Conclusion: The Colonial Legacy
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Conclusion The Colonial Legacy Korea's first great industrialization, begun modestly towards the end of World War I, expanded rapidly and dramatically in the 1930s after the Japanese seizure of Manchuria and the outbreak of the SinoJapanese War, only to be abruptly truncated by Japan's defeat in World War II. The incompleteness of the pre-1945 industrialization effort, together with its inescapable taint of colonialism, have led many scholars to underestimate the importance of the colonial era in shaping the South Korean political economy that we know today. Colonialism, however, for better or worse, was both the catalyst and the cradle of industrial development in Korea, and in studying it, we are brought face to face with the very origins of modern Korea itself. The colonial transformation was profound and multifaceted, but most striking of all, perhaps, was the aspect of social change. Colonial industrialization altered not only the physical appearance of the peninsula , but the social landscape as well. Other scholars have already noted the emergence between 1919 and 1945 of a new urban intelligentsia , a small core of white-collar managers and technicians, and a modern labor force. 1 These same years also saw the first stirrings of a native capitalist class. Korean entrepreneurship under the Japanese was restricted, but it was by no means entirely blocked. And even if some businessmen like the Koch'ang Kims had not completely cut their ties to the land by 1945, they had nevertheless taken an irrevocable step into industrial civilization. Businessmen like the Kims represented only the tip of the proverbial iceberg: they were merely the biggest and most conspicuous figures in a pre-1945 capitalist class whose full dimensions await more extensive and systematic study. We know, for example, that there were many Korean businessmen during the colonial period who never attained the status of the Kims but who later became well-known figures in South Korea. Some were originally connected with Kyongbang;2 oth253 254 CONCLUSION ers were not. But all shared a common past: like the Kims, their first business experience had been in the world of colonial capitalism before 1945, and all of them, in one way or another, had participated in the rapid industrialization of the late colonial era. And their numbers were significant; a recent study commissioned and supervised by this author suggests that nearly 60 percent of the founders of South Korea's top fifty chaebol had some kind of colonial business experience.3 Few if any Koreans, of course, would have predicted such social continuity in August 1945. Although there was no question of a return to the preindustrial past, Korean capitalism faced a major crisis at the end of World War II when the empire that had given it birth and sustenance suddenly ceased to exist. The Allied victory had severed the economic lifelines of capitalist growth, and even if new financial, technological, and marketing channels could be found and developed, a basic political problem remained: Korea's bourgeoisie had won its economic success under Japanese rule at the expense of its own hegemony in Korean society, and its position in the volatile post-Liberation political context was tenuous at best. In the end, capitalism survived only in the south, and only, it would seem, with substantial economic, political, and ultimately military, assistance from the United States.4 The complex and fascinating story of that survival lies beyond the scope of this book. What interests us here is the colonial social legacy that the south consequently inherited. When Park Chung Hee, himself a product of colonial training,S decided in the 1960s to launch an economic program of rapid industrial development, he had at his disposal a core of veteran businessmen, many of whom had been tempered not only in the economic reconstruction of the 1950s, but first and foremost in the rapid industrial growth of the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1961, when Park first seized power in a army coup d'etat, Kim Yonsu was still, sixteen years after Liberation, one of Korea's premier business figures, chairman of the businessmen's organization that under Park would eventually become the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI). Yonsu, in fact, would continue to take an active part in Korea's new industrialization throughout the sixties and into the seventies; in 1971, at the age of seventy-five, he would even receive the Park government's coveted "Gold Pagoda Industrial Medal" as the nation's most successful exporter.6 Since...