AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 19

[ Korea Sessions, Table of Contents | Panels by World Area Main Menu ]

Session 19: Electrifying Korea: Multidisciplinary Studies in the Interaction Between Politics, Culture, and Technology

Organizer: Sungook Hong, , South Korea

Chair: Jang Gyu Lee, , South Korea

Discussant: Jang Gyu Lee, , South Korea

Electricity is not only a convenient technology; it also is a symbol of modernity and progress. When electric light was first introduced into Korea in 1887, it was named the "light of new civilization." In 1899, the Hansung Electric Company established the first power plant, and launched streetcar service. After Korea was occupied by Japan in 1910, Kyungsung Electric Company was established in 1915, which virtually monopolized the supply of electric power in the Seoul area. In the 1930s and 40s, huge hydroelectric power stations were built in the northern part of Korea. After 1945, Korea was divided into two, and in May 1948, North Korea suddenly cut off the supply of electricity for South Korea, which made the south's economic condition chaotic. After 1961, the Park Jung Hee regime initiated various measures to increase electric capacity, which he thought to be essential for rapid economic development. As we can see in this brief history, the history of electrification in Korea is the history of complicated interactions and co-constructions between technology, colonial and postcolonial politics, economic development and the modern mentalities and values of the Korean society. This session will examine these complicated interactions by focusing on 1) the introduction of electricity into Korea, 2) the construction of the biggest Sup'ung Dam, 3) the cut off of electricity from North to South Korea in 1948 and the subsequent reconstruction of the South's electrical system, and 4) the choice of the nuclear power in the 1950s and 60s.

Electricity as Culture: The Introduction of Electric Lighting and Electric Tram into Choson
Sungook Hong, , South Korea

Electricity was introduced into Choson (Korea's old name) in the nineteenth century. During the 1870s and 1880s, some Choson scholars advertised that electric lighting was the core of modern technology, and that it would illuminate and modernize underdeveloped Choson. Choson's last King was much interested in electrical lighting and electric tramway for several reasons. For one, he believed that electric lighting, much brighter than traditional lights, would change his Palace into a safe place for himself. The King's Palace was first electrified with a small dynamo and two 100-watt lights in 1885. During the next few years, the number of electric lamps in the King's Palace was increased up to 900. The Hansung Electric Company was established in 1898, which constructed the first electric station for lighting and tramway in Seoul. Some Korean reformers sought a way to modernize the nation in electric power. Electricity was a symbol of enlightenment and modernity. However, most Korean people, who had initially enjoyed riding electric trams when it was first introduced in Seoul, began to look at electric lighting and electric tramways with suspicion. Some thought that electricity was an evil power; many others viewed it as a penetration of foreign (and imperialistic) forces. My paper will explore these diverse cultural meaning of early electric lighting and tramways in the late Choson (Korean) dynasty and early Japanese colonization period, and will discuss how these cultural reactions and the social uses of electricity in Korea were mutually shaped.

Sup’ung Dam and Innovation of Electrical System on the Colonial Periphery
Sunsil Oh, , South Korea

In 1938, Sup’ung Dam, the largest scale dam in Asia was constructed at the Yalu River, the border between colonial Korea and Manchukuo. Consequently, Korea and Manchuria had more stable electrical systems as compared to the Japanese system, which was still based upon small-scale power plants. This paper explores how this innovation of electrical system was made possible in the colonial periphery of the Japanese empire. Special emphasis will be put on the role of the Nippon Chisso Hiryō(Nitchitu), an electrochemical enterprise; it mediated between the Government-General of Korea and Manchukuo, which had not only different electrical systems but also alien politico-economic contexts. Originally, the innovation began in colonial Korea when large-scale power plants were advanced as product of negotiation between Nitchitu and Government-General of Korea in the early 1930s. Since Nitchitu had failed to acquire sufficient electricity in Japan, it tried to secure new power resources in Korea; Government-General of Korea, suffering from the resistance of existing power suppliers and the lack of enough money for stabilizing the public electrical system, chose Nitchitu as an ideal partner. The cooperation between the two made the construction of large-scale plants, which would provide the foundation not only for expanding Nitchitu business, but also for the stable grid system in the colony. Next step, a “Newly independent” country, Manchukuo, found an ideal model of electrical system from Korea, not Japan. Sup’ung dam became a core of the new grid system.

Continuity or Discontinuity?: The ROK Government’s Policy to Recover the Electrical System
Tae Gyun Park, Seoul National University, South Korea

When Korea was liberated from Japan, most of the power plants were located in the northern region of the Korean Peninsula which was occupied by the Soviet troops. Until May 1948, when the North Korean Central People’s Committee cut off the transmission of electricity to South Korea, there were few problems. However, after the event, South Korea should install its own power plants. In particular, to supply electricity to common people was the foremost mission to the new ROK government which was established three months after the cutting. The ROK government, in particular the Planning Administration, designed a mobilization plan in 1949, which focused on constructing thermoelectric power plants rather than hydroelectric power plants. And based on the constitution of the ROK, major industries including electricity business were planned to be publicized or nationalized. Most of funds for the plan were provided by ECA assistance between 1949 and 1950. It is probable that almost all of experts and bureaucrats were educated and trained during the colonial period. However, the fund was from the US and ownership type of main electricity company was very different from that under the Government General before 1945. What was the main idea of the ROK government? What triggered that kind of planning? In this paper, I would like to examine what the plan was, and the extent to which the plan was related to the colonial experiences.

Who Rules the Atom?: Controversy Surrounding the Nuclear Power Plant Management System in South Korea during the 1950s and 1960s
Seong-Jun Kim, , South Korea

Two decisions made by the South Korean government, in 1958 and 1968, greatly impacted the history of nuclear policy. These decisions created controversy as to which government organization would be in charge of the construction and management of the planned nuclear power plant. Initially, the Korean government placed these responsibilities in the hands of the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1958. Upon its establishment in 1967, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) assumed some of the MOE's functions. In 1968, the government reversed its decision and gave the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MCI) responsibility for managing the nuclear power plant project. This dispute reflected the different opinions on whether a specialty in electricity in general could cover management of a nuclear power plant, and also showed the different viewpoints concerning industrialization. The MOE/MOST represented scientists who hoped that indigenous technology could contribute to the management of a nuclear power plant and contribute to Korea's industrialization. The electricity company, represented by the MCI, was more interested in energy development to contribute to industrialization rather than pursuing the long-term plan of the scientists. This case demonstrates that although there were diverse viewpoints regarding paths to industrialization in South Korea in the 1960s, the government's preferred path ultimately took precedence over viable alternatives.