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John Vincent Pimentel- 657650 15PPOC008-State & Society in Asia & Africa

Pon Souvannaseng

Land Reform in South Korea and the Philippines:

Postcolonial Legacy of Colonial State Formation



Variegated development among newly independent countries in Asia has prompted both

enthusiasm and questions on their capacity to achieve national goals informed by

expectations within developed Western states and their international organization

counterparts. As these so-called latecomers strive to catch up to development levels of

their Western colonizers, the imperative of transitioning from a basic agricultural

economy to a highly industrialized one becomes relevant. Key to this transition is the

spatial linkage between agricultural and non-agricultural sectors that enables the transfer

of agricultural income and labor to industry (Almeda-Martin 1999). However, most

emerging economies lack this productive linkage (Elvinia, 2011). Accordingly, effective

land reform can rectify this lacking link between agricultural development and

industrialization by, in principle, allowing government to clearly transfer property rights

and incentivize productivity among peasants and industrial entrepreneurship among

landowners (Almeda-Martin, 1999; Elvinia, 2011; Putzel 2000). Politically, redistributive

land reform contributes to sociopolitical stability by facilitating fundamental institutional

transformation that permits coalitions more conducive to high road development policy

(Putzel 2000). Thus, academics and development practitioners ask how have the

respective colonial experiences of these countries influenced their state capacity to

achieve postcolonial development goals, in this case in implementing a

socioeconomically transformative policy such as land reform?

Land reform as a government intervention tend to either successfully facilitate economic

growth through rural development or sustain dismal development through disrupting

agricultural productivity. This ambivalent assessment of land reform’s developmental

impact is evidenced by studies suggesting Philippine land reforms to be generally

flawed, if not a cumulative failure (Almeda-Martin, 1999; Cornista, 1990; Elvinia, 2011;

Fabella, 2014; Putzel, 1992). In this sense, the Philippines can be regarded as an

enclave economy whereby a skewed income distribution directly related to unequal land

distribution results into a geographically and sectorally lopsided pattern of national

growth, employment opportunities, and infrastructure development concentrated in

urban centers without any substantial link to local agricultural production (Cardoso &

Filetto in Conning & Robinson, 2009). By contrast, South Korea, with comparable

colonial experience but contrasting development trajectory as the Philippines’, is hailed

as one of few countries with successful redistributive land reforms regarded as a key

pre-condition for its stellar economic take-off, catch-up, and eventual development

leapfrogging (Barraclough, 1999; Dorner and Thiesenhusen, 1990; Gon & Gyon 2013;

Harkin, 1976; Kim, 2012; Ledesma, 1976; Lee, 2013; Putzel 2000; You, 2014).

Postcolonial Land Reform Outcomes. More clearly, an evaluation of three measures

of land reform success demonstrates the diametric disparity between these two country


In terms of actual land transfer accomplishments, the traditional consensus on the

success of land reform in South Korea centers on the impressive feat in land ownership

transfer (Barraclough, 1999; Dorner and Thiesenhusen, 1990; Gon & Gyuk 2013;

Harkin, 1976; Ledesma, 1976; Putzel, 1992; You, 2014). ). While the American Military

Government (AMG) started redistributing 10% of all cultivated land just before the 1948

elections and the Korean War, the bulk of land transfer happened was virtually

completed within two years after the enactment of the 1950 Agricultural Land Reform

Amendment Act (Jeon & Kim 2000; Putzel 1992; You 2014). By contrast, the rate of

redistributing lands covered under land reform in the Philippines was dismal, with

consecutive presidential administrations failing to meet the deadline, struggling to

acquire private lands, and hence resorting to less contention land acquisitions modes

(APPC, 2007; Borras, 2001; DARa, n.d.; DAR, 2000; Vanzi, 1997). As of December

2006, overall accomplishment in land distribution was at 3.8 million hectares or 86% of

the department’s target of 4.4 million hectares in a span of in a span of 30 years or so,

20 years in excess of the original ten-year timeline proposed by the latest land reform

law, and overseen by five presidencies. (APPC, 2007).

Further literature review also suggests two structural transformations that indicate the

success of any land reform: the collapse of the colonial landlord system and the

establishment of the independent farmer system (Gon & Gyuk 2013).

If evaluations on the first criterion would be based on a common concise definition of

land reform as “the non-market transfer of land from the traditional landed elite to the

landless poor farmers” (Gon & Gyuk 2013:7), a positive appraisal of the gains and

losses of all three parties involved in the South Korean land reform (the landed elite who

are deprived of their land holdings, the poor farmers who receive the land, and the

government, transfer enforcement intermediary he government) can be given. Till a few

years after Japanese rule, the richest 2.7% of rural households owned two thirds of all

cultivated lands, while 58% owned no land at all (You, 2014). Within only a year of

implementation, the Agricultural Land Reform Amendment Act (ALRAA) of 1950

accomplished a ratio of owner-cultivated land to total arable land of about 96% (Jeon &

Kim 2000). Hence, by 1956, the top 6% owned only 18% of cultivated lands while

tenancy dropped from 49% to 7% of all farming households, and the area of cultivated

land under tenancy fell from 65% to 18% (You 2014). So, by 1960s, land reform was

categorically finished while 97.3% of compensation to landlords was achieved (Jeon &

