Relief map of Korea

Korea is a mountainous peninsula of some 85,000 square miles, with arable land in the south and significant mineral and hydroelectric resources in the north. Unfortunately, the coal deposits around Pyongyang are separated from the iron ore fields at Mosan by the mountainous spine of the country, but the Japanese got around this problem by building hydroelectric plants at Fusenko and elsewhere to power electric furnaces. These were used to produce special steels. Korea also had significant gold deposits, particularly in the northern mountains, which accounted for about half the production in the Japanese Empire (peaking at about $30 million per year.)

Korea is the closest point on mainland Asia to the Japanese home islands, and the attempted Mongol invasions of Japan from Korea in 1274 and 1281 were pivotal in the emergence of Japan as a nation. An attempt by the Japanese to invade China via Korea in 1592 got as far as Pyongyang before meeting a much larger but more poorly equipped Chinese army.  Following six years of some of the deadliest fighting the world had seen to that point, the Japanese withdrew, but the Chinese Army was left so exhausted that China subsequently fell to the Manchus. Japan, in turn, soon entered its long period of isolation from the outside world.

Korea again became the focus of Japanese national security concerns following the Boshin Civil War in 1869 and the founding of the modern Japanese Army. The peninsula was seen as "a dagger thrust at the heart of Japan" (quoted in Myers and Peattie 1984), a natural invasion route for the Chinese and later the Russians. A movement among former samurai to seize the peninsula outright in the early 1870s was rejected by the Japanese government, which felt the time was not right. In 1884, a Japanese-supported coup in Korea was put down with the aid of Chinese troops, and angry Korean mobs killed 40 Japanese residents. In 1894 the Tong-hak Coup seized control of much of the country, and the Korean government again asked for Chinese support. The Japanese intervened, leading to the First Sino-Japanese War, which ended in 1895 in a Japanese victory. The Treaty of Shimonoseki awarded Japan the Kwantung Peninsula and Formosa, but the Tripartite Intervention by Germany, France, and Russia forced Japan to abandon its claim on the Kwantung Peninsula. Russia promptly secured its own lease on the Kwantung Peninsula and began extending its influence into Korea, infuriating the Japanese. A Japanese proposal to recognize Russian interests in Manchuria in return for a free hand in Korea was rejected, but Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 moved Korea firmly into the Japanese sphere of influence.

From 1905 to 1910, Korea was a Japanese protectorate, and Japanese advisors instituted sweeping reforms while systematically replacing Korean political institutions with Japanese ones. Korea formally became a part of the Japanese Empire in 1910, when it was annexed by the Japanese after the ruling Choson Dynasty (dating back possibly as far as the 14th century) was overthrown. This was followed by a decade of budan seiji ("military rule") during which resistance to Japanese rule was swiftly and brutally crushed. The Koreans soon found themselves second-class citizens in their own land. While this was hardly an unprecedented pattern in the colonial empires of the Far East, the Japanese were particularly ruthless in their efforts to assimilate Korea as an integral part of Japan.

Japanese rule was clumsy even when it meant well. The Japanese began land reforms that Myers and Peattie (1984) conclude were scrupulously honest and meant well, but which had the effect of favoring Japanese settlers, since the poorest Korean peasants were the least likely to have written records of their land rights.

Most Koreans were strongly opposed to Japanese rule, and the first Governor-General, Terauchi Masatake, father of the future Pacific War field marshal, ruled with an iron fist. The "Education for the Nation" movement instituted by the last Korean government before annexation was shut down by the Japanese, along with over half of all Korean schools: "To be educated was to be anti-Japanese" (Myers and Peattie 1984).The March First Movement of 1 March 1919 was brutally suppressed, with upwards of 7000 Koreans killed. The subsequent decade of more liberal policies ( bunka seiji, "cultural rule") ended with the growing power of the Japanese Army in national politics in the 1930s.  Bunka seiji was replaced with dōka, "assimilation", and kōminka, "imperialization", under which Korean children were pressured to take Japanese names and were required to attend schools in which only Japanese was spoken. In 1942 Korea was declared an integral part of Japan and its administration was transferred from the Colonial to the Home Ministry. But Koreans had no representation in the Japanese Diet and, as late as 1941, no Korean held a higher post in the rail system than assistant stationmaster. All the higher postings were held by Japanese immigrants. Korea was ruled by a governor-general and thus was effectively under Japanese Army control, and the Japanese Army maintained a strong military police throughout the period of Japanese rule.

