|Newspaper illustration showing An Jung-geun's arrest after shooting Ito Hirobumi
The first prime minister of modern Japan was Ito Hirobumi, who took office in 1885. Ito is remembered as one of modern Japan’s Founding Fathers. With an illustrious career that spanned four decades, Ito was the face of Japan to the contemporary world, similar to how late 19th century Germany was remembered as the time of Otto von Bismarck. Ito shaped and molded virtually every corner of modern Japan, setting the foundation of Japan’s modern constitution and the basic framework of Japan’s diplomacy with the world powers. He was also Japan’s first Resident-General of Korea, which Japan made its protectorate in 1905.
Ito died in 1909 at age 68, when Korea’s independence fighter An Jung-geun shot him in Harbin, China.
An was a son of a wealthy landowner in Korea’s Hwanghae Province, which sits between Seoul and Pyongyang. He came from a devout Catholic family and had a baptismal name of Thomas. After Korea became Japan’s protectorate, An formed a volunteer army to fight the invading Japanese forces. Eventually he moved his base to eastern Russia, and successfully killed the chief of Japanese imperialism over Korea.
Until his death, An maintained that he was a prisoner of war rather than an assassin, and demanded to be executed by a firing squad if he should be executed. Japan did not recognize An’s claim that he represented a foreign country, and hanged An as it would have executed any Japanese criminal.
That, in a nutshell, is the modern Japan-Korea relationship.
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Modern Japan began with Meiji Restoration in 1868, when Japan’s political system consolidated under the emperor. With Meiji Restoration, Japan rapidly industrialized and sought to join the ranks of world powers. The first step of doing so was to colonize Korea. The seikanron (征韓論, “the Case of Invading Korea”) debate began in the early 1870s, and gained steam through the following decades.
Seikanron was Japan’s own mixture of lebensraum and “the white man’s burden”. Japan’s conquest of Korea was necessary, the argument went, for the sake of Japan’s security; it was also a humanitarian mission for the inferior race trapped in the decaying Sinosphere. In 1894, Fukuzawa Yukichi exhorted: “There is nothing better than bullets and gunpowder to destroy [Korea’s] illusion of China-worship.” Because Korea is “always extended toward Japan’s heart like a sharp dagger,” argued Okakura Kakuzo in 1904, “if our adversaries conquer the Korean Peninsula, they can easily advance toward Japan.”
(More after the jump.)
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It is often said these arguments were products of Japanese nationalism. They were, but only in some aspects. Japan’s imperialism was as internationalistic as it was nationalistic. Its internationalism was based on racism. Japan saw the Opium War between England and China with a great deal of alarm. It appeared that the imperial conquest of the white race has covered the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, and finally came to Northeast Asia. To repel such overtures, the Asiatic races had to band together, (conveniently) led by the Japanese, the most advanced among the various Asian races. By the 1930s, these thoughts evolved into the superficially universalist slogans of the Japanese Empire—slogans like “Greater Asia Co-Prosperity” (大東亞共營), “Korea and Japan as One Body” (內鮮一體) and “Five Races Under One Union” (五族協和).
It is important to note that those making the case for invading Korea were the key figures in the birth of modern Japan. Fukuzawa was the founder of the prestigious Keio University, and appears on current day Japan’s 10,000 yen note. Okakura was an artist of international renown, founder of what eventually became Tokyo University of Arts and author of the book that introduced the philosophy of tea in Asia. As we saw earlier, the Founding Father of modern Japan, Ito Hirobumi, was also the first Resident-General of Korea.
For Japan, modernity is inextricably intertwined with conquering Korea. Japan’s memory of the period immediately following Korea’s annexation comes with a warm glow—as implied the term Taisho Democracy, a popular descriptor for Japan’s inter-war period. In contrast to Meiji era’s authoritarianism, the Taisho era is remembered for desire for liberal democracy, literary societies, and European style cafes. For Japan, the “wrong turn” for the country did not come until the 1930s, when Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria and set upon the course for World War II.
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Obviously, Koreans remember this period quite differently.
Japan’s first step for colonization was the 1875 Battle of Ganghwa Island, in which a Japanese warship invaded an island fortress 30 miles west of Seoul. The power disparity between the two countries was obvious at the first encounter: the defending Korean forces lost 35 men, while the Japanese forces only suffered minor injuries on two soldiers. The following year Japan became the first foreign country to open Korea’s ports by signing the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876. After fighting off Russia in the Russo-Japanese war, and suppressing the desperate resistance by Korea’s royal court and its people by killing many of them (including Korea’s queen and over 16,000 volunteer soldiers,) Japan’s made Korea its protectorate in 1905, and formally annexed Korea in 1910.
Other imperial powers simply nodded along. Horace Allen, a Protestant missionary in Korea who founded what eventually became the Yonsei University Hospital in Seoul, wrote to Washington in 1907: “We will make a serious mistake if we allow sentimental reasons to induce us to attempt to bolster up to [Korea] in its independence. These people cannot govern themselves . . .” Imperial Japan entered into agreements with US and UK that it would not encroach upon their respective colonies in the Philippines and India, in exchange for no intervention to its colonization in Korea. That’s about how important Korea was to the world in the early 20th century: a mere chip to be exchanged in the Great Game.
