The Political Perspectives and Historical Significance of the Zainichi Coterie Magazine Democratic Korea

Robert Del Greco, Oakland University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 3 (Article 6 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 20 December 2021.


This study examines the postwar coterie magazine Democratic Korea (1946-50), which was founded by newly liberated Koreans in Japan who wished to present their long-suppressed perspectives to the Japanese reading public. In its pages, contributors described the pain of colonial rule and advocated for a Korea free of foreign interference. This unique artifact records the worldview of Japan’s largest ethnic minority at a time of dramatic historical transition. While their Marxist politics would alienate them from authorities, and ultimately lead to the magazine’s suppression, the writers of Democratic Korea promoted the possibility of cultural understanding through the written word.

Keywords: Zainichi, Koreans in Japan, Postcolonial Literature, Expatriate Writers, Postwar Japan

In April 1946 a new magazine began circulating in postwar Tokyo. Above the table of contents (p.1) in its first issue, readers found the image of a diminutive human figure nursing at the teat of a giant wolf. This reference to the founding mythology of ancient Rome was entirely in keeping with the themes of the magazine; because, this was the inaugural issue of Minshu Chōsen (民主朝鮮, “Democratic Korea” 1946-50), a Japanese language publication that featured the perspectives and creative works of Koreans newly liberated from a generation of Japanese colonialism. In it they described the oppression they suffered throughout the imperial period, and debated the issues surrounding the abortive establishment of a liberated, independent, and unified Korea. Their ambition was that this unified Korea become a regional power able to compete with and defend itself against its larger neighbours, but in the choice of Romulus to symbolise a new Korea’s birth the editors inadvertently expressed a contradiction that would manifest around the peninsula’s two young polities: the grand desire to quickly build a strong and cohesive nation necessitates the subjugation of rivals and rigid control of the populace. In other words, though motivated by their colonial experiences to create a single Korea that would serve as a beacon of freedom throughout the world, the exigencies of the moment and complex external factors resulted in two Koreas which were neither free nor independent, and which both committed atrocities against their own countrymen within the first few years of their creation. As in ancient Rome, in Korea the promise of democratic ideals fell away as militaristic tyrants vied for control. As these tragic events were unfolding across the Japan Sea, Korea’s class divisions and ideological polarisation were repeated in microcosm in the pages of Democratic Korea.
Democratic Korea can be read as a travel diary written by Koreans who were on the first leg of a historical journey that began with the Japanese Empire’s defeat and continues today. Commonly referred to as “resident Koreans” (or zainichi Koreans) there were over two million former colonial subjects living in Japan at the end of World War II. While most repatriated soon after Japan’s defeat, well over half a million remained due to travel restrictions, political and economic instability on the peninsula, and a variety of other factors (Lee and DeVos, 1980; Weiner 1989; etc.). They and their descendants still comprise one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Japan today and represent the living legacy of Japan’s imperial past.
In this study I introduce Democratic Korea and some of its key figures and associations as a unique voice existing on the margins of Japanese-language discourse, as well as a medium for the early public political activity of zainichi Koreans. The contributors to this magazine were motivated by a strong desire to express themselves to Japanese readers and make the world aware of the abuses they suffered during the colonial period. I argue below that while their politics veered ever more sharply to the left, ultimately siding strongly with the communist North Korea, the writers of Democratic Korea also saw themselves as the vanguard of a new Korean nationalist movement and a frontline defense against the reactionary forces threatening to revive an oppressive Japanese imperialism.
When Democratic Korea was founded in early 1946 much of the Tokyo metropolitan area remained in the state of utter destruction wrought by prolonged American fire-bombing during World War II; therefore, the early postwar writers who emerged from this charred rubble are referred to as the yakeato-ha, meaning approximately “the group formed in the burnt-out ruins” of the city (Naganuma 1978, p.78). The magazines they wrote for can also be seen as emerging from the burnt-out ruins. The war-weary populace was hungry for reading material, literature in particular, which had doubly suffered from being actively suppressed by the wartime government and stripped of the basic resources for publishing. Kim Tal-su attributed the early success of Democratic Korea, selling fifteen thousand copies of its first issue, to this atmosphere of high-demand for print media, during which it was commonly said that “as long as you had white paper with black printing on it, it would sell” (Naganuma 1978, p.77). As more periodicals began to circulate, the magazine’s sales settled around five thousand copies per issue.
There is another sense in which Democratic Korea can be said to have risen from the ashes of Tokyo’s destruction. During the war Kim Tal-su and several of his literary companions bound their manuscripts in a single volume that they circulated among themselves in order to critique one another’s work. They called this magazine Keirin (鶏林), referencing an ancient name for Korea. Keirin was the forerunner of Democratic Korea, which was planned as a purely literary journal, rather than the general interest magazine (sōgō zasshi) it eventually became, combining literature with articles on Korean cultural and political issues. Unfortunately, having reached only their third issue, the copies of Keirin were destroyed in a March 10, 1945, air raid, and two months later the Kanagawa Newspaper Company where Kim Tal-su worked met the same fate. This put an end to the group’s wartime efforts, but not before drawing the attention of the state police (kenpei) who were increasingly suspicious of Korean activity as Japan’s defeat loomed (Naganuma 1978, p.75).

Writing in Japanese

In Tokyo there are already printing presses with Korean type, and Korean newspapers etc. are being published. Still, though it was through a cursed series of events that we have come to master the Japanese language, we believe that this type of magazine [written by Koreans in Japanese] is absolutely necessary for both the Korean as well as the Japanese peoples. We also hope that in the future Japanese living in our homeland will publish this type of magazine written in the Korean language. Is this not the essence of freedom and liberation? (Minshu Chōsen, April 1946, p. 50)

The above excerpt, from the afterword to Democratic Korea’s inaugural issue, describes a new linguistic parity of Japanese and Korean in the postwar period. After more than a generation of clear hierarchy, in which Japanese was the language of the ruler, and Korean the language of the ruled, and in which Koreans’ use of Japanese was by coercion rather than choice, there was a paradigm shift as the postwar period presented Koreans in Japan the opportunity to use whichever language suited their purposes. Perhaps more significantly, these writers’ range of expression was no longer limited by the dictates of imperial discourse. Therefore, key to any discussion of Democratic Korea, as well as zainichi literature generally is the question of the Japanese language as a medium for both literary and non-fiction writing by Koreans.
Early in their friendship, and in the midst of the colonial era, Yasutaka Tokuzō, the founder of the literary journal Bungei shuto, asked the earliest zainichi writer to achieve mainstream recognition, Chang Hyŏk-chu (張赫宙, 1905-1997), why he wrote in Japanese rather than Korean. Chang enthusiastically replied:

In the entire world, there are probably few peoples as tragic as the Korean nation. The Japanese call Koreans indolent, but that is certainly not the case. During the five hundred years of corrupt rule by the Yi dynasty’s yangban aristocracy, saving up any amount of assets necessarily meant not only losing them anyway in the long run, but possibly losing your life as well, so the idea of acquiring nothing more than a single day’s worth of provisions at a time became ingrained in the minds of the masses. On top of that, after those five hundred years of corrupt rule, what should come next but the Japanese annexation of Korea and with it Japanese capitalism, in the form of the Oriental Development Company, saturating even our farming villages. Peasants successively had their land ripped away from them and had to leave their ancestral homes and flee either to the north or south. The ones who came south immediately became labourers in Japan and they met with terrible tragedy at the time of the Great Kantō Earthquake, and those who went north have been visited by such ill fortune as the Wanpao-shan incident. I want to find a way of making an appeal to the world about these matters, and the scope to which that is possible in the Korean language is extremely narrow. On that point the Japanese language has many more opportunities for translation in foreign countries, so by any means necessary I thought that I absolutely must enter the Japanese literary scene. (Chang Hyŏk-chu as quoted by Yasutaka 1946, p.67)

In many ways Chang’s answer anticipates the postwar motivations of the Democratic Korea coterie. Compare Chang’s reasoning above to the mission statement carried in the magazine’s inaugural issue:

 In the process of a progressive democratic revolution, from what angle do Koreans grasp historical realities, and how can they fulfill their historical mission? In other words, what do Koreans think, what do they say, and what are they trying to do? In particular the objective state of affairs and subjective currents of opinion on the problems of trustee [Soviet/U.S.] rule have become the focus of the world’s attention. Here we wish to show the world the proper direction forward, and at the same time correct the Japanese understanding of Korean history, culture, and tradition, etc., the essence of which has been denied for the 36 long years of colonial rule.  By so doing we hope to present the materials in this small volume as our thoughts on the foundation of a developing politics, economy, and society to all those who wish to understand Koreans. (Minshu Chōsen 1946, p. 3)

In this appeal to a larger Japanese readership, a clear link is established between the future of Korea and the colonial past. Like Chang, the main editors of the magazine, Kim Tal-su and Wŏn Yong-dŏk, perceive inaccuracy in the external understanding of Korean circumstances, and the mission to “correct” mistaken Japanese consciousness about Korea is undertaken in tandem with the task of answering the international concerns about the occupation of Korea and its future. Being targeted specifically at Japanese readers’ understanding of Korea begins to explain the journal’s appearance in Japanese as opposed to Korean and fits a larger pattern of postcolonial peoples writing outward using the language of the former colonial power.

