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16: Imperial reconstruction and deconstruction in Asia

World War II had especially pronounced consequences for imperialism in Asia. British, French and Dutch empires were all deeply shaken by Japan's military successes in Malaya, Indochina and the Dutch East Indies in the early 1940s. In 1945, defeat for Japan involved the forcible renunciation of empire as Japanese troops were demobilized and shipped home, at US insistence, along with Japanese nationals scattered across Japan's former imperial archipelago in Asia.

While the European imperial powers attempted to reestablish colonial rule in their former territories, Japan's erstwhile colony Korea suffered a particularly injurious postwar fate. Rather than reverting to self-rule, the Korean peninsula was divided and occupied by the Soviets and Americans. Although this division was intended as a temporary expedient, it remains the sole postwar jurisdictional division that has persisted into the present. In this seminar, after sketching in the broad contours of imperial reconfiguration in Asia after the war, we will focus on the singular status of postwar Korea in the years before the first major 'hot war' of the cold war erupted in 1950.

Seminar questions:

For class slides click here.

  • why did the US and USSR partition Korea after the war rather than allowing Koreans to govern themselves as they had prior to the onset of Japanese imperialism in the early twentieth century?
  • how do we explain the increasing rigidity-- and longevity-- of Korea's division into two separate entities?
  • North Korea quickly came to appear to outsiders as terra incognita, a condition that still persists. What brought about this alienation? And how much credence should we place in Anna Louise Strong's pamphlet as a reliable account of conditions north of the 38th paralllel?
  • does recolonization offer a better broad-gauge description of geopolitics in East Asia than decolonization?

Required reading:

Primary source: Anna Louise Strong, In North Korea: First Eye-Witness Account (Soviet Russia Today, 1949), opens in a new window

Untitled memorandum on the political and morale situation of Soviet troops in North Korea and the economic situation in Korea, Jan. 11, 1946, Archives of the Russian General Staff [Woodrow Wilson Center, Cold War International History Project],

Ronald H. Spector, 'After Hiroshima: Allied Military Occupations and the Fate of Japan's Empire, 1945-1947,' Journal of Military History, 69 (Oct. 2005): 1121-36

Adrian Buzo, The Making of Modern Korea (3rd ed., Routledge, 2016), e-book, ch. 5, 'Bitter Liberty 1945-1948', pp.85-105

Supplementary reading:

Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia (Penguin, 2007)

Mark Caprio (ed.), Japan as the Occupier and the Occupied (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), e-book

Kornel Chang, 'Independence Without Liberation: Democratization as Decolonization Management in US-Occupied Korea, 1945-1948', Journal of American History 107, i (2020): 77-106

Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, Vol.1, Liberation and the emergence of separate regimes 1945-1947 (Princeton University Press, 1981)

James Lee Jongsoo, The Partition of Korea after World War II: A Global History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) e-book

Seung-Young Kim, 'The Rise and Fall of the US Trusteeship Plan for Korea as a Peace Maintenance Scheme', Diplomacy and Statecraft 24 (2013): 227-52

Suzy Kim, Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 (Cornell University Press, 2013) e-book

E. Grant Meade, American Military Government in Korea (King's Crown Press, 1951)

Ronald H. Spector, In The Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, 2008)

Lori Watt, 'Embracing Defeat in Seoul: Rethinking Decolonization in Korea, 1945', Journal of Asian Studies 74, 1 (2015)

Further resources:

Wilson Center Digital Archive