None of the supposed benefits of Taisho Democracy came to Korea, as Japanese rule for Koreans meant slavery and exploitation. Japan used Korea as the empire’s rice basket, to feed newly urbanized population in its industrialized cities. Japan’s extraction of Korea’s food production was so severe that the average height of Korean men steadily decreased in the 36 years of occupation, as Koreans had little to eat.
Koreans massively resisted once again in 1919, in the March 1 Movement in which more than a million Koreans staged a peaceful protest nationwide. Although the March 1 Movement did not free Korea, it did give birth to Korea’s first modern government—the Provisional Government established in 1919 in Shanghai, China.
|Key members of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, established 1919.
The sitting figure in the center is Ahn Chang-ho, who later led the independence movement in California.
The Provisional Government is critically important for Koreans. To this day, the Republic of Korea traces its government’s legitimacy to the Provisional Government, as the preamble to Korea’s constitution begins with these words: “We, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 . . .” The Provisional Government had a constitution, three branches of a democratic government and regular elections.
Most importantly, the Provisional Government had an army that fought against Imperial Japan in China. True, the size of the army was on the small side—approximately 16,000 as of around late 1930s. But Korea’s Independence Army was a highly effective outfit that punched above its weight. In the Battle of Fengwudong and the Battle of Qingshanli in 1920, the Independence Army inflicted 10x casualty to Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria. One of the generals of the Independence Army, Kim Won-bong, caused so much damage to the Imperial Japanese Army that he fetched a bounty in the amount of a million won—or nearly $30 million today. (The FBI’s bounty on Osama bin Laden was $25 million.)
In its asymmetrical warfare campaign, the Provisional Government sent its agent Yun Bong-gil to bomb and kill the Japanese military leadership that had just conquered Shanghai in 1932. Yun successfully killed Shirakawa Yoshinori, the commander-in-chief of Japan’s Shanghai Expeditionary Army, and injured several more high-ranking generals. The statement that Yun gave to his Japanese interrogators is worth quoting at length, for its prescience and clarity of vision:
“As Korea currently has no power, it cannot actively resist Japan and win independence immediately. But soon, when a world war breaks out and the great powers fall, not only Korea but also all the colonized people around the world will be independent. It is inevitable that today’s powers will undergo a season of natural decline, as surely as the leaves turn and fall. Therefore, the role of us independence fighters is to hasten the cycle of the countries’ rise and fall.
Of course, independence will not come simply by killing one or two high ranking soldiers. I am well aware that my mission will not have an immediate impact for independence; I merely hope that it raises awareness among Koreans, and let the world know clearly the existence of Korea. In the world map today, Korea has the same color as Japan, and people around the world give absolutely no recognition to Korea’s existence. Therefore, I firmly believe that, for the sake of our independence movement, it is not at all futile to impress upon them the idea of Korea through my mission.”Events unfolded exactly as Yun predicted. Yun Bong-gil’s successful operation greatly impressed Chiang Kai-shek, who reportedly exclaimed upon hearing the news: “a young Korean man achieved what China’s million-men army could not!” So impressed with Koreans’ contribution to the fight against Imperial Japan, Chiang provided significant assistance Korea’s Independence Army, who fought alongside the Chinese army in the Burma Campaign, a major turning point in the Pacific War that destroyed Imperial Japan’s advances from Myanmar to India. (To this day, Korea’s history buffs cheer to the name of Mutaguchi Renya, the incompetent Japanese general who led the campaign, as the greatest patriot for Korea’s independence.)
In the international stage, Chiang Kai-shek acted as a guardian of Korea’s interest. In the Cairo Conference in 1943, where Chiang convened with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to plan the post-war design for the Pacific Theater, Chiang insisted on Korea’s independence from Japan. In doing so, Chiang overcame the staunch objections of Churchill, the arch-imperialist who thought prying Korea from Japan would lead to England’s loss of its own colonies. (He was not without basis.) The result was the Cairo Declaration of 1943, which stated: “The . . . three great powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that in due course Korea shall become free and independent.”
As Imperial Japan’s defeat appeared imminent, the Independence Army would put together its final gambit: Operation Eagle, to infiltrate the occupied Seoul for reconnaissance, with an eye toward delivering the city for the Allied by September 1945. Fifty soldiers of the Independence Army joined the Chinese outpost of the US Operation of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, to receive training for infiltration via US aircraft and submarines. It is not clear what impact Operation Eagle would have had, if any, if it was carried out as intended.
|Members of Operation Eagle, made up of US OSS agents and Korea's Independence Army, taken in Xian (Hsian), China.
Man in the front row center is General Yi Beom-seok, who became the first Prime Minister and
Defense Minister for the Republic of Korea. (source)
The US press reported at the time: “An Allied mercy crew which landed at Keijo [Seoul], Korea in the midst of 50,000 Japanese soldiers was alternately cursed, threatened, wined and entertained before it took off again with 500 gallons of Japanese gasoline.” That was the extent of Korea's Independence Army's action in Korea in the waning days of World War II.
