Beyond Heroes and Collaborators
By Andy Jackson
Oct. 26 is the 100th anniversary of Korean nationalist Ahn Jung-geun's assassination of Hirobumi Ito, the first Japanese governor-general of Korea.
Inevitably, some of those marking the occasion will juxtapose Ahn's patriotism with the betrayal of Korea by traitors who gained prominence and wealth by collaborating with the Japanese before and during the 1910-1945 colonial period.
Those views are part of a national mythos of victimization that places the patriotic Korean masses against a relatively small band of evil doers. What is even more damning in the view of this mythos is that Korean society is still scared by the patriot/collaborator dichotomy.
Former president Roh Moo-hyun encapsulated that view in a speech on Liberation Day in 2004: ``We are still unable to rid ourselves of the historical aberration that families of those who fought for the independence of the nation were destined to face impoverishment for three generations while the families of those who sided with Imperial Japan have enjoyed success for three generations." Since then, the government has moved to seize the property of those whose parents or grandparents were listed as collaborators.
Tellingly, the victimization mythos is tied to views of class. The government retaliation campaign against the descendents of accused collaborators ― along with the anti-collaborator work of private groups like the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities ― limits the scope of its work to those who could be considered upper or middle class.
There are practical reasons for limiting the reach of anti-collaborator research and retaliation. The alleged misdeeds of more prominent members of Korean society during the colonial period are better recorded and presumably were more damaging to the cause of independence than the more numerous low-