[KS] KSR 2007-12: _Landlords, Peasants, and Intellectuals in Modern Korea_, by Pang Kie-Chung and Michael D. Shin (eds.)

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Aug 29 19:37:37 EDT 2007

_Landlords, Peasants, and Intellectuals in Modern Korea_, by Pang Kie-Chung and Michael D. Shin (eds.). Ithaca and London: Cornell East Asia Series, No. 128, Cornell University Press, 2005. 424 pp, notes, index. (ISBN: 1-885445-38-5 cloth, ISBN: 1-885445-28-8 paper).


Reviewed by Michael Reinschmidt

Inje University

Gimhae, South Korea

MReinschmidt at csuchico.edu


The collection of articles in Landlords, Peasants, and Intellectuals is a powerful reckoning with what “progressive” historians call “the blunders of Korea’s historiography.” Beginning with the late 19th century, these “blunders” include: royal obstructionism by not consulting the country’s new intellectuals on a needed reform; colonial Japan’s hijacking of a native Korean historical research agenda; and a group of native nationalist historians who obscured, if not supported, Japan’s claims of Korean inferiority. The main point of this book revolves around one of Korea’s biggest undiscussed historical truths: the perpetually slanted relationship between Chos?n dynasty landlords and peasants. Had this extreme economic inequality been satisfactorily resolved during the Chos?n era (1392-1910) or the Japanese occupation (1910-45), so the hypothesis of this volume holds, an entrepreneurial middle class could have evolved, providing the solid civil and economic base that was needed to prevent the evils the peninsula saw during the 20th century. The resolution never came, not even with the perceived “modernization benefits” of colonization. By the time of liberation in August 1945, the whole mess spilled into two divided Koreas, on to the Korean War (1950-53), and finally resulted in two antagonistic totalitarian national regimes.


This book is a rich resource for those interested in Korean historiography, ethnohistory, intellectual history, socioeconomics, international relations, cultural theory, and agrarian history. Its primary value lies in the careful translation of original Korean-language works emanating from an alternative type of South Korean historiography of the 1980s and 1990s that pursued a new direction, different from that of several nationalist schools. In the preface and introduction, the editors make the case for this substantial project, generously funded by Yonsei University and the Korea Foundation, which fills a void by introducing “one of the major ‘schools’ of South Korean historiography to an English-speaking audience” (1). The center of authority of this school is the influential Kim Yong-s?p, Professor Emeritus of History from Yonsei University, who nurtured a group of prolific students from the 1970s through 1990s, some of whom are contributors to this volume.


The book highlights these scholars’ work in refuting the widely debated “stagnation theory,” a hypothesis originally used by Korean historians who supported the Japanese occupation from 1910-45. These earlier writers claimed that their country lacked a history of its own until it was opened to modernity by imperial Japan. The main thrust of the Yonsei historians delivers a powerful rebuttal to “stagnation theory” as well as the later “modernization theory,” seen by the contributors as a continuation of its predecessor. The source of stagnation theory lies in Western colonial contrasts of the “progressive Occident” against the “stagnant Orient,” which led to prejudice against the allegedly “stagnant Asian mode of production,” and implied that succumbing to the “dynamic Western mode” would be a “natural” event. The chapter selections in this book not only explain the efforts of Chos?n Korea’s own modern evolution from within, and the historical origins of division, but also provide a useful “progressive” version of Korean transitional history that, from today’s vantage point, helps to undermine the until recently tolerated legacy of collaboration and the still wide acceptance of the “legitimacy” of subsequent military regimes (1960s-'80s). In thus rewriting Korean history of the 19th and 20th centuries, the book is a formidable 21st century challenge in the direction of an overdue diversification of Korean historiography. The book also contains an extensive body of footnotes that lead mostly to important Korean-language references on chapter topics as well as to helpful comments by the authors and editors.


The book’s three parts cover: a) the so-called Hanmal period (1876-1910), i.e. the turbulent era before Japanese occupation; b) socioeconomics during the occupation; and c) an introduction to the major ideas of prominent liberation thinkers Paek Namun, An Chaehong, and Yi Sunt’ak. 


Kim Yong-s?p sheds light on a common late Chos?n-era rural situation in “The Two Courses of Agrarian Reform in Korea’s Modernization” (Chapter 1). With an example from the Honam region, he reflects on Chos?n’s rural demographics: on average every hundred households included five landlord families, twenty-five independent farm households, and seventy tenant farming households (26). Poor peasants often fell into deeper poverty because landlords - usually related to the royal family or coming from the yangban class - preferred to have their land operated by peasant families with livestock and enough laborers.


