The conventional wisdom regarding land reform in South Korea implemented by the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) is that it was a partial and short-term palliative driven by the exigent Communist threat and the free-land program adopted in North Korea. This article offers a new interpretation of the motives, process, and impact of the land reform program under the U.S. military occupation, highlighting three points. First, the United States was serious about conducting a land-to-tiller program because of its desire to stop Communism and pave the way for democracy in South Korea. Both goals were important. Second, the partial reform in March 1948 is explained by volatile political circumstances in South Korea: strong Communist activity at the beginning of the occupation and the rise of intransigent conservatives at the end. Third, the U.S.-sponsored land reform catalyzed further reform by the new South Korean government by setting a precedent and establishing guidelines for land redistribution parcel sizes, prices, and payment schedules.
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© 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.