Peasant Protest and Social in Colonial Korea. – Review – book reviews
Soon Won Park
Peasant Protest and Social in Colonial Korea. By Gi-Wook Shin. (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 234. $54.00.)
This is a much-awaited revisionist study of peasant activism and rural social change in colonial Korea. It is a subject that is crucial to understanding the socioeconomic changes in twentieth-century Korea, which has been marked by colonialism, liberation, occupation, war, and rapid industrialization. The author does a good job deconstructing current nationalistic, elitist, colonial historiography on the topic and presents a new, alternative portrait of an enormous mass of Korean peasants, who resisted Japanese rule in terms and modes that were quite distinct from those of the elite.
First, Shin rejects the previous “pauperization-revolution” thesis, which stereotyped the colonial rural condition as a polarization of the exploiting, parasitic landlords and poor, landless tenants. He refers to contemporary debates and concepts about the Asian and Latin American peasantry, and the discussion is further enriched by reconsideration of both the already examined and the neglected unconventional sources of colonial Korean society. Shin successfully illuminates the way in which the early years of colonialism and agricultural commercialization did not polarize but greatly diversified the rural class structure and eventually brought about the demise of the once- powerful landlord class.
Reminding readers that the nature of colonialism in Korea changed over time, Shin describes the tenant protests of the 1920s and 1930s as agrarian class conflict and the red peasant union protest movements of the 1930s as forms of “state-rural society” conflict as well as the “everyday forms of resistance” of the war years. He argues that the nature of tenant disputes in colonial Korea reflected the tenants’ growing class consciousness and ability to exploit opportunities that favorable economic and political conditions offered, rather than anti-colonial, or Communist-led, reactive responses.
Shin’s analysis and discussion of the tension and interaction between the triangular historical variables of the time–the capitalist world market, the colonial state, and the rural social change–is the most fascinating and convincing argument of the book. He argues that the world market crash in the 1929 Great Depression hit hardest the small land-owners–not the landless tenants–altering the rural class structure and the peasants’ relations with the colonial state, which subsequently had a complex effect on Korean peasant radicalism, the colonial state’s policy, and the decline of the landlord class.
Another main strength of the book is that the author puts colonial peasant activism and the changes in the social structure in the larger context of the development of Korean capitalism in the twentieth century. He also shows how continued tenant activism in the 1920s and the 1930s raised class, political, and national consciousness, respectively, among the participants, and the way in which this colonial legacy resurfaced in post-1945 peasant uprisings and radicalism. The consequent land reforms in both North and South Korea finally destroyed the landlord class, creating far more equitable income and land distribution, and brought political stability under strong centralized states that were to become a crucial precondition for the rapid and successful industrialization and economic growth after the 1960s.
With enhanced historical imagination based upon personal affection for the Korean peasantry, a fine grasp of sociological theory, and extensive knowledge of the topic, Shin presents a much enriched portrait of the Korean peasants’ historical role in Korea’s modern century. It is a wonderful addition to the much-needed English language books on colonial Korean society.
Soon Won Park
University of Maryland
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