Proposals to solve existing structural contradictions basically suggested tax reform or land reform. The first push (which Kim calls the “landlord course”) came from a majority of yangban and landlords and targeted reform of the tax system only. This proposal was applauded by the cash-deprived royal government, because it called for the development of large-scale commercial agriculture. The second, suggesting land reform, came from a minority, consisting of peasants and landed scholars (the “peasant course”) who knew first-hand the alarming situation in rural communities. Their ideas actually projected a combined land-tax reform that would have regulated secure land ownership for the peasants as well as providing stability to small-scale, but nonetheless commercial agriculture.


Different versions of both proposals emerged first at the end of the feudal era and again at the beginning of the modern period but led to a course of entrepreneurial incentives neither for tax payers nor peasants, thus further smothering social assets needed for new forms of production and (hitherto absent) middle-class business independence. If trivial changes were indeed ever applied, the tax system always remained exploitative and the land system always oppressive. Even following the opening of the ports in 1876 and the influx of Western ideas and technology, the Confucian establishment did not budge. Kim lists numerous missed opportunities in Chapters 1 and 4 - empirically substantiated by the other chapters - and concludes that class struggle ended in a victory for the landlords. This victory yielded to a situation of preference for the Japanese, who turned it into an even more pronounced and interlocked status quo.


Additional chapters in Parts I and II share Kim's empirical approach in examining Koreans’ own efforts at modernization - no matter how “confused” some of these efforts may have been rendered by the constraints and complexities of a very difficult time. In Chapter 2, Chu Chin-Oh (“The Independence Club’s Conceptions of Nationalism and the Modern State”) discusses the course of the short-lived but highly influential Independence Club (1896-98) and how its members - in particular S? Chae-Pil, Yun Chiho, Yu Kiljun, and Namgung Ok - debated and devised cultural, political, and international reform programs under the influence of Spencerian-style Darwinism. One of the greatest challenges for this group was the question of how to turn “might is right,” the mantra of the period that emanated from Spencer’s ideas, so that it worked in favor of Korea and in defiance of Japan. Ultimately, they rallied under the slogan “loyalty to the monarch and love for the country” (ch’unggun aeguk, 85), paradoxically so, because neither could the monarch muster “might,” nor was love for the country a formula “right” enough to save Chos?n from Japan.


In Chapter 3 (“Legalization of Land Rights under the Great Han Empire”), Choi Won-kyu interrogates his research data on the Chos?n state’s own cadastral assessments conducted in the decade from 1895-1905. These surveys were designed to bring land management closer to Western standards and to make land economically more accessible. Landowners and land users were to be held more accountable via a direct taxing system. The state’s modernization efforts were driven by levying prospects that would materialize if existing land ownership or tenant rights could be legally fixed as a state revenue source. It was also hoped that the land survey would get a grip on illicit land sales (and foreigners’ purchases of land on the black market), which increased during that time because, with officially recognized land rights, land commodification efforts increased as well. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, however, these efforts came to a halt due to Japan’s increasing interference in all levels of Korean life. While the goal of the Great Han Empire (proclaimed by King Kojong in 1898) was to secure peasants’ “real rights” of land cultivation, Japanese goals returned to the old landlord system - except for a few modifications - because that system had served well in keeping tight control over Korean society for a long time.


Chapter 4 (“The Landlord System and the Agricultural Economy during the Japanese Occupation Period”) summarizes Kim Yong-s?p’s earlier work on the landlord system. According to Kim, Korea’s longstanding agrarian crisis intensified during the Japanese occupation because clever monopoly finance strategies, among other factors, allowed the Japanese to strengthen a pro-landlord system that already wielded great control over small and medium-scale landowners. As a result, hundreds of thousands of these landowners were forced out of business, into unemployment, and ultimately out of the country, i.e. to Manchuria, Siberia, and Japan (145). Growth and rights of the landlord system thus strengthened, and along with this came exploitative Japanese “capitalist management” policies (145-52). The severity of the consequences for the peasantry becomes clear upon considering that 80 percent of the Chos?n population consisted of peasants and 70-80 percent of that body were tenant farmers. Irrationally, in Kim’s view, the new “management policies” shifted all fees and taxes (for irrigation, water, seeds, and fertilizers) along with corve onto the already overburdened shoulders of the peasants who, as a result, had to resort to loans from usurious landlords or predatory Japanese moneylenders. While the Japanese claimed to introduce to Korea entrepreneurial principles via the agrarian management policy, in reality, argues Kim, it was a system in which “tenant farmers were controlled and exploited as ‘hired tenants’” at best (167) or “indentured slaves” at worst (152). Reactions to this kind of injustice sprang up once again during the 1920s and 1930s in the form of the Peasant Movement, which evolved into a full-fledged national liberation movement with support from all levels of Korean society. The exploitative nature of Japan’s agrarian policy, as convincingly researched and described in this chapter, clearly betrays the empire’s claims to have introduced “development” to Korean agriculture and “modernity” to Korean society. Japan’s “new system” actually remained as manipulative as Chos?n’s feudal landlordism. In Kim’s conclusions, this means another missed opportunity at resolution and the continued accumulation of unprocessed feudal and imperial sins that led to sharp ideological conflicts after liberation (167).


