoul settled the issue under Park Chung Hee, accepting a one-time compensation which it largely (and secretly) used to boost its own economy, rather than as an indemnity to those who suffered. The decision enraged Pyongyang just as much as it humiliated southern citizens, as they saw Japan getting away nothing more than a fine. With no official relations existing between Japan and North Korea, the former has never offered more than a few statements of apologies to Pyongyang. The issue of a compensation for wartime crimes was on the table for a short time during the 1990s when Japan had hopes of normalizing relations Pyongyang, and it actually acted as one of the main WFP donors to the DPRK between 1994 and 2001. However, after the missile tests in 1998 (Taep’odong-1) and the admission made by Kim Jong Il on the abductions of several Japanese citizens by North Korean agents, relations between the two countries have come to an all-time low. With Park Geun Hye, daughter of former South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee recently elected as South Korean president and politicians like Abe holding power in Japan, we can expect renewed tensions in the area in the coming years.
Ilche ha chonsi chejegi chongchaek saryo chongso (일제하전시체제기정책사료총서)
Japanese language historical documents on Japanese colonial rules and policies that applied in Korea during the latter part of the colonial period (1937-1945).
Choson haengjong (조선행정 朝鮮行政)
Japanese-language periodical published by the Japanese colonial government in Korea from 1937-1944.
Dear Pyongyang (안녕 평양 or 디어 평양, in its Korean version; ディア・ピョンヤン in Japanese)
Sona, The Other Myself (or: 굿바이 평양 – Goodbye Pyongyang)
Our Homeland (Kazoku No Kuni)
Chi To Hone (Blood and Bones)
Koryo Saram – The unreliable people
Forgotten people – The Sakhalin Koreans
- Atkins E. Taylor, Primitive Selves: Koreana in the Japanese Colonial Gaze, 1910-1945, UCP, Berkeley, 2010.
- Caprio, Mark E., Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea (1910 – 1945), University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2009.
- Chandra, Vipan, Imperialism, Resistance and Reform in Late Nineteenth-Century Korea. Enlightenment and the Independence Club, CKS, University of California, Berkeley, 1988.
- Chung, Young-lob, Korea Under Siege, 1876-1945: Capital Formation and Economic Transformation, Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Eckert, C.J., Offspring of Empire: The Koch’ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876–1945, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1991.
- Kang, Hildi, Under the Black Umbrella: Voices from Colonial Korea 1910-1945, Cornell, 2005.
- Kim, Janice, To Live to Work: Factory Women in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, Stanford University Press, 2009.
- Lee, Hong Yung, Sorensen, Clark W., and Ha, Yong-Chool (Eds.), Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea 1910-1945, Center for Korea Studies, University of Washington, 2012.
- Lynn, Hyung-Gu (Ed.), Critical Readings on the Colonial Period of Korea 1910-1945, University of British Columbia, 2012.
- Morris-Suzuki, Tessa, Exodus to North Korea. Shadows from Japan’s Cold War, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
- Robinson, Michael, Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea 1920-1925, Korean Studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, 1989.
- Ryang, Sonia, North Koreans in Japan, Language, Ideology and Identity, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1997
- Shin, Gi Wook, and Robinson, Michael (Eds.), Colonial Modernity in Korea, Hallym, 2001.
- Shin, Gi Wook, Ethnic Nationalism in Korea: Genealogy, Politics and Legacy (Studies of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center), Stanford, 2009.
- Soh, Sarah, The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, Chicago, 2009.
- Soo, Jae Jung (Ed.), Origins of North Korea’s Juche: Colonialism, War, Development, Lexington Books, 2012.
- Uchida, Jun, Brokers of Empire: Japanese Settler Colonialism in Korea, 1876-1945, Harvard, 2011.
- Yoo, Theodore Jun, The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea. Education, Labor, and Health, 1910–1945, University of California Press, London, UK, 2008.
- Yoshiaki Yoshimi, Comfort Women, Columbia University press, 2001.
2 This distinction however, was mainly felt at the level of higher classes, as only the more educated could have access to (and an interest in) such debate; for the masses of farmers and ordinary workers, the years of Japanese rule simply meant the replacement of one ruler (the Choson dynasty), with another (the Japanese Empire).