THE YEARS BETWEEN the collapse of the United Front in the fall of 1931 and the outbreak of the war with China in 1937 brought colonial Korea’s ironies and contradictions into sharp focus. While the fall of the United Front meant the collapse of overt nationalist resistance, what emerged in its place was a more violent anti-Japanese movement represented by the guerrilla movement in Manchuria and the Red Peasant Unions in the far northeast of the peninsula. Japan’s seizure of Manchuria in 1931 altered Korea’s position in the empire, for Korea then became a middleman in the empire’s development of northeast China’s vast untapped resources. The subsequent, seemingly anomalous industrialization of North Korea provided new jobs for peasants, but at the price of dislocating them from the densely populated south and moving them to the north; furthermore, Korea’s industrial labor force expanded simultaneously with the deepening immiseration of the Korean countryside. Finally this period witnessed the flowering of a capitalist mass culture in Korea’s cities, a popular culture providing the façade of a modernity that had evolved unevenly in the colony. The alluring consumer culture and glittering nightlife in the cities contrasted with abject poverty in the countryside, symbolizing each end of the economic spectrum of a dual economy—dual in the sense that parts of Seoul were as modern as anything in Tokyo, yet in rural backwaters profound poverty and wretched material conditions remained unchanged from the nineteenth century.
The addition of Manchuria caused large-scale shifts within the Japanese Empire. Increasingly isolated in world affairs and threatened by economic isolation as trading nations erected tariff barriers to protect their own economies, Japan began to create an autarkic economy formed around its colonies. The main axis of this system ran from Japan proper through Korea and Manchuria, with Taiwan playing an important, but less crucial role. Because Korea was more firmly integrated politically, had a more developed infrastructure, and was labor rich—not to mention its being geographically central—Japan began to industrialize Korea in order to exploit the raw materials of Manchuria. The state-led industrialization of Korea in the 1930s was an anomaly in colonial history. No colony had ever before been industrialized to the level of Japan’s Korea colony, a process that shifted labor from the densely populated south to the sites of huge new factories in northern Korea and Manchuria and spurred urban growth as well.
The increasing economic importance of Korea within the empire motivated Japan to intensify its efforts to spread Japanese values, language, and institutions within the colony. By the mid-1930s Japanese authorities were demanding active Korean participation in Shinto ceremonies, stepping up the pressure within the education system to spread Japanese language use, and trying to eliminate the last differences in legal and administrative practices that distinguished the Japanese naichi (inner lands) from the colonial gaichi (outer lands). The goal in the minds of colonial officials was a seamless cultural, legal, and administrative assimilation of Korea, and where this could not be accomplished in reality, cosmetic fiction would do. This was especially true in the dark years of the Pacific War (1941–1945), when the Japanese assimilation policies became increasingly hysterical and unrealistic.
By the end of the colonial period in 1945, Korean society [like Japan—J.] was suffering under a cripplingly harsh mobilization for total war. It was no consolation that the Japanese Diet had recommended the complete elimination of the distinction between naichi and gaichi, or true Japanese from their imperial subjects on the periphery. [One might say the same for the distinction between soldiers and civilians—J.] Becoming assimilated meant that Koreans would be allowed the same privileges to sacrifice for the emperor granted the citizenry of the main islands—namely, to be conscripted for the military and labor forces, to render their rice and precious metals to the imperial treasury, and to be forcefully moved wherever manpower was needed. Of course while distinctions disappeared in theory, Koreans and other colonials still carried identity cards designating their ethnicity.