Korea-Japan 1910-1945: Japanese Colonial Terror

August 22nd marks one hundred years since the papers were signed to bring Korea definitely under Japanese rule; one week later the treaty was activated. Thirty-five years the Koreans were suppressed violently by their colonizer. The anniversary is an ideal moment for the Koreans to reflect on the Japanese once again as ‘those cruel people who hurt us so much’. First in the series Korea-Japan 1910-1945: a quick course Korea-Japan for dummies.

To understand the relationship between Korea and Japan we have to go back way beyond 1910. For a long time, countries like The Netherlands, England, France and Spain were very successful in conquering new territories all over the world. The extremely reclusive Japanese Empire was unaware of all these events until 1854 when the Americans forced a treaty upon the Japanese, assuring the Americans a safe harbor for their ships in cases it becomes necessary. Japan woke up to the realization that western countries were conquering many others, which was boosting their economies. The modernization wasn’t only meant for self protection against invasions, but above all to join the game on the world colonization market. Although the changes caused a lot of resistance in the country, Japan soon pushed their quick course western modernizing through. In the end Japan felt strong and powerful enough to sail out.

The first logical step was to secure Korea as soon as possible considering its attractive location. Before other powers would take Korea, Japan began its missions to do so. Using military force, they coerced a treaty upon the Koreans releasing the trade between the two countries. With that, the Japanese did exactly the same as was done to them by the Americans in 1854, but counter to the outcome of that on the Japanese, for the Koreans this meant the beginning of the end of their sovereignty. To increase their power overseas, it was important to turn the pro-Chinese attitude in Korea towards a pro-Japanese one.

It helped that China was weakened by invasions of the British and the French. A severe drought that brought Korea into a situation of hunger and misery created a good opportunity for Japan to expand its power and push the Chinese back. Many Koreans turned against the presence of the Japanese, and Chinese forces were being requested by conservative Korean officials to put down the Japanese and pro-Japanese Koreans. The polarization in Korea grew, eventually leading to the Sino-Japanese war in 1894 that was fought on Korean soil. King Gojong called upon Chinese troops to calm down resistance groups; according to the Japanese, Gojong’s action was against the treaty. This was yet another reason to push pro-Japanese politicians into the government, in which they succeeded.

Queen Min (Myeongseong), Gojong’s wife, didn’t really appreciate the Japanese presence and turned to the Russians to create more resistance against it. Of course her mission was a thorn in the side for the Japanese who would rather see her dead than alive – a plan to assassinate her followed. Generally assumed is that the Japanese minister of Korean-Japanese affairs organized the assassination. The queen was murdered and the corpse immediately burned. The pressure on widower Gojong increased. The antique Chinese influence was pushed back and Japanese modernization was forced upon the Koreans more and more. In 1897 under heavy influence of Japan, Korea became a constitutional monarchy. This meant the end of the Joseon Dynasty that had endured for 505 years. The Chinese royal system was replaced by the Japanese emperor system, leaving Gojong no longer king, but from then on, emperor of the Korean Empire.

So far, so good. Past decades Japan had been successful in their mission. They were hungry for more. For the thirteen years that followed, Japan increased the influence of their adopted western-capitalist systems. As in the west, Korea went towards industrialization – in 1904 the first treaty was signed turning Korea into a protectorate of Japan. Also, Japan waged war against Russia, who also had interest in a presence in Korea, which was unwanted competition for the Japanese. Japan succeeded: the Russians were pushed out – which, by the way, was a very important trigger of the civilian resistance in Russia that eventually introduced communism. Though many Koreans were pro-Japanese or at least acted so, there was plenty of resistance among civilians and politicians towards them. In the eyes of the Japanese, this caused an unwanted delay in their mission to modernize the country. In 1907, Gojong was forced to retreat to be succeeded by his son Sunjong after Gojong organized a – failed – mission to the peace convention in The Hage in which he pleaded for a sovereign Korean state, by which he didn’t make himself very popular among the Japanese. Eventually, papers were signed on the 22nd of August, 1910 that annexed Korea and placed it under full rule of the Japanese government starting one week later.

From then on, the Big Japanization really could become serious. And that didn’t always go in peaceful ways. The 35 years that followed were bloody, especially with Korean independent movements that were brutally suppressed. Independent fighters could count on imprisonment and torture. Also, Koreans gave up their Korean names in trade for a Japanese one. Voluntarily, according to the papers, but those who kept their Korean names faced aggressive harassment and misery. Japan also made education available for more classes in society, yet it was fully focused on Japan, rendering Korean history practically erased from the books. Modeled to Western European standards, industrialization continued and infrastructure improved so the industry that was now nearly fully in Japanese hands could flourish. In 1940, the new world order as the Nazi’s had in mind, sounded good to the Japanese and they then became allies with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. With the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, not only did the Japanese loose Korea and many other new territories which they conquered in Asia in the war – also their own empire fell and was changed into a constitutional monarchy. A proper chance for Korea to gain its own independence never occurred. The Americans and the Soviets did rid themselves of the Japanese, but like the Japanese, they also had interest in Korea. Both the Americans and the Soviets wanted to make Korea their own and so the next tragic chapter in Korean history begins…