Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894-1945

Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894-1945

by Kyung Moon Hwang

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The first book to explore the institutional, ideological, and conceptual development of the modern state on the peninsula, Rationalizing Korea analyzes the state’s relationship to five social sectors, each through a distinctive interpretive theme: economy (developmentalism), religion (secularization), education (public schooling), population (registration), and public health (disease control). Kyung Moon Hwang argues that while this formative process resulted in a more commanding and systematic state, it was also highly fragmented, socially embedded, and driven by competing, often conflicting rationalizations, including those of Confucian statecraft and legitimation. Such outcomes reflected the acute experience of imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, and other sweeping forces of the era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288317
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/29/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kyung Moon Hwang is a professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California. He is the author of A History of Korea: An Episodic Narrative and Beyond Birth: Social Status in the Emergence of Modern Korea and coeditor of Contentious Kwangju: The May 18 Uprising in Korea’s Past and Present.

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Rationalizing Korea

The Rise of the Modern State, 1894â"1945

By Kyung Moon Hwang


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96327-6


State Making under Imperialism


THE STATE IN KOREA UNDERWENT more major changes at the turn of the twentieth century than it had the previous three centuries. Following the devastating Hideyoshi invasions of the 1590s and the Manchu conquests a few decades later, the late Joseon state had settled into a stable form by the latter seventeenth century. For two hundred years thereafter, there were no major revisions in the governing form, which reflected the general stability of the internal order and the protracted peace in East Asia. This relative calm was shattered by domestic uprisings and the pressures from abroad in the second half of the nineteenth century, and in less than a decade following the Korean court's capitulation to Japanese demands for trade and diplomatic intercourse in 1876, the central administration substantially expanded to meet the functional needs of the new era. Another decade later, in the mid-1890s, a sweeping set of reforms altered forever the basic organization of the Korean state. Thereafter, a series of political dislocations hit the peninsula, resulting in the further dissolution of Korea's long-standing governing order through the force of Japanese imperialism. By the 1930s, the state structure, represented by an imposing colonial rule, appeared to have retained only a few traces of the Joseon era.

To be sure, the Joseon dynastic state was itself a formidable institution, comprising a highly systematic collection of hierarchically arranged organs responsible for deliberative, juridical, and managerial functions. These agencies extracted resources (both material and human), exercised policing and defense functions, and governed social interaction within the state's sovereign territory. The long history of such a centralized administration, in fact, firmly cemented durable, normative patterns of state authority. Nevertheless, the Joseon system was also rationalized toward definitively ancient ideals, and in committed conformity to the neo-Confucian social ethos.

The late nineteenth century, an era characterized by persistent contact with foreign influences beyond China, brought forth a re-rationalization of this state structure in accordance with a new set of guiding principles rooted in imperialism: first, an overriding concern to relieve external and, to an extent, resultant internal pressures through the creation of new governing functions and institutions, often in emulation of the Meiji Japanese state; then, soon after the turn of the twentieth century, the implementation, under Japanese control, of a more coercive and penetrative state that sought to maximize the interests of foreign rule. The increasing breadth of state responsibilities, which accompanied the diversification of society and economy, also necessitated an enormous expansion of the state itself, whether measured in personnel or material inputs, or in the degree of social presence and intervention. Over the colonial period (1910–45), the state grew fourfold in personnel, over twofold in personnel relative to population, and over twenty-fold in invested financial resources, establishing a regime that far exceeded the scope and mobilizational capacity of any Korean administration that had preceded it.

Much of this increase took place in the final decade or so of the colonial era, when military expansionism turned the state into a mechanism for wartime mobilization. As this chapter will show through its explorations of the wartime state as well as of systematic land surveys both before and after the annexation, the colonial state's remarkable growth was, in many ways, an extension of the trajectory, largely drawn by military imperatives, that had begun in the late nineteenth century. At another level, however, two features of the state's development belied notions of progressive rationalization and systematization: the fragmentary, oft en bifurcated structure of the central state from the late Joseon era through the reforms culminating in the establishment of the Government-General in 1910; and the organizational disjunctures of foreign rule itself, as the challenges of implanting and normalizing a conquest state resulted in multiple, oft en divergent demands tugging at the colonial regime.

The Joseon Central Administration and Tongni Amun Agencies of the 1880s

The reign of the monarch, Gojong (1864–1907), witnessed the emergence of a central state system in Korea that stood in stark contrast to the Joseon model that he had inherited (see appendix). Indeed, the comprehensive changes to the governing order during Gojong's forty-four years on the throne appear all the more extraordinary considering that the existing structure — notwithstanding the abuses associated with the dominance of royal in-law clans in the nineteenth century — was not a despotic tool but rather a systematic organization constructed in emulation of a definitive model found in classical sources. When the final Joseon revision to the dynastic legal code, the Daejeon hoetong, was promulgated in the second year of King Gojong's reign (1865), the central organization that it decreed differed little from the basic form inscribed in the original dynastic code, the Gyeongguk daejeon of 1471. However, by the 1880s, as demonstrated in the establishment of the Tongni amun agencies, new government organs were created to meet functional needs that the old Joseon system clearly could not have foreseen, much less accommodate.

