restricted access Suggestions for New Perspectives on the Land Reform in South Korea
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Suggestions for New Perspectives on the Land Reform in South Korea


There were a lot of issues involving the establishment of a new independent government on the Korean Peninsula after its emancipation from the Japanese Empire in 1945. One of the most critical issues relating to Korea's future economic system was land reform (nongji gaehyeok), a question faced by both the South and North. In North Korea land reform was implemented in early 1946 by the Interim People's Committee, with Soviet support, on the socialist principle of "uncompensated redistribution" (musang bunbae) of land.

In South Korea, discussions began in the Interim Legislative Assembly in 1947 before the establishment of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) government and in the face of loud opposition on the part of landlords. South Korea's land reform was carried out shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, one year after the law and regulations were enacted in the National Assembly. What deserves attention in the ROK's land reform is its contribution to the formation and maintenance of a market system in South Korea. Ironically, even though the way the land reform was carried out was inconsistent with the market system, it enabled the ROK government to seek economic rehabilitation and growth within the market system. The reform was enforced by the ROK government with American support in 1949 and 1950 as one of its anti-revolutionary strategies.

Despite the criticism it received from many intellectuals and specialists, the South Korean land reform created independent farmers who replaced the [End Page 1] former colonial landlords. It was very successful relative to such contemporary initiatives in other countries, because South Korea created a relatively equal ownership structure in rural areas through the distribution of repossessed lands to poor peasants.1

However, so far assessments of the land reform in South Korea have not been very positive. The representative view among scholars of the land reforms is that they fell short of their goals. But this attitude was reversed by Jang Sanghwan's (1984, 1985) case studies. While the traditional evaluations of land reform tended to focus on whether or not the distribution of land was free, Jang's research focused on the collapse of the colonial landlord system and the establishment of the independent farmer system (jajangnong cheje). Also, in 1989, the governmental research organization, the Korean Rural Economic Institute (Hanguk nongchon gyeongje yeonguwon) published a report entitled "Research on the History of Land Reform"2 that suggested the formation of the independent farmer system through land reform was the cornerstone of Korean capitalism. This kind of historical perception was a shocking paradigm shift at the time and yet has become a mainstream historical interpretation of the land reforms in South Korea.

This mainstream analysis can be summarized as follows. Even though the attempts at land reform in many other countries were unsuccessful, South Korea was able to successfully implement its policies for the following reasons. First, the American plan to establish an anti-communist democratic country in South Korea was accomplished by satisfying the desire of the majority of [End Page 2] tenants for land ownership. Second, eliminating the economic foundation of the political landlord class was in the interest of President Syngman Rhee. Third, although there is room for debate on this point, the landed elite needed to develop a new economic escape route as the colonial land ownership system's profitability was declining. Due to these reasons, South Korea's land reforms were implemented without significant resistance and the independent farmer system and equal structure of land ownership that emerged after the land reforms contributed greatly to South Korea's development of capitalism.

That the change in perception of Korea's land reforms came about in the mid-1980s was no mere coincidence. Indeed, the 1980s witnessed fundamental changes in views of modern Korean history. The colonial modernization theory and the developmental state theory, which sought to delineate the positive aspects of the colonial period and the Park Chung Hee era, gained wide currency during this period. Although those theories were not prominent, they led to heated...