Nation Building in South Korea
eBook - ePub

Nation Building in South Korea

Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy

Gregg A. Brazinsky

  1. 328 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Nation Building in South Korea

Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy

Gregg A. Brazinsky

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In this ambitious and innovative study Gregg Brazinsky examines American nation building in South Korea during the Cold War. Marshaling a vast array of new American and Korean sources, he explains why South Korea was one of the few postcolonial nations that achieved rapid economic development and democratization by the end of the twentieth century. Brazinsky contends that a distinctive combination of American initiatives and Korean agency enabled South Korea's stunning transformation. On one hand, Americans supported the emergence of a developmental autocracy that spurred economic growth in a highly authoritarian manner. On the other hand, Americans sought to encourage democratization from the bottom up by fashioning new institutions and promoting a dialogue about modernization and development. Expanding the framework of traditional diplomatic history, Brazinsky examines not only state-to-state relations, but also the social and cultural interactions between Americans and South Koreans. He shows how Koreans adapted, resisted, and transformed American influence and promoted socioeconomic change that suited their own aspirations. Ultimately, Brazinsky argues, Koreans' capacity to tailor American institutions and ideas to their own purposes was the most important factor in the making of a democratic South Korea.

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1. Security over Democracy

The South Korean state would never have come into existence in 1948 without American intervention. Nor would it have survived the hardships brought on by national division and the horrific war that followed without vast U.S. military and economic assistance. For the United States, building and stabilizing South Korea came at an enormous cost in terms of both material resources and human lives. But the state that Americans made such great sacrifices to support was a highly autocratic one that frustrated their ambitions to spread democracy. Washington was only willing to make massive investments to sustain a highly questionable regime because it believed that the security of the United States and of its Asian allies would be jeopardized if southern Korea did not become a bulwark against the expansion of Communism. For U.S. officials, the preservation of democracy at home often meant support for anti-Communist autocrats abroad even if the costs were exorbitant.
State building in South Korea proved to be particularly expensive. The problems usually faced by new states, such as eliminating domestic rivals and establishing territorial integrity, were more difficult in the Republic of Korea (ROK) because of how the country was created. The inability of the United States and the Soviet Union, which occupied the southern and northern halves of the Korean peninsula respectively, to agree on a framework for national elections led to the formation of mutually antagonistic nations. Efforts to destroy the ROK from both within and without would soon follow. National division left the southern economy, which had been tightly integrated with that of the industrial North, in shambles. The dire economic situation that prevailed in South Korea remained a source of potential instability for a decade after the Korean War ended. Only U.S. assistance enabled the ROK to weather the storms of social division, insurgency, military invasion, and economic turmoil.
American largesse fostered a process of state building in South Korea that was very different from the one that had occurred in Europe. The chief beneficiary of U.S. assistance was the fiercely anti-Communist nationalist Syngman Rhee, who Washington reluctantly backed because it doubted that more moderate leaders would combat leftist influence with sufficient intensity. Unlike most European heads of state, who had to bargain and compromise with the citizenry to acquire the necessary resources for bureaucratic, disciplinary, and military institutions, Rhee wheedled funding for institution building from the United States. In Europe, according to sociologist Charles Tilly, bargaining between the government and the governed helped create and confirm individual rights vis-à-vis the state; when authorities “sought to draw resources and acquiescence” from different groups, these groups could demand new privileges or force the state to limit its own power.1 With the United States covering the costs of war and economic reconstruction in South Korea, such negotiation was unnecessary. The Rhee regime could afford to ignore the will of the governed and to be indifferent to national development. While U.S. assistance enabled the ROK to survive, before 1960 Syngman Rhee’s heavy-handed methods of state building ensured that it would not thrive.