Kim 2000). In this context, land redistribution has benefitted the landless poor

unequivocally. On the other hand, 36.7%) of 446,600 families who acquired lands under

the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), the latest land reform program of

the Philippine Government, were still living below the poverty line (bottom 30%). These

numbers are especially significant when contrasted with the national profile of poverty in

the country. In 2012, 80% of the poor inhabit the countryside as small farmers and

agricultural laborers (NSO, 2012a). While close to 70% of unpaid family workers thrive in

agriculture (NSO, 2012b), the largest portion of the underemployed (44%) are working in

the agricultural sector (NSO, 2012c). By contrast, only 3.6%, the smallest occupation

group, comprise employers in family-operated-and-owned farms or business (NSO,

2012b). Furthermore, the prevalence of beneficiaries resorting to informal transactions

for credit selling (up to 30% in one study) or mortgaging (80% in one survey) their lands

have been reported in major Agrarian Reform Communities (ARCs)(APPC 2007;

Arlanza et. Al 2006). This could be explained by the fact that as beneficiaries become

new owner-cultivators facing much greater financial requirements, the institutional

environment of the agricultural credit market is unable to mitigate these farm costs

(Arlaza et. Al 2006).

The second criterion on the establishment of an independent farmer system is evaluated

on the general increase in agricultural productivity and income redistribution or

improvement. Five years after the ALRAA was implemented, rice production, labor

inputs, and arable land increased while capital requirements decreased significantly,

suggesting greater efficiency in the sector (Jeon & Kim 2000). In the decade following

Japan’s post-World War II land reform in 1946, agricultural production increased 50

percent. In the rice sector alone, yields per acre nearly doubled, while exports climbed

an average of 40 percent per year in the 1960s and 25 percent per year in the 1970s

(Jeon & Kim 2000). Land reform’s role as pre-condition for industrialization was also

shown by more than tenfold increase in manufacturing and mining output in over two

decades (Gon & Gyok 2013). While a systematic study on the income-augmenting effect

of South Korean land reform has yet to be conducted, literature shows that land reform

effectively redistributed income from landlords to other economic agents including

tenants, government, and the general public by regulating land prices below market

prices due to considerations of the median voter if tenants paid in cash and land

securities, thereby incurring income savings among tenants and generating savings in

government compensation to landlords (Jeon & Kim 2000; Gon & Gyuk 2013).

In contrast, land reform programs in the Philippines have allegedly exacerbated, instead

of improving, agricultural productivity and show disputed results on the income-raising

effect of land reform. A meso-level assessment reporting a substantial crop yield decline

from 31 to 33% from 2000 to 2006 and a macro assessment revealing decades of

implementation ahve failed to increase total factor productivity of only 0.13% per annum

from 1980 to 1998 (APPC, 2007; Gordoncillo et. al, 2007). One government think tank

study (Reyes, 2002) indicates welfare improvements in beneficiaries’ households

(almost 10% lesser poverty incidence and 28% higher incomes) while other studies

disputing this categorical claim (Fabella, 2014; Gordoncilla et. al, 2007; Tecson, 2009).

These positive outcomes of land reform were reinforced by later constructive agricultural

development programs such as the the Saemaul Undong (SU) movement, a rural

development acceleration program generally considered a crucial catalyst for the

successful industrialization of South Korea (Kim 2012). Although initially criticized as an

indoctrination tool and a mass mobilization scheme to implant a progressive reliable

rural political machinery for an authoritarian regime seeking to establish legitimacy

shortly after instating the undemocratic Yusin Constitution, the program achieved its

primary objective of eradicating endemic rural poverty through (1) rehabilitating and

modernizing village infrastructure (road construction, irrigation, electrification, roofing,

telecommunication line installment, etc.); (2) increasing household incomes through the

use of modern agricultural technology for hybrid production and alternative livelihoods;

and ultimately (3) overcoming the shortage of domestic supply of food (Kim 2012).

Scholars of the movement argue that the successful completion of land redistribution

from 1950-1952 incentivized productive participation and cooperation of villages by

granting individual ownership of small agricultural plots and reducing intra-village

discrimination over economic assets (Kim 2012).

Overall, land reform and its offshoot rural development programs served as the

cornerstone of South Korean capitalism by facilitating a virtuous cycle of economic

development (Gon & Gyuk 2013). On the other hand, Philippine land reform remains

unfinished and plagued with implementation problems including but not limited to lack of

reliable access to credit, unfettered informal and illegal land sales or mortgages, and

inadequate and improper mechanisms for government support services (APPC, 2007;

Arlanza et. al, 2006).



Given this, this paper aims to demonstrate that different colonial legacies in the

Philippines and South Korea were instrumental in shaping state capacity that in turn

determines the success and failure of their respective land reforms. This argument will

be articulated mainly through (1) comparing pre-, colonial, and post-colonial empirical

conditions and (2) analyzing these comparative details based on state formation theories

on the Weak State (Abinales & Amoroso; Putzel 1992), Weberian concept of the

Bureaucratic State (in Runciman 1978), and High Modernism (Scott 1998).



A confluence of factors facilitated the attainment of the “principle of land to tillers” in

South Korea, its failure in the Philippines and the adoption of dual principles in the latter.

Literature suggests that the most potent in explaining the divergence are the (1)

contingencies of colonial history and the effects of (2) colonial rule on (a) state formation

and (b) configuration of socioeconomic and political power especially of landed elites,

and (3) the agency of exemplary individuals wielding extraordinary powers.

