This is the first in a 60-part series featuring 60 major events in Korea’s modern history from 1884 till now. The project is part of the 60th anniversary of The Korea Times, which falls on Nov.1.
By Andrei Lankov
Korea Times Columnist
The last century has arguably been the most dramatic and turbulent time in Korean history.
When the 19th century approached its end, foreign observers had good reasons to be pessimistic about Korea’s future.
Korea was a small country, without an industry to talk about, without modern military, but with an anachronistic social structure that had not changed much over the centuries.
As it was the norm in that age of imperialist rivalries, it found itself in the middle of complicated international intrigues.
China, Russia and Japan were fighting for control over the peninsula. Its eventual demise seemed to be almost certain and, indeed, in 1910, Korea lost its independence and became a colony of Japan.
The Japanese colonial rule was repressive and brutal, and at some points in the late 1930s and early 1940s even the survival of Koreans as a distinct ethnic group seemed problematic. The assimilation policy of the Japanese administration was aimed at wiping out Korean culture and identity, and this policy was successful to an alarming degree.
The liberation of 1945 produced a great wave of popular enthusiasm, but it did not bring an end to Korea’s tribulations.
The liberated country was divided into North and South. This division was partially caused by the internal rivalries, and partially resulted from the great powers’ competition. The division delivered a heavy blow to the country’s still fragile modern economy.
Soon afterwards, the tensions escalated to a full-scale war between the North and the South. The great powers were sucked into the confrontation as well, so between 1950 and 1953 the Korean peninsula became a battleground where soldiers from different countries fought one another. Cities changed hands many times, millions of refugees fled the advancing armies and terror was used indiscriminately by both sides.
The formal cessation of hostilities in 1953 did not mean that a lasting peace finally arrived in Korea. The North-South division continued, and occasional clashes remained a part of Korean life for decades.
Economically, Korea of the late 1950s was almost universally seen as a basket case, as a typical example of an aid-dependent economy. Few people had any hope for the future of the country which had one of Asia’s lowest per capita incomes – lagging well behind Papua New Guinea.
However, even against this sad background of violence, foreign occupation, cultural genocide and ideological hatred, a perceptive observer would not fail to notice positive signs of things to come. Since the 1890s, a small but fast growing number of Koreans strove to master modern knowledge and modern culture. Korea had its share of die-hard reactionaries, but the interest to all things new and modern was, perhaps, the most overwhelming feature of Korean life since the early 1900s.
The colonial era of 1910-1945 was not only a time of repression. Resistance to the colonial rule never stopped, and many Koreans joined guerrilla detachments in China or underground groups in Manchuria. The March 1st uprising of 1919 was the best known example of popular resistance when for a while the entire country challenged its colonial overlords. At the same time, countless people worked hard to improve their lives and the life of their country.
The colonial era is widely remembered as a time of national humiliation, but also when modern economic growth began. It was also the time when an increasing number of Koreans went to schools, and when modern Korean arts and literature were born. It was the time of a booming national press, and a period of intense political and ideological debates.
Therefore, the remarkable transformation which Korea underwent after 1960 was made possible by the hard work of many people who did what they could even under the most adverse of circumstances, in the dark days of the 1910s and 1930s.
The post-war transformation of Korea was, indeed, remarkable. The poorest country in Asia created a sophisticated modern economy from scratch. It became a major producer of cars, ships, semi-conductors, and for a few decades it boasted the world’s fastest tempo of economic growth, and by the early 1990s it had joined the ranks of the developed world – one of very few developing countries which have managed to accomplish this feat.
Nowadays it is difficult to believe that mass production of cars began in Korea in the mid-1970s, that its steel industry was launched around the same time and that Korean TV did not broadcast in color until 1980.
However, the breathtaking economic growth of the 1960s came at a cost. It was achieved under an authoritarian regime which treated its opponents ruthlessly. In some cases, the rulers were ready to slaughter the rebellious population – like the case in Gwangju in 1980 where a few hundred people perished during a bloody suppression of a pro-democracy rebellion.
If the first half of the past 20th century can be described as a time when Koreans fought for their individual and collective survival, the period of the 1960s was the era when the nation was doing its best to solve two questions – that of economic growth and of democratic transformation.
Both struggles were successful. In the late 1980s, roughly at the time when Korea finally approached the economic level of developed countries, authoritarian rule ended. The first attempt to achieve democracy, the Gwangju Pro-Democracy Movement in May 1980, failed, but the dictatorship did not persist for long. The ‘June resistance’ of 1987 signaled the transition to democracy which proved surprisingly stable.
The impressive economic performance continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s when Korea, much to everybody’s surprise, with astonishing speed recovered from two serious economic shocks.
These two decades were also an era of dramatic changes in Korean culture ― for the first time in a few centuries, Korea came to influence its neighbors, becoming a major player in popular culture throughout East Asia. Korean music and cinema achieved a remarkable level of recognition worldwide.
Of course, we should not be too sanguine. Many challenges lie ahead. Korea remains a divided country, and nuclear-armed North Korea still poses some threat. The desperate state of the North Korean economy also means that the eventual recovery of the North will be painful and costly ― and, in all probability, they will have to be paid for by the South.
The rise of China and changes in the geopolitics of East Asia also brings new challenges to Korea. Domestically, the aging population, growing number of migrants, changes in the labor culture and the emergence of multiculturalism also pose questions which will have to be solved eventually.
Nonetheless, Koreans can look at “their” last century with a great deal of pride. They achieved what indeed once appeared impossible, they didn’t merely survive against all odds ― they prospered.
Now, we start a series of articles dealing with Korean history over the last turbulent century. The 60-article series will tell of events and trends which determined the fate of the country throughout these decades, and highlight the social and economic challenges it faced.