Offspring of Empire
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Offspring of Empire

The Koch'ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945

Carter J. Eckert

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eBook - ePub

Offspring of Empire

The Koch'ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876-1945

Carter J. Eckert

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According to conventional interpretations, the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 destroyed a budding native capitalist economy on the peninsula and blocked the development of a Korean capitalist class until 1945. In this expansive and provocative study, now available in paperback, Carter J. Eckert challenges the standard view and argues that Japanese imperialism, while politically oppressive, was also the catalyst and cradle of modern Korean industrial development. Ancient ties to China were replaced by new ones to Japan - ties that have continued to shape the South Korean political economy down to the present day. Eckert explores a wide range of themes, including the roots of capitalist development in Korea, the origins of the modern business elite, the nature of Japanese colonial policy and the Japanese colonial state, the relationship between the colonial government and the Korean economic elite, and the nature of Korean collaboration. He conveys a clear sense of the human complexity, archival richness, and intellectual challenge of the historical period. His documentation is thorough; his arguments are compelling and often strikingly innovative.

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In 1876, on the eve of the Kanghwa Treaty that would open Korea's ports to international commerce, Min Tuho and Pak Munhoe were roughly the same age and were both residents of Kyŏnggi Province. Their relative positions in Yi (Chosŏn) dynasty (1392–1910) society, however, were starkly different. Min was a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country. His uncle, Min Ch'igu, was the maternal grandfather of the king, and before his assassination in 1874, Tuho's first cousin Sŭngho (Chi'gu's son) had been both the reputed leader of the clan and the adoptive brother of the queen.1 Pak, on the other hand, was a poor peasant eking out a meager existence on land that was not even his own but belonged in fact to the Min family.2 There was little opportunity for two such men to meet on a social basis in Yi Korea's highly status-conscious, aristocratic society, but even if by some quirk of fate they had found themselves in the same room, there would hardly have been much common ground for discourse.
By 1945—and indeed, long before—things had changed. By then, the sons and grandsons of these same two men were members of the same exclusive social club in Seoul.3 Unlike their fathers, who had been separated by a chasm of land and lineage, the younger Mins and Paks had been brought together in a burgeoning new class where possession of capital, or “shares,” had become a common bond. The Mins had become bankers, the Paks, merchants, and both were investors in industrial enterprise.4 In the seventy years between the opening of Korea's ports and Liberation, Korea had witnessed the birth and growth of a bourgeoisie.5
For many South Koreans, the genesis of the country's capitalist class during this period is difficult to accept because for much of the period between 1876 and 1945 Korea was under the direct or indirect influence of Japan. Indeed, for half of those nearly seventy years (1910–45) the country was a Japanese colony. To acknowledge that capitalism had its origins in this period is thus to suggest that the roots of the vibrant and internationally recognized capitalism of South Korea today might in some way be traceable to Japan. In a country where national pride is not only a very sensitive issue but one closely connected with anti-Japanese sentiment, the idea of Japan as an agency of kŭndaehwa, or “modernization,” is psychologically wrenching. Many South Koreans would naturally much rather believe that the original impetus for capitalist growth came from within Korea itself.
Anti-Japanese feelings are by no means limited to the southern half of the peninsula. In North Korea as well there is still a deep residue of bitterness toward Japan that continues to defy the passage of time. In both North and South Korea, moreover, there is a common heritage of historical thought that indirectly tends to encourage a nationalistic view of history often quite impervious to facts. The terms and categories used by Koreans bespeak a linear and universalistic conception of history as a whole that is essentially Marxist in inspiration, and both sides share a desire to glorify Korea's position vis-à-vis other nations within the universal historical framework by placing the origins of capitalist development as far back as possible in Korean history, and certainly before the impact of Western or Japanese imperialism. This desire has, in turn, been intensified by anger at earlier Japanese historians working within the same mode of discourse who had emphasized the stagnation of the Korean economy before the advent of Japanese rule.6
The result of all these largely unarticulated attitudes has been a rather remarkable convergence of scholarly opinion in both Koreas in spite of all the barriers to a free exchange of information across the thirty-eighth parallel. Both North and South have seen the rise of similar schools of nationalistic scholarship that attempt to demonstrate the existence of the “sprouts” (maenga) of capitalist growth in the Yi dynasty. Korean scholars of this propensity have focused their attention on the increasing commercialization of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Yi society in the wake of the disruptive Japanese and Manchu invasions that weakened the control of the state. They call attention, for example, to such factors as a growing monetization of exchange relations; the rupture of the established system of privileged government merchants and a corresponding rise of a new group of merchants oriented toward the market, some of whom were beginning to invest their profits in the production process itself; the supersession of government artisans by private artisan-entrepreneurs; and the beginning of a free wage labor force whose appearance is related to the commercialization and rationalization of agriculture in the countryside. In short, such scholars suggest that many of the key elements in the process of development toward Western industrial capitalism first delineated by Marx can be found simultaneously in traditional Korea in embryonic form.7
It is not my purpose here to attempt a detailed critique of such research. Much of it is meticulous and stimulating. It is also a useful and long overdue corrective to the earlier depiction of the Yi dynasty as economically stagnant. There can no longer be any doubt that Yi society was experiencing internal economic change long before 1876, even though the extent of such change needs to be more fully explored. In spite of the enthusiasm of Korean scholars for the topic, the actual evidence presented thus far does not suggest a scale of commercialization in Yi Korea comparable, for example, to that seen in Tokugawa Japan—let alone in preindustrial Europe.
Even if we grant economic growth and ignore the problem of scale, however, the question of the ultimate significance of such development still remains. There is no clear evidence that the indigenous economic changes described by Korean scholars altered the basic social structure of Yi society. Indeed, the best evidence we have points to exactly the opposite conclusion: that the society was controlled to the very end by a small aristocratic group of landed families like the Mins, who were able to perpetuate an oligopoly of wealth and power by strategic marriage alliances and domination of the state examination system, through which important political posts were granted.8
