North and South Korea are nations that while filled with contempt for
Japan have used the foundations that Japan laid during the colonial period to
further industrialization. Japan’s colonization of Korea is critical in
understanding what enabled Korea to industrialize in the period since 1961.
Japan’s program of colonial industrialization is unique in the world.
Japan was the only colonizer to locate various heavy industry is in its colonies.
By 1945 the industrial plants in Korea accounted for about a quarter of Japan’s
industrial base. Japan’s colonization of Korea was therefore much more
comparable to the relationship between England and Ireland then that of European
colonization of Asia or Africa. Japan’s push to create colonial industry lead
Japan to build a vast network of railroads, ports, and a system of hydro-
electric dams and heavy industrial plants around the Yalu River in what is now
North Korea. The Japanese to facilitate and manage the industrialization of a
colony also put in place a strong central government.
Although Japan’s colonial industrialism in Korea was aimed at advancing
Japanese policies and goals and not those of the Korean populace; colonization
left Korea with distinct advantages over other developing countries at the end
of World War Two. Korea was left with a base for industrializing, a high level
of literacy, experience with modern commerce, and close ties to Japan. Japan’s
colonial heavy industrial plants were located primarily around the Yalu River in
North Korea. Because of this the North had an edge in industrialization. For
many years the North had the fastest growth rates of the communist countries,
and its cities were on par with those of Eastern Europe. It was not until the
early 1970’s that the South surpassed the North in levels of industrialization.
Because most of the heavy industrial plants were either located in North Korea
or destroyed by the Korean War the groundwork for industrialization that South
Korea received from Japanese colonialism consisted mostly of social changes.
During colonialism Korea’s populace in increasing numbers moved to cities and
became urbanized these new urbanites worked in factories and were used to the
organization of modern commerce. The Japanese also let a small number of Koreans
develop into a semi-elite. Although this group never held powerful positions
many of them were educated in Japanese schools, and became either involved in
the military or worked as businessmen, bureaucrats, lawyers, and doctors. This
elite provided much of the leadership and framework for post World War Two
Korean Government in Korea. They had an intimate knowledge of Japanese companies,
language, organizational structure, and government.
The Korean elites that emerged after the liberation of 1945 and helped
steer Korea’s economic policies under Park Chung Hee had an intimate knowledge
of Japan. Some of them like Park had been educated in Japanese schools, some had
worked for the Japanese, and nearly all of them spoke fluent Japanese. It was
this closeness to Japan both geographically and culturally that made it natural
for the Koreans to use the Japanese model of industrialization when Japan’s
economy boomed in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The leaders of Korea were ambivalent
about relying on Japan, on one hand they felt a profound respect for Japan and
its successes and on the other a deep hatred for what Japan had done to Korea in
the past. But Japan still served as a model for Park Chung Hee who normalized
relations with Japan in 1965 and turned to Japan for technology, equipment, and
a model for development.
Some nationalistic Korean scholars say that Japan’s colonialism slowed
Korea’s growth by exploiting Korea and disturbing its economy. But these views
of Korea ignore the fundamental role that Japan’s policies of industrial
colonialism played in allowing Korea to Industrialize during the 1960’s. Japan’s
colonialism improved infrastructure, urbanized the nation, educated much of the
populace, gave the pubic experience with modern commerce, and indoctrinated
Korean elites in the Japanese language and culture. It was Korean elites history
and close ties with Japan that made them turn naturally to Japan to provide a
development model. Japan’s legacy of colonialism in Korea is felt not only in
the many graves and monuments that attest to Japanese brutality but also in the
modern cities of South Korea and the heavy industries along the Yalu River in