I've said in the not so distant past that a major part of the credibility problem that exists with Korean claims about Japanese rule is that they are so often blatantly untrue, and nowhere is this more clearly self evident than when considering how the Korean economy fared before and after the imposition of Japanese governance. Thankfully, it isn't at all difficult to find worthwhile material online to substantiate this claim, or else I'd fear being inundated by angry commenters insisting I was merely repeating right-wing Japanese propaganda (which might still happen, evidence notwithstanding).
Korea Before Japanese Rule
Population growth came to a halt around 1800, and a century of demographic stagnation followed due to a higher level of mortality. During the nineteenth century, living standards appeared to deteriorate. Both wages and rents fell, tax receipts shrank, and budget deficits expanded, forcing the government to resort to debasement. Peasant rebellions occurred more frequently, and poor peasants left Korea for northern China.Then comes the following interesting tidbit, which shows what lies behind Japanese right-wing assertions that the claim Japan "invaded" Korea was a lie:
In 1894 peasants protested against a local administrator's attempts to generate private income by collecting fees for using waterways, which had been built by peasants. The uprising quickly developed into a nationwide peasant rebellion, which the crumbling government could suppress only by calling in military forces from China and Japan. An unforeseen consequence of the rebellion was the Sino-Japanese war fought on the Korean soil, where Japan defeated China, tipping the balance of power in Korea critically in her favor. (emph. added)Not quite the traditional story of brave Korean noblemen nobly resisting the designs of Japanese aggressors, is it? This pattern of Choson elites collaborating with the Japanese in undermining the nation's independence while furthering their own agendas was one that would continue right until annexation, when many transitioned effortlessly into the Japanese hereditary aristocracy. But what was the quality of life like in Choson Korea by comparison with its neighbors?
Despite the proto-industrialization, late dynastic Korea remained less urbanized than Q'ing China, not to mention Tokugawa Japan. Seasonal fluctuations in rice prices in the main agricultural regions of Korea were far wider than those observed in Japan during the nineteenth century, implying a significantly higher interest rate, a lower level of capital per person, and therefore lower living standards for Korea. In the mid-nineteenth century paddy land productivity in Korea was about half of that in Japan.The picture here is pretty clear: Choson was a corrupt, unstable and dirt-poor state run by a privileged few for their benefit alone, and when their grip on the milch cow seemed to be loosening, they had few problems calling in outsiders to help reassert their control over their impoverished, illiterate countrymen.
Korea Under Japanese Rule
Defeating Russia in the war of 1905, Japan virtually annexed Korea, which was made official five years later. What replaced the feeble and predatory bureaucracy of the Choson dynasty was a developmental state. Drawing on the Meiji government's experience, the colonial state introduced a set of expensive policy measures to modernize Korea. One important project was to improve infrastructure: railway lines were extended, and roads and harbors and communication networks were improved, which rapidly integrated goods and factor markets both nationally and internationally. Another project was a vigorous health campaign: the colonial government improved public hygiene, introduced modern medicine, and built hospitals, significantly accelerating the mortality decline set in motion around 1890, apparently by the introduction of the smallpox vaccination. The mortality transition resulted in a population expanding 1.4% per year during the colonial period. The third project was to revamp education. As modern teaching institutions quickly replaced traditional schools teaching Chinese classics, primary school enrollment ration rose from 1 percent in 1910 to 47 percent in 1943. Finally, the cadastral survey (1910-18) modernized and legalized property rights to land, which boosted not only the efficiency in land use, but also tax revenue from landowners. These modernization efforts generated sizable public deficits, which the colonial government could finance partly by floating bonds in Japan and partly by unilateral transfers from the Japanese government. (emphasis added)"Apart from sanitation, medicine, education, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what did the Japanese ever do for us?" If the Japanese were the Asian Nazis they're painted as being in much Korean propaganda, why did education rise so rapidly even as the Korean population was exploding after a century of stasis? Why borrow heavily at home and abroad to invest in a land you're supposedly planning to squeeze dry?
Alright, alright, maybe the Japanese did do a few good things during their rule, but they still tried to keep the Korean economy rural and unsophisticated, right?
From 1911-40 the share of manufacturing in GDP increased from 6 percent to 28 percent, and the share of agriculture fell from 76 percent to 41 percent. Major causes of the structural change included diffusion of modern manufacturing technology, the world agricultural depression shifting the terms of trade in favor of manufacturing, and Japan's early recovery from the Great Depression generating an investment boom in the colony. Also Korea's cheap labor and natural resources and the introduction of controls on output and investment in Japan to mitigate the impact of the Depression helped attract direct investment in the colony.Fine, fine, but this was all for the benefit of the greedy Japs! The locals saw no financial benefit from it all!
