[The Acton Forum] Away from Anti-Japanese Sentiment: Tracing Korean Economic Development

Kyu Eun Kim
Bachelor of Arts(Comparative Literature and Culture), Yonsei University
2 February 2015

* This essay was originally submitted as a final report for Developmental Sociology course at Yonsei University, South Korea.

During my trip to Alice Springs in Australia, I joined a tour group for three days to get around the vast Outback. At dinner, in a dimly lit pub where I was literally the only Asian, a middle aged German gentleman who sat next to me asked where I was from. “I’m from Korea.” “Korea? I’ve been to Seoul once. I know Samsung, Kia, LG…small but amazing country. By the way, what do you think of North Korea?” Although this was a typical response I usually get from a foreigner, I was always proud when people expressed their amazement at such a big economy from a small country. Confronting North Korean threats, recovering from a brutal war that turned the entire country into ashes, and without any natural resources, Korea accomplished a remarkable economic growth. Only one word seems to reason such rapid economic growth: miracle.

What else can possibly explain this? I hear about how my granddad could not afford to buy milk for my dad and had to borrow money from his mother-in-law, how my mom thought Hershey’s chocolate in the US army ration box was the best dessert in the world, and how she tasted her first banana when she visited the wealthiest friend in her town. And here I am, hearing all these stories as if they were some legends and myths, traveling on the other side of the equator—and yes, the only reason I won’t grab a banana from the fruit stand will be either I’m sick of it or I want to lose some pounds. Nevertheless, the historical narrative revealed in the history textbooks is quite depressing: Japanese occupation, Korean War, weak government that allowed the United States take over its politics.

In this context, Korean economic development literally sprang out as some impossible coincidence. Out of blue. Should we be satisfied by the fact that we went through a harsh past and somehow got lucky enough to become wealthy? This three-week course provided some convincing explanations to Korean economic development as well as countered many aspects of the conventional perception.

Japanese Occupation and Assessing the Consequence of Colonialism

To briefly illustrate my preconceived knowledge on Korean history, I have not received secondary education in Korea. Nonetheless, even with such distant connection to Korean history education, I can tell that the current Korean history textbooks are highly politicized and biased. Yet I had not known what to make out of the statements made in the textbooks. During the course, I learned how different arguments can be made about Japanese occupation and its effect on Korean economy. This broke apart something I considered as a ‘fact.’

Take a Korean modern history textbook for example, which describes how the imperialist nations took advantage of Korea in its late years of Chosun Dynasty. For the purpose of writing this essay, I looked at a specific textbook named “Nude Textbook” (pretty interesting name, per say). All 18 authors of this book graduated from Seoul National University, so I should assume that this textbook is pretty standard. I mean, they all got perfect Korean history score in Soo Neneung (Korean college entrance exam) right? Chapter 4 of section 2 of this textbook describes how the imperialist nations took advantage of Korea, like they did to other 3rd world nations, implying that imperialism resulted in overall downturn of the colonized countries.

“근대하면 자본주의의 한 형태인 제국주의가 경제적으로 다른 나라들을 벗겨 먹으려고 달려든 이야기를 빼놓을 수 없죠. 개항으로 그 제국주의 국가들을 만나게 된 우리 조선도 예외가 될 수는 없었습니다. 하지만 그 속에서 우리 나름대로 빼앗기지 않고 서 있으려고 노력했습니다. 또한, 개항과 함께 들어온 서양 문물들은 조선의 사회와 문화를 뿌리째 뒤흔들어 놓게 됩니다. 신분제와 같은 너무나 당연하게 생각했던 모든 것들이 당연하지 않다는 것을 알게 되면서, 우리도 근대적인 요소들을 하나씩 받아들이게 되는 거죠” (Etoos 150)

Clearly, this short paragraph overly simplifies the complex matter of imperialism, which once swept the entire world and produced multi-layered effects on its subjects. The first sentence states that imperialist states, another form of capitalism, have “ripped off” others by colonizing them. Then the second half of the paragraph explains how Korea accepted some modern and western elements, which deeply altered Chosun’s traditional society and culture. However, the text suggests that the modernization brought in by foreign powers was only their tool to take away Chosun from its people.

The text merely blames imperialism for allowing powerful western countries to rip off others and disrupt their long-standing history and culture. This neglects the complex process of modernization in 3rd World countries, how imperialism and capitalism thoroughly transformed them in social, economic, and political contexts. Moreover, the effect of imperialism had different outcomes in Korea and other nations, and it is critical to point out those differences.