Colonial Contingencies. Some scholars posit that certain circumstances during the

respective colonial periods of each country provided certain impetus that shaped the

variation in their land reform policy outcomes.

Pre-colonial polities already existed in both countries. While pre-Hispanic Philippines

was inhabited by barangays, close-knit tribal villages with distinctive sociopolitical

stratification predominantly based on Moro Islamic organization in supervising surplus

generation and sharecropping arrangements (Putzel, 1992), pre-colonial Korea was

substantially populated and ruled by dynasties with a unitary state and centuries of

Confucian tradition in statecraft and polity governance (Cumings, 1984; Palais, 1996).

Saliently, land ownership was communal for subsistence purposes only for a non-

capitalistic/monetized economy in the former (Bauzon, 1975; Hick, 1987; Putzel, 1992),

private property was already instituted in the latter, but was dominated by landlords

resisting the centralizing power of the King and was hence heavily regulated by central

government to thwart peripheral resistance (Kim in Lee et. Al, 2013; Palais, 1996).

Given these pre-colonial conditions, Spanish and Japanese conquests exhibited

similarities in motives but differences in manner/tactics, temporal milieu, and the

influence of such on the evolution of crafting and clarifying their respective colonial


Regimentally, the fragmented inter-warring nature of barangays made the Spanish

strategy of colonization highly effective and cost efficient, requiring only a small garrison

to subdue opposition and mild conciliation with indigenous leaders and gradual, subtle

substitution of their governance functions (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012; Putzel, 1992).

In contrast, the brutal Japanese invasion of Korea ended a century-long Yi (Chosōn)

Dynasty, fundamentally encroaching on an established nation with a considerably

homogenous society whose socioeconomic and political development approximates that

of ancient Japan (Cumings, 1984; Palais, 1996). This harsh campaign to supplant a way

of life of over 2000 years in the making primarily through education propaganda and

institutional innovations partly explains the tremendous resistance and hate Korean

subjects have had against their Japanese colonizers (Cumings, 1984). Temporally,

Spanish colonialism transpired during the age of “New World” exploration and a global

scramble with its rivaling power Portugal over resources regarded as scarce in European

metropoles. By contrast, Japan came late in the game of conquest, distinguishing its

brand of imperialism from Western predecessors by copying but improving on earlier

Western conquests, limiting the geopolitical space to maneuver, and forcing it to

colonize contiguous territories both for geographic convenience and industrial supply

chain efficiency as the entire globe was virtually settled in (Cumings, 1984). This time

element somehow shaped the objectives of conquest and the evolution of colonial

treatment of their conquered territories. While both conquests were geared towards

some form of resource extraction, Spanish and Japanese colonial officials underwent

introspection and shifting intentions in crafting a clear policy on treating their colonial

discoveries. Spain’s accidental discovery of the Philippines en route to the much coveted

spice island Moluccas meant the Spanish Crown had little interest initially in developing

agriculture in the archipelago when it established colonial authority in 1571. Rather,

Spain capitalized on its strategic location (1) as a naval base with the aim of controlling

the Portuguese-dominated spice trade in the Pacific and a stopover in the Mexico-China

galleon trade route. It was not until 1780, when an unambiguous policy of export crops

production did agriculture develop and transform rural landscape and colonial economy

through the expansion of plantation/hacienda system (Bauzon, 1976; Putzel, 1992).

Japan’s imperial ambitions were also characterized more as an evolution than a clear

intention (Cumings, 1984; Kublin 1959). Although undoubtedly its conquest was couched

in a language of extraction, its drive for overseas expansion was sparked by national

defense insecurities, arising from the threat of Western conquest after centuries of

isolation (Kublin 1959). Its establishment of strongholds over southern Okinawa and

northern Hokkaido and its military victories over China and Russia in conquering Korea

and Manchuria galvanized its definite transition into a full-blown colonizer that by the

time of besieging Korea, Japanese colonial officials already honed a deliberate colonial

policy based on earlier ‘scientific experimentation’ in Taiwan (Cumings, 1984; Kublin

1959). Hence beyond geographic convenience, Japan’s contiguous colonization is

based on its view of colonies as an investment with immediate returns (Kublin 1959).

Thus, locating industry in the colony itself in proximity with the motherland, bringing

technology and capital to labor and raw materials, instead of vice-versa, achieved this

intent. Its comprehensive programs in education, public health, transportation and

communication supplement this approach and concretely demonstrated to the world its

national pride in its superior colonizing abilities (Kublin 1959). So, unlike the Philippines

that was ignored by the Spanish Crown itself and left under the auspices of autonomous

religious orders (Putzel 1992), Korea did not suffer from neglect but rather excessive

and deliberate attention by its Japanese colonizer (Kublin 1959).

