Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A taste of the ideological battle over Korean history

This article from the Korea Herald on the opposition of the Korean Liberation Association (composed of those who fought for Korean independence and their family members) highlights the ways in which Korea is sometimes hamstrung by competing views of Korean history.

In a nutshell, do those who remained in Korea during the Japanese occupation (as opposed to those who fled to Shanghai, Hawaii, the US Mainland, or Siberia) and who may have even worked with Japanese authorities prior to 1945 but who were instrumental in setting up the Republic of Korea, deserve recognition for their role as founders of South Korea? Or should it just be those who fought against Japan?

This extends into other questions, as well. Should those who founded South Korea be recognized and honored as founders of the nation, or did their work simply lead to the (so far) permanent division of the nation? For those who may recognize that some "collaboration" would be inevitable for those who remained in Korea, what level of cooperation with Imperial Japanese authorities would be acceptable?

These are not easy questions to work through, especially since the South had been mired in military dictatorship for so long and some of the "purist" notions of patriotism tend to favor the biographies of those who founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the North). It doesn't help that no small number in that camp refuses to grant that the DPRK is as evil to its people as the Korean and Western media say it is.

The existence of North Korea itself, not to mention a vocal and powerful group of apologists for Imperial Japan just across the East Sea, retards efforts to resolve these questions because an honest analysis is distorted by a need to counter bogus (or embarrassing) claims made by the neighbors.

Of course, questions of national history aren't unique to South Korea. The powerful Bereaved Families Association and right-wing groups in Japan lead to polarized views of Japan's own history prior to 1945, which are largely dealt with by not effectively dealing with them. The Chinese refuse to come down on Chairman Mao with a greater percentage of how much bad he did. And what if there were a powerful movement in the United States to refuse to accept as "democratic" any of the Founding Fathers who had owned slaves?

The casualties of this entrenched shouting match is architecture (the former colonial capital building, which became the first government building of the ROK and later the National Museum), people who suffer when lessons that should be learned aren't learned (like the Vietnamese who may have been victims of a cruel Korean military that never faced up to its members own excesses as part of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II), good political relations (when countries like South Korea and Japan are hamstrung by ghosts of the past), and even national security (like when the US-ROK alliance falls victim to issues from even before 1953).

Someday, of course, this will be less difficult. North Korea will eventually collapse and there will be fewer rooting for that ideology, while at the same time there will seem to be less at stake in acknowledging the excesses or bad moves by the founders of the ROK. But it will never be easy.

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