The Post-World War I Reconstruction Debate in 1920s Colonial Korea

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:50 AM
Room 103 (Hynes Convention Center)
Ellie Y. Choi , Smith College, Cambridge, MA
The looming question for intellectuals in colonized Korean after the failed March 1st 1919 Movement against Japanese rule was how to distill and maintain a Korean demos free from colonial government intervention while at the same time achieving capitalist modernization. The post-WWI call for national reconstruction circulated in Korea with earlier social Darwinist, self-strengthening imperatives.  Colonial elites were philosophically attracted to the social visions of Western liberals like Bertrand Russell and John Dewey who did not believe in sweeping top-down solutions. However, at the level of practice, they had to look towards the strong Meiji interventionist model in effecting real changes in political structure, law, economy, and education.

Whether it was the liberalism of the Pragmatists, the culturalism of the Japanese Neo-Kantians, or the “social syndicalism” of Gustave Le Bon, the larger global critique of Western modernity in the post WWI era sheds light on the local Korean cultural nationalist political sphere, and vice versa.  These modernisms were different strategies debated at the local level by 1920s intellectuals who were unwilling to relinquish the day’s social problems to the leftist challenge, but yet were unable to apply Western liberal social visions to a colonial setting which had not yet “completed” capitalist modernization.  This was not surprising considering that many Korean nationalists had been schooled in a 1910s Taisho intellectual climate of an imperial metropole that was torn by similar polarities.  The interplay of liberal and conservative modernities was represented, for example, in the conservative statism of Tokutomi Soho versus the liberal views of Tokyo University professor Yoshino Sakuzō.  Ultimately, however, cultural nationalists like Yi Kwangsu (1892-1950) called for an illiberal top-down interventionism for colonial Korea by taking from political models as seemingly incongruous as Gandhi’s Swaraj and Mussolini’s Italy.