The institutional modernization, technological diffusion, and the inflow of Japanese capital put an end to the Malthusian degeneration and pushed Korea onto the path of modern economic growth. Both rents and wages stopped falling and started to rise from the early twentieth century. As the population explosion made labor increasingly abundant vis-a-vis land, rents increased more rapidly than wages, suggesting that income distribution became less equal during the colonial period. Per capita output rose faster than one percent per year from 1911-38. (emph. added)Er, apparently not ... But surely there's some truth to the claim that the Japanese imposed famine conditions on their Korean subjects?
Per capita grain consumption declined during the colonial period, providing grounds for traditional criticism of the Japanese colonialism exploiting Korea. However, per capita real consumption increased, due to rising non-grain and non-good consumption, and Koreans were also getting better education and living longer. In the late 1920s, life expectancy at birth was 37 years, an estimate several years longer than in China and almost ten years shorter than in Japan. Life expectancy increased to 43 years at the end of the colonial period. Male mean stature was slightly higher than 160 centimeters at the end of the 1920s, a number not significantly different from the Chinese or Japanese height, and appeared to become shorter during the latter half of the colonial period.Aha! That last sentence is all the proof we need that Japan was a cruel and greedy slavemaster, one of the worst in all history!!!! Except it isn't: food consumption declined in all parts of Japan's empire during this period, with the worst hit being native Japanese males on active service, who constituted the overwhelming proportion of draftees right until the end of the war. Indeed, it was largely in order to fend off this drop in living standards that the Japanese (and that includes more than a few Korean volunteers) were so rapacious in looting the rest of conquered Asia.
Having given some concrete evidence that Japan's rule over Korea, for all of its humiliations and culturally destructive policies towards the end, was not the brutal and impoverishing reign of modern Korean myth, let me now turn to the role Koreans played in Japan's imperialistic adventures: were they nothing but passive onlookers, or even opponents of Japanese expansion? Actually, nothing of the sort was true:
"Though sharply opposing unrestricted imports of colonial rice, however, farmers never expressed opposition to the actual occupation of Korea. On the contrary, this 'rural crisis' rapidly bred nationalist-fascist attitudes among farmers after the First World War; the militarists and the rightists led farmers to believe that a key solution to their econ omic problems was further imperial expansion abroad, not abandonment of the colony. As a result, farmers wholeheartedly supported Japanese imperialist policy. This reveals a paradox, that a loser in the imperial game became an 'imperialist'."Quite a bit like the Scots in the British Empire, when you think of it. Although it is hardly ever mentioned today, the truth was that the Japanese could so take for granted Korean complicity in their aggression in Manchuria that the Japanese government was willing to heavily subsidize the settlement of Korean rice farmers in the region. For every anti-Japanese nationalist operating behind Chinese or Soviet lines (and nearly all of whom were communists), there were probably 5 to 10 Koreans active in doing their bit to prove their loyalty to Imperial Japan while advancing their personal prospects. As with French claims of resistance after the war, most post-war claims of resistance to Japanese rule in Korea are nothing but self-serving lies, which is the reason why the attempt at a "collaborator" witch-hunt by Roh Moo-hyun's Uri Party was so laughable: it would have meant the indictment of pretty much the entire class of educated or enterprising Koreans who existed prior to the end of Japanese rule.
In closing, let me make clear that I don't wish to imply that the Japanese annexation of Korea was done as an act of charity or that any number of material improvements to a people's standard of living justifies conquering them, nor am I trying to claim that Japan's rule wasn't harsh, repressive and discriminatory, which by any reasonable definition it was. The point of all of the above is that the mainstream take on the colonial period amongst the Korea populace today is horrendously misleading and pretty much designed to keep anti-Japanese sentiments aflame rather than to get at the truth of Korea's colonial experience: to give but one example of how distorted Korean history is, Japanese rule was not a uniquely brutal phase of Korea's history, with torture and repression both long predating and following on the period when Japan ran the country. If Koreans want the Japanese to be more honest about the past, the least they can do is to take their own advice rather than perpetuating a picture of history so blatantly false it only serves to bolster the credibility of Japan's extreme right: if you discover that you've been lied to on a grand scale by one of two parties, it's only natural to suspect that the other side is much closer to the truth.
PS: Let me also add that given the decrepit nature of the late Choson state and the obvious designs both China and Russia entertained on the Korean peninsula, there was simply no chance whatsoever of Korea retaining its independence, and South Koreans at least can be grateful that it was Japan which succeeded in taking over their country, rather than a Communist regime of some flavor or another. One has only to look across the DMZ to see what might have been for the whole of Korea.