The end of Japanese colonial rule ushered in a moment of both promise and uncertainty for Korean workers. Even as they shared hopes for labor rights and social justice, workers were divided over the meaning of independence and how it would be actualized in a liberated Korea. This moment of possibilities was quickly foreclosed by the American occupation, which turned a complex and fragmented labor movement into an undifferentiated communist bloc. America’s efforts to impose liberal reforms, as a strategy to manage Korea’s transition out of colonialism while forestalling a workers’ revolution, renewed forms of colonial state violence. But even as a hard-line approach prevailed, American advisers fought over how to best address the labor question and how it should be prioritized among different objectives in Korea. Framing the occupation as a decolonization moment, this essay seeks to recover the diverse and competing visions of workers’ rights that animated labor struggles in US-occupied Korea.

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