Chapter 5 (“The Emergence of New Types of Landlords in the Occupation Period” by Hong Sung-Chan) investigates a new landlord typology that emerged during the occupation. These young men largely came from established landlord families who were initially anti-Japanese but then used colonial policies for their own purposes. Many sent their sons to Japan for higher education, which secured them multiple skills in language, finance, and modern business. Upon return to Korea they administered their farming businesses according to modern methods while pushing their families’ estates to the limits of expansion under imperial policies. 


Chapter 6 (“The Decision-Making Process and Implementation of the North Korean Land Reform” by Kim Seong-bo) astutely describes “one of the most rapid and radical land reforms in world history” (207). Of North Korea’s 1.8 million hectares of arable farmland, 55.4 percent was seized from landlords by the Soviet-inspired government and redistributed among some 725,000 peasant households. Within a month in 1946, and without compensation, the landlords were driven out of their property and their land was redistributed to the peasants for use, but not for sale or lease. The old extreme of inequality between peasant and landlord was stood on its head. How did this happen in such a radical manner? To avoid a credibility crisis, from liberation in August 1945 until March 1946, the pro-Soviet regime quickly catered to the demands of a peasant radicalism that still powerfully reverberated from the Chos?n dynasty. The relics of the peasantry’s wounds and the consequences of centuries of neglect came down upon the North with such force that even the communist people’s committees had difficulty curbing peasant radicalism in some counties. The immensity of demand for land reform was swiftly recognized by the communist establishment and utilized toward irreversible division. Although granting radical land reform secured strong support for Kim Il Sung, it did not mean the final word in solving the old injustices between landlord and peasant. The ousted North Korean landlords did not accept the legitimacy of the reform and vowed a counterattack upon the achievement of unification. In large masses they migrated to the right wing-led South from where they would await their chance. The North’s peasants and their comrades could not ignore this threat, and to ensure it never materialized, the issue was granted priority status during the escalation toward the Korean War.


The three chapters of Part III largely serve as examples for early critical, but internationally little-known, work by eminent post-liberation intellectuals Paek Namun (1894-1979), An Chaehong (1891-1965), and Yi Sunt’ak (1897-1950?). From within the lifelong turbulence they faced in East Asia these three figures were transformed from modest traditional family backgrounds to highly educated cosmopolitans with prolific research, philosophical, and political agendas. All three took on the nation’s various needs for reform as representatives not only of a large intellectual circle but also of Korea’s wide potential of human resources actively battling Japanese-imposed research, transplanted capitalist concepts, monopoly and finance capitalism.


Chapter 7 (“Paek Namun and Marxist Scholarship during the Colonial Period” by Pang Kie-chung) discusses how Japan-educated historian and activist Paek denied the validity of stagnation theory and instead demanded Korean autonomy for scholarship on Chos?n (248-302). He established his own empirical and theoretical research agenda and pursued a socialist analysis of Korea’s historical realities to refute Japan’s fabricated claims at Korean “backwardness.” His recommendations for national revival, liberation, and unification were formulated along the lines of Marxist epistemology (which he reinterpreted as the “scientific understanding of Chos?n”) toward peasant-oriented reform, the eradication of social class contradictions, and constant historical self-criticism. Paek had a career as an elder statesman of North Korea’s intellectual circles until his death.