Professor Lew’s essay “Diversity in Colonialism” describes the diverse colonial policies held by Japan and other Western countries. In particular, the comparison between Korea and Philippines addresses the difference between US and Japan’s colonial rules. While US considered Philippines as its subordinate nation that should provide primary industry goods, Japan wanted to industrialize Korea into 2nd Japan (Lew 60). This difference caused Korea and Philippines to have a contrasting colonial experience. The US did not interfere much with the culture and tradition of Philippines. On the other hand, Japan tried to reshape the preexisting Korean identity into Japanese one. I do not deny the cruelty and the violence of human rights by the Japanese rule, but let us limit our discussion to the early economic development of Korea.

The conventional argument made by the historians is that Japanese literally “ripped off” Korea. The chapter on Japanese occupation opens with these lines:

“개항 이후 열심히 근대를 향해 나아가던 조선은 일본에 의해 식민지로 전락하고 말았습니다. 그 후 36년 간 지도상에 우리나라는 없었습니다. 조선을 영원히 지배하기 위해 일본은 때로는 악랄하게, 때로는 교묘하게 식민 통치 정책을 운영해 나갔습니다” (Etoos 232)

These sentences are filled with biased choices of vocabulary, such as “전락,” “악랄,” and “교묘.” These words display a moral implication that Japanese occupation was against moral values. The explanation in the text diverges away from an objective and critical analysis of a historical event. Instead of providing the readers with a clear, impartial portrayal of the Japanese rule, the textbook blurs the picture with moral subjectivity and heavy focus on the mutilation of Korean national identity.

Lee Young Hoon’s description on the economic result of Japanese occupation clarifies the effect of imperialism in Korean peninsula by limiting its analysis on strictly economic terms. According to him, Japan intended to permanently unify Japan and Korea (Lee 84). This meant that their economy must function as one system, which was an ultimate goal of Japanese colonial policy. In order to accomplish this goal, the Japanese government eliminated the traditional caste system and developed the industrial sector of Korean economy (Lee 88). As a result, Korean economic growth rate reached 3.7% per year while GDP per capita increased by 2.4% during the span of 1910~1940 (Lee 88). These numeric facts are never mentioned in the textbook. However, based on these statistics, it may be reasonable to conclude that Japanese occupation did result in early industrial development in Korea.

Anti-Japanese Sentiment Dominates Korean Academia and Society

However, Lee’s arguments are probably perceived in Korean society almost as a blasphemy to its national identity, being distastefully pro-Japanese: Chin-Il Pa. It seems like an ultimate hatred towards Japan is mandatory for a Korean; anything positive said about Japan will make you a traitor and pro-Japanese, the biggest insult in the Korean community. Back in middle school, I remember how some of my Korean friends teased another friend for liking Japanese culture. They called him “pro-Japanese,” just because he liked Japanese food and mangas. The reasoning behind such childish bully was simple: Japan did horrible things to Korean people in the past. The same logic applied when a group of Japanese boys and Korean boys had a fistfight over which country had a better soccer team. This is only a tip of an iceberg; beneath it hides a bigger, wider hatred impregnating this entire society. Such intense antagonism has been haunting my country for decades, reproducing itself within every single interaction between Japan and Korea in both personal and communal level.

Whenever I read some news articles about Japanese occupation, I can feel the seething anger of the Korean people: the recapitulation of the nightmare of comfort women, tortured people, and the deep trauma that runs through every single blood vein of us. We can never forget the history and we never should. But a failure to come to terms with the past will only hinder us from viewing our history through a critical, objective lens. The failure to see ourselves in multiple perspectives will result in the failure to understand who we are. And this will subsequently blind our sight towards the future path we should take to become better as a nation. The hatred may have its own justification, but we must not let it dictate us. The resentful accusation towards Japan does not explain the Korean economic path that led to the miraculous economic growth occurred in later half of the century.

It all comes down to this one fundamental question discussed throughout this course: what made Korean economic development possible? The miracle of Han River, the remarkable economic growth of South Korea, remains a legend and a popular topic in the academia. The role of a strong state working within the state-banks-chaebols nexus is a widely discussed matter in Korean economic discourse. Nonetheless, not much, or not enough, attention has been paid to the bigger frame: the general narrative of Korean economic development, in course of the last century. It is necessary to trace the modernization and industrialization process of Korea, which went through a drastic change from a traditional society to today’s big economy.