The character of Joseon statecraft can be labeled as "Korean-Confucian," a mixture of Confucian ideals and aristocratic interests, which in turn stemmed from ancient Korean patterns of social hierarchy as well as immediate political considerations regarding political access. It reflected a conscious, deliberate emulation of the models of ancient China, as found in the Confucian canonical texts such as the Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), as well as both Chinese and Korean interpretations of this tradition. The enduring supremacy of such principles was ensured through the recruitment and promotion system, centered on the state examinations, which tested and reviewed potential appointees on their familiarity with these ideals. The abolition of the examinations by the Gabo Reforms in 1894 thus heralded a major rupture not only in personnel recruitment but in the principles of governance as well.

The Gabo Reforms departed from the Joseon model also in more tightly concentrating administrative authority. The Joseon state, while incorporating the localities under the systematic supervision of the central state, had also allowed room for three separate divisions of government — the High State Council (Uijeongbu), the Six Boards (Yukjo), and a third group comprising the censoring organs as well as the Royal Secretariat (Seungjeongwon) — to jostle for authority. In the seventeenth century the High State Council, while remaining in existence, was replaced by the Border Defense Command (Bibyeonsa) as the supreme deliberative body, but most of the officials overlapped between these two agencies. Such a system of checks and balances, which extended in general to the relationship between the monarch and the officialdom, might have been critical to the stability and longevity of the Joseon ruling mechanism, but the competition between the deliberative and administrative branches, in particular, helped also to fragment central authority. After King Taejong, the third Joseon monarch, instituted the basic model of the High State Council–Six Boards system, a series of struggles ensued during the fifteenth century over the precise hierarchy of these two branches, fueled by competing interpretations of the Confucian canon and by the interests of individual monarchs, who preferred either a joint custody of supreme deliberative authority or domination by one of the two sides. Meanwhile, the Three Censoring Organs (Samsa), staff ed by ardent young Confucian idealists recruited through the examination system, came to grow sufficiently in stature to wield considerable clout. The power of the censoring organs in turn reinforced the primacy of especially the Board of Personnel and the Board of Rites as the representative administrative organs of Korean-Confucian statecraft, and the fact that neither agency survived the reforms of the late nineteenth century reflected their incompatibility with the era of imperialism. Thus emerged the Tongni amun organs of the 1880s.

The new Tongni amun agencies, modeled after the Zongli geguo shiwu yamen of Qing China, undertook a comprehensive range of new responsibilities associated with foreign contact. The Tongni gimu amun, the first of these agencies, was founded in late 1880 with twelve departments, including those for diplomacy, military affairs, and border control, as well as those for machinery production (Gigyesa), foreign language instruction (Eohaksa), and trade (Tongsangsa). A reduction in the number of departments to seven in late 1881 also eliminated the diplomatic distinction between China and other countries, including Japan, through the creation of a singular Diplomacy Department (Dongmunsa). In late 1882 this agency was replaced by two new Tongni amun organs: the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Officially, both fell under the jurisdiction of the High State Council, but like their predecessor, their authority superseded that of other organs, and the highest-ranking officials served in the Tongni amun positions while maintaining their posts in the traditional organs.

By assuming a broad range of duties assigned to the Six Boards as well as new functions made urgent by persistent contact with the outside world, the Home Office and Foreign Office of the 1880s expressed the drive to strengthen the Korean state's position both domestically and externally through institutional restructuring. They also demonstrated the willingness of the Korean monarch and his reformist officials to meet the needs of "self-strengthening" in the new era. In so doing, the Tongni amun agencies also showed the inadequacies of the Joseon institutional layout, in the age of sustained external contact and competition, for fostering advances in technology, military readiness, and education. The greater significance of the Foreign Office and Home Office, then, lay in their signaling the beginning of the end of the Joseon state order.

Gabo Reforms

Through two main stages in a short span of one-and-a-half years, the Gabo Reforms of 1894 to 1895 — or early 1896 in the newly instituted Gregorian calendar — built on the innovations of the Tongni amun agencies and instituted a wholesale renovation of the Korean state. This system would survive in modified form for another decade, and arguably, another five decades, as the basic structure of central administration on the peninsula. The Gabo Reforms began with the enactments of the Deliberative Assembly, or Gunguk gimucheo ("Military state command"), which was established in the summer of 1894 following the occupation of the capital by Japanese troops in advance of their war against China. A provisional organ of approximately twenty councilors, the Deliberative Assembly exercised sweeping powers and, in only a few months, enacted over two hundred directives that amounted to an all-encompassing reordering of state and society.

