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Security Trumps Ideology

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Comparison of Land Reforms in Japan and South Korea during the U.S. Military Occupation

image of Journal of American-East Asian Relations

An important unresolved issue in U.S. policy in Asia after World War II is the variation in the scale of land reforms in Japan and southern Korea during postwar American military occupation of these nations. The U.S. occupation authority in Japan conducted sweeping land redistribution, while the military government in Korea implemented very limited reform of landholding. This study asserts that the source of the variation lies in the different degrees of security threat to the two U.S. occupations. In Japan, the United States enjoyed a favorable security environment. No political force, either internal or external, challenged the authority of the occupation. Without fear of the islands falling to a hostile rival, U.S. occupation leaders focused on dissolving the concentration of wealth in rural society. By contrast, south of the 38th parallel in Korea, the U.S. occupation had to deal with challenges strong domestic Communist groups posed to its authority. In this unfavorable security environment, land reform might exacerbate existing chaos. The U.S. military government had to accommodate landed conservative elites as its governing partners to counter Communist organizations. Later, these former partners grew strong enough to block U.S. efforts to alter landholding and forced the occupiers to return home after only partial reform.

Affiliations: 1: University of Colorado, Colorado Springs


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