[Column] A country still run by Japanese collaborators

Posted on : 2016-02-20 15:23 KST Modified on : 2016-02-20 15:23 KST
Why is the Ministry of Education blocking efforts to make available a dictionary of those who collaborated with the Japanese colonial administration?
On the left
On the left

#1. Seoul, Republic of Korea, 2016: As the city’s education office tries to stock the libraries of city middle and high schools with the “Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Collaborators,” the Education Ministry is obstructing its efforts, blustering about “violating protocol” and “infringing autonomy.”

#2. Paris, France, 2015: An exhibition was held at the national archives about collaboration with Nazi Germany. The exhibition was organized by France’s Department of Defense.

The contrast is striking. In France, 70 years have passed since liberation, but the government is actively urging its citizens to remember those who sold out their country. In South Korea, the government is actively blocking such efforts.

Some people are claiming that this is because the “Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Collaborators” is biased.

Jang Ji-yeon is cited as an example. Should Jang – who famously penned an editorial called "I Wail Bitterly Today" for the Hwangseong Sinmun that denounced the Japan- Korea Treaty of 1905 – really be called a collaborator, they wonder. But in 1914, Jang became a guest reporter for the Maeil Shinbo, the official organ of Japan’s colonial government in Korea. For four years, he wrote numerous articles and poems praising the Japanese colonial administration.

Are we supposed to ignore the wrongs that someone has done simply because they used to be a good person? (The biographical dictionary provides fair coverage of Jang’s life, including both his patriotic activity and his collaboration with the Japanese colonial administration.)

At the Museum of the National Resistance in France, the first thing that visitors encounter are not guns, bombs or other symbols of violent resistance, but rather a single old printing press. This is the press that was used to print the underground newspaper under Nazi rule.

The implication is that the spirit of resistance was the most powerful weapon of all. When France was reckoning with its past, it applied the principle that collaboration by intellectuals and journalists must be dealt with more harshly because such acts undermined the spirit of resistance.

The collaborating newspapers were shut down, and their owners were prosecuted. One journalist who had resisted the Nazis during the early part of their rule but later bowed to pressure and became a collaborator was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But in Korea, Bang Eung-mo, president of the Chosun Ilbo, and Kim Seong-su, president of the Dong-a Ilbo, both of whom collaborated with the Japanese, were never convicted of anything. When a government commission assigned to investigate collaboration with the Japanese identified the two as collaborators, Bang and Kim’s descendants responded by filing a lawsuit. Even after losing in the lower court and an appeals court, the plaintiffs never made a single apology.

Given that South Korea’s current president and the leader of the ruling party have no shame about the collaborationist past of their own fathers, what else needs to be said?

In special tribunals that were held in France immediately after its liberation, no fewer than 98,000 people were found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis. Around 9,000 people were summarily executed without a trial, according to a book called “France’s Incomplete Reckoning with the Past.”

But all that South Korea has done is publish a single biographical dictionary that records how just 4,389 people collaborated with the Japanese. No one is calling for harsh justice to be meted out, as France did; the idea is simply to leave behind ample records to teach a lesson to future generations. But the government is obstructing this.

The sorry state of affairs in South Korea leads to humiliating agreements like the “irreversible resolution” to the issue of the comfort women, women forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army. It leads to the absurdity of Japan being able to make public the telephone conversation between the leaders of the two countries, while South Korea is unable to do so.

At a time like the present when people are concerned about the security of the country, it is also worth reflecting on the significance of the fact that France’s exhibition on collaboration was organized by none other than its Ministry of Defense.

How much trust will South Koreans place in their government if it promises to defend the country while refusing to remember the shame of losing our sovereignty and the crimes of those who collaborated with the enemy?

 former President Park Chung-hee (1961-79) in his Japanese imperial army officer uniform. On the right
former President Park Chung-hee (1961-79) in his Japanese imperial army officer uniform. On the right

Postscript: The government argues that stocking school libraries with the “Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Collaborators” would violate schools’ autonomy. Coming from a government that is attempting to rob schools of their right to choose textbooks by monopolizing the production of history textbooks, this sounds schizophrenic.

Besides, the “Biographical Dictionary of Japanese Collaborators” is not a required textbook. The idea is to include it in school libraries as one resource for students who want to learn about collaboration with the Japanese. If even that is not permissible, you have to ask yourself whether this is the Republic of Korea, or a Japanese colony.

By Park Yong-hyoun, editorial writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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