This nuanced difference in colonization implied that Spanish and Japanese colonization

would have different treatments of their colonies and hence produce different colonial


While in both case, decades of colonization had created oppressive land tenure

systems, the colonial approaches produced different consquences. In the Philippines,

while three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule had benefitted a landed oligarchy

through state-sanctioned land accumulation and commercial agriculture, i.e. hacienda

system monopolistic control of lands by Friars, who as de facto colonial administrators

pioneered establishing haciendas primarily devoted to rice cultivation, implemented

abusive land tenure patterns and acquisition modes ranging from captive loans to

outright land grabbing (Bauzon, 1975; Hick, 1987; Putzel, 1992). Alongside increasing

taxation, intensified forced labor, and installation of a native police force deployment,

these practices established an unjust regime that exploited the natives’ ignorance of

Western institutions, as primarily exemplified by the imposition of property rights

concepts institutionalized in unintelligible legal processes, and incited agrarian uprisings,

with some serious enough to endanger the survival of the Spanish colonial government

(Putzel 1992). This Friar abuse of power and their majority ownership of productive

agricultural lands by the end of Spanish rule eventually agitated landed enlightened

elites (ilustrados) previously brokering between the colonial government and pre-colonial

society to join forces with revolutionary peasants, establish a clandestine fraternity, and

launch the 1896 Philippine Revolution that demanded friar expulsion, redistribution of

their landholdings, and ultimately national independence two years later (Bauzon 1976;

Hick 1987; Putzel 1992).

In Korea, 36 years of brutal Japanese rule also engendered an oppressive albeit highly

productive land tenure system that bifurcated a more or less unitary pre-colonial agrarian

society. As pre-colonial attempts at land reform to standardize land plots and nationalize

land ownership failed (Palais, 1996), the Japanese Government-General required new

land registration to (1) clarify property rights through simpler land taxes for the coffers of

the colony and (2) introduce a capitalist market economy that would maximize profits

from agricultural investments. Unlike pre-colonial land surveys, this new process

excluded multiple customary rights of peasants, depriving them of the ability for

subsistence, plunging them to dire poverty, and disrupting their complementary, mutually

beneficial relationship with landlords (Kim in Lee et. Al 2013). Facing this new market

economy mechanism, landlords controlled tenants through increasing rent for profit

maximization, substituting defaulting tenants, and demanding the use of new agricultural

technology to increase land productivity. These measures surpassed the tolerance limits

of peasants, who naturally resisted and coalesced with socialists to acquire better

organizational capacity to mobilize huge uprisings (Kim in Lee et. Al 2013; Palais, 1996).

To combat this, the landlords collaborated with the colonial government to establish

associations but their inability to deal with violent protests compelled the former to

change tenant laws to control peasants (Kim in Lee et. Al 2013). Besides supporting

associations, the colonial government incentivized landlords to enhance agricultural

productivity by (1) introducing new hybrids and productivity-enhancing technology, (2)

providing subsidies to those faithfully following government agricultural policies, and (3)

offering advantageous estimation of land taxes. As a result, landlords accumulated huge

capital to reinvest in land enhancements and industries later on (Kim in Lee et. Al 2013).

Along with the de-personalization of individuals in the new market system, this colonial

intervention fomented class division by widening the economic distance and political

cleavage between landlords and peasants. Hence, unlike precolonial times when

peasants and landowners united in protests against excessive state taxation, protests

under the Japanese were geared towards antagonizing landowners and their alliance

with the colonial government (Kim in Lee et. Al 2013). So, despite being pushed out of

political power upon the destruction of the Yi Monarchy upon the arrival of Japanese

colonizers, the Yangban class who used to own 80% of the land collaborated with the

colonial government to survive (Putzel 1992). Given this, the brutal history of Japanese

colonization facilitated the land transfer process by garnering public support or

eliminating sympathy for their Japanese colonizers and hence lessening resistance in

redistributing former Japanese-owned lands (Dorner and Thiesenhusen, 1990; Putzel


US occupation in both countries is also instrumental in explaining the divergence in land

reform policy in the two countries. While the inspiration for both land reform programs

was derived from the same redistributive social justice framework earlier applied by the

US in Japan to contain the spread of Communism in the region (Putzel 1992), their

country-specific application particularly by the same US occupation governments spelled

remarkable differences in their postcolonial development trajectories. The US

occupational governments in both countries faced different degrees of political incentives

for redistributive land reform. While in both countries land reform was deployed as a

counterinsurgency measures in response to the growing adherence of disgruntled

peasants to the Communist ideology, the threats differed.

In South Korea, the probability of a Communist North takeover provided strong external

pressure for redistributive land reform while in the Philippines the lack of such an

external threat and the domestic, sporadic nature of peasant uprisings tempered the

perception of US colonial administrators and national politicians for the need of a truly

redistributive approach to land reform. Indeed, the peaceful execution of land reform in

North Korea incited rural unrest in South Korea and opposition to the American Military

Government (AMG) and the consequent failure of right-wing policies on rural pacification

by US-backed, landowner-supported Syngman Rhee altogether convinced the initially

reluctant American Military Government (AMG) officials to aggressively pursue land

reform as an alternative offered to anti-Japanese leftist movements susceptible to

Communist indoctrination (Putzel 1992). The process, however, entailed tedious political

armtwisting, forcing the US to abolish the landowner-dominated interim Assembly intent

on blocking liberal land reform measures and subsequently installing the transitory

National Land Administration to commence redistributing 10% of all cultivated land just

before the 1948 elections (Putzel 1992; You 2014). Moreover, the episodic Communist

occupation of the South by the North seemed to have persuaded landowners of the

practical value of land redistribution that by the time the Korean War erupted in 1950,

landlords had directly sold about 500,000 hectares to their tenants (Putzel 1992; You

2014). This expedited the land transfer process that by 1952, the government had

already redistributed 330,000 hectares of up to 3 hectares each and essentially

completed the program (Putzel 1992; You, 2014). This successful redistribution plus

private sales changed the land tenure structure in the country that by the end of the

reform the tenancy rate had fallen from 65% in to only 18% in 1965 (Putzel 1992:82).