Nevertheless, because Korea was annexed via a treaty with its last monarch (albeit obtained under duress), the Japanese had certain obligations in Korea that did not exist elsewhere in their colonial empire. The Korean police were incorporated en masse into the new colonial police, and as late as 1930, Koreans numbered 40% of the colonial police. The Japanese also left in place the system of village leadership, where prominent family heads were recognized as village elders and the chief elder was the village leader. On the other hand, the Imperial Rescript marking the annexation of Korea declared that the governor-general governed on the personal behalf of the Japanese Emperor, which severely limited the control of the Japanese Diet over the colony even after the reforms of 1919. The governor-general was always a full admiral or general who concurrently held the highest bureaucratic rank (shin'nin), personally recommended to the Emperor by the prime minister on the advice of the genro and Army leadership.

Korea was one of the few Asian nations where Christian missionaries had had much success. The Japanese attempted to eradicate Christianity, such as by pressuring Korean Christians to visit Shinto shrines, and the number of practicing Christians dropping from a peak of 700,000 to 250,000 by 1941. This was similar to the pattern seen in China, though there were proportionally far fewer Christians in the Chinese population.

Initially seen as an agricultural colony, due to exaggerated claims of underutilization of arable land, Korea became attractive as an industrial colony after the world financial crisis of 1929, which depressed the agricultural market in Japan and created a greater demand for industrial investment opportunities. Development included industrial facilities in Chongjin near the Mosan iron fields and the Fusenko hydroelectric project. Industrialization was further accelerated by the role Korea played as a logistics base after the start of the "China Incident" in 1937. Nevertheless, only 12% of Korean households had electric lighting, versus 36.3% of Taiwanese and over 90% of Japanese. The colonial police occasionally were called on to compel reluctant farmers to adopt modern agricultural methods, such as use of new plant varieties, application of chemical fertilizer, and improved irrigation, and to encourage cultivation of cotton in place of food crops.

Some 802,047 Koreans volunteered for military service from 1938 to 1943, though often under pressure from Japanese recruiters. Only 17,664 of these were actually inducted into regular Japanese Army units. Beginning in August 1943, Koreans were subject to conscription into the Imperial forces, and some 130,000 were drafted. Koreans were invariably assigned the most menial of duties, such as serving in labor battalions. The Navy Civil Engineering and Construction Units (Kaigun Kenchiku Shisetsu Butai) were composed of about 1000 Koreans overseen by about 100 Japanese officers and men.  Usually only the overseers were armed. Another 150,000 Koreans were conscripted as "militarized civilians" (Gunzoku) of whom about 80,000 served in the Navy and 70,000 in the Army.  These had their own uniforms and insignia. Another 422,262 Koreans were conscripted for work in Japan from 1939 to 1944, plus 22,044 sent to Karafuto and the Mandates. Another 2,616,900 Koreans performed forced labor within Korea by the time the war ended.

Prior to the beginning of conscription in 1942, about 3000 Koreans who volunteered for military service were employed as prison camp guards. Ironically, some of the most brutal treatment handed out to Allied prisoners came from Korean guards, who were themselves brutally treated by their Japanese non-commissioned officers. 

Koreans were also conscripted in large numbers to work in Japan, replacing Japanese laborers who had been drafted into the military. They were usually poorly paid and otherwise mistreated, with a legal status equivalent to that of indentured servants. In addition, it is claimed that tens of thousands of Korean women were forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese Army.

Korean laborers were more likely than Japanese soldiers to attempt to surrender to the Allies, but to Western eyes they all looked the same, and Western soldiers were often reluctant to accept their surrender. Thus, the Koreans got a bad deal from both sides in the war, though in the end the Allies restored Korean sovereignty, at least in South Korea.


Collie and Marutani (2009)

Drea (2009)

Edgerton (1997)

Hoyt (1993)

Jowett (2002)

Neff (2007; accessed 2012-8-2)

Myers and Peattie (1984)

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