The Colonial Transformation of Korean Society
The social strata of the Chosn Dynasty and the family system
were sustained by a highly stable environment composed, for the
most part, of rural communities. The Hermit Kingdom, as it was
called by Westerners, had very little contact with the outside
world even in the late nineteenth century. Rapid changes,
however, occurred during the Japanese colonial period, which
disrupted the centuries-old ways of life and caused considerable
These changes were particularly disruptive in rural areas.
Traditionally, all land belonged to the king and was granted by
him to his subjects. Although specific tracts of land tended to
remain within the same family from generation to generation
(including communal land owned by clans and lineages), land
occupancy, use, and ownership patterns were often ambiguous and
varied from one part of the country to another. Land was not
Between 1910 and 1920, the Japanese carried out a
comprehensive land survey in order to place land ownership on a
modern legal footing. Farmers who had tilled the same land for
generations but could not prove ownership had their land
confiscated. Such land ended up in the hands of the colonial
government, to be sold to Japanese enterprises such as the
Oriental Development Company or to Japanese immigrants.
These policies forced many Koreans to emigrate overseas or to
become tenant farmers. Still other Koreans fled to the hills to
become "fire field," or slash-and-burn, farmers, living under
extremely harsh and primitive conditions. By 1936 there were more
than 1.5 million slash-and-burn farmers. Other former farmers
moved to urban areas to work in factories.
The fortunes of the yangban elite were mixed. Some
prospered under the Japanese as landlords or even entrepreneurs.
Those yangban who remained aloof from their country's new
overlords, however, often fell into poverty. A few Koreans
educated in modern Japanese or foreign missionary schools formed
the nucleus of a modern middle class.
The Japanese built railroads and highways--a logistic system-
-and schools and hospitals. A modern system of administration was
established to link the colonial economy more effectively with
that of Japan. These changes also fostered employment for Koreans
as mid- and lower-level civil servants and technicians. During
the 1930s and early 1940s, industrial development projects,
especially in the border area between Korea and China, employed
thousands of Koreans as workers and lower level industrial
managers. All the top posts were held by Japanese; prewar and
wartime industrialization nevertheless created new classes of
workers and managers.
At the end of World War II, Korea's traditional social
fabric, based on rural communities and stable social hierarchies,
was tattered but not entirely destroyed. In South Korea, the
traditional social system survived, although drastically altered
by urbanization and economic development. In North Korea, an
occupation by Soviet troops, the communist revolution, and the
rule of Kim Il Sung, transformed the society.
Data as of June 1993