In Chapter 8, “An Chaehong’s Thought and the Politics of the United Front,” Lee Ji-won gives an account of bourgeois nationalist An Chaehong, an activist in favor of broad coalitions who tried to organize movements into cooperative associations (309-348). He was closely allied with the Sin'ganhoe (Enlightenment Faction), which he saw as a precursor to a united grand national party. Because of the weakness of the petite bourgeoisie at the time, this thin middle-class layer, in his view, should have joined with the peasant and laborer class to increase its political power. An placed emphasis on organizing mutually aggregating powers even of opposing interests and called for a united front consisting of rightist bourgeois and leftist socialist forces in the struggle against the Japanese and toward the reform of Korea. His philosophy accepted capitalist modernization but rejected capitalist interests that would destabilize national unity in the manner that the old landlord system had done for so long.


Chapter 9 (“Yi Sunt’ak and Social Democratic Thought in Korea” by Hong Sun-Chan) discusses Yi Sunt’ak, a pro-capitalist Marxist who over his lifetime struggled to reconcile these two different worldviews. This interesting dual-thought constellation led to the political career of a compromiser who attempted to launch a Korean-style social democratic society. Calling for a fundamental reform of capitalism, Yi envisioned a society in which “the gap between rich and poor would be reduced by nationalizing major productive facilities and by distributing goods according to a person’s [needs]” (393). In 1948, Yi became the head of the Syngman Rhee administration's budget Planning Office, a position that he had to run as a political moderate because his social reformist views would have collided with Rhee’s heavyweight right-wingers. His position even landed him in the vice-chair of the drafting committee for South Korea’s land reform, where he proposed a state regulatory function over household property farmland in support of small and medium-scale farmers. In the end, however, he failed in his efforts because he and his fellow moderates in the administration lost influence. Shortly after the outbreak of the Korean War he was kidnapped to the North and never heard from again (356-392).


In a country like Korea, where history has been determined too much by outside forces and too long by inside autocratic justifications, and where self-determined democratic destinations could be pursued only for too short a time, one should not wonder that history is taken very seriously. According to Bruce Cumings in his epilogue to the volume, Koreans have been inculcated with a series of distorted “national” histories that have tried to justify the particular yokes they have carried variously since the late 19th century. Continuously postponing the improvement of the peasant-landlord relationship meant the suffocation of entrepreneurial creativity from below. At a time when Japanese farmers created markets for their own ends, Korean landlords relentlessly wielded their power, “seeking to monopolize production … without spreading and broadening the wealth. Then they collaborated with imperial occupiers to perpetuate their hold on wealth and influence” (404).


In conclusion, the “true” representation of a united Korea by the Korean people has been postponed in sequences from the Tonghak repression, Japanese occupation, sudden liberation, national division, the Korean War, and military regimes in both halves of the peninsula. While the country’s thinkers never became idle in creating and propagating new possible forms of community and nation, outside power constellations never fully had to give up various spheres of dominance that would have allowed for unified sovereignty. Despite impressive portrayals of Korean creativity on the part of intellectuals and citizens and preparedness on the part of leadership, most chapters end on a sad note acknowledging the dire circumstances of sustained social class disparity and national division. This honesty is remarkable in that it bows out of nationalist desires for dirty-garment dyeing, by showing that truth-seeking historiography has much to offer to new aspiring and global generations in both South and North Korea.


In my view the contributors’ approach is further remarkable in that they signal a way out of introverted nationalist approaches to the larger region, in which three economic powerhouses (China, Japan, South Korea) have been emphasizing uncompromising “official” versions of nationalisms that continue to lead to avoidable tensions. With a low birth rate now leaving many seats open at Korean (and Japanese) universities, international students are being courted to attend “globalized degree programs” that simply cannot afford to maintain the old attitudes toward nation. The Yonsei scholars break out of that mold in that they try to show that chest-pounding versions of nationalism are not advisable at a time when political leadership must initiate new thinking in support of integrating East Asia not only economically but, importantly, also socio-culturally.


This regional leadership is now dangerously lagging behind rapid economic growth dynamics that are largely ignorant of the need for constructive society building. Stances such as those taken in Landlords, Peasants, and Intellectuals come at an overdue time, as segments of younger generations of Koreans display a growing acceptance toward a change of thought about “nation” and “nationalism.” The current “waves of sympathy” that the South Korean economy depends upon to ship its goods across Asia and the world, for example, are likely to help privilege a more global vision of the Korean “nation” that hopefully will become more tolerant and inviting than earlier imaginations of national uniqueness, superiority, suffering, and a closed society.



Reinschmidt, Michael 2007
Review of _Landlords, Peasants, and Intellectuals in Modern Korea_, by Pang Kie-Chung and Michael D. Shin (2005).
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 12
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-12.htm <http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-12.htm> 

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