To be fair, no internal security threat of a similar magnitude confronted the state in the

Philippines (Putzel 1992; Vu 2010). This may in fact shape the perception of the US

colonial government that the threat mounted by peasant movements did not warrant the

kind of challenge to property rights and rural power structure, which required the liberal,

more radical approach (Putzel 1992). Instead, a series of peasant uprisings have often

preceded any concrete land reform legislation or program in the Philippines. The

proximity of peasant uprisings to their institutionalization illuminates their characteristics

as counterinsurgency measures. Widespread tenancy inciting Communist movements

compelled the American colonial government to redistribute the controversial friar lands

against provisions in the Spanish-American Peace Treaty (of Paris)(Bauzon 1975;

Escalante 2002; Putzel 1992). The Land Reform Act (LRA) of 1955 redistributed lands

that served as President Magsaysay’s concession to farmer-turned-guerrilla rebels

whose deliberate exclusion from mainstream politics by the US revived their militancy

and spurred the rise of their postwar party organization (Espiritu & Yoingco 1995; Putzel

1992). Presidential Decree (PD) 27 abolished tenancy in rice and corn lands to

anticipate and contain the rise of a newly armed Communist group the New People’s

Army (Putzel 1992). The 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) was

denounced by leftist peasant organizations as a last-minute response of the newly

restored democratic government to the ‘Mendiola Bridge Massacre,’ a bloody protest six

months before the first Committee hearing for CARL, which left 19 unarmed peasants

killed after the police and a contingent of marines opened fire to 15,000 members of

Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Putzel 1992). Yet all these agrarian movements had

not developed military capacity to a point of threatening to overturn the basic structures

of the state (Putzel 1992). A strengthened military and expanded traditional rural

development program, the Presidents, their allies, and Washington policymakers

believed, would be sufficient to check the growth of such radical movement (Putzel


This rendered the laws quite ambivalent as all granted land entitlements to landless

farmers, while safeguarding property interests of the elites to whom the US relied on for

internal colonial affairs. Hence, their provisions imposed high land retention thresholds

that limited coverage of agricultural lands, allowed landowners to evade redistribution

through simple parceling of lands or phased implementation, heightened due process for

peasants typically by creating bureaucratic institutions that complicated the application

process for beneficiaries, and guaranteed just compensation for landowners based on

complex land valuation methods (Almeda-Martin, 1999; Connolly, 1992; Elvinia 2011;

Hick, 1987; Putzel, 1992). In addition, qualified landless farmers in land claims disputes

are disadvantaged in participating in legal proceedings as landowners continue to

employ the same false appearance of judicial proceedings to disenfranchise small

landowners or landless farmers in formal courts (Almeda-Martin, 1999; Elvinia 2011;

Hick, 1987; Putzel, 1992). These dual principles of granting property rights to peasants

while heightening due process for landowners were practically irreconcilable tasks that

failed in stimulating the economy through independent small-scale farming and

balancing the skewed class structure seriously threatening political stability (Almeda-

Martin 1999).

Further analysis of the debates behind these laws show that this policy ambivalence is

rooted in the attempt of national politicians to resolve ideological rifts between

proponents of liberal redistributive land reform and its conservative opponents, whose

dominant landowner interests triumph to incorporate provisions securing land properties

without jeopardizing the continued electoral patronage of their peasant constituency

(Cornista 1990; Putzel 1992). For instance, the proposal drafted by U.S. land reform

specialist Robert Hardie, credited for the success of redistributive land reform in Japan,

was vehemently attacked by leading Filipino Congressmen, unsupported by the U.S. aid

mission, was branded unfounded and even leftist or radical by an outspoken Liberal

Congressman (and later Philippine president) Diosdado Macapagal, who was backed up

by landed interests in his district, and finally called a “national insult” by then President

Quirino himself (Putzel, 1992:91

Similarly, this rhetoric of land reform as a strategy to garner votes from the rural masses

was evident in the South Korean case. The AMG’s decision to dissolve their previously

installed interim assembly to bypass landed interests in redistributing lands raised

tenants’ expectations and forced politicians to include land reform in their electoral

platforms and ultimately a provision of commitment in the new Constitution (Putzel

1992). The dictator Syngman Rhee himself was forced to settle this electoral impetus

when the elected landowner-dominated legislature unexpectedly rejected a conservative

proposal by his Cabinet and overrode his veto to force him to sign a radical Land Reform

Act in 1949. Party politics cleavage due to Rhee’s earlier withdrawal from the ruling

party, the intent to curb his increasing executive power, and the expediency of improving

public image among peasants motivated this irony (Putzel 1992). Still, Rhee requested

the Assembly for amendments and delayed implementation until a week before the

Korean War erupted (Putzel 1992; You 2014). Nevertheless, once redistribution

resumed after the war, it only took two years to finish the land transfer and the “principle

of land to tillers” to be realized, a feat nonexistent in the Philippine case (Putzel 1992;

You, 2014).