The problem of the anti-Japanese sentiment emerges when assessing the economic policies of Park regime. When Park made 5-Year Economic Development Plan, he had to normalize the Korea-Japan relationship in order to receive development loan from Japan. The history textbook comments Park’s decision as such:

…당장 돈을 빌려 좋을 지는 모르겠지만 지금까지 고통받는 위안부 할머니들과 심심하면 터져 나오는 일본 정치인들의 망언, 그리고 일본 총리의 신사 참배를 생각해 볼 때 그 당시 결정이 얼마나 잘못된 것인지 알 수 있습니다. (Etoos 453)

This quote criticizes the Park government for sacrificing Koreans’ painful past for immediate income. As a Korean, I definitely sympathize with those who suffered. However, I learned that this is not a simple matter. As a result of Korea-Japan normalization, Korea received $8 million worth of grants and cheap loans from Japan as well as squeezed out $7.5 million aid from Washington (Korea Times). These were to be invested on the development of heavy-chemical industry that expedited Korean economic growth in a large scale.

In this part, the clash between economic practicality and national sentiment becomes apparent. Obviously, the brilliant 5 Year Plan would not have happened if Korea did not receive aids and loans from Japan and US. However, Korea could have chosen to not normalize with Japan and could have argued—‘oh well, forget about the money. We are doing just fine making shoes and wigs. We hate Japan and we won’t ever trade with them.’

Growth into an Independent Nation against Threats of North Korea

In reality, Korea had an initiative to promote its heavy chemical industry. US reduced its military aid to Korea, as Vietnam War began. This meant that Korea was pressured to develop its military sector to compensate for the reduction of US aid. After all, Korea was under a constant threat from its immediate enemy, North Korea.

Park regime’s decision to invest on heavy-chemical industry relates to two important consequences. First, Korea was able to establish its industrial infrastructure and become an independent nation with expanding economy. Second, Korea no longer needed as much US aid, which meant it also gained political independence. The following graph from Fraser Report shows that Korea grew out of its aid-based economy by the early-mid 1960s.

The decreasing line indicates diminishing need of US Aid given to Korea. The growing demand for development loans suggests that Korea took out more loans to invest on the heavy-chemical industry.

Therefore, Korea-Japan normalization was inevitable for Korea’s own economic and political interest. In a perfect world, Korea would develop its economy entirely on its own with no foreign support. But we are living in reality, and in this world, there is no perfection. Hence, the government must make the most reasonable decision based on its critical judgment, for the future of the country.

Classroom Experience in Developmental Sociology

Having received most of my secondary education in US, I was not exposed to the Korean nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment as much as other Korean students. Therefore, when Professor Lew provided some arguments against the convention, I was not offended like my classmates. I was rather alarmed by how resentful the students were towards Japanese occupation and how they refused to accept the counter-argument to the conventional theory. I wondered if the current history education of Korea intends to reproduce certain national sentiment within the future generation, instead of teaching students how to think critically. The process of forming a historical narrative is a constant glossing of a preexisting text or an event, which can be often misread or misinterpreted. Furthermore, its product justifies a value system and narrates a historical event in a way that fits into the agenda.

Likewise, “Nude Textbook” was written under an explicit political agenda. Its historical narrative is written to force nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment upon the students. It intentionally excludes the other possible explanations for the Japanese occupation and Korean development. Consequently, it brainwashes the students and forces them to believe whatever is given to them. More importantly, the conventional perspective circumscribes the Japanese occupation era as the “Dark Age” of Korea. If we confine ourselves to this view, we will always face a giant hole in the Korean developmental narrative. The Korean history education must overcome its sentimentality and provide a well-balanced history education that includes both sides of the coin. And hopefully, some day, we will be able to provide a clearer explanation to the Korean economic development.


Park, Won-Soon. “Korea-Japan Treaty, Breakthrough for Nation Building.” The Korea Times 19 Mar. 2013. The Korea Times. Web. 18 Jan. 2014. .

이영훈. 2007. <대한민국 이야기> pp. 7-181

류석춘, 2002. <한국의 사회발전: 변혁운동과 지역주의>. 전통과 현대.

“Investigation of Korean-American Relations: Report of the Subcommittee on International Organizations of the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives.” (1978). Web.

이투스 사회팀. <누드 교과서 S.E 한국 근현대사> 2008

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