Background to the War: the Japanese Occupation

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Background to the War: the Japanese Occupation

Korea is a peninsula lying between the island of Japan and the mainland countries of China and Russia in eastern Asia. It is a beautiful land, with statuesque mountains running most of its six-hundred-mile length. In total area, it is about the size of Great Britain. Korea's geographical position alone explains a great deal about its history. As a small country surrounded by big and powerful nations, Korea has often suffered the effects of its neighbors' troubles. There is a Korean proverb historians often quote: "The shrimp is broken when the whales fight." Korea has indeed been crushed in hostilities between China and Japan; Russia and Japan; and the Western powers (the United States and Western Europe) and the communist powers (the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China) in the Korean War (1950–53). (The Soviet Union was the first communist country and was made up of fifteen republics, including Russia. It existed as a unified country from 1922 to 1991. Communism is a set of political beliefs that advocates the elimination of private property. It is a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.)

Over the years, Korea has had periods of great progress and other eras of decline. For example, in the seventh century the Korean peninsula was unified and ruled by a native gov ernment. Scholarship, creativity, and culture flourished, and it is said that at this time Korean civilization was more advanced than almost any in Europe. In other periods, Korea agreed to recognize China as its "elder brother," thus becoming a tribu tary state, one that ruled itself independently but paid taxes to the controlling country and acted according to the wishes of the controlling country in its dealings with other nations. This relationship often served both countries well. From China, Korea received a steady stream of culture and education, and from Korea, China received monetary benefits and military protection.

From the sixteenth century on, both Japan and China invaded Korea periodically as Korea experienced periods of instability in its government. By the nineteenth century, Western nations began seeking trade with Korea, but Korea wanted

nothing to do with outside forces. For a time, Korea existed in true isolation, becoming known as the Hermit Kingdom. No foreigners were allowed to enter the nation and there was great suspicion of anything foreign or new.

In 1876, Korea broke its isolation by signing a treaty of friendship with Japan, which was becoming modernized through its relationships with the West. Six years later, Korea signed a trade agreement with the United States, followed quickly by trade agreements with other European nations. Diplomats (people who help handle affairs and conduct negotiations between nations) from Europe and the United States arrived, and with them came Protestant missionaries (people who conduct religious or charitable work in a territory or foreign country). As Korea opened itself to the world, Japan saw an opportunity to build a great Japanese empire in Korea based on industry (manufacturing and production activities) and capitalism (an economic system in which individuals, rather than the state, own the property and businesses, and the cost and distribution of goods are determined by the free market). The Japanese wanted to rule Korea so it could serve as one of their industrial centers and as a bridge into Manchuria, an area in northern China just north of the Korean border. In Manchuria, the Japanese hoped to build a large industrial empire.

Japan takes over

Japan fought and won wars with China and Russia over Korea during the later part of the nineteenth century. By 1905, Japan declared Korea a protectorate, a dependent nation subject to Japanese control. To the great dismay of the Koreans, the United States recognized Japan's interests in Korea.

The Koreans, unwilling to submit to Japanese rule, organized large-scale rebellions. In 1907, there were revolts throughout the country involving tens of thousands of Koreans. The Japanese troops reacted brutally, killing thousands of dissenters. Pictures of peasants being executed by Japanese firing squads were put on public display, discouraging others who might rebel.

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea; that is, they incorporated it as a part of Japan with the help of a very weak Korean monarch whom they had helped to the throne. Because Korean popular resistance was strong, the Japanese did not announce the annexation for one week after the agreement was signed. They took this time to arrest people who opposed their rule, and they shut down Korean newspapers and broke up Korean national organizations.

Life under the Japanese: 1910–1945

After annexation, Japan installed a colonial governor in Korea who held tremendous power over the people. The Japanese also sent in a large and powerful colonial police force and quickly began enlisting Koreans to serve in it: in essence, forcing them to restrict the rights of their own countrypeople.