In addition—and more to the point—is the question of whether the economic changes depicted by Korean scholars may properly be considered incipient Korean capitalism. Here we must be very clear in our understanding of what constitutes the basis of capitalist society. It is not enough, I believe, to point out that there was a furtive market economy at work and that there were private merchants and artisans accumulating capital. Private ownership of property had been recognized in Korean society at least two hundred years before the alleged “sprouts” made their appearance in the seventeenth century, and, as Weber noted long ago, the adventurous acquisition of capital is a phenomenon that can be found in all types of societies where money and opportunity are available.9 It is similarly incorrect to see in the mere existence of private artisans and hired labor a symptom of capitalist growth. Manufacture in its original sense, that is, handicraft production, however developed and widespread, did not in itself have the technical capacity to provide the basis for industrial capitalism.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. Capitalism as an economic system cannot be separated from industrialism. It is inconceivable apart from the technology that alone makes possible large-scale industrial production and concomitant transformation of the peasantry into an industrial work force. It is an economic system characterized not simply by market relations and private ownership of the means of production, but also by the predominance of machine industry. As Thorstein Veblen has written: “The material framework of modern civilization is the industrial system…. This modern economic organization is the ‘Capitalistic System’ or ‘Modern Industrial System,’ so called. Its characteristic features, and at the same time the forces by virtue of which it dominates modern culture, are the machine process and investment for a profit.”10
Veblen, of course, was not saying anything here that had not been said earlier by Marx himself. But even though the Korean historians enamored of the “sprouts” argument produce works replete with Marxist assumptions and terminology, they seem to ignore Marx's own perception of the crucial relationship between capitalism and technology: “This workshop, the product of the division of labor in manufacture, produced in its turn—machines. It is they that sweep away the handicraftsman's work as the regulating principle of social production. Thus, on the one hand, the technical reason for the life-long annexation of the workman to a detail function is removed. On the other hand, the fetters that this same principle laid on the dominion of capital, fall away.”11
“Ignore” is perhaps too strong a word. It is doubtful that any of the Korean scholars of the sprouts school would actually deny the importance of the link between capitalism and industrialism. This awareness, however, poses no problem for their argument because they are working on the assumption of the universality of the capitalist development first described by Marx. To make their point it is sufficient for them merely to locate those aspects of economic growth in Yi society that are similar to various features of the preindustrial European economy emphasized by Marx as part of the historical development of capitalism. Their belief in universality allows them to assume that the unimpeded development of these signs of economic change would inevitably have blossomed into industrial capitalism quite independently of the West.
In the end one is forced to conclude that such scholars seem bent on a futile quest for apples in an orange grove. There is, of course, no way to prove decisively one way or the other whether Korea would have eventually produced an industrial revolution of its own. But why bother? From an historical perspective, the question of capitalist sprouts in the Yi dynasty is important only in so far as it affirms a particular Korean nationalist bias of limited interest to outsiders and ultimately of little relevance to Korean history. We will never know what might have happened, but history in this case tells us unequivocally what did happen: modern industrial technology in Korea was imported, not invented. It is thus only after 1876 that we can begin to speak seriously of the growth of Korean capitalism.12
It is precisely this crucial period of imperialism and colonialism, however, that many Korean historians are most inclined to discount in their discussions of Korea's socioeconomic development. According to the conventional academic view, the early sprouts of indigenous capitalism that first began to appear in the seventeenth century had not sufficiently matured by the time the country was thrown open to foreign influence and were therefore unable to withstand Japan's economic penetration. With the annexation in 1910 and Korea's descent into colonial status, native capitalist development was largely stifled until 1945. In its most extreme form, this view amounts to a total denial of any colonial contribution to Korean socioeconomic development whatsoever. Consider, for example, the following statement by Cho Kijun: “It is impossible to talk of the modernization of the economy of a colonized people through an analytical measurement of the economic growth within the colony. Such growth was no more than an economic extension of the invading country; it was not a reflection of the level of income or the economic capacity of the colonized people…. Without liberation from imperialist domination, ‘modernization’ is no more than an empty word.”13
Cho is correct in describing the colonial economy as “an economic extension of the invading country”—a pattern of economic development whose aspects and political implications I will discuss in detail in parts 2 and 3. But he is wrong in suggesting that Korean “modernization” under colonial rule was no more than an “empty word.” In retrospect, what is striking about the colonial period to the student of Korean socioeconomic history is, first of all, the extent of industrial growth that did take place in spite of Korea's colonial status. Second, and even more interesting, is that colonialism did not preclude considerable numbers of Koreans from taking an active part in such industrial growth. Cho's own extensive studies of Korean entrepreneurship during the colonial period clearly, if inadvertently, show this to have been the case, and Cho only very narrowly manages to escape being caught in a massive contradiction by asserting that such entrepreneurship was “national capital” (minjok chabon) that developed outside and, indeed, in opposition to the imperial system. Such a formulation raises more questions than it answers, and, represents, as we shall see later, the very reverse of what actually happened.
For the truth, as always, is complex. And it is only by acknowledging the true origins of Korean capitalism that we can begin to grasp its character and significance. The Japanese in Korea were actually both agents of socioeconomic change and oppressors at one and the same time, and it is therefore quite reasonable to talk of economic modernization within the context of imperialism. Imperialism and colonialism were, in fact, only selectively oppressive and affected different classes of Koreans in different ways. Among the least oppressed was the nascent Korean bourgeoisie. Indeed, it is questionable whether the Korean bourgeoisie may be justly considered a victim of Japanese aggression at all—at least in an economic sense. As we shall see, imperialism provided the original impetus for the development of Korean capitalism. And if imperialism was the catalyst of change, colonialism was the crucible in which Korean capitalism first took shape. For their own reasons, the Japanese quite deliberately and purposefully fostered the growth of a Korean bourgeoisie. Korean capitalism thus came to enjoy its first real flowering under Japanese rule and with official Japanese blessing.