In addition to eliminating slavery and the Joseon examination system, which were perhaps the most prominent reforms, the Deliberative Assembly erected a new system of central administration, which combined the former High State Council and Six Boards arrangement into a cabinet system, albeit one still overseen nominally by the High State Council, while eliminating the censoring agencies. In one fell swoop, all organs of the sprawling central bureaucracy from the 1880s, except for the Royal Household Ministry, coalesced into a single state administration. The cabinet was headed by the premier (Chongni daesin) and included the ministers of state (Daesin) of eight ministries (amun): Home Affairs, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Military, Legal Affairs, Trade and Industry, Public Works, and Education. The second Gabo government, formed in late 1894 — and now including leaders, like Seo Gwangbom, of the failed Gapsin Coup of 1884 who had returned from Japanese exile — took further steps at administrative streamlining, consolidation, and renaming the following year.

Perhaps the most consequential series of organizational reforms came in the area of finances. In the late Joseon system the motley sources of tax revenue were handled by not only the Board of Taxation but also organs such as the Board of War. This fracturing of fiscal authority had been cited by Korean reformers as one of the root causes of the administrative weakness and widespread corruption of the nineteenth century. Among the first steps taken by the Deliberative Assembly in the summer of 1894 was to separate the fiscal and other affairs of the newly created Royal Household Ministry (Gungnaebu), which contained the numerous agencies catering to the monarchy, from those of the central government. The consolidation of all fiscal administration in the Ministry of Finances (Takji amun, then Takjibu) was to follow in early 1895, along with the implementation of a modern "accounting law" (hoegyebeop) that eliminated ad hoc or miscellaneous taxes, standardized practices of written authorization for revenue collection and expenditures, required annualized budgets and updated ledgers, and funneled all financial affairs, with very few exceptions, through the ministry.

Notwithstanding the overt reliance on Japanese models, it is difficult to deny the epochal significance of the Gabo Reforms, for they re-rationalized the state structure from one in accordance with the Korean-Confucian ethos and ancient models to one driven by the geopolitical pressures of imperialism. The Koreans spearheading these reforms — most prominently, Bak Yeonghyo, Yu Giljun, Yun Chiho, and Seo Jaepil — undertook a conscious, determined effort to dislodge society and polity from the Joseon system, and to erect a state designed to secure Korean autonomy and spur economic, social, and cultural developments along the lines of external models. These goals would remain central to state restructuring efforts thereafter, even as political control shift ed from one group to another, and even after the resurgence of the Crown re-fragmented the central state.

Korean Empire Period (1896–1905)

The monarch's flight from the court, controlled by Japanese-backed officials, to the Russian consulate in February of 1896 triggered a widespread backlash against the Gabo Reforms and brought down the final Gabo cabinet, chasing most of its leaders to Japan. In the central government, however, the anti-Gabo atmosphere proved more powerful in sweeping away the people associated with the Reforms than the institutions. (Indeed, some Gabo figures were retained in influential positions.) The basic structure, authority, and thrust of the Gabo state would persist throughout the subsequent Great Korean Empire, or Daehan jeguk, which was declared in the fall of 1897 as the new name and form of the Korean state, headed by a monarch now invested as an emperor. Concurring mostly with the 1897–1907 period of Gwangmu ("Glorious military"), in reference to the new reign for the old monarch, Gojong, the Korean Empire continued the Yi dynasty but changed the official name of the country as well as the character of the state itself.

Most notably, the imperial state, until the onset of the Japanese protectorate in 1905, was bifurcated and dominated by the monarchy — or more specifically, the Royal Household Ministry (Gungnaebu) and the various agencies and authorities under its command. The leaders of the Gabo Reforms likely did not imagine that their establishment of a Royal Household Ministry as a way to rationalize, through separation, the Crown's relationship to the government would lead to the incremental appropriation of much of the state's powers by the monarchy. Indeed, by the end of the Gwangmu period in 1907, approximately 150 organizational amendments had appropriated new powers for the Royal Household Ministry. And the Gabo state's segregation of the royal household's fiscal affairs into the Office of Crown Properties (Naejangwon), within the Royal Household Ministry, had the ironic affect ultimately of strengthening not the central government's finances but rather that of the monarchy. The Office of Crown Properties, under the direction of Yi Yongik, came to act as an independent bookkeeping entity, and within a few years it appropriated numerous sources of tax revenue from the central government and organized the Crown's vast landholdings and monopolies into a formidable financial basis. By the opening years of the twentieth century the royal household took control of the leasing of mining and fishing rights, railroad concessions, and even the national mint. Such proactive management of the Crown's financial resources also established the pattern of close state command over the macroeconomy that was to continue through the colonial period (see chapter 4).


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Romanization and Translations



1 • State Making under Imperialism: Fragmentation and Consolidation in the Central State
2 • Th e Centrality of the Periphery: Developing the Provincial and Local State
3 • Constructing Legitimacy: Symbolic Authority and Ideological Engineering


4 • State and Economy: Developmentalism
5 • State and Religion: Secularization and Pluralism
6 • Public Schooling: Cultivating Citizenship Education
7 • Population Management: Registration, Classification, and the Remaking of Society
8 • Public Health and Biopolitics: Discipliningthrough Disease Control


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