In the first years of its rule in Korea, Japan was mainly interested in obtaining a source of food to supply its own people. Consequently, Japan built up Korea's agricultural base, but much at the expense of the Koreans. Many small farmers lost their land to the Japanese, becoming tenant

farmers who had to give so much of their crops to landlords that they could barely get by themselves. Many upper-class Korean farmers held on to their land and became prosperous under the Japanese; they were often hated by the impoverished tenant farmers.

Modernization of Korea did occur under the Japanese. By the 1920s, Japan began to build up Korea's industry. By the 1930s, there was a massive electrical/chemical industry in the north. During the Japanese rule, new and modern roads, railways, and communication systems spread throughout the peninsula.

Korean resistance

Although there were Koreans who viewed the Japanese influence as progress (particularly the new class of landlords and businesspeople who profited from the improvements), the majority of Koreans detested Japanese rule. In the first eight years after annexation, two hundred thousand Koreans were imprisoned as rebels. In 1919, a group of students led a revolt that would come to be known as the March First Movement. Trying to get the attention of the Western powers, the protestors read a Proclamation of Independence in the capital city of Seoul. From this small beginning, a massive, nationwide protest arose, including approximately five hundred thousand people. The Japanese, taken by surprise, responded with the full force of their troops. According to Korean records, the Japanese killed seventy-five hundred Koreans, wounded fifteen thousand, and arrested forty-five to put down the uprising. Although not successful in gaining independence for Korea, the movement helped to build empowerment and national unity, which paved the way for nationalist groups that would later emerge.

During the 1920s, the Koreans continued to organize against the Japanese. Their resistance methods included organized guerrilla warfare, usually involving small groups of warriors who hid in mountains, enlisted the help of the population, and used ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.

Reprisals for the 1919 March First Movement caused thousands to flee Korea, many settling in Manchuria and Siberia, a huge but sparsely populated region of Russia comprised of the northern third of Asia. In the new Korean communities here, Korean newspapers and schools arose. In Siberia, the first Korean Communist Party was founded. Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) joined forces with Koreans in fighting the anticommunist Japanese, who allied with remaining czarists—noncommunist Russian groups who believed in the monarchy— in the area. The North Korean People's Army to this day considers its origins to be in this resistance movement against the Japanese.

Leaders arise from anti-Japanese movement

By the 1930s, a strong and popular anti-Japanese guerrilla leader emerged named Kim Il Sung (1912–1994). Born into a peasant family, Kim had moved with his family to Manchuria in the 1920s. At the age of seventeen, he was arrested for organizing the Communist Youth League. On his release after a year in jail, he organized the Korean Revolutionary Army in Manchuria, and led it in guerrilla tactics. He was so effective against the Japanese that they established special squads to chase him and his guerrilla army. Around 1940, Kim sought refuge in the Soviet Union, where some historians believe he received military and leadership training during World War II (1939–45).

The Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was formed in Shanghai, China, in 1919, and proclaimed independence for Korea. (A provisional government is a temporary one, often formed in exile in another country.) Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), a Korean independence leader then living in the United States, was declared its leader. Rhee had been raised in an elite Korean family and received his early education in China, but during his youth he had turned his back on tradition, preferring to study Western society and politics. As the Japanese started moving into Korea at the end of the nineteenth century, he

protested strongly against their imperialism (ruling a country outside one's own nation's borders) and was arrested as a rebel. After being brutally tortured, Rhee spent six years in jail. While in prison he converted to Christianity and, upon his release in 1904, he went to the United States. He did his undergraduate and graduate work there, receiving his Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University. In 1920, Rhee went to Shanghai, to take his office as president of the Korean provisional government, but he was expelled from the position in 1924 after disagreements with other members.

War over China

In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, creating a new puppet state called Manchukuo in 1932. (A puppet state is a government that seems independent, but in fact obeys the command of an outside ruler.) Japan then expanded its empire of electrical/chemical plants, extending it through Korea and into Manchuria.