Chang, living under Japanese rule, said that he wished to “make an appeal to the world” about the situation in Korea. Kim and Wŏn, after liberation, stated in their magazine’s mission statement that they hoped to present their “thoughts on the foundation of a developing politics, economy, and society to all those who wish to understand Koreans.” Both Chang and then later the Democratic Korea editors understood the practicality of employing the Japanese language in terms of its international possibilities.
This desire to represent Korean perspectives to outsiders, specifically the Japanese, was a defining trait of first generation zainichi literature. Yet the choice to deploy the Japanese language in service of this aim was not without a measure of controversy, as Isogai (2004, p. 26) relates:

Certainly, the methodology of writing for the purpose of telling/informing the Japanese was questioned in the early phase of zainichi Korean literature. The problem was raised in this form in the late ’60s by the poet O Rim-jun, who left behind a large quantity of theoretical work about zainichi: “If it is the case that we are writing in Japanese for the purpose of informing the Japanese, then what is to become of the agency of we who write? The Japanese language was forced on us by Japanese colonisers, and yet is it not an incontrovertible reality that we are ourselves voluntarily choosing Japanese as a method of expression?” This sort of language consciousness runs beneath the works of Kim Sŏk-pŏm, Kim Si-jon, Yi Hoe-sŏng, and Yang Sŏ-gil, and is continued in the literature of the later generation such as the works of Chŏng Ch’u-wŏl and Wŏn Su-il. From the very centre of this conflict between the tendency to continue using Japanese as a method for expression and a superseding quality of literature that approaches universality, an unyielding reality is born full of tension between the style and the subject. That is the special quality of zainichi Korean literature and its raw power.

O Rim-jun’s statement articulates a concern that applied uniquely to these first-generation authors. For some among the community, to embrace writing in Japanese felt like a kind of surrender to those colonial policies that had pressured Koreans to assimilate as imperial subjects. Yet choosing Japanese “voluntarily” (shutaiteki ni), as O Rim-jun put it, when writing publicly in Korean was now also available as an alternative, can also be interpreted as an act of agency that fundamentally differs from accepting the pressures to write in Japanese during the colonial era. Isogai’s observation that this creates a “tension” (kinchō) between the form and content of zainichi writing mirrors the kind of identity conflicts confronted by Koreans living in Japan generally. For second generation and later zainichi authors, however, Korean language ability was rapidly lost and hence their choice was no longer between writing in Japanese and Korean, but rather writing in Japanese or not writing at all.
Scholars such as Hayashi Kōji in his 1997 study Sengo hi-Nihon bungaku-ron (“Postwar non-Japanese literature”) emphasise the greater linguistic mastery of Japanese by Koreans born in Japan or who immigrated at a young age; he writes:

A direct line connects the era when Koreans were forcibly prevented from writing in Korean to the postwar period in which the next generation of authors could not fully command the language enough to write in Korean and could only go forward with the writing of works in Japanese. (Hayashi 1997 quoted in Nakane 2001, p. 40)

Nakane (2001), Isogai (2004), and others point to the transition between the earliest generation of Korean authors in Japan (including Kim Sa-ryang and Chang Hyŏk-chu) who began their careers before the Pacific War and left behind works in both Korean and Japanese, and the first generation of writers who only wrote in Japanese, of whom Kim Tal-su was the vanguard. Nakane (2001, p.41) emphasises that “Discussion of Korean literature in Japan cannot be separated from the twisted circumstances by which literary works of the generation of writers only able to express themselves in the language of their former domination appear after the colonial period.”
Whether viewed as a conscious choice by bilingual writers or the unavoidable result of Japan’s aggressive language policies, the appearance in Democratic Korea of pro-Korean nationalistic literature written in Japanese has a deep political meaning. If indeed these writers were already more comfortable writing in Japanese than Korean, it anticipates the future generation of writers who would continue to be outcasts from mainstream Japanese society, but who have progressively less contact with Korea itself. Although these second-generation writers, as Nakane suggests, will largely be limited to writing in Japanese, they will continue to promote Korean identity (though these notions become increasingly detached from explicit allegiance to either Korean state). On the other hand, viewed as a purposeful choice by functionally bilingual writers, the fact of Koreans choosing to write in Japanese turns on its head the linguistic power relationship of the previous nearly half century.


Because the content of Democratic Korea appeared entirely in Japanese, it is reasonable to assume that it was inaccessible to the majority of resident Koreans. Of about 2.4 million Koreans in Japan at the end of the war, most were labourers of little or no education, and very few were literate in Japanese (See Lee and DeVos, 1980; Weiner 1989; etc.) Hence, to the extent that there was a readership among the Korean community itself, the target audience was the educated elite who had matriculated through Japanese institutions.
Among its Japanese readers as well, the magazine was aimed at a cosmopolitan class. These readers were versed in the important events and figures of continental history, and also capable of understanding the dense political treatises that ran in the journal and were interested in the political developments on the peninsula. As I discuss in my analysis of its political writing below, articles appearing in Democratic Korea were often preoccupied with praising the working classes, and endorsing a labour-centric political model, but there is little to suggest that the content of the magazine itself was directed to such proletariat readers’ abilities or taste.
A survey of the advertisements that ran in Democratic Korea supports these observations, in particular as they pertain to the earliest phase of its publication. The magazine’s primary financial backing came from the League of Koreans in Japan (Zai Nihon Chōsenjin renmei), and therefore it was not heavily dependent on advertising revenue at the early stages. Such advertising as did appear in the first year of the magazine was almost entirely for books, in particular other publications by Democratic Korea’s parent company, which was variously called “Minshu Chōsensha,” “Chōsen Bunkasha,” and “Bunka Chōsensha” at different points throughout this four-year period. These changes in naming reflect some instability in the goals of the organisation, which quickly expanded from merely publishing Democratic Korea to other endeavours. There was even a point when the editors considered re-naming Democratic Korea itself, publishing just issue number ten not as Minshu Chōsen (“Democratic Korea”), but instead as Bunka Chōsen (“Culture Korea”) before immediately returning to the original name. On the adoption of the company name “Chōsen Bunkasha,” a note appeared in the magazine’s fourth issue (July 1946, p.29) stating in part:

Although it has been only a short while since the founding of our company, we have met with a great response regarding the value of Democratic Korea to Japan, and in recognition of its mission, and with the goal of permanently strengthening it both materially and spiritually, we have chosen to organise ourselves as a limited liability company under the name Chōsen Bunkasha.

The same issue contained an advertisement by the publishing branch of Chōsen Bunkasha for Meiki (明姫) a collection of stories by Murayama Tomoyoshi (p. 22). Murayama worked in multiple media, creating fiction and drama as well as visual art and more. Much of his work included themes of social activism and protest against injustice. The text of the advertisement reads:

“I could never be separated from Korea, not in the past, nor the present, and nor yet in the future.” So says the author in his introduction. Murayama Tomoyoshi! This man knows Korea!! The five stories in this collection each deal with Koreans ranging from before the war to after. We venture to call it a must-read for Koreans and Japanese alike.