Merchants and Landlords

The Accumulation of Capital, 1876–1919
Imperialism came to Korea in the 1870s, but the old civilization did not immediately shrivel up and die. While the forms and patterns of capitalist society, as well as the technology, were now available for Korean adaptation, the actual growth of a Korean industrial bourgeoisie was nevertheless an evolutionary process. Ultimately it would require the appearance of a new generation of Koreans schooled in the language and skills necessary for capitalist success and an economic and political framework conducive to industrial entrepreneurship. Such prerequisites were not much in evidence before 1919.
On the other hand, the impact of imperialism had the effect of drawing Korea for the first time into a vigorous new international market economy dominated by the great capitalist powers—though, as far as Korea was concerned, increasingly centered on Japan. The new market provided a basis and impetus for the accumulation of substantial amounts of capital by certain social elements in Korea's traditional polity, especially merchants and landlords. The more enterprising members of these groups went on to become the core of a nascent industrial bourgeoisie in the 1920s and later. While the process of bourgeois development was thus gradual and complex, it all began in 1876 with the impact of the international market and the hitherto inconceivable opportunities for capital accumulation.
The New Market Economy
While one can point to certain notable trends toward commercialization in the Yi dynasty, the traditional society nevertheless lacked a basic prerequisite for sustained and substantial accumulation of capital: a large-scale and expansive market. This was true even in comparison with Tokugawa Japan. In Japan the political settlement of the late sixteenth century created a captive samurai market (between 7 and 10 percent of the total population) in the towns and stimulated extensive urbanization. Eighteenth-century Edo was a huge metropolis of one million people.1 Its great trading houses and exuberant merchant culture, which produced so much of...

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