In 1937, the Japanese entered full-scale war with China for control of the Chinese mainland. Japan then launched an all-out assimilation policy in Korea: an effort to eliminate the Korean culture and identity entirely and replace it with Japan ese. Korean schools could only teach in Japanese, and students were not allowed to speak the Korean language at all. In 1939, Koreans were compelled to change their names to Japanese names, and Korean newspapers and magazines were once again shut down. Koreans were encouraged to maintain Japan ese shrines and adopt the belief that the Japanese emperor was divine. The Japanese police were so strong that few dared to rebel.

World War II in Korea

When World War II (1939–45) erupted in the Pacific in 1941, a half million Korean men were forced to serve in the Japanese military. The Japanese also forced some 150,000 young Korean women into sexual servitude in Japanese military brothels on the battlefields. Many of these women, who came to be known as "comfort women," died from the terrible conditions and rough treatment, or never returned home because of the trauma and shame they felt. As Japanese men went off to war, Japan's industries required a new source of labor. Koreans by the thousands were forced to work in Japanese plants and mines, often in unsafe conditions, under terms little better than slavery.

At the end of World War II in 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, the Koreans were already divided among themselves. The Japanese system of rule had virtually wiped out the middle class. There were masses of landless and impoverished Koreans on the one hand, and a few wealthy landowners and capitalists, most of whom had collaborated with the Japanese, on the other. Along with their desire for independence and hatred for the Japanese, many Korean peasants were motivated to correct the injustices and inequalities that had long been their lot. As the war drew to a close, they envisioned an independent government that could address their needs.

Where to Learn More

Breen, Michael. The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Cumings, Bruce. Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Hart-Landsberg, Martin. Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

McNair, Sylvia. Enchantment of the World: Korea. Chicago: Children's Press, 1986.

Solberg, S. E. The Land and People of Korea. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Web sites

Savada, Andrea Matles, and William Shaw, eds. "South Korea: A Country Study." The Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. [Online] (accessed on August 14,2001).

Words to Know

annex: to take over a nation that was independent, making it a dependent part of another nation.

assimilation: the effort to eliminate the cultural practices and identity of a minority group or conquered people, and to replace them with the dominating group's culture and identity.

capitalism: an economic system in which individuals, rather than the state, own the property and businesses, and the cost of goods are determined by the free market.

collaborator: someone who cooperates with, or helps out, enemies to his or her own nation.

colonial rule: rule imposed upon one nation by another, more powerful, nation.

communism: an economic system that does not include the concept of private property. Instead, the public (usually the government) owns the goods and the means to produce them in common.

diplomat: a professional representative of a nation who helps handle affairs and conduct negotiations between nations.

exile: forced or voluntary absence from one's home country.

guerrilla warfare: an irregular form of combat; in Korea it usually involved small groups of warriors who hid in mountains, enlisted the help of the local population, and used ambushes and surprise attacks to harass or even destroy much larger armies.

industry: manufacturing and production activities; the plants and businesses in which systematic labor is employed to create the goods and necessities for a nation's use.

Kuomintang: originally a democratic and moderately socialist party founded by Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen in 1912, the Kuomintang came into the hands of Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1920s and became heavily committed to eliminating the

Chinese Communists. In 1949, the Communists, under Mao Zedong, defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang and forced them to withdraw to the Chinese island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa).

missionary: a person who takes on organized religious work with the purpose of converting people to his or her faith.

Nationalists (Chinese): the ruling party led by Chiang Kai-shek in China from the 1920s until 1949, when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War and forced to withdraw to the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa). The Kuomintang party eventually became known as "Nationalists."

protectorate: a dependent nation subject to the control of a more powerful nation, but not officially a part of the more powerful nation.

provisional government: a temporary government, often formed in another country in opposition to a colonial or repressive government in the home country.

puppet state: a government that seems independent, but in fact obeys the command of an outside ruler.

reprisal: violence or other use of force by one side in a conflict in retaliation for something bad that was done by the other side; a system of getting even for harm done.

tenant farmers: a worker who farms land owned by someone else and usually pays part of the crop to the owner in return.

tributary state: a nation that rules itself independently but pays taxes to—and deals with other nations under the instructions of—a larger country.

warlord: a leader with his own military whose powers are usually limited to a small area that, in most cases, he took by force.