An advertisement also appeared in this issue (p.36) for another left leaning yakeato magazine, Jinmin sensen (“Le Front Populaire”). An article by the chief editor of Jinmin sensen, Nakanishi Inosuke, appears just a few pages earlier, calling on the League of Koreans in Japan to support the cause of abolishing the emperor system (pp. 23-39). 
Other advertisements include the collected works of Marx and Engels in Japanese translation, books of Korean history and biographies of well-known Korean figures (such as the long imprisoned communist Kim Ch’ŏn-hae and activist politician Yŏ Un-hyŏng), as well as collections of scholarly research (see inside covers of No. 10 and No. 16, etc.). The second issue featured a full-page ad on the inside cover for individual volumes published by Kawabata Yasunari’s cooperative Kamakura Bunko. Their “selections of contemporary literature” featured both the eminent Japanese novelists of the day (Shiga Naoya, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Nagai Kafū, etc.) as well as foreign authors in Japanese translation (Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Romain Rolland, Valery Larbaud, etc.). As the selection of foreign authors makes particularly clear, the works selected fall clearly into the category known in Japanese as “pure literature” (junbungaku), i.e., works intended to represent a pinnacle of literary artistry that would appeal to the educated elite, as opposed to popular or “mass literature” (taishū bungaku).
When Kim Tal-su’s first full-length novel, Kōei no machi (“City of Descendents”) (1946-48), had concluded its serialisation in Democratic Korea, a full-page ad for its publication as a standalone book appeared in the magazine’s sixteenth issue including a summary paragraph by Odagiri Hideo as well as the information that the design of the book was by another prominent Democratic Korea contributor, the poet Hŏ Nam-gi. Many of the advertisements appeared in multiple issues of the magazine, especially those for books published by Chōsen Bunkasha, but also some others, such as Yōtokusha’s twelve volume Chōsen kobunka sōkan (The complete collection of ancient Korean culture).
While not advertisements in the traditional sense, most issues contain full-page messages sponsored by the League of Koreans in Japan, or its various branch offices. These pages are generally sparse, containing only the name and address of the sponsoring branch and a very simple message in large print such as “With hope for understanding and friendship between our peoples,” by the League’s Tokyo headquarters. This message appeared in vertical writing underneath the horizontal heading “The future of Korea and Japan” on the back cover of Democratic Korea’s second issue. The back cover of the first issue, sponsored by the League’s central office, read “Wishing for the immediate formation of a battlefront for democracy.”
Later the ads began to diversify, with more businesses and consumer goods appearing; but books, journals, and other culture-related advertisements remained central, and the total amount of advertising remained small. I observe with interest that the conditions in Japan during Democratic Korea’s publication, 1946-50, included a profound deprivation that one struggles to imagine, and yet the capitalist dynamic of a company placing an ad in the hopes of increasing sales of a basic consumer good, for example, rubber boots, as on the back cover of Democratic Korea’s twenty-first issue, feels utterly familiar and mundane in comparison with the dramatic events that were unfolding around this community. Of course, one wonders whether Mitsuwa Industries received a refund for this ad, as this was the single issue pulled by censors of the Occupation government (a.k.a. GHQ), due to the issue’s coverage of the forced closure of Korean ethnic schools.
By Democratic Korea’s May 1950 penultimate issue, the magazine’s main source of financial support, the League of Koreans in Japan, had been forced to disband by the GHQ and its assets had been seized. As such the magazine’s publishers were forced to look for support wherever they might find it, and this issue features a greater diversity of advertisements. In the first few pages, under banners celebrating the magazine’s fourth anniversary, as well as interspersed throughout the issue, there are multiple ads for restaurants and cafes, a dance studio, and a variety of home goods such as soap, laundry detergent, and an ad for an electric clothes iron placed opposite the editor’s afterword (one of very few ads to include a graphic to run in the magazine) (Minshu Chōsen, May 1950, inside cover, p. 34, p.109).

Contributors and Contents

Over the course of its 33 issue run, the number of contributors to Democratic Korea can be alternately calculated at as many as 409 individuals, including the various participants of roundtable discussions (zadankai) that were transcribed in the magazine, or as few as 144, by excluding those who appeared in roundtables and submitted no other writing. By either tabulation it is clear that Koreans were the primary voices of the magazine: including roundtables, 291 Koreans appeared in the magazine, approximately 71 per cent of total contributors (further divisible into 216 Koreans residing in Japan [zainichi Chōsenjin] making up approximately 53 per cent of contributors, and 75 residing in Korea itself [hongoku Chōsenjin] approximately comprising 18 per cent of contributors). The remainder was comprised of 103 Japanese, approximately 25 per cent of contributors, as well as fourteen Chinese contributors and one Russian contributor. Excluding the roundtables changes the overall ratio of the participants relatively little: 85 Koreans comprise the largest group, that is, 78 per cent of contributors (40 zainichi and 45 hongoku). This reveals a greater number of Koreans contributing to the magazine from Korea itself (sometimes writing in Japanese themselves, otherwise being translated into Japanese by the editors of Democratic Korea); however, in terms of the quantity of their contributions, the zainichi coterie of literary figures and editorial staff of the magazine were significantly more prolific, contributing 182 individual articles and literary works to the hongoku group’s 75. Fifty-four Japanese contributors presented a total of 70 items (approximately 21 per cent of the total items appearing) (Pak 1993).
Kim Tal-su himself was the contributor with the greatest number of items published in Democratic Korea. In 1946 he served as the Chief Information Officer of the Kanagawa branch of the League of Koreans in Japan and from 1948 worked in the League’s education division and was the lead member of the Zainichi Literature Association (Zai Nihon Chōsen Bungakkai) (Pak 1993, p.11). Leaving aside the participants of roundtable discussions, all zainichi contributors to the magazine with at least three items appearing had some affiliation with either the League or the Zainichi Literature Association.  Among the Japanese contributors who appeared in Democratic Korea were such well-known figures as author Itō Sei, critic Odagiri Hideo, feminist Hirabayashi Taiko, and left-wing activist Kaji Wataru.
In addition to publishing literature, Democratic Korea covered a wide variety of topics in essays written by both Koreans and sympathetic Japanese. These ranged from discussions of peninsular politics, such as the above-mentioned issues surrounding Korea’s occupation, to more local concerns, such as Korean ethnic schools and political organisations (and the forced closure of both by the Japanese government at the behest of GHQ), Korean repatriation, the mass arrests of striking Koreans in Osaka and Kōbe, and so forth. The first issue of Democratic Korea was 53 pages long and contained just three pages of space devoted to advertisements. Rather than full advertisements, these pages simply thanked the individuals and organisations supporting the magazine, almost entirely branch offices of the League or its individual officers. The contents of the first issue are revealing:

Remarks on the founding issue – [unsigned, translation above]
Our declaration of independence continues to be written – Paek In
Trustee rule and the battle lines of ethnic unification – Wŏn Yong-dŏk
What kind of a day was 3.1? – Kim Ch’ŏl [referring to the demonstrations for Korean independence that began March 1, 1919]
Our interest in the Japanese general election – Pak Yŏng-t’ae
On the League of Koreans in Japan – Rim Kun
My August 15 – Han Chun
The history of Korean novels, Part 1 – Kim T’ae-jun (Yi Ûn-jik Trans.)
Poem: “Climax (moment of healing)” - Kim Chong-han
About Kim Chong-han… - Kim Mun-ju
Fiction: ‘Memories of grandmother’ – Son In-jang [established penname of Kim Tal-su]
Fiction: City of descendants – Kim Tal-su
Editors’ afterword – [unsigned] (Minshu Chōsen, April 1946, p. 1)

