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Korea's Twentieth-Century Odyssey

Michael E. Robinson

Publication Year: 2007

For more than half of the twentieth century, the Korean peninsula has been divided between two hostile and competitive nation-states, each claiming to be the sole legitimate expression of the Korean nation. The division remains an unsolved problem dating to the beginnings of the Cold War and now projects the politics of that period into the twenty-first century. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey is designed to provide readers with the historical essentials upon which to unravel the complex politics and contemporary crises that currently exist in the East Asian region. Beginning with a description of late-nineteenth-century imperialism, Michael Robinson shows how traditional Korean political culture shaped the response of Koreans to multiple threats to their sovereignty after being opened to the world economy by Japan in the 1870s. He locates the origins of both modern nationalism and the economic and cultural modernization of Korea in the twenty years preceding the fall of the traditional state to Japanese colonialism in 1910. Robinson breaks new ground with his analysis of the colonial period, tracing the ideological division of contemporary Korea to the struggle of different actors to mobilize a national independence movement at the time. More importantly, he locates the reason for successful Japanese hegemony in policies that included—and thus implicated—Koreans within the colonial system. He concludes with a discussion of the political and economic evolution of South and North Korea after 1948 that accounts for the valid legitimacy claims of both nation-states on the peninsula.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. vii-vii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-x

I have relied on my own research, teaching experience, and a large body of secondary literature on Korea to write this book. In addition, I owe a heavy debt to my colleagues in Korean Studies from a number of different fields. Without their work, a synthetic narrative such as this would be impossible to write. To cite exact references throughout the text would be at cross-purposes with my desire to shape a simple and reader-friendly narrative, one that can be used in college- level courses as well as by the general reader. Many of the analytical observations...

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Introduction Korea’s Turbulent Twentieth Century

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pp. 1-7

The people of the Korean Penninsula, now divided into northern and southern nation-states, have had a turbulent twentieth century. In relation to the size of its population and breadth of its territory, Korea has also played a disproportionately important role in the last hundred years of world history. There is considerable irony in this statement because as late as 1876 Korea existed on the margins of the world system, recognizing only one primary interstate relationship— with China—and maintaining only...

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Chapter One: A New Century and the End of an Era

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pp. 8-35

On April 10,1900, officials in Seoul ceremoniously threw a switch that turned on the first electric streetlights in Korea. In the following days journalists trotted out numerous metaphors of light to note the event’s significance as further evidence of progress and enlightenment on the Korean peninsula. The lighting of Seoul’s streets was one of many “firsts” marked at the turn of the century for the then-named Taehan Empire. Many of these noted the inaugurals of various modern...

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Chapter Two: Colonial State and Society

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pp. 36-55

While the Choson state is usually described as bureaucratic, centralized, and authoritarian, its powers had been limited in a number of ways, and its reach into local affairs had been always circumscribed. This was not the case with the Government General of Korea (GGK) as the new colonial state came to be known. The GGK penetrated Korean society more thoroughly than had any previous traditional government, and by the end of their rule the Japanese had left their mark everywhere. They used their experience building the Meiji state and...

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Chapter Three: Class and Nation in Colonial Korea: The 1920s

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pp. 56-75

At least for Korea's middle-class intellectuals, the early 1920s marked a time of hope and renewed cultural and political activity. The Cultural Policy permitted new avenues of expression for writers and ideologues of all stripes in the form of vernacular newspapers and journals. The reforms also inaugurated an era of frenetic organizational activity as a new generation of Korean leaders emerged to create local, provincial, and national associations formed around...

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Chapter Four: Colonial Modernity, Assimilation, and War: 1930 –1945

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pp. 76-99

The years between the collapse of the United Front in the fall of 1931 and the outbreak of the war with China in 1937 brought colonial Korea’s ironies and contradictions into sharp focus. While the fall of the United Front meant the collapse of overt nationalist resistance, what emerged in its place was a more violent anti-Japanese movement represented by the guerrilla movement in Manchuria and the Red Peasant Unions in the far northeast of the peninsula. Japan’s ...

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Chapter Five: Liberation, Civil War, and Division

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pp. 100-120

It was clear by the spring of 1945 that the Japanese war effort was hopeless. Information came into the colony in bits and pieces from businessmen and students returning from Japan. The Korean nationalist government in exile in Nanking was beaming shortwave broadcasts to Korea on Allied radio from both China and the Soviet Union; a group of radio technicians working for JDOK, the colonial broadcasting network, were arrested for monitoring such broadcasts in...

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Chapter Six: Political and Economic Development in South Korea

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pp. 121-145

South Korea had barely begun the process of nation-building in the summer of 1950, when war threw the fledgling republic into chaos: first came the hasty evacuation of the government to Pusan, followed by the brief, but brutal North Korean occupation of 90 percent of its territory, the fight north, the second withdrawal after entry of Chinese troops, and finally stalemate along the original line of division. During the war the government necessarily ruled by emergency...

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Chapter Seven: Going It Alone: The DPRK 1953 –Present

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pp. 146-166

A now famous satellite picture, published in February 2002 in the New York Times, shows a bird’s-eye view of the Korean peninsula at night. The southern half is ablaze with light, its cities and highways easily visible, while north of the DMZ a perfect blackness outlines the landmass of the DPRK, a crisp black shadow, between the lights of the South and the China north of the Yalu River.1 It is a stunning image of a nation in a downward economic spiral and ...

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Chapter Eight: Democratization in South Korea: 1987–2000

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pp. 167-181

The sudden capitulation of the Chun government in the face of the massive demonstrations of June 1987 marked a major turning point in the evolution of South Korean democracy. Many viewed it as the beginning of true democracy in the South. Less optimistically, it might be more apt to consider it only the beginning of a process of democratization. In 1987 Korean society had yet to work out how a truly open, pluralist democracy might function. After all it is difficult to find any period in the history of South Korea when the democratic...

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Epilogue: Untying the Korean Knot

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pp. 182-189

The political and economic arrangements on the Korean peninsula at the beginning of the new century represent both the postmodern future and an anachronistic Cold War past. South Korea joined the community of industrialized states in the 1990s by becoming a member of the World Bank and net exporter of capital in global markets. Its exports are well known throughout the world, and its manufactures are no longer limited to low-end products or semiprocessed goods. Like Japan before it, Korea has advanced on the product...


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pp. 191-199


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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780824863272
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824830809

Publication Year: 2007

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Subject Headings

  • Korea -- History -- 20th century -- Textbooks.
  • Korea (South) -- History -- 20th century -- Textbooks.
  • Korea (North) -- History -- 20th century -- Textbooks.
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