Colonial State Formation. Indeed, these colonial experiences have profound effects on

postcolonial developments in South Korea and the Philippines by influencing the

structural foundations of their postcolonial state formation and capacity (Vu 2010).

In Korea, decades of Japanese conquest laid the foundations of a strong, effective

bureaucracy (Cumings, 1984; Vu 2010). The Japanese are credited with removing the

corrupt and ineffective traditional monarchy (Putzel 1992; Vu 2010). In place of a

decayed agrarian bureaucracy, the Japanese built a modern centralized state with vast

capacity and deep penetration into society.

As Cumings would put it, Korea’s march to modernity coincided with aggression and

exploitation and also with remarkable development through learning-by-doing mode in

education, military, polity, and economy (Cumings, 1984). Indeed, this sparks even up

today a debate between on one side a nationalist approach, emphasizing that Japanese

rule stymied the development of modern economic and political structures on the

peninsula, and on the other, a “colonial modernity” school of thought, which argues that

colonial rule laid the foundation for South Korea’s massive economic growth in the

1960s and 1970s (Lee in Lee et. al, 2013).

Partial resolution to this debate is found in postcolonial outcomes. To reiterate,

notwithstanding relative deprivation and marginalization of indigenous locals, the

Japanese colonial land survey obliterated but simplified complex multiple ancient forms

of land ownership by assigning one owner for a particular plot, thereby facilitating an

unambiguous transfer of land ownership to the landless poor. This uniformalized land

plots substantially and destroyed the old feudal power structure of formerly proud small

and medium sized landed elites (Gon & Gyuk 2013; Kim in Lee et. Al 2013). The

intervention of the Japanese colonial government, however oppressive, to codify

exclusive property rights through land titles had the positive consequence of enabling

Korea to enter into a market economy by packaging land as a marketable commodity

and assuring investment predictability (Kim in Lee et. al 2013). Japanese collaboration

with landlord associations also enabled access to technological innovations that boosted

agricultural productivity (Kim in Lee et. Al 2013). Jointly, such had an unprecedented

effect of accelerating the land reform process, establishing an effective independent

farmer system, and ultimately, creating an egalitarian economic structure that served as

pre-condition for Korea’s rapid economic takeoff (Gon & Gyuk 2013).

Later indication of the beneficial part of South Korea’s colonial experience was how

American Occupation required Koreans to have previous experience with colonial state

apparatuses before employment or recruitment to civil service and retained the police

force (Cumings, 1984; Putzel 1992; Vu 2010). First free elections in Korea were

conducted in accordance with colonial rules and procedures (Cumings, 1984).

South Korea’s colonial state formation story can also be analyzed in terms of the

Weberian concept of the bureaucratic state (Weber in Runciman 1978). The imminent

military threat from the North and the perceived necessity of ruling parties to grow the

national pie in order to legitimize their rule and make side payments to their coalition

supporters heeds Weber’s idea that stronger bureaucracy was needed to regulate or

achieve growth of a money economy. On the first function, Weber (as cited in Runciman

1978:8) theorizes that the formation or maintenance of a standing military provides the

impetus for greater bureaucratization, as external pressure such as a common enemy

compels leaders within a territorially bound state to consolidate internal unity of the

administration. Thus, he says, “bureaucratisation has been promoted most by those

needs which come into existence as a result of the creation, for reasons of power-

politics, of a standing army and the development of finance associated with it” (Weber in

Runciiman 1978:7-8). On the second function, Weber remarks, “To that extent, then,

increasing bureaucratisation is a function of an increase in wealth available for and used

for consumption and of a technology of the external organisation of life which is

increasingly sophisticated and corresponds to the possibilities so created” (Weber in

Runciman 1978:348-9).

On the other hand, the lineage of the colonial state is less disputed, if not more

pronounced, in the Philippines than in South Korea, perhaps because state theorists

argue that colonial rulers allowed indigenous elites to form governments under their

tutelage in the postwar era (Vu 2010). It is thus easier to argue that the postcolonial

decentralized one in the Philippines resulted directly from the policies of their colonial

masters (Vu 2010:157-8).

The archipelago’s pre-colonial context and prevailing sociopolitical colonial structure

engendered an environment of minimal colonial supervision that encouraged the

melding of religious/clerical and secular state institutions overseeing colonial

government functions. Some Philippine scholars identify this lack of delineation between

clerics and secular state functionaries as the categorical origins of the weakness and

underdevelopment of the Philippine state (Abinales & Amoroso 2005; Putzel 1992). A

combination of geographical distance deterring willing volunteers, amnesty incentivizing

enlistment of criminals in Spanish America in the islands, and a legal ban on non-clerical

Spaniards in the colony created a scarcity of qualified civil service that presented

opportunities for Catholic friars to execute administrative functions of tax collection,

municipal management, and population census. These colonial contingencies

consolidated friar power able to resist the theoretical authority of colonial governor-

generals. The American occupational government merely reinforced this state weakness

by offering an appearance of a promise of redistributive social justice but in reality

preserved the concentration of elite economic power and political clout that became the

basis for further political fragmentation and state decentralization.