Although the table of contents above suggests that the editors were able to pull together a large number of contributors, Kim Tal-su later revealed that almost all of the first issue’s contents were the combined work of Kim himself and his partner in the founding of the magazine, Wŏn Yong-dŏk. Kim Tal-su’s works appeared under his own name as well as Son In-jang, Paek In, Pak Yŏng-t’ae, and Kim Mun-ju; while Wŏn Yong-dŏk also wrote the works attributed to Rim Kun and Kim Ch’ŏl (Kim 1980, p.340). In addition the unsigned foreword and afterword were written by Wŏn Yong-dŏk and Kim Tal-su, respectively. Although the magazine attracted numerous contributors for later issues, at the time of the first issue almost all of the writers with whom Kim Tal-su originally produced Keirin had repatriated (including Kim T’ae-jun whose manuscript of “The history of Korean novels” the editors chose to publish after losing contact with him during the chaos of mass migrations in the early peacetime).
Wŏn Yong-dŏk was one of many left-wing intellectual dissidents (seen as doubly threatening for being both a Christian and a Marxist) freed from a prolonged imprisonment when the wartime “Peace Preservation” law was dissolved. He and Kim Tal-su became fast friends in the heady days of early liberation as they both worked in the fledgling zainichi political organisations. Both were in particular devoted to the largest such organisation, the above-mentioned League, which had among its initial goals the investigation of wartime Japanese sympathisers and the assurance of safe and timely repatriation for all who desired it (Kim 1980, p.331-334).
As it became clear that the American and Soviet occupation forces had no intention of withdrawing after disarming the Japanese army on the peninsula, Kim Tal-su and Wŏn Yong-dŏk rarely saw eye-to-eye on the way forward, but gained a deeper friendship and respect for one another through their substantial political conversations. Both were extremely disheartened that the American Occupation forces had initially preserved the Japanese administrative apparatus, complete with the very “Japan-lovers / traitors to our people” (in Kim Tal-su’s words) who had staffed it during the colonial period.
In his reflections on the pair’s work on Democratic Korea, Kim Tal-su relates an incident that exemplifies the kind of political divide the two men struggled to reconcile. Kim had recently read André Gide’s Retour de L'U.R.S.S. (1936) and it had given him pause about the new government forming in North Korea under the auspices of the Soviet Union. Kim voiced his apprehension that this new Korean government would develop into the kind of “monolithic system” Gide had described in the U.S.S.R. Wŏn Yong-dŏk replied with a full-throated support of the leftist cause, no matter the cost:

As to whether it’s a monolithic system of rule or not, I don’t know, but what rules our lives today is the economy. Only that can give us the power to create something new. Think about it, can a tiny backward country like ours make its way in the world with the doctrines of liberty and capitalism? If it is capitalism, in the end we will have to become an imperial system just like Japan did (Kim 1980, p.334).

Grouped broadly, the contents of Democratic Korea’s inaugural issue fall into the categories of the explicitly political in the issue’s first portion and the explicitly literary in the remainder. This pattern recurs throughout the lifetime of the magazine. Most issues begin with a short (often one page) editorial, which generally remarks on some aspect of current news from the peninsula or expounds on the special theme chosen for that issue, then the table of contents, followed by a highly variable number of two to ten page political/economic essays. Articles concerned with the history or current state of various Korean cultural forms occupy the middle. Short stories, poetry, and serial novels were published in the later third of the magazine, and a short editor’s note appended to the end often provided background information about contributors, publication delays, and so on.
In the case of the inaugural issue, contents from the political category primarily deal with contemporary issues: “Trustee rule and the battle lines of ethnic unification,” “Our interest in the Japanese general election,” “On the League of Koreans in Japan,” and “My August 15.” However, in “Our declaration of independence continues to be written” and “What kind of a day was 3.1?” a concern for historical matters is demonstrated in the political writings that is also mirrored in the second half by the beginning of a multi-part history of Korean novels. In particular, the essay about the anti-colonial protests beginning in Seoul on March 1, 1919 (commonly known as the March First Movement), indicates the budding interest of Korean writers in recovering their people’s history of resistance. The March First protests continued across the peninsula for six months and were brutally suppressed; resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. Although Korean resistance took other forms as well, such as the alliance of Korean guerillas with Chinese resistance fighters, the non-violent protests of the March First incident exhibited the potential for Koreans to bring the Japanese colonial enterprise to a standstill on a national scale through ethnic unity. It was for that reason as well that the Japanese colonial government sought to suppress or distort information about the events of March First, and only after their defeat could Koreans openly celebrate their history of opposition.

 Political writing and other nonfiction in Democratic Korea

What I wish to discuss here is trustee rule and the front lines of the battle for ethnic unity; at our current stage as we advance towards full autonomous independence, from what perspective should we understand our situation? What attitude should we adopt to confront it? And at the same time under what ideological flag must we form and fortify the front lines of ethnic unity in order to found a progressive democratic Korea? Not only is this the most pressing problem for we the Korean people, but also it has garnered the attention of the entire world as an index of progress toward peace in East Asia and thereafter the world at large. (Wŏn Yong-dŏk, April 1946)

The calls for “full autonomous independence” (zen jishu dokuritsu) and “a progressive democractic Korea” (shinpoteki minshushugi Chōsen) recur as mantras in some form in nearly every editorial article that appears throughout Democratic Korea. The language with which Wŏn Yong-dŏk framed the issue above indicates that he viewed the establishment of this new independent Korea as a mission calling for Koreans to unify against external threat, but also to engage in intellectual reflection and proactively adopt an ideological system that would ensure Korea’s future. Dual impulses to embrace a progressive politics after suffering the oppression of Japanese fascism and to reaffirm a cultural identity that was under siege during the colonial period are evident throughout Democratic Korea. The section below considers the political perspectives of the nonfiction writing appearing in Democratic Korea. I begin by identifying the idealistic and strong adherence of the majority of these writers with Marxist theories and then examine the significance of this worldview in the context of postwar Japan.
The leftist ideological orientation of Democratic Korea’s nonfiction writings is most readily apparent in two respects: the descriptions of colonial history within a Marxist frame, and the identification of the Soviet Union as an egalitarian Utopia suitable for emulation. After Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 these writers extended their goodwill to China as well.

As shown above, Democratic Korea aimed to describe to a Japanese readership Koreans’ “historical mission” and to advocate the means towards “full self-supporting independence.” Historical analysis was central to accomplishing these goals. As Kaji Wataru put it in the May 1947 issue regarding the potential for Japan, Korea, and China to all achieve a “democratic revolution”:

Now, as we retrace the events of the past, why was Korea invaded as it was? Why did China have to meet such a brutal fate? Examining these questions is of first necessity at this stage of democracy.

Yet, Marxist narratives of the colonial period also served an important psychological function. By identifying the motivations for Japanese imperialism and the causes of Korea’s vulnerability within the objective movements of economic forces, Democratic Korea’s authors found one way to process and rationalise the trauma of the colonial experience.
Kim Tal-su opened the first editorial article of the magazine (April 1946), “Our declaration of independence continues to be written,” with reference to the scale of these events and the scope of violence they entailed:

All is chaos. Ambiguity covers everything. It was an age of chaos and ambiguity. And within this chaos and ambiguity, there is a country in one corner of East Asia that is on the verge of being born.

The Korean people had escaped this maelstrom, and now faced a crisis of identity. The feudal system of ages past bore a share of responsibility for the country’s inability to cast out Japanese aggressors: the model of modernisation presented by the Japanese had successfully turned that comparatively small country into a world power but had resulted in their own subsequent destruction; and now a Korea divided by the United States and U.S.S.R. seemed to have little choice but to adopt the economic and political systems of a new set of occupiers. The danger of repeating the past and becoming the colony of a new set of powers was all too real.
A representative example of these writers’ Marxist framing of historical narratives is Kim O-son’s article titled “The historical meaning of the 3.1 movement and 8.15” in issue nine (March/April 1947). The two events in this title reference the dates associated with the largest anticolonial demonstrations (the March First Movement described above) and the Japanese surrender of August 15, 1945, respectively. Kim O-son begins with the spread of Western capitalism into East Asia and criticises the “isolationist nativist spirit” that led Chinese leaders to have British opium ships burned instead of “automatically opening their doors and trying to import [Western] civilisation as quickly as possible.” For its part, Korea had been dependent on China for centuries, and although Kim describes a large amount of anti-Qing sentiment in the Korean populace, he is at pains to identify this as stemming from reverence for the Ming dynasty and disdain for the Manchu usurpers rather than “the spirit of ethnic autonomous independence.” Not yet ready for a nationalist awakening, “the Korean people high and low were ignorant of the international situation and lacked the clarity of vision to see what their people’s future held.” An isolationist policy, including burning and attacking Western vessels, inevitably failed and the dominant powers vied for control of the peninsula. Kim frames Korea’s history:

It is a matter of course that reform and revolution are not simply brought about as a result of external forces. A modern capitalist revolution is brought about by the development of contradictions within the feudal system itself; by contrast, in the case of countries such as China and Korea, dreaming away in a feudal slumber and having fallen into what is known as the Asiatic mode of production, it is natural that by simply importing capitalist civilisation from the outside, or by imitating it, a capitalist revolution in their own country would not be accomplished in the course of a day and night. No matter how prosperous Western capitalism may be, or how unavoidable a state it is for the human race, without all the domestic conditions for it having been reached there was simply nothing to be done.
However, if the leaders of the time had clearly understood the international situation, and had had the clear vision to see the way forward for their people, had they abandoned the inflexible policies of isolationism and imported Western civilization, although it would have been gradual, we must admit the fact that a machine-centric civilisation would have spread among the people, they would have escaped invasion by other countries, and would have developed autonomously. In discussing history, we must not forget that pointing out these missteps is certainly not out of a worthless feeling of regret but comes from a spirit of self-criticism for the errors we have made with our own agency. It is certainly true that isolationist policies caused the stagnant Korea to stagnate further still, and then, led to its demise (Kim O.S. March/April 1947, pp.10-12).

