H-Diplo Article Review 1029- "Independence without Liberation"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1029

9 April 2021

Kornel Chang.  “Independence without Liberation: Democratization as Decolonization Management in U.S.-Occupied Korea, 1945-1948.”  The Journal of American History 107:1 (2020): 77-106. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/jahist/jaaa009.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Cindy Ewing | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by E. Rafael Perez, University of Chicago

Kornel Chang brings to bear a critical appraisal of the United States’ occupation of Korea in what amounts to a worthwhile addition to literature on the immediate aftermath of the division of the Korean Peninsula.[1]  His article situates itself within long-contested debates regarding the origins of conflict on the Korean Peninsula by showing how actions taken by the U.S. occupation forces laid the groundwork for the rise of authoritarian leader Syngman Rhee.  Chang deftly draws from extant literature on the historical processes of decolonization and the Cold War, contributing to the field by posing Korea as a poignant example through which to reassess empire in the post-World War II context.[2]  The impact of this dynamic, Chang contends, poses Korea as a case study in which the U.S. sought to exert “imperial power through the sovereignty of others” (79).  His carefully crafted article frames U.S. involvement in post-independence Korea as a transition “out of colonialism and into a postwar American imperium” (80).  To that end, Chang proposes that decolonization itself was adopted as a strategy of empire-building by the U.S.—one that contended with understandings of independence on the Korean peninsula.  He hints at the subtle continuities between the unraveling of Japanese imperialism and the onset of the U.S. occupation, providing critical context for discussions of U.S. imperial formations in relation to non-European empires, while also leaving space for the historical contingencies of the Cold War to help guide his analysis.  Informed by Cold War logics, local visions of liberation on the peninsula were subsumed within broader currents of global U.S. containment strategy.  The article primarily centers its analysis on records from the Department of State and its advisors and draws on secondary Korean-language scholarship to construct a compelling case for these claims, while providing a useful framework for considering the contexts of decolonization on the Korean Peninsula.  At the same time, the article concludes that the adoption of decolonization management as an imperial strategy was a difficult process that befuddled U.S. advisors and military personnel alike.

Chang’s analysis first considers Korean visions of independence, and efforts to actualize these aspirations, immediately after the war.  These visions manifested, for example, in “loosely coordinated workers’ self-management movement” (82) and land takeovers or the renegotiation of lower rents by peasants (83, 84).  Yet, as Chang notes, these efforts did not ultimately receive support from the Communist vanguard who distrusted a movement led by the masses.  Noting a counterrevolutionary move, Chang charts the response of the U.S. occupation, which came in and “shifted the power back to landlords, industrialists, and colonial bureaucrats” (84).  Presenting a poignant parallel, Chang draws on the commentary of the military government labor adviser Stewart Meacham to show that in the U.S., African-American workers often trained their bosses as they themselves were denied opportunities for career advancement. Meacham foresaw a similar fate for Korean workers in Korea.  This dynamic, then, is linked to the tone-deaf American policy of leaning on Japanese advisors in post-independence Korea—with both situations neatly summarized in a biting and memorable aside: “imperial habits of the mind die hard, if they ever do” (86).  In Chang’s analysis, such a “technocratic liberal approach to labor relations” missed the mark in post-independence Korea (87).  Later uprisings in North Kyŏngsang and Chŏlla Provinces, which were put down under General John R. Hodge’s orders, “institutionalized a police state in the South” (93).  This institutionalization, then, provided the basis for the ascent of authoritarianism, as manifested in Chang’s discussion of elections in southern Korea.

The division of the Korean Peninsula was solidified through Cold War considerations.  The establishment of separate regimes in North and South Korea, supported in different ways by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, was a part of this solidification.  Yet, as Chang notes, such an outcome did not arrive in the South without doubt.  “Why,” Chang muses, “did liberal advisers go along with a plan that would leave the country divided and usher into power the unsavory Rhee, with his own authoritarian tendencies?” (94).  The answer to this question is the combination of a lack of awareness of local contexts and a Cold War commitment by the U.S. to match the advances of the Soviet Union.  The results of the first election in the Republic of Korea, for example, were met with ambivalence by the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK), with representatives from Australia, Canada, India, and Syria expressing doubts regarding the atmosphere in which the election was held.  Nevertheless, the UNTCOK provided an endorsement of the election, thereby legitimating the results and allowing the process to move to constitutional framing.

Noting that the principal drafters of the constitution in South Korea were products of the Japanese educational system, Chang highlights another subtle carryover from the colonial era.  These framers, however, faced stiff resistance from Rhee, who sought more executive power and was willing to engage in antigovernment activism to achieve this goal (103).  Chang relates Rhee’s rise to his vision to establish a government in the South to use it as a base to reunify the peninsula, with particular attention to how U.S. actions “paved the way for authoritarian rule in the South” (105).  Crucially, in deciding the role of the U.S. occupation in the Rhee’s rise, Chang notes that the “United States instrumentalized democratization as an exit strategy,” (105) setting the stage for the support of Rhee’s ascent.  Advisers from the U.S., caught in a bind, reformulated their engagement with the belief that democratic elections were a desired outcome.  Once elections were held under these circumstances within a still-divided peninsula, the stage was presumably set for a U.S. exit strategy that would leave South Korea within a U.S. sphere of influence.

If there is one area of exploration that might have enriched this conceptually pathbreaking article, it would involve a more robust discussion of alternative visions of leadership during this time—and the varying conceptions of liberation that these visions entailed.  The vision of reunification advocate, politician, and writer Yŏ Un-hyŏng, for example, is often framed as left-centrist.[3]  Before his assassination in 1947, he came in and out of public view advocating for the unification of the Korean Peninsula on its own terms. Taking into account Chang’s generative framework, which engages decolonization and the Cold War, how might the hub of U.S. occupation and its spokes have interacted with this position? This is not to say that Chang does not engage with alternative visions of liberation at all.  Within the scope of the article, it is understandable that the inclusion of rightists Kim Ku and Kim Kyusik serves as a gesture towards the range of political positions that went beyond discussion of the rise of Rhee Syngman.  Further engagement with the kaleidoscopic visions of liberation that were available post-independence provide another entry point into considering the range of possible futures in the transitional moment Chang seeks to investigate.

The article provides a useful framework for scholars who seek to consider the process of decolonization on the Korean Peninsula and all its attendant contingencies.  There is much for interested readers in this article, especially as it seeks to reframe oft-contested areas of modern Korean history.  Chang’s conclusion highlights how an empire without colonies “was built upon the foundation of decolonization without liberation.” (106).  How might this formulation apply to administrative capacities as they were deployed throughout the decolonizing world after World War II?  Chang’s article provides fertile ground for exploration and debate regarding U.S. appropriation of the process of decolonization in Cold War contexts.


E. Rafael Perez is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago.  He studies Cold War representations of a divided Korean Peninsula as conveyed in diplomatic relations among nations of the global South.



[1] For an introduction to the varied perspectives on this matter, see especially Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); and early portions of Wada Haruki, The Korean War: an International History, trans. Frank Baldwin (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2014); and Sheila Miyoshi Jager, Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

[2] See, for example, Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Matthew Connelly, “Taking Off the Cold War Lens: Visions of North-South Conflict during the Algerian War for Independence,” American Historical Review 105 (June 2000), 739-69; Heonik Kwon, The Other Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[3] See, for example, Yi Ki-hyŏng, Yŏ Un-hyŏng (Sŏul: T’ŭkpyŏlsi: Ch’angjaksa, 1988) and Yi, Mongyang Yŏ Un-hyŏng (Sŏul: Silch’ŏn Munhaksa, 1984).