Creating a Government

The most basic component of state building is establishing and consolidating governing institutions. When American forces occupied the southern half of the Korean peninsula in 1945, two distinct possibilities for creating such institutions existed. One possibility was aligning with the Korean left, which had formed a provisional government with strong popular support in the brief interim after Japan surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War II and relinquished its empire. The provisional government established local branches, or “People’s Committees,” that helped maintain order and assumed local administrative functions in provinces throughout Korea. Originally called the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, the interim government’s leaders met in Seoul on 6 September 1945 and rechristened it the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). The KPR committed itself to destroying the vestiges of Japanese imperialism through land reforms and other social changes.2 The second possibility was to reconstitute the vast centralized bureaucratic structure that the Japanese had used to govern Korea—one that had organized, mobilized, and exploited the Korean population to serve Japan’s interests.3 The American military, which occupied the southern half of Korea on the basis of an agreement reached with the Soviet Union in August 1945, was in a position to determine which of these two political structures would govern the southern half of Korea.
Bruce Cumings’s Origins of the Korean War demonstrates in great detail how the U.S. occupation of southern Korea resurrected the preexisting colonial bureaucracy at the expense of the KPR.4 American officials doubted the capacity of Koreans to govern themselves and suspected that the KPR was connected to international Communism. John R. Hodge, the commander of the U.S. occupying forces, called Korea “a decadent nation without the slightest concept of political life as the free nations of the world know it” and argued that the KPR was a “Communist regime set up before our arrival.”5 With suspicions of the KPR prevalent among the highest officers in the military government—the U.S. Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK)—Washington unsurprisingly opted to govern through the colonial power structure rather than back the KPR. During its three-year occupation, the United States more or less rebuilt the colonial bureaucracy. The occupation forces established a formal military government that, according to one official source, used the “existing administrative machinery of the Government General.”6 Only superficial changes in the organization of the bureaucracy, such as renaming the “bureaus” of the colonial era “departments,” were made. The Americans filled most of the highest bureaucratic posts with Koreans who had been affiliated with the KPR’S rival organization, the Korean Democratic Party (KDP), a group of Korean conservatives—some with unquestionable nationalist credentials but others tainted by collaboration with Japanese colonialism.7
The American occupation went beyond merely resurrecting the bureaucracy. It also played a key role in eliminating rival political organizations. Usually when confronted with determined opposition, centralizing states must consolidate their rule through a lengthy process of coercion and co-optation. But despite the opposition’s popular appeal, the military government had little need for co-optation because it was backed by overwhelming American power. USAMGIK not only stripped the KPR of its authority but also eradicated a vast majority of the People’s Committees that had continued to function in some provinces. Some committees collapsed swiftly, whereas others mounted more determined resistance. But by the fall of 1946, these organizations no longer posed a significant challenge to USAMGIK’S authority.8
By routing out the People’s Committees and reestablishing the colonial bureaucracy, the United States created a powerful political tool. But the question of who would control this tool still remained. During the U.S. occupation American commanders directed the bureaucracy at the top while staffing it with Korean conservatives, many of whom had been affiliated with the KDP.9 The Americans realized, however, that the occupation could not be indefinite and that control of the bureaucracy and of South Korea itself would have to be surrendered to indigenous leaders. But Washington was reluctant to turn the government over to the KDP. Occupation officials worried that too many Koreans associated the KDP leadership with Japanese colonialism. They also wanted to ensure the legitimacy of this political structure by making at least a nominal effort to see that a variety of factions were represented, even if the right dominated.
In 1946 and 1947 the United States repeatedly attempted to establish a coalition of conservatives and moderates to whom it could entrust the South Korean government. The Americans hoped to identify political leaders who would govern in a liberal, democratic mode. But moderate democrats were scarce in Korea, and Americans undermined their own efforts at coalition building by constantly stacking key institutions with conservatives. Recognizing that they had an upper hand in the South, Korean conservatives also obstructed U.S. efforts to promote moderation by lashing out against both the left and the occupation forces.10 As mounting tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union made a unified Korean state increasingly unlikely, a clear opportunity arose for Koreans who had sufficient nationalist credentials to govern with some semblance of popular legitimacy and sufficient conservative credentials to garner American support.
Among the Korean leaders who possessed these characteristics, Dr. Syngman Rhee was the most well known and the most ambitious. The seventy-year-old Korean nationalist had spent much of the previous two decades in the United States. After attending the George Washington University and Princeton, where he earned a Ph.D., Rhee had wasted years vainly lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of Korea’s independence. The American occupation forces had pressed for Rhee’s return to Korea and welcomed him back in October 1945. At the time, Americans hoped that Rhee would use his prestige as a nationalist to rally Korea’s population against Communism and for democracy. Having encountered years of ambivalence if not hostility from the U.S. government, however, Rhee was far more concerned with pursuing his own ambitions than with advancing the goals of the occupation. Although he shared with the Americans a determination not to let Korea fall to leftist revolutionaries, Rhee had little interest in joining or promoting a coalition of moderate democrats. He realized that his own interests would best be served if Korean politics remained polarized. On returning to Korea, Rhee aligned himself with the conservative bankers and landlords who constituted the base of the KDP while denouncing the KPR and the left.11
Rhee cemented his control over politics in southern Korea by sabotaging negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union over the creation of a unified Korean government in 1946 and 1947. These negotiations took place within a body known as the “Joint Commission,” to which Rhee announced his opposition while encouraging other Korean conservatives to do likewise. He guessed correctly that if the United States was faced with the choice of either abandoning the commission or risking the unification of the peninsula under a leftist regime, it would opt for the former. In part because Rhee opposed the Joint Commission, the United States could not reach an agreement with the Soviet Union on the fate of the peninsula, and in September 1947 it decided to turn the issue over to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.12 This decision guaranteed that Korea would remain divided and that the South would fall into the hands of Rhee, who had become the most powerful conservative figure in the country. After UN-sponsored elections for a legislative assembly were held in May 1948, Rhee got his wish. When the country’s independence was formally announced on 15 August 1948, he became the first president of the ROK.
Americans had recognized that if a separate South Korean government was created, Rhee would gain control of it. This prospect did not elicit universal enthusiasm. By 1948 U.S. officials were already critical of Rhee for his autocratic tendencies and intractable nature. An “intimate report on Syngman Rhee” prepared for the U.S. State Department contended that it was “difficult to imagine how a political leader with such a small quantity of actual ability and substance to offer his following has been able to attain such great popularity.”13 Nevertheless, Washington understood that Rhee’s age, education, and nationalist credentials gave him a prestige among his compatriots that many other Korean conservatives lacked. He was the best-known Korean political leader who was untainted by affiliation with Japanese colonialism and willing to resist leftist subversion at any cost. For the United States, these were ample grounds to offer him support.
Once in power, Rhee continued to consolidate his control over the South Korean state. In particular, he struggled to gain dominance over his erstwhile allies in the KDP who, after August 1948, competed with him for the upper hand in national politics. Rhee realized that consolidating his own grip on power and keeping his rivals in check would require the strategic manipulation of both allies and adversaries. The new South Korean president proved to be a master at this task and made full use of the resources provided by his office to build a base of support. He especially used his authority to reward those who had demonstrated their unswerving political loyalty with bureaucratic posts and to eliminate potential rivals. Soon after assuming the presidency, Rhee began purging from the bureaucracy KDP members who had served in the military government and replacing them with individuals who were deemed more loyal and reliable. In March 1949 the American embassy reported that none of the ministers and vice ministers in the new regime had held significant positions in the military government. It noted that the “chief motive for the appointment of Cabinet Ministers seems to be their personal relationship and loyalty to Rhee” and that there had been “a lack of any attempt to include in the present Government varying opinions or political groups.”14 The use of the bureaucracy to reward allies and exclude dissenting opinions rapidly became a hallmark of South Korean politics during the Rhee era.
By the beginning of 1949 the basic political system that would govern South Korea until 1960 was already in place. Under this system, Rhee exercised strict control over a powerful bureaucracy that the American occupation had built from the preexisting Japanese power structure. Although some KDP members retained a post in the new order, the defining characteristic of individuals occupying the upper echelons of government was not their affiliation with the KDP, Japanese colonialism, or the U.S. military government. Rather, it was their personal loyalty to the South Korean president. Rhee had rapidly emerged as the most significant locus of political power in South Korea, yet the potential challenges to his position were substantial. During the next eleven years he would shrewdly use American assistance to manage nearly every crisis and opportunity that arose in a way that strengthened his grip over South Korean society.

