Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Beginning Sadness

The history of the world is a repeated cycle of the colonization and decolonization: weaker countries were conquered by powerful empires that exert their influences on the newly-acquired nations, colonies then became repressed and abused to suffer years of colonization, and eventually, the oppressed nations rebelled to win their independence and became decolonized.  The story of Korea was no different.  Though subjugated by various nations throughout history, Korea suffered most under the colonization of the Japanese from 1910-1945.  During these years under the Japanese rule, the Koreans suffered greatly as the men were forced into hard labor while the women were bounded into sex slaves.  It took a few decades for the Koreans to be empowered enough to drive out their colonialists and reclaimed their independence.  

            The end of the 19th century and the early beginnings of the 20th century was a period of chaos as various nations began to reshuffle to find their place in the new era.  In Japan, the success of the Meiji Restoration made the nation stronger and they began to think about becoming a modern colonial power. Korea, a weak neighbor, became a target and in January 1876, Japan employed gunboat diplomacy to pressure Korea into signing the Treaty of Ganghwa, forcing Korea to open up three Korean ports for Japanese trade and granting privileges to Japanese citizens. It is interesting to note that the rights granted to Japan under this treaty were similar to those granted to the western powers in Japan following the visit of Commodore Perry in 1854. (1)  It seemed that Japan learned a thing or two about colonization from the Western missionaries who entered and lived in Japan.

Things got worse for Korea when the Japanese Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake signed the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty with the Premier of Korea, Wan-Yong Lee on August 22, 1910. (2)  Korea became a dominion of the Japanese Empire, officially losing its independence and henceforward, became a colony of the Empire of Japan.  As seen by the map below, Japan occupied the whole of Korea and ruled it as its own colony, subjugated to its rules and influences.
                               Map of 1930's Korea, with an unified Korea.

Trauma in Colonization

During over three decades of Japanese colonization, the Korean citizens experienced much hardship and struggle.  For the men, the Japanese government forced then to be laborers and soldiers, fighting and risking their lives for Japanese causes. Japanese women suffered a worse fate as they were forced to serve in military brothels and live a life of servitude for the Japanese men.  Socially, the Korean identity was lost and replaced with ideals and beliefs of the Japanese.

When Japan entered World War II, they needed more soldiers to fight their war and more laborers to keep up their workforce.  As such, it was estimated that about “450,000 forced laborers were sent to Japan” to perform hard work with minimal pay.  For the farmers, Japan confiscated their land and forced them off the premise, only to give the acres to Japanese citizens who immigrated to Korea. The Korean women also became victims of the Japanese as they were used as the so-called “comfort women who served in Japanese military brothels. Modern historians estimated between 10,000 and 200,000 of comfort women were used by the Japanese.  What made the act more appalling was that, according to testimonies, there were numerous cases where Japanese officials and local collaborators kidnapped the women for these jobs.  Furthermore, recruiting poor rural women for sexual slavery under the guise of offering factory employment was rampant under the Japanese rule.

Perhaps what made the Japanese colonization more atrocious was the destruction of evidence.  Even in modern day, Japan is notorious for their role in changing history books in order to alter their actions/behaviors during various wars throughout history.   With that said, during their colonization of Korea, the Japanese government intentionally destroyed official records regarding comfort women. Japanese inventory logs and employee sheets on the battlefield showed some documentation of government-sponsored sexual slavery. In one instance, names of known comfort women were traced to Japanese employment records. Currently, the South Korean government is investigating hundreds of cases on these lists. (3)  As evidenced, during the reign of the Japanese rule, Korean people lost their most basic rights and suffered while serving the mother country.  

Oppressed people, naturally, will find the courage to unite against their oppressors.  Thus, after years of suffering, some groups began to revolt against Japanese Imperialism. In March 1919, an Anti-Japanese demonstration attracted so many supporters and became so chaotic that the Japanese national and military police could not contain the crowds.  The army and even the navy were called in to quell the revolution. What ensued were several reports of Japanese atrocities. In one incident, the Japanese police in the village of Jeam-ri Hwaseong herded everyone into a church, locked it, and burned it to the ground. They even shot through the burning windows of the church to ensure that no one made it out alive. Many participants of the March 1st Movement were subjected to torture and execution.

These outrageous and merciless events deeply affected the Korean people’s livelihood. For the women, the memories of serving as ‘comfort women’ and of sexual abuse left them psychologically traumatized. Though the physical pains could be cured, the psychological nightmares casted a shadow and many could never completely restore their lives.  Yet despite these unfortunate consequences, Japanese colonization did leave some positive imprints onto the Korean culture.  Most notably was the laying the infrastructure and raising the literacy rate among citizens as the Japanese constructed schools and hospitals.(4) These foundations could possibly influence the Koreans’ strong beliefs in education, a belief that is still prevalent in the Korean society today.

Eternal Smile--------Independence of Korea

            Following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the impending overrun of the Korean peninsula by Russian forces, Japan surrendered to the Allied forces. As Japan admitted defeat on August 15, 1945, it directly liberated Korea, ending 35 years of Japanese occupation. That freedom did not come easily as there were numerous attempts of a revolution, including the March 1st movement that ended tragically for the Koreans.  When the Declaration of Independence was read in Seoul, an estimated 2 million people took part in the victory rallies. (5) Korea celebrated a new beginning while commemorating those who fought and gave their lives fighting for independence, freedom and victory.
Many modern historians still debate reasons why Korea was successful in decolonizing themselves and proposed a few reasons: the people’s efforts, a good leader and support from others nations. First, the Koreans in Manchuria formed resistance groups known as Dongnipgun (Liberation Army), which traveled across the Korean-Chinese border, using guerrilla warfare tactics against Japanese forces. (6) Second, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1932 and subsequent Pacification of Manchukuo deprived many of these groups of their bases of operation and supplies. Many were forced to either flee to China, or to join the Communist-backed forces in eastern Russia. One of the guerrilla groups was led by the future leader of communist North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, in Japanese controlled Manchuria. Kim Il-Sung's time as a guerrilla leader was formative upon his political ideology once he came to power. (7) And finally, the timing of the atomic bomb attacks in Japan debilitated the country into surrendering in the World War II.  This indirect support from the United States (with the dropping of the atomic bombs) gave the Koreans the last catalyst for a successful decolonization.
As if destined to suffer, as soon as Korea liberated itself from Japan, it entered a new dilemma: its division into two separate entities.  Armies of the Soviet Union captured Pyongyang while the United States disembarked Inchon in 1945 and Korea became a divided nation.  Separated by the Military Demarcation Line, Korea was split into North Korea and South Korea. South Korea was established at August 15 and North Korea in September 9 of 1948. South Korea became an ally of United Status while North Korea of the Soviet Union, a relationship that still existed in modern day. 

Map of present day Korea, with the DMZ line in red to divide North and South Korea.