THE following are excerpts from The Economic History of Korea, by Myung Soo Cha of Yeungnam University.
Under the heading of Dynamic Degeneration, which refers to the Chosun Dynasty:
“Population growth came to a halt around 1800, and a century of demographic stagnation followed due to a higher level of mortality. During the nineteenth century, living standards appeared to deteriorate. Both wages and rents fell, tax receipts shrank, and budget deficits expanded, forcing the government to resort to debasement. Peasant rebellions occurred more frequently, and poor peasants left Korea for northern China.
“Given that both acreage and population remained stable during the nineteenth century, the worsening living standards imply that the aggregate output contracted, because land and labor were being used in an ever more inefficient way. The decline in efficiency appeared to have much to do with disintegrating system of water control, which included flood control and irrigation.”
The next heading is Colonial Transition to Modern Economic Growth:
“Less than two decades after having been opened by Commodore Perry, Japan first made its ambitions about Korea known by forcing the country open to trade in 1876. Defeating Russia in the war of 1905, Japan virtually annexed Korea, which was made official five years later. What replaced the feeble and predatory bureaucracy of the ChosǑn dynasty was a developmental state. Drawing on the Meiji government’s experience, the colonial state introduced a set of expensive policy measures to modernize Korea. One important project was to improve infrastructure: railway lines were extended, and roads and harbors and communication networks were improved, which rapidly integrated goods and factor markets both nationally and internationally. Another project was a vigorous health campaign: the colonial government improved public hygiene, introduced modern medicine, and built hospitals, significantly accelerating the mortality decline set in motion around 1890, apparently by the introduction of the smallpox vaccination. The mortality transition resulted in a population expanding 1.4% per year during the colonial period. The third project was to revamp education. As modern teaching institutions quickly replaced traditional schools teaching Chinese classics, primary school enrollment ration rose from 1 percent in 1910 to 47 percent in 1943. Finally, the cadastral survey (1910-18) modernized and legalized property rights to land, which boosted not only the efficiency in land use, but also tax revenue from landowners. These modernization efforts generated sizable public deficits, which the colonial government could finance partly by floating bonds in Japan and partly by unilateral transfers from the Japanese government.
“The colonial government implemented industrial policy as well. The Rice Production Development Program (1920-1933), a policy response to the Rice Riots in Japan in 1918, was aimed at increasing rice supply within the Japanese empire. In colonial Korea, the program placed particular emphasis upon reversing the decay in water control. The colonial government provided subsidies for irrigation projects, and set up institutions to lower information, negotiation, and enforcement costs in building new waterways and reservoirs. Improved irrigation made it possible for peasants to grow high yielding rice seed varieties. Completion of a chemical fertilizer factory in 1927 increased the use of fertilizer, further boosting the yields from the new type of rice seeds. Rice prices fell rapidly in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the wake of the world agricultural depression, leading to the suspension of the program in 1933.
“Despite the Rice Program, the structure of the colonial economy has been shifting away from agriculture towards manufacturing ever since the beginning of the colonial rule at a consistent pace. From 1911-40 the share of manufacturing in GDP increased from 6 percent to 28 percent, and the share of agriculture fell from 76 percent to 41 percent. Major causes of the structural change included diffusion of modern manufacturing technology, the world agricultural depression shifting the terms of trade in favor of manufacturing, and Japan’s early recovery from the Great Depression generating an investment boom in the colony. Also Korea’s cheap labor and natural resources and the introduction of controls on output and investment in Japan to mitigate the impact of the Depression helped attract direct investment in the colony. Finally, subjugating party politicians and pushing Japan into the Second World War with the invasion of China in 1937, the Japanese military began to develop northern parts of Korea peninsula as an industrial base producing munitions.
“The institutional modernization, technological diffusion, and the inflow of Japanese capital put an end to the Malthusian degeneration and pushed Korea onto the path of modern economic growth. Both rents and wages stopped falling and started to rise from the early twentieth century. As the population explosion made labor increasingly abundant vis-a-vis land, rents increased more rapidly than wages, suggesting that income distribution became less equal during the colonial period. Per capita output rose faster than one percent per year from 1911-38.
“Per capita grain consumption declined during the colonial period, providing grounds for traditional criticism of the Japanese colonialism exploiting Korea. However, per capita real consumption increased, due to rising non-grain and non-good consumption, and Koreans were also getting better education and living longer. In the late 1920s, life expectancy at birth was 37 years, an estimate several years longer than in China and almost ten years shorter than in Japan. Life expectancy increased to 43 years at the end of the colonial period. Male mean stature was slightly higher than 160 centimeters at the end of the 1920s, a number not significantly different from the Chinese or Japanese height, and appeared to become shorter during the latter half of the colonial period.”
It concludes with the heading South Korean Prosperity:
“In the quarter century following the policy shift in the early 1960s, the South Korean per capita output grew at an unusually rapid rate of 7 percent per year, a growth performance paralleled only by Taiwan and two city-states, Hong Kong and Singapore. The portion of South Koreans enjoying the benefits of the growth increased more rapidly from the end of 1970s, when the rising trend in the Gini coefficient (which measures the inequality of income distribution) since the colonial period was reversed. The growth was attributable far more to increased use of productive inputs — physical capital in particular — than to productivity advances. The rapid capital accumulation was driven by an increasingly high savings rate due to a falling dependency ratio, a lagged outcome of rapidly falling mortality during the colonial period. The high growth was also aided by accumulation of human capital, which started with the introduction of modern education under the Japanese rule. Finally, the South Korean developmental state, as symbolized by Park Chung Hee, a former officer of the Japanese Imperial army serving in wartime Manchuria, was closely modeled upon the colonial system of government. In short, South Korea grew on the shoulders of the colonial achievement, rather than emerging out of the ashes left by the Korean War, as is sometimes asserted.”
The South Koreans have installed a billboard on Times Square in New York demanding that the Japanese Emperor get down on his knees and apologize for his nation’s crimes in Korea as Willy Brandt did in Warsaw. (It is coupled with a billboard for a bibimbap restaurant. Synergistic advertising.)
Getting down on one’s knees is the appropriate reaction, but they’ve got the actors confused. South Koreans should get down on their knees and thank the nation of the Japanese Emperor that the people in Seoul and Busan don’t live like the people in Pyeongyang. (At least the ones not sympathetic to the Kim Dynasty should.)
But that wouldn’t be necessary. The Japanese would probably be fine to let the dead bury the dead, look to the future, and just get on with it.