As a result, within the Weberian scale of technocratic bureaucratic organization, the

Philippines lies in the

prebendal state where specific features of pure bureaucratic organisation are

eliminated to heed a sphere of a 'feudal' structure of domination characterized by

[the] official generally not handing over the revenue from the objects allocated to

him but disposes such for his own purely private purposes while, on the other

hand, performing services for the lord…or allocation to officials of services or

revenues in kind as endowments which tend to slacken the bureaucratic

mechanism, and in particular to weaken hierarchical subordination. [emphasis

added](Weber in Runciman:344)

Colonial Rule and Landed Elites. This colonial state context informs the extent to

which the adoption of the liberal approach in South Korea and its rejection in the

Philippines is influenced by the direct effects of colonial rule and its ensuing postcolonial

state institutions on landed elite power.

In Korea, the Japanese colonizers substantially weakened the power of the old Yangban

landowning class who wielded authority during the Yi Dynasty (Putzel 1992:103).

Subsequently, landowners who made peace with Japanese colonizers were tainted by

collaboration and became the target of public ire, especially from the rural population,

and hence the object of land reform during postcolonial independence (Putzel 1992).

Moreover, the bitter experience of Northern occupation most likely persuaded many

landowners to submit to reform during the two years following the war (Putzel 1992).

Notwithstanding divergent opinions, it is hypothesized by some that the declining

profitability of the colonial land ownership system have also incentivized landed elites to

diversify and develop a new economic escape route (Gon & Gyok 2013). Due to these

reasons, South Korea’s land reforms were implemented without significant resistance

and the independent farmer system and egalitarian land ownership structure that

emerged contributed greatly to South Korea’s development of capitalism (Gon & Gyun


In the Philippines, the US quickly acknowledged the political usefulness of the

landowning hacienderos, whose economic and political power increased during the US

occupation (Putzel 1992). While landowners had collaborated with the Japanese in the

Philippines as well, the period of occupation was so short that the effect was not nearly

as severe as in Korea (Putzel 1992).

The Role of Individual Agency: High Modernists in Land Reforms. In addition to the

structural-historical perspective on colonial state formation, individual agency cannot be

also be underestimated in potentially explaining the divergence in postcolonial

development between our two country cases. That is, it can be argued that decisive

breaks in policy decisions by individual agents in power influenced the fate of land

reform in these two countries. Scott’s conceptualization of high modernism provides an

apt explanatory framework.

Scott (1998) defines high modernists as “revolutionary elites” who are “typically

progressives who have come to power with a comprehensive critique of existing society

and a popular mandate (at least initially) to transform it” with the primary aim of

revolutionizing society through “massive state-enforced social engineering” (Scott

1998:89). “To give their growing ambitions full rein, they required a far greater hubris, a

state machinery that was equal to the task, and a society they could master” (Scott

1998:88). This characterization resonates in the Philippines’ singular dictator Ferdinand

Marcos and in South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee.

Both displayed such utopian, high modernist aspirations, with Marcos making grand

pronouncements in instituting a new party/social movement called Bagong Lipunan

(New Society) and Park launching his comprehensive rural development program called

the Saemaul Undong (New Village Remodelling) Movement (Kim 2012; Putzel 1992).

However, the former did not follow through with deep commitment to effect concrete

institutional changes, let alone redound to visible and drastic societal transformation,

while the latter opportunistically capitalized on the movement to achieve his newfound

government’s legitimacy through tangible irreversible rural development (Kim 2012). In

this way, Marcos pales in comparison to Park as a potential high-modernist leader.

Park Chung Hee launched his social engineering brainchild or SU Movement anchored

on diffusing a new social ideology of the Saemaul “can-do” spirit that aimed to transform

“a former national mentality of chronic defeatism into new hope, a long-term shared

vision of a better life for all, and an infectious enthusiasm sustained by volunteerism at

the community level” (Kim 2012:vii). In this sense, high modernism implies a truly radical

break with history and tradition (Scott 1998:93-4). Park’s grand pronouncement radically

unequivocally qualifies him as a high modernist with three distinct aspirations: (1) the

administrative ordering of nature and society, i.e. high modernism, that is shared by a

wide spectrum of political ideology from the left to right wing governments, (2) the

unrestrained use of power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving designs,

and (3) weakened civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these ambitious plans

(Scott 1998:88-89). As a matter of historical fact, to accomplish the last two aspirations

at least, Park had to create a new political system capable of effectively mobilizing

resources to achieve rapid economic development and national solidarity as a counter-

defense against the communist North (Kim 2012). On October 17, 1972, President Park

suspended the Constitution by declaring martial law and dismissing the National

Assembly. A draft of the Yusin (meaning revitalization) Constitution was subsequently

adopted by an emergency cabinet and later approved through a national referendum.

The new constitution enlarged presidential power by (i) giving the president authority to

issue emergency decrees, to disband the National Assembly at will, and to appoint one

third of all lawmakers; and (ii) by creating a 6-year presidential mandate without term

limitation (Kim 2012). Under this system, the president was to be indirectly elected by

2,359 nonpartisan delegates from small constituencies that could be easily controlled by

the government (Kim 2012). In December 1972, these delegates re-elected Park Chung

Hee as a virtually omnipotent president. This institutional exigency reverberates Scott’s

practical observation that “the existence of working, representative institutions through

which a resistant society could make its influence felt is one of and by far the most

important barrier to thoroughgoing high-modernist schemes” (1998:102). In taking these

dramatic steps, Park evidently believed that he could justify both the military coup he led

in 1961 and the authoritarian political system he created with the Yusin Constitution if he

could successfully implement his economic development program, with the SU

movement at its core (Graham 2003; Kim 2012). Because one means of vindicating the

rather draconian measures he had implemented would be to achieve rapid rural

economic development, improved quality of life in rural communities became the initial

goal of the SU movement (Graham 2003; Kim 2012).