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There is no doubt that the activities of the Provisional Government and the Independence Army led to Korea’s independence. The Independence Army’s presence in China and Yun Bong-gil’s successful campaign in Shanghai led directly to the Cairo Declaration that pre-ordained Korea’s independence after the end of World War II. But the fact remains that, except for the inconsequential Operation Eagle, the Provisional Government and the Independent Army fought outside of Korea. Most Koreans, who live in the Korean Peninsula, continued to be subjected to Imperial Japan’s exploitation.
The exploitation intensified as Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and intensified again when it entered World War II in 1941. Over a million Koreans were conscripted into wartime slavery, becoming expendable workforces at airfields and mines in the South Pacific that were routinely being bombed by the US Air Force. Up to 200,000 Korean women were trafficked into military sexual slavery, placed in rape stations in the frontline where they were forced to have sex with soldiers dozens of times a day.
Not all Koreans met this fate, however. Koreans who were wealthy and powerful during the Joseon Dynasty, for the most part, remained so even after the Joseon Dynasty ceased to exist. Indeed, some became even more powerful and wealthy, as they took advantage of the arrival of capitalist economy to their land. Kim Seong-su became a tycoon by running textile factories, and used the money to establish what later became Dong-A Ilbo, one of the largest conservative newspapers in Korea today. Lee Byung-chull, son of a large farm, founded a rice mill company in 1938 called the Samsung Trading Company, which grew into the world’s largest seller of smartphones. Many of them shared Japan's imperialistic worldview: Joseon was weak and backward, and Koreans simply deserved to be colonized.
Even Koreans from modest backgrounds found some opportunities. As the Japanese rule entered its third decade, a generation of Koreans emerged who had no experience of having their own country. This generation of Koreans found it easy to buy into the superficially universalist slogans of the Japanese Empire, like “Korea and Japan as One Body” (內鮮一體). Writer Yi Gwang-su exhorted in 1940: “We must not be dragged to become Japanese. We must not be bystanders. Voluntarily, actively and creatively, each one of us must become Japanese people, shedding Japanese blood no matter what part of our body may be pricked by a needle.” Yi rejoiced when Imperial Japan began conscripting Koreans as soldiers rather than slave laborers; to him, it was a sign that Japan was treating Koreans as full members of the empire.
With little or no sense of identity as Koreans, many of them joined to become appendages of the Japanese Empire. As second-class citizens, these Koreans could never aspire for a high office: they were orderlies at hospitals but never doctors, teachers at primary schools but never professors at universities, filing clerks at the colonial government but never an official. But being a house slave was better than being a field slave. Indeed, many Koreans were so desperate to be a house slave that they dropped every hint of being a Korean.
|Manchukuo newspaper from March 31, 1939 reports the bravery of Takagi Masao,
who wrote a letter in blood to volunteer for the Imperial Japanese Army. (source)
One such Korean took a Japanese name Takagi Masao, and applied to join the military academy in Manchukuo, the Japanese Empire’s puppet government in Manchuria. When Takagi was initially rejected, he pleaded his case in a letter written in his own blood. He managed to join the academy in 1940, eventually becoming an officer of the Imperial Japanese army in Manchuria. Today, he is better known by the Korean name he abandoned: Park Chung-hee. At one point, Park ultimately reported to a man named Kishi Nobusuke, who acted Manchukuo’s economic manager. Although these two men did not have much interaction at the time, their fate would be intertwined through their descendants.
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The World War II ended in August 15, 1945. The aftermath of the war was the beginning of the Cold War, as the United States jockeyed for spheres of influence against the Soviet Union. Unlike the European theater in which the US ceded a portion of Germany to the USSR, the US took a more forward position in the Pacific theater—by keeping the whole of Japan, and ceding the northern half of Korea. Under the US influence, opposing communism became the raison d’etre for both Japan and South Korea.
This meant that domestic politics in both Japan and South Korea played out in a field tilted in favor of the right. Immediately following World War II, both Japan and South Korea underwent US occupation, followed by an installation of right wing governments favored by the US authorities. In Japan, this meant the emergence of Liberal Democratic Party, which would hold the government for nearly four decades after the US occupation ended in 1952. It would only take Japan five years to elect as its prime minister a former Class A war criminal suspect—Kishi Nobusuke, former member of Tojo Hideki’s war cabinet. Imagine seeing Chancellor Hermann Goering of Germany in 1957.
Meanwhile in South Korea, a petty fascist named Syngman Rhee was tapped as South Korea’s first president, mostly because Rhee was a Princeton-educated Christian who mouthed pieties about the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy. (That Rhee massacred hundreds of thousands in his hunt for communists was but a minor inconvenience to the United States.) Rhee’s government, for the most part, inherited the structure of the colonial government, with petty officials taking the higher offices that the Japanese vacated. For all the misery that Koreans suffered during the colonial rules, the government of the Republic of Korea was made up of those Koreans who had suffered the least. The house slaves took over the master’s mansion.
(Series to be continued.)
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