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Political Systems

U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK)

U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK)
 
I. Introduction
 
The national crises and tumultuous events that occurred in Korea in succession, i.e. Japan’s invasion and colonization, the country’s liberation from Japan after the latter’s World War II defeat, and the outbreak of the Korean War, along with the idiosyncrasies of leaders and other structural factors at home and abroad, all led to fragmentary institutional changes in the country and added unique elements to Korea’s history and culture. Such events occasioned the introduction and adaptation of foreign institutions in the Korean environment, and exerted far-reaching influences, both positive and negative, on the development of public administration here.

Of the diverse events and factors that shaped modern public administration in Korea, the most notable is the period of the U.S. Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK), which lasted from the moment of national liberation on August 15, 1945, to the establishment of the First Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948. As Koreans, who were deprived and brutalized for years under the Japanese colonial regime, struggled to seize their national autonomy and sovereignty after liberation, the U.S. Army set about instituting a de-facto government in the country to maintain some order. The USAMGIK governed Korea to the south of the 38th Parallel in the immediate aftermath of national liberation and served as a central actor in the birth of the modern nation-state in South Korea. U.S. policies and ideologies came to realign social and political groups in Korea and structuralize the divide among them.

Accordingly, the period of the USAMGIK, along with the Joseon era and the Japanese colonial period, forms one of three major factors behind the birth and evolution of public administration in Korea. It is also remembered as the period that established the archetypes of Korean political and administrative institutions and formed the country’s socioeconomic structure. It is not an overstatement to say that the three years of the USAMGIK paved the way for the next six decades of administration in Korea. Simply put, the history and structure of administration in Korea cannot be understood without discussing the USAMGIK first.

The purpose here is to delineate the formation and impact of the political and administrative institutions in Korea under USAMGIK through an institutionalist lens. First, this study surveys the established literature and debates on the major institutional changes that took place during the USAMGIK period and the crisis theories that can be applied to such shifts. Second, we analyze the dynamics of national crises and the actors involved as major variables in the institutional changes led by the USAMGIK. Based on the two foregoing sections, we will then examine the administrative practices and policies that constitute the substance of institutional changes that took place under the USAMGIK. Finally, we summarize the impact of the USAMGIK period on public administration in Korea in past, present and future terms.

Taking a historical institutionalist stance, this study analyzes the administrative systems and policies of the USAMGIK within the context of then domestic and international conditions. This study uses literature review as it main methodology, drawing upon a wide range of newspaper articles, academic journal articles, and other types of existing literature on the USAMGIK to inform its viewpoints.

 
II. Theoretical Background
 
1. Types of and Logic Informing Institutional Changes
 
Historical institutionalism has its origin in the works of the so-called neo-Weberian state theorists of the 1980s who were mainly interested in how institutional changes take place against the backdrop of state-society dynamics and policy networks (Ikenberry, 1986; Skocpol, 1959; Jessop, 1991). These middle-range theories were adapted in Korea in the early 1990s to explain the dynamics between the state and social classes, and the relative autonomy and capability the state exercised in those dynamics. Institutional formation and changes were thus relatively neglected in the discourse (Kim, 1992; Kang et al., 1991). By the late 1990s, however, historical institutionalism had emerged in Korean academic circles as an alternative framework for explaining the mechanism of institutional change and maintenance (Ha, 2003; Jeong, 1999; Kim, 2002; Ha, 2001).
Historical institutionalism divides institutional changes into three types. Grouped in the first type are institutions that change gradually, incrementally, and continually; second are those that experience more radical changes that punctuate the given equilibrium; and third are those with changes that first punctuate a given system, but later lead to gradual and incremental changes in each of the broken parts (North, 1990; Krasner, 1984; Skowronek, 1982).[1]

Of these, it was North’s theory of gradual and incremental (i.e., path-dependent) changes that drew the most attention. The theory of path-dependent changes posits institutional changes as the results of a slow and continuous process, and emphasizes institutional continuity. Path-dependency is a concept that is used to explain what determines the different outcomes of institutional evolution over time. It holds that past decisions necessarily form the background for today’s decision making, while today’s decisions decide the ways in which future decisions will be made and changed (Min, 2002, 79). Official norms or institutions at T2 are results of the formal and informal interactions and restraints at T1, and will lead to a new institutional equilibrium at T3 (Krasner, 1988, 66-72; Bang and Kim, 2003). How actors with different interests interact with one another in different contexts also leads to different institutional forms and outcomes. Pressures operating on institutional formation can be both internal and external (Lee, 1993, 240-241; Kim, 2007, 16). North’s theory of path-dependent changes, however, fails to explain non-continuous institutional changes.

In reality, we see much more radical institutional changes leading to the emergence of new and unexpected institutions than North’s theory would have us believe. Internal or external crises can raise the resistance of existing institutions. Krasner posits that once the level of pressure operating on an institution reaches the breaking point, the existing institution collapses and a completely new institution comes to replace it abruptly. Institutional continuity is hardly on display in these situations that are known as punctuated equilibriums (1983, 242-243). Though Krasner emphasized that institutional changes come about as a result of punctuation in the existing equilibrium, he was also aware that internal resistance and the efforts by state organizations to maintain the status quo made it more difficult than imagined to realize these changes. States necessarily make efforts to ensure that changes and reforms are contained in the existing institutional structure.
North did acknowledge the fact of radical institutional changes in reality (1990, 90-91), but continued to emphasize that even seemingly non-continuous and abrupt institutional changes come about as a result of the existing path. He held that what appears to be punctuations in the equilibrium in the short run are more properly part of incremental changes occurring in the long run. North pointed out that institutional paths progress not in a linear manner, but more on the basis of dialectics (Bang and Kim, 2003), and listed wars, revolutions, conquests, natural disasters, and other such factors as causes of short-term, non-continuous changes (North, 1990, 89).
 

 
[1] See Ha Taesu (2000) for a more detailed discussion of these types of institutional changes explained from a historical institutionalist viewpoint.

Source: Korea Institute of Public Administration. 2008. Korean Public Administration, 1948-2008, Edited by Korea Institute of Public Administration. Pajubookcity: Bobmunsa.