Agriculture and Land Reforms

Among the issues confronting the new South Korean government, none was more urgent than deciding how to distribute land and extract resources from it. Although some industrialization had occurred during the colonial period, the South had remained primarily agricultural. Meeting the rising demands for land ownership of the country’s large population of tenant farmers was a potentially explosive political problem. Forming alliances with powerful landed elites, as many state-building regimes had done in Europe, was not an option for the Rhee government. In Europe, large agricultural producers, with the assistance of the state, forced peasants from the land and created a land-poor labor force. The consolidation of landholdings, in turn, facilitated more efficient cultivation and enabled the government to extract more tax revenue from agriculture. But this process had occurred over three centuries.15 The peculiarities of Japanese colonialism had produced a politically conscious peasantry that demanded immediate reforms and would not wait for opportunities to arise through urbanization and industrialization.
The Japanese colonial government had sought to initiate in Korea an accelerated version of the European pattern. It had enabled some landlords to engage in commercial enterprises that could elevate production while forcing peasants to leave the land and work in industry. But when Japan surrendered its empire at the end of World War II, peasants who had been coerced into industrial labor often had no choice but to return to their villages. Although a few Korean landlords had engaged in different forms of entrepreneurship without Japanese backing, most of them ...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover Page
  2. Nation Building in South Korea Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgments
  6. Introduction
  7. 1. Security over Democracy
  8. 2. Institution Building: Civil Society
  9. 3. Institution Building: The Military
  10. 4. Toward Developmental Autocracy
  11. 5. Development over Democracy
  12. 6. Engaging South Korean Intellectuals
  13. 7. Molding South Korean Youth
  14. 8. Toward Democracy
  15. Conclusion
  16. Notes
  17. Bibliography
  18. Index