The turbulent geopolitical conflicts of modern Korea are rooted in the history of colonisation that preceded its partition. This was an era marked by an unprecedented scramble for colonies – until the outbreak of WWI, the Western powers carved up parts of Asia and almost all of the African continent. Nevertheless, the colonisers in Korea were Japanese.
The colonisation of Korea by the Japanese was a phenomenon inextricable from the colonial ambitions of the Western world. In the 1860s, Japan’s rulers embarked on a project of industrialisation as part of their efforts to avoid conquest by Western powers who were preparing to divide Asia amongst themselves. Two of these powers, the British and the Americans, decided to back Japan’s development and establish an imperial junior power – a regional watchdog that would assert its own dominance in the region.
From the outset, Japanese colonialism mirrored its western counterpart. Following the seizure of Korea by 1910, Japan began to restructure the country into a profit-producing colony. The agricultural lands of southern Korea were to supply Japan with rice. In the northern provinces, factories were built in close proximity to mineral resources which were to be extracted by Japanese companies.
Life for Koreans under the colonial regime was harsh and humiliating. Colonial capital exploited workers to exhaustion, schools were required to teach in Japanese and more than 100,000 women were forced into military prostitution. Moreover, social restructuring turned Koreans on each other. Cadres of pro-Japanese Koreans were trained to collaborate with the colonial administration. This included a Korean-staffed police force under Japanese command that would turn on their countrymen when ordered.
American corporations shared in the exploitation of Korea. Even before Japanese occupation, US companies had been overseeing major infrastructural development in Seoul, aligning their interests with Japanese imperialist ambitions. In the decades following Japan’s takeover, American companies used more than 50,000 Korean workers to mine the country bare. However, the American alliance with Japan began to break down when the latter started to assert itself as an independent power in the region.
Contrary to the ahistorical and fascistic narratives of Korean contentment under Japanese colonialism, resistance was constant and arose in many forms, including worker and peasant non-cooperation, assassinations and guerilla struggle. Anti-colonial resistance came to a head at during WWII with the establishment of the Korean Liberation Army. The defeat of Japanese colonialism at the end of the war renewed manifestations of independence that have now been written out of Western accounts.
The national aspirations of the Korean people culminated in the creation of the Korean People’s Republic (KPR). It proclaimed a transition to full independence and a program of radical social change, including democratic governance through a network of people’s committees. Its 27-point program contained demands for land to be distributed to farmhands, women’s emancipation, an 8-hour work day, an end to child labour and illiteracy, and guarantees for rights and freedoms.
However, the KPR was short-lived as its ideas ran contrary to the ambitions of both the Soviet Union and the US. Under the American military occupation in South Korea (1945-1948), Governor General Hodge refused to work with the KPR. Contrary to popular sovereignty, people’s committees were banned – a move that was met with numerous uprisings. Unlike Stalinist narratives of a passive Soviet occupation, KPR socialists in the North were purged or re-educated in order to promote Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality and remove Marxist theories of working class self-emancipation from the political discourse. The People’s Committees were integrated into the state infrastructure of the DPRK, consolidating the power of the Worker’s Party of Korea.
Meanwhile, little was done by the “US liberation forces” to alleviate the hyperinflation, food shortages, high levels of unemployment and poor living conditions plaguing the mostly agrarian South. Instead, former colonial collaborators were given high-ranking positions as advisors and intelligence operatives who would assist the US in witch hunts. Independence activists who led the anti-colonial struggle in decades past, were once again being persecuted. This time for their affiliation with the KPR and the worker and peasant unions.
Three years of American occupation set a precedent for US involvement in the political repression instituted by future South Korean dictatorships. After the second dictator of the supposedly democratic South, Park Chung-hee, was betrayed and assassinated for a violent anti-union crackdown, Chun Doo-hwan installed himself as the new President through a coup d’etat and indefinitely declared martial law.
As historical precedent notes – such repression is not taken passively by the Korean population.Gwangju workers took up arms and liberated the city in 1980 after student activists were brutalised by government troops. Survivors of the subsequent US-backed massacre describe the first-hand experience of immense ecstasy as people prepared to die in defence of freedom after decades of oppression: “I witnessed a rapid proliferation of revolutionary aspirations and actions, of a community of love created in the heat of battle”.
To this day, the Gwangju Uprising is a historical battleground for social and political forces, bringing with it questions of colonial collaboration, dictatorship, US imperialism, unions and the Left. In retrospect, what is clear about Gwangju is that it was an act of resistance against U.S. imperialism: a radical assertion of the sovereignty of Korea in the face of political, economic and cultural domination.
The era of radicalisation during the mid-1980s reintroduced anti-imperialist thought and writing to the workers’ movement in South Korea, tying their struggles for better wages, freedom of assembly and improved working conditions. As information about Gwangju was leaked, it was revealed that the Pentagon had approved the massacre before it was carried out, affirming a belief in the connection between the labour struggle and anti-imperialism.
The experience of the South Korean working class during the 80s and 90s ultimately shattered illusions of peaceful labour-capital coexistence and any faith in the state to consider the interests of workers. A resurgence of radical democratic union activity was triggered by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which saw mass layoffs, casualisation and wage cuts. It instilled an energetic distrust of government, after it had accepted IMF structural adjustment loans as an excuse to roll back the gains achieved during the 1987-1990 strike wave.
Contrary to narratives of the passivity and contentment of South Koreans, the spirit of Gwangju has inspired subsequent general strikes and radical action. The legacy of Korean radicalism can be seen in the recent “Candlelight Demonstrations” against rampant corruption under the now impeached President Park Geun-hye – a victory claimed by the millions in the streets.