By contrast, Kim O-son describes Japan’s willingness to abandon “the barbaric policies long implemented by the Tokugawa shogunate,” and initiate trade with the West, readily importing Western technology and knowledge, even while “submitting themselves to every sort of humiliation.” Japanese leaders did not display the inflexibility of those on the continent, and the people developed a strong desire for the new civilization transforming the country. Ultimately Kim attributes Japan’s success to geographical differences: “The island country’s convenient water routes facilitated enlightenment about the international state of affairs, and subsequently marine transportation offered every advantage to the development of industry.” It was these same geographical factors that meant that the narrow archipelago would not be able to contain Japan’s rapid growth, and, as in ages past, Korea, as the gateway to the continent, would be the first to suffer from Japan’s aggressive expansionism. However:

The goal of the Japanese invasion, in the misleading form of the annexation of Korea, was not the same as that of the ancient feudal lords fulfilling a heroic desire for conquest; rather, Japan’s goal was economic exploitation, at the centre of which was the need to secure a source for raw materials and the market for their goods required by domestic capitalist industrial development (Kim O.S. March/April 1947, pp. 10-12).

The language of this section recalls the first sentences of the article, describing Britain’s expansion into East Asia, and the parallels are made explicit as Kim O-son points out that Japan modeled its rule of Korea on what he calls “the English invasion of India.” This includes the development of infrastructure such as railways and port facilities, and extends to the means of financial domination, with Japan’s Oriental Development Company (Tōyō Takushoku Kaisha), in the role of Britain’s East India Company, acting in concert with a slew of complementing financial institutions such as the Fuji Industrial Corporation and the various colonial banks set up under the law creating the class of “Special Banks” (tokushu ginkō) such as the colonial era Bank of Korea (Chōsen Ginkō) and the Korea Development Bank (Chōsen Shokusan Ginkō). Bruce Cumings (2005, p. 121) notes in regard to these organisations that the Oriental Development company eventually came to possess over twenty percent of the peninsula’s arable land, and that the Bank of Korea operated as a central bank, controlling credit and interest rates and making loans, serving almost exclusively the Japanese colonisers.
The terms of Marxist analysis are readily apparent. Kim O-son identifies each country that had moved out of the feudal stage of history as a “capitalist power,” and describes capitalism as a somewhat distasteful “unavoidable state for the human race.” In addition to differentiating the economic motives of modern colonialism from the feudal “desire for conquest,” Kim utilises such specific elements from Marx’s theory as “the Asiatic mode of production,” to explain the stagnation and vulnerability of Korea and China. Despite the characterisation of Japan’s colonial enterprise as an “invasion” and a form of “economic exploitation,” Kim O-son’s narrative of colonial history does not portray the empire as having innately malevolent intentions, but neither does he forgive Japan for its violence against Korea.
There are passages in which a grudging kind of respect for Japan’s capacity to modernise and stand up to the West is apparent:

We must nod our heads in agreement that for the diminutive and newly capitalist Japan to contend with the advanced Western capitalist powers of England, Russia, etc., and conceive a strategy to invade Korea, was certainly a bold and clever move for the vanguard of Japanese capitalism (Kim O.S. March/April 1947, pp.10-12).

 As shown above Kim O-son does not consider Japan’s modernisation to be due to any fundamentally progressive nature or talent of leadership so much as a coincidence of geography and history that enabled it more easily to abandon its feudal government when the occasion demanded. As a result, the overall depiction is of a progression of history that was anything but the “chaos and ambiguity” described above by Kim Tal-su. Rather, predictable historical and economic processes were at work, which led the early adopters of the only post-feudal political and economic model available—capitalism—to subjugate those who had not yet advanced so far. Such a narrative simultaneously rationalised the trauma experienced by Korea and also served as a warning to those who might yearn for a return to pre-colonial models of government that such a move would lead to future victimisation.
Wŏn Yong-dŏk’s support for the U.S.S.R. has already been suggested in his exchange with Kim Tal-su above, but this attitude was also present in his articles in the magazine, where he paints an idyllic image of the Soviet Union as a model for the future Korea. For example, in an article on the topic of “Korea and world peace” (May 1946) he writes:

A nation where each race stands upon a foundation of equality and freedom, where all the capitalistic friction among the races has been wiped away, based on an internationalism that has no oppressing race or oppressed race, in the new world called The Soviet Federation people of different historical traditions and languages maintain their freedom and independence, and share perfect equality in their individual economic and political rights, and as these peoples are working towards the development of a new society, not only are they uninterested in meddling with the affairs of other nations in the way the capitalist powers do, but they conquer any challenging circumstances while avoiding foreign wars, and press on the path of maintaining international peace.

The main concern revealed in this statement by Wŏn is how a large and advanced polity handles its internal diversity. Wŏn is making a pointed contrast between what he believes to be the case in the Soviet Union with the style of rule of Japanese colonialism. The construction of race as a concept in Japanese and Korean discourse does not necessarily line up well with that of English; however, under Japanese colonial rule, Koreans were clearly seen as ethnically distinct from the Japanese, and the various stereotypes and discrimination meted out to them align most closely with racial oppression in other world contexts.
Wŏn’s rosy picture of the U.S.S.R., and the disappointment he must have felt if he ever learned of the widespread suffering there, parallels the zainichi community’s support for North Korea. Although the vast majority of Koreans in Japan, or their predecessors—as many as 98 percent of them according to Sonia Ryang (2000, p.5)—had originally immigrated from the territory that became South Korea, as schism shot through their community they allied themselves disproportionately with the North until roughly the 1970s, a phenomenon that I consider more fully below. As information became publicly available about conditions in the DPRK, support for the North in Japan dropped precipitously. Unfortunately, after Wŏn’s involvement with Democratic Korea there are no records of his activities or writings from which to glean his reactions to these events. It is likely that he himself repatriated.
No writer in Democratic Korea’s pages envisioned that the division of Korea would be anything more than a temporary setback on the road to recovery from Japanese colonialism; yet, as the paradigm of a North backed by the U.S.S.R. and a South backed by the United States became more and more a fact of life, the magazine’s contributors expressed their support for the former and decried the latter. Democratic Korea’s editorial staff was cognisant of the need to avoid GHQ censorship and therefore explicit criticism of the U.S. Occupation government, both that in Japan itself and that in South Korea, was rare. In fact, in the entire run of Democratic Korea one is hard pressed to find any significant amount of text devoted to the depiction of GHQ at all. They did not, however, shy away from depicting South Korean President Syngman Rhee (Yi Sŭng-man) and his administration as fundamentally corrupt and comically inept.
As noted above, the first entry in each issue of the magazine was often a short unsigned editorial which updated readers on peninsular developments etc. One such segment, titled “Chōsen no ugoki” (“Movements in Korea”) appearing in the 26th issue (Mar. and Apr. 1949), first reproduced, in Japanese translation, portions of the rivaling New Year’s radio addresses of Kim Il Sung and Syngman Rhee, then characterised Rhee as fundamentally unwilling to take action against those who had collaborated with the Japanese during the colonial period. While the excerpts reproduced from Kim Il Sung’s address were full of the bright promise for democratic unification in the near future, those from Rhee’s address were pledges to root out corruption and exaltations to moral reformation. Though taken from Rhee’s own words, these excepts, which were provided without editorial explication, framed the narrative which immediately followed of Syngman Rhee at odds with his own administration and forced, over his personal objections, by congressional action to grant arresting powers to a committee investigating colonial collaborators. The date was January 5, 1949, as the appointment ceremony for this committee took place at the official presidential residence:

At last twelve o’clock arrived, and with their successful appointment by President Rhee, finally the investigators and officers of the Special Committee Investigating Anti-Korean Activities had received the qualification to move into taking direct action. And yet, on this day, what could be amiss? President Rhee who was presiding over the ceremony seemed not the least bit pleased. In fact, his face was extremely bitter. If a more familiar example might be permitted, he looked a bit like the Japanese comic actor Yanagiya Kingorō making a pained expression. Then, upon reading the official appointment order in a tone as though he were spitting out something dirty from his mouth, he took off the old glasses he had taken from his pocket to read the order and attempted to just shuffle off into a rear room (Minshu Chōsen, March/April 1949).