Western nations: the noncommunist nations of Europe and America.

"The Vertex," a Poem by Yi Hwal

During the Japanese occupation, hundreds of thousands of Koreans made their way to Manchuria and Siberia, a huge but sparsely populated region of Russia comprised of the northern third of Asia. For many who had joined in the rebellions or were suspected of doing so by the Japanese, exile was the only way to survive and escape prison. Moving north to the frozen mountains of Manchuria was a frightening and lonely prospect, as Yi Hwal expressed in this poem written in 1940:

In the night rain
I hear the whistle of a distant train
A sharp shrill sound trailing off to the north
North, north across the fields.
Where are they going, these travelers
Packed in coaches through the night?
How many have said good-bye to their country,
Wandering souls filled with blighted hopes?

Source: Yi Hwal, "The Vertex." Translated by Yi Insu and reprinted in The Land and People of Korea, by S. E. Solberg. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Korean Names

Korean names almost always consist of three Chinese characters that are pronounced with three Korean syllables. The family name comes first and the remaining two characters form the given name. One of these two given names often identifies the generation, and the two given name syllables are often hyphenated.

There are about three hundred family names in Korea, but most people have one of the common last names. These are Kim, Lee or Yi, Park or Pak, An, Chang, Cho, Ch'oe, Cho'ng, Han or Hahn, Kang, Yu, and Yun. People in Korea do not refer to each other by their given names unless they are very close.

Because the family name comes first in Korean, there is no need to invert names as we do in the English language. After the first mention of Paik Sun Yup, for example, we would refer to him as Paik, his family name, as we would refer to Douglas MacArthur after first mention as MacArthur. The exception to this is Korean independence leader Syngman Rhee, who changed his name to conform to Western traditions. His family name is Rhee and he would normally be called Rhee Syngman in Korea.

China: The Other Neighbor

At the turn of the twentieth century, the monarchy in China was severely weakened by the exploitation of European nations and their trade demands. In 1911, Chinese leader Sun Yatsen (1866–1925) led a successful revolution against the monarchy (a government having a hereditary chief of state with life tenure) and became president of the new republic. A year later he resigned his position so that Yüan Shih-k'ai (pronounced you-ahn shir-kie; 1859–1916), the commander of the northern forces, could become president. Yüan attempted to become a dictator (someone who rules absolutely and often oppressively), and Sun and his revolutionary forces were soon fighting his repressive government. This was the beginning of decades of fragmented government in China, with warlords (often military leaders who control parts of a country, particularly when the central government is not in control) and other rulers seizing power in local districts, and larger powers warring with each other for central control.

Yüan died in 1916, and China fell to the rule of rival warlord states. Sun's revolutionary party, called the Kuomintang (pronounced KWOE-min-TANG), set up a government in the south. An opposing Nationalist government formed in the north, ruled mainly by warlords. In 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was founded. Sun tried to get help for his party from the West but was unsuccessful, so he allied with the communists and got aid from the Soviet Union.

In 1926, a year after Sun's death, General Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) led

the Kuomintang army to victory in the north. He reversed Sun's alliance with the Communist Party and established a Nationalist government. A new communist government then arose in opposition to Chiang's Kuomintang. With China in a state of civil disruption, Japan invaded Manchuria, setting up its puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. In 1937, Japan invaded China proper, and by 1940 northern China, the coastal areas, and other regions of China were occupied by the Japanese.

When the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II (1939–45) and began to evacuate China, the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communists under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976), scrambled to occupy the territories that Japan was leaving behind, leading to fullscale civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists.

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Background to the War: the Japanese Occupation

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