Herein, James Scott’s treatise on High Modernism diverges from the empirical reality of

South Korea’s development story through his assertion that “High-modernist ideology

thus tends to devalue or banish politics. Political interests can only frustrate the social

solutions devised by specialists with scientific tools adequate to their analysis” (Scott

1998:94). To be fair, he did acknowledge that, “as individuals, high modernists might

well hold democratic views about popular sovereignty or classical liberal views about the

inviolability of a private sphere that restrained them” (Scott 1998:94). But his idea that

“such convictions are external to, and often at war with, their high-modernist convictions”

appears to be inapplicable to the political motives behind Park’s high modernist

ambitions (Scott 1998:94). The SU movement has often been interpreted as being

politically motivated actions driven by President Park’s ambitious goals of modernizing

the Republic of Korea in order to attain a certain level of affluence “to abolish the chronic

poverty that had traditionally plagued its rural villages” (Kim 2012:6). This tendency

toward a political interpretation of Park’s founding of the SU movement has traditionally

been reinforced by the fact that implementing a grand scheme such as the SU

movement would require a political system. Scott (1998:95) the past is an impediment, a

history that must be transcended; the present is the platform for launching plans for a

better future. A key characteristic of discourses in high modernism and of the public

pronouncements of those states that have embraced it is a heavy reliance on visual

images of heroic progress toward a totally transformed future. In this sense, the Yusin

Constitution represented a radical departure from the status quo or the ways of doing

things in postwar, postcolonial South Korea while Park Chung Hee sees himself as the

bearer or the hero achieving this remarkable progress (Kim 2012:6).

The reason for the attractiveness of high modernism is clear: tremendous development

and impressive technological innovation and desirable transformation. According to

Scott (1998: 91), a more pragmatic link underlines this shift, for “A state that improved its

population's skills, vigor, civic morals, and work habits would increase its tax base and

field better armies”. Indeed, scholars on the South Korean development miracle explain

South Korea’s remarkable growth and development in a single generation on accounts

of the successful cultivation of technological advancements/innovations that enabled the

once war-ravaged and poverty-stricken country to leapfrog into prosperity in the global

economic order (Graham 2003; Kim 2012; Lee, 2013). This is where the Philippines

breaks away from South Korea. That is, while the declaration of martial law provided

Marcos with an opportunity to disrupt the landlord-dominated status quo by reconfiguring

the Constitution like Park did and implement a sweeping land reform that would have

potentially and profoundly transformed the countryside, it also gave him the assurance

or a security blanket given the absence of an intense external security threat and internal

challenges by landlords who support him and who are against redistributive reform.

Whatever is his personal motives or contingencies (political survival or lack of political

incentives), his decision to sustain the status quo perhaps amounted to a historical

turning point that herded the Philippines into a sustained path of unreformed agricultural

economy and overall dismal development.


This paper aims to demonstrate the influence of colonial legacy on postcolonial

development as articulated in the comparative cases of land reforms in South Korean

and the Philippines. These two countries were selected for both their similarities in

colonial experiences and the divergence in their development status.

Given this, this paper offers a three-pronged argument explaining their divergence.

The difference in degree and kind of colonial circumstances, particularly security threats,

shaped the likelihood of US occupational governments to respond through land reform.

The immanent threat of a Communist takeover in South Korea compelled the AMG to

implement liberal redistributive reform as an alternative to the Communist ideology while

the sporadic, segmented peasant uprisings in the Philippines convinced US colonial

authorities that conventional military response and continued landed elite co-optation

coupled with haphazard land reform legislation were sufficient counterinsurgency tactics.

The urgency of this threat also expedited the land reform by convincing both the

peasantry and landed elites of the importance of participating in the reform process.

Yet, more importantly, the extensive colonization of these two countries produced

profound effects on state formation in these two countries, as acutely manifested in their

respective postcolonial state capacity to implement truly transformative land reforms.

While conciliatory and minimally supervising Spanish rule and decentralized US

governance in the Philippines laid the foundations of a weak state with

prebendal/patrimonial state bureaucracy, brutal but modernizing Japanese colonization

of the South Korean peninsula laid the foundations of a highly centralized bureaucratic

state capable of implementing transformative and socially disruptive liberal land reform.

Lastly, of noteworthy relevance as well are powerful agents in the form of visionary,

revolutionary presidents cum dictators whose decisive action on opportunities for

sweeping land reforms and rural development programs in light of their utopian goals

spelled a major difference in the development path of their countries. On this note, Park

Chung Hee embodies the quintessential high-modernist leader who capitalizes on the

gains of past land reforms to launch an ambitious social engineering new village

movement that facilitated the successful transition of his war-ravaged, rural poverty-

stricken nation into a highly developed economy, while Ferdinand Marcos failed to

realize his grand vision of a ‘new society’ and steer the Philippines into a path of virtuous

development in his failure to utilize his systemic opportunity to use land reform as a

platform for transforming the impoverished countryside.

With this, it is hoped that this paper ably illuminates on the combined power of history

and human agency in effecting meaningful and desirable change in light of the

interaction of state and society.


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