 This author relates the controversy over the panminjok haengwi-pŏp (“Anti-Korean Activities Law” abbreviated panmin-pŏp), which stipulated the punishment of collaborators and established the commission to do so. Syngman Rhee’s opposition to the law was predicated on the fear that “if implemented as it was written, aside from the small number of underground resistance fighters and the working class, it would apply to almost all the loyal subjects of the Republic of Korea.” In addition to the description above of Syngman Rhee as a doddering and comic figure, this reluctance to punish collaborators casts him in a particularly damning light. While Kim O-son may have been able to objectify and rationalise Japan’s aggressive expansion in terms of broader economic movements, there is precious little forgiveness in the pages of Democratic Korea for those Koreans who enabled them, and they continue to be variously described as “Japan-lovers” or “traitors to the people” throughout the entire run of the magazine.
The next pages depict a series of public statements beginning with the head of the Special Investigation Committee, Kim Sang-don, who, in answer to rumours that collaborators possessed of particular social status, skills, or rank in the security forces would be granted amnesty, insists that the investigation of collaborators would spare no effort in their pursuit. Rhee offers the rebuttal that the investigation should be concluded quickly in order to avoid destabilising the nation, that the extraordinary powers granted to the committee may have exceeded the constitutional separation of powers, and that there are members of the security forces currently fighting to protect South Korea from insurgent fighters despite their potential to be designated as colonial collaborators. Kim Sang-don next issued a statement describing the limitations of the president’s powers and reproducing the portions of the constitution enumerating the authority to punish collaborators even before the passing of the 1948 panmin-pŏp created the official committee to do so. In addition to President Rhee’s recalcitrance to take what so many of the Korean public regarded as a first step towards justice, the public nature of this dispute serves to undermine the authority of the South Korean government.

And the argument between these men seems to continue endlessly, swelling with not merely one but numerous interludes, duets, and variations, and together reaching a fever pitch in a great symphony: “The South Korean Concerto of Discord.” (Minshu Chōsen, March/April 1949).

The examples above represent the underlying complexity of zainchi activist writing in the early postwar period as it appeared in Democratic Korea. The affiliation of a large number of zainichi with the Communist Party has been well established and the writers of Democratic Korea I have so far examined did not hesitate to endorse revolutionary causes. Yet, it would be an error to believe that that Marxist ideology and association with the Soviet Union and the young North Korea are a sufficient metric by which to understand the openly leftist Democratic Korea coterie, let alone the less politically active population of resident Koreans in general. Indeed, Lee (1980, pp.61-62) describes the October 1945 founding of the magazine’s parent organisation, the League, (referred to by Lee using the abbreviated Korean pronunciation: Choryŏn), as having essentially apolitical intentions:

To establish close cooperation with both a new Korean government and authorities in Japan during the transition period, some expatriate Koreans felt the need for an organisation that would represent all of them. A preparatory committee was set up under the auspices of the Korean Association in Japan, with the leadership shared by Cho Tŭk-sŏng, a former Christian minister, Kwŏn Il, a pro-Japanese official, and Kim Chŏng-hong, who had been briefly associated with a Korean communist movement. None of them seems to have used his committee position to further his own political ideology, but each had a unique background and reputation that enabled the committee as a whole to appeal to practically all factions of the Korean population in Japan. […] When the Choryŏn was founded, it was designed to be a nonpolitical organisation representing the Koreans in Japan. To accomplish these ends, the Choryŏn collaborated very closely with the Japanese authorities and later with SCAP. The presence of the Choryŏn during these first critical months was largely responsible for the moderation of ethnic tension and a more orderly repatriation program. The Choryŏn, however, could not long remain a social service organisation. It could scarcely resist being sucked into a vortex of revolutionary agitation already put into motion by other groups such as the Japanese Communist Party (JCP).

Lee is describing the organic consolidation of several independent regional groups into a unified organisation to support the entirety of the zainichi populace. A number of elements stand out in Lee’s account, especially when juxtaposed with the later development of zainichi organisations. Firstly, the idea that a single entity would represent the needs of these Koreans reflects the contemporary assumption among zainichi that the newly liberated Korea would exist as a single political entity. In tandem with the fracturing of that polity came the division of zainichi support organisations along ideological lines, eventually resulting in the situation familiar today of the South Korean associated Mindan and the North Korea associated “General Association of Korean Residents in Japan” (K. Chae Ilbon Chosŏnin Ch'ongryŏnhaphoe, J. Zai-Nihon Chōsenjin Sōrengōkai, hereafter “Ch'ongryŏn”). The Ch'ongryŏn is widely regarded as the inheritor of the original League. However, the current Ch'ongryŏn’s absolute allegiance to the North and its dogmatic communism, as seen, for example, in the educational curriculum of Ch'ongryŏn-run schools, is at odds with the political neutrality and broad appeal Lee describes underlying the founding of the original League.
One contemporary contributor to Democratic Korea, Yi Ŭn-jik (1948), describes the impetus for forming the League of Koreans in Japan within the volatile emotional climate of the day, and the Japanese reaction to Koreans’ postwar actions:

Japan’s defeat, Korea’s liberation, brought the joy of new life to Koreans in Japan. Koreans couldn’t help but feel in their throats the desire to cry out “Hooray for independence!” but in the dark atmosphere of those days, we also felt a sense of pity for regular Japanese citizens, so we held back as much as we could. That reserve was not derived from fear, but rather morality; however, aside from a small number of progressive individuals, the Japanese remained as ever unwilling to try to understand the purity of our intentions.
That a strong organisation for zainichi Koreans was completed in a short number of days was also born out of a consciousness and sense of morality shared by Koreans generally to try and solve our own problems by ourselves as much as possible, and not to cause trouble for regular Japanese citizens. And yet, the reactionary leaders of Japan, without cause, despised and impeded Koreans organising and acting autonomously. Then, when a truly small number of unenlightened Koreans act up shamelessly, the reactionary Japanese newspapers practically yell out “Look here!” as they emphasise the word “Korean” in their reporting.

It is noteworthy that Yi Ŭn-jik writes of Koreans moderating their behaviour in consideration of the defeat suffered by the Japanese. While it is impossible to quantify how many Koreans acted, or did not act, with the reserve he describes, the comportment of Koreans in Japan after the surrender becomes a major point of tension. Changsoo Lee’s 1980 (p.64) study expresses the mainstream view that, in fact, “The arrogant attitude displayed by some of these ‘liberated’ people derived from their deep contempt for the now-defeated Japanese, which added fuel to the already heated anti-Korean sentiment among Japanese.” Yet, in Yi Ŭn-jik’s description of the same period, there is a sense that Koreans faced excessive scrutiny of their behaviour; and, that in Japanese leaders’ attitudes, as well as the media’s tendency to vilify Koreans as a whole when select individuals caused disruption, the Japanese around them were trying to preserve the racial order of the imperial era. In other words, Yi Ŭn-jik is describing a postwar Japan in which the same mechanisms that created negative stereotypes of Koreans and kept Koreans from organising to lobby for their own interests have been preserved despite the supposed defeat of the empire. This perception of a resilient apparatus of state oppression eventually drove the League of Koreans in Japan toward an oppositional stance, in the form of radical leftism, vis-à-vis the Japanese government.
The factors contributing to the League’s political polarisation are complex. Changsoo Lee attributes it primarily to the influence of Kim Ch’ŏn-hae, who had been imprisoned as a communist for seventeen years, and upon his release became hailed as a hero in the fight for Korean liberation. Due to his popularity he was granted an unofficial advisory position in the League and in Lee’s words, “As a leading member of the JCP’s central executive committee, he used his interlocking positions to divert [the League] into becoming a peripheral organisation of the JCP” (Lee 1980, p.62).
While the association of heroic figures such as Kim Ch’ŏn-hae with the Communist Party did no doubt strengthen its draw for Koreans, Lee’s analysis effaces the agency of the zainichi community to make their own political judgements and overlooks the logical appeal of leftist causes to them. The writings of zainichi Koreans indicate that their colonial experiences had created an indelible link between militaristic invasion and subjugation and capitalistic exploitation. We have already seen zainichi writers above rendering Japanese colonial actions in terms of a push for economic expansion as necessitated by the internal contradictions of their capitalist system. Yi Ŭn-jik (1948, p.6) shares this viewpoint, describing the predicament of Koreans living in Japan with “imperialistic” or “militarist” never far from the word “capitalist.” Yi viscerally conveys the innate distrust many Koreans in Japan felt for capitalism:

Do average Japanese citizens understand that Koreans coming to live in Japan is not some matter to be traced back to ancient history, but rather due to Japan’s imperialistic capitalists (teikokushugi-teki shihonka), after their invasion in the so-called “uniting” [J. heigō] of our two countries? […] Despite the fact that Japan’s militarists and capitalists continued to fatten themselves by consuming Korea and exploiting its people, did they have any sense of gratitude towards us? No, they propagandised that Koreans were dirty and inferior, and taught the Japanese people to look down on us unconditionally.

Further, the Communist Party, in its advancement of a platform of removing the emperor system, pledges of racial equality, and greater support for labourers, comprised a medium for the dismantling of the Japanese state of the day, which Koreans perceived as a continuation of the same polity long intent on their oppression. The Japanese government’s reluctance to release Korean political prisoners, the suppression of Korean protest movements, the forced disbanding of ethnic schools, and later the dissolution of the League of Koreans in Japan and the suppression of Democratic Korea itself, all gave politically motivated zainichi reason to be wary of the Japanese establishment, and to ally themselves with the cause of revolution. While the Japanese justification for many of these moves was Koreans’ radical ideology, from the Korean perspective, these actions fit a pattern of oppressive behaviour on the part of the Japanese that Koreans understood to be based on their race rather than their politics. 
With the onset of the Cold War, the grand narratives advanced by the political powers of the Washington-dominated economic sphere characterised opposition to, and even regulation of, capitalism as tantamount to anti-democratic and a threat to the stability and prosperity of the world. While the development of North Korea into one of the world’s most egregious dictatorships does little to rebut this narrative, the worldview of the Democratic Korea coterie is fundamentally incompatible. “Democracy” was the watchword of these Koreans and they saw themselves as solidly on its side; meanwhile, the Japanese government and American occupation forces they viewed with a suspicion built up over years of colonial exploitation. Their commitment to democracy and idealism was reflected in the large block letters spelling out Minshu Chōsen (“Democratic Korea”) on the cover of the magazine.
Rather than the grand narrative of communism versus democracy, socialism versus capitalism, and autocracy versus liberty as it was characterised in the United States, these Korean writers subscribed to their own narrative: they had emerged from feudalism and were now the vanguard of a democratic revolution. The dialectical opposite of this democratic movement was obviously not the leftist ideas that they themselves embraced; instead, it was the capitalist-motivated fascism that had dominated them during the colonial period and threatened to revive at any moment. Wŏn Yong-dŏk (April 1946) feared this very development in Japan:

Even here in Japan, not only has the greatest source of war criminals and reactionary support, the emperor system, not been toppled, war criminals remain in place in the cabinet, and the same zaibatsu that actively supported and initiated this thieving war of aggression retain overwhelming power in the parliament.

While the Democratic Korea editorial board and the coterie of writers comprising the Zainichi Literature Association were inspired by leftist ideology, they made it clear that the magazine itself, and zainichi Koreans overall, were first and foremost invested in the interests of the Korean people rather than the advancement of the Communist Party. In Democratic Korea’s second issue Kim T’ae-in wrote a rebuttal to one contemporary magazine’s sensationalist coverage of a dispute between two zainichi political organisations. The March 1946 issue of the magazine Chōryū [“The tide”] contained an article which Kim characterises as asserting, “South Koreans and North Koreans continue their bloody conflict in the imperial capital. North Koreans set up their office of the Korean Communist Party in the former Korea Governor General’s Tokyo satellite office.” Kim T’ae-in’s May 1946 response, under the headline “Kono ninshiki wo warau,” (“We laugh at this perception”) drips with sarcasm:

This sentence appeared in the current events column of Chōryū’s March edition. The fact that Chōryū is a truly excellent publication amidst the crop of new general interest magazines that sprout up like weeds these days is known to none so well as to its own editors.
What of [Chōryū’s] perceptions? They have decided, because Korea is occupied above the 38th parallel by the army of the Soviet Union, to label all North Koreans as part of the Communist Party, and because the south is occupied by the United States’ army, that they must be opposing each other in a “bloody conflict.”
[Chōryū] seems to be referencing a certain event that amounts to something akin to a family conflict between a group of people affiliated with the central headquarters of the League of Koreans in Japan, which has taken over the Tokyo office of the former Korea Governor General, and members of another group; and yet the author of this piece makes his ill-advised grand assertions brimming with confidence.
Still, no matter how much this may come from someone who is unaware of the movements of Koreans in Japan, such a distorted depiction leads us to tilt our necks in confusion. Aside from the very notion of the Korean Communist Party setting up in the former Governor General’s Tokyo office being so absurd as to make one spit out their food, when we consider that this is the supposed first-rate journalism that will help found a democracy in Japan we can’t help but feel pity before succumbing to laughter.
Further, we take note of their use of the words ‘North Koreans’ [Hokusenjin] and ‘South Koreans’ [Nansenjin]. This reflects the same mindset that previously led them to refer to Chinese as ‘Chinamen’ [Shinajin]; however, while we extend to them our pity at their inability to overcome this mindset, at the same time we must not let our guard down.

This response does not deny a connection between Koreans and the Communist Party. It does, however, counter the notion that North Koreans were communists by default and that the League of Koreans in Japan was itself an arm of the Communist Party. Further, the assumption that an ideological split imposed on the respective regions of Korea by an arbitrary division of occupation need necessarily devolve into war is ridiculed. By minimalising the rift between zainichi political organisations and describing the dispute in question as “akin to a family conflict,” Kim T’ae-in is asserting that, whatever differences may have arisen among postwar Korean organisations, Koreans in Japan would remain united in their broad goals of promoting Korean nationalism and opposition to further exploitation by external powers.
Although framed as a response to Chōryū in particular, the final point, equating the terms Hokusenjin and Nansenjin with the term Shinajin of the imperial era, points to a larger trend in Japanese discourse. Kim is identifying that such terms had come to embody the paternalistic attitudes of Japan towards its colonialized territories. Although Hokusenjin and Nansenjin are no longer in common use, their appearance here anticipates the discursive problems surrounding the term Chōsenjin in the present day. Although Chōsenjin is the word that Koreans of the postwar period most commonly used to refer to themselves, in current Japanese usage it is commonly thought to refer to the period of Japanese rule and hence has developed the valence of a racial slur and is avoided in many contexts. In pointing out the conceit of Chōryu’s editorial staff, and by extension those Japanese who subscribe to the worldview it reflects, Kim reverses the power relations inherently assumed therein. Such Japanese suffer from a superiority complex that they cannot overcome despite the catastrophic collapse of the Empire. This makes them objects of pity whose misconceptions of Koreans are laughable.


Today, throughout the various cities of Korea, and even in our mountain villages, in the name of justice stand armies of foreign nations equipped with every manner of weapon, there to allow us independence. At any moment they could affix their bayonets or fire the pistols on their hips. Then one day, news of great import was brought to our country. It was the announcement of “trustee rule,” a matter decided by the commanders of these troops. The people were enraged. Each and every media entity took up their brush to express their unified opposition to it, and the whole populace boldly stood in front of their guns taking up the slogan “Atomic bomb or trustee rule.” When we close our eyes and quietly reflect on this in an objective way, it appears a bit overboard, but leaving aside the end result, we cannot ignore the desire of the people that this reveals. It is a desire that has been cultivated by history and tradition. Perhaps we cannot definitively say that through this desire Koreans have made today their own, but we can probably say that they have laid the foundation.
Even now, our declaration of independence continues to be written. It is being written by the indomitable spirit of a nation thirty million strong, standing atop a history and tradition going back five thousand years. This is how Koreans will restore their lost preeminence and freedom. (Kim Tal-su, April 1946)

Writing this for publication in the inaugural issue of Democratic Korea, Kim Tal-su’s ability to “quietly reflect” on the issues above already conveys a feeling of some distance from the events that took place immediately after Korea’s liberation. Indeed, the establishment of two new ruling orders in Korea and the political organisation as well as the repatriation of Koreans in Japan was occurring at such a swift pace during this period, that the time elapsed between August 1945 and the first issue of Democratic Korea arguably included greater change in Korea’s political situation than the many long years of stasis which have followed the Korean War. While the exact meaning of the slogan “Atomic bomb or trustee rule” (genshi bakudan ka, shintaku tōchi ka) is not perfectly clear in this context, anything short of foreigners’ complete withdrawal from Korea was certain to draw the ire of the Korean populace. So much more so then were they incensed by the announcement of divided rule by two large powers known for their interference in regional affairs. The vague promise of independence somewhere down the line, its timing to be decided cooperatively by Moscow and Washington, readily called forth the dialogues of colonialised people everywhere, including Koreans, who had been told they were not ready for independence, or could not take care of themselves, and that the coloniser would do them the kindness of managing their affairs until such time as independence was appropriate. Faced with such a proposition, it is hardly surprising that Koreans would equate in one breath the prospect of trustee rule with the massive destruction unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, although in hindsight Kim Tal-su does declare such a statement “overboard.”
At the end of the Pacific War, Koreans in Japan came to a crossroads. The majority of these resident Koreans had every intention of repatriating to their homeland. The Korean diaspora that had left a significant number of their people scattered across the globe was imagined as a historical fluke that could be corrected. Koreans would simply return home to a liberated nation. While approximately three quarters of Koreans in Japan in 1945 did return, the vision of a unified and independent Korea has remained as yet illusory, and a significant number of descendants of those émigrés who left colonial Korea remain in northeastern China, the United States, and Japan itself, as well as other countries throughout the world.
Democratic Korea is a valuable record precisely because it reveals to us perspectives of the particular subset of this group that lived in the territory of their former colonial masters. The case of Korea is unique among postcolonial peoples: Japan is the only non-Western power to embrace the European model of colonialism to expand its resource base and area of control, and nowhere was Japan’s colonial program so exhaustively implemented as the Korean peninsula. Therefore, the Korean contributors to Democratic Korea addressed their writings to a nation that had denied their cultural identity in a way that parallels the impetus of much postcolonial writing throughout the world, but with crucial differences in the discourses of history, racial identity, spirituality, and cultural memory.
Published so soon after liberation, the writing of Democratic Korea has a raw emotional quality. Kim Tal-su was fond of describing the period in which he worked on the magazine as “overflowing with life.” And in his afterword to the first issue of the magazine he offered a sincere apology if it read like a “volume of full of rage.” To my mind, however, it is the celebration of freedom and not the exposure of injustice that most defines the work in question. When the shadow of war and oppression finally receded, Koreans in Japan were anxious to tell stories they had suppressed for too long. Yet the spirit of hope that pervades so much of the magazine is undercut for today’s readers, who know that despite these writers’ ambition to build a free and independent nation in their homeland, Korea remains divided more than half a century later, and the North Korean government, with which so many of these expatriate Koreans identified, perpetually threatens to plunge the region into catastrophic warfare. To gain a new perspective on the beginning of the long journey between these two diametrically opposed conditions, the idealistic hope for freedom and the DPRK’s current authoritarian despotism, is a worthy aim for scholars of early zainichi literature; and it is also where today’s readers would most benefit from revisiting Democratic Korea.
Kim Tal-su and Wŏn Yong-dŏk founded this magazine with the explicit goal of informing the Japanese reading populace about Koreans. They aimed to be the counterpoint to decades of imperial discourse by presenting writings by zainichi and other Koreans that would challenge the Japanese orthodoxy. For decades that orthodoxy had defined Koreans as simpleminded, uncouth, childlike, and as objects of pity and disdain. Koreans were at best portrayed as pseudo-Japanese: beings who through rigorous discipline and education, by changing their names and behaviour, and by abandoning their “native” (used pejoratively) culture, could aspire to be something akin to Japanese. In Democratic Korea Kim and Wŏn hoped to change what Japanese thought of Koreans and reveal to a Japanese readership those Koreans’ intellectual life and sense of agency. The writers in this magazine acutely sensed their place in history. They produced political treatises that sought to understand Japanese colonialism as part of larger historical processes. Such an effort was as much in service of the emotional need to process the trauma of the colonial period as it was to advance an ideological agenda.
The writers of this magazine aligned themselves closely with Marxist views. This ideology was the lens through which they perceived the colonial past, as well as envisioned a hopeful future. Marxism was to be one key tool in accomplishing the “historical mission” for all Koreans of their day, a mission enshrined in the name of the coterie’s magazine: the creation of a true “Democratic Korea.” This ideological orientation was manifested as well in the fiction of Korean writers but did not necessarily result in the production of polemical propaganda pieces. Rather, the sophisticated political worldview described above informed the thematic milieu of authors such as Kim Tal-su, whose literature explored not only concepts of economic class, but also a variety of other power relationships, which he variously problematised, reversed, and distorted. A future study of the fiction published in Democratic Korea would make a significant contribution to scholarship in both Japanese and Korean studies.
At the same time, our attention to the prevalence of Marxist thinking among zainichi intellectuals must not lead us to overlook the significance of a groundbreaking aspect to the content of Democratic Korea: the celebration of Korean culture, history, colonial resistance, and ethnic unity, all within a Japanese-language publication. This magazine became the vehicle for a new brand of expatriate nationalism in an era when the reconstruction-minded Japanese and U.S. Occupation government alike were inclined to treat Koreans remaining in Japan after their homeland’s liberation as a nuisance.  This mindset was particularly evident in the decision to exclude Koreans and other formerly colonised peoples from categorization among the senshō koku (the victors of the war), and instead label them as sangokujin, literally “third country nationals.” While Koreans believed the defeat of their colonial oppressor necessitated their immediate independence, they rapidly found themselves under new regimes of occupation, and Koreans in Japan in particular found themselves being treated not as brothers-in-arms by the GHQ, but rather as, at best, cumbersome loose ends to be managed and, at worst, as potentially dangerous subversives. Amidst these frustrations, Democratic Korea gave voice to positive images of Korean-ness and emphasised Koreans’ historical agency. While the GHQ and Japanese government preferred that Koreans either repatriate or make their presence invisible, retreating unobtrusively to their marginal communities, Koreans used this magazine affirmatively to assert their presence and their interests. With Democratic Korea as their medium, Koreans used the language forced on them in the colonial period to in turn force the Japanese to recognise them as part of the postwar intellectual conversation.


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Kaji W., May 1947. Tōyō no sōbō. Minshu Chōsen, No. 10, 2-4.
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Wŏn Y.D., May 1946. Sekai heiwa to Chōsen. Minshu Chōsen, No. 3, 2-9
Yasutaka T., July 1946. Nihon de katsuyaku shita hutari no sakka. Minshu Chōsen, No. 4, 68-72.
Yi Ŭ.J., Janurary 1948. Roku jū man-nin ni tsuite: zainichi Chōsenjin mondai, bunka-teki na tachiba kara. Minshu Chōsen, No.17, 6-10.

Naganuma S., Nov. 1978. Zasshi ni miru sengo no shoshin: sokoku bunkatsu senryō no kujū o himete – Minshu Chōsen. Shisō no kagaku, No. 98, 74-80.
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Pak C.M., 1993. Kaisetsu 1. Minshu Chōsen gaikan, pp. 5-13, in Fukkoku “Minshu Chōsen” GHQ jidai no zai Nihon Chōsenjin-shi, vol. 5. Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 5-38.
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About the Author

Robert Del Greco is an Assistant Professor of Japanese studies at Oakland University near Detroit, MI in the United States. His research focuses on the Korean minority in Japan and Japan’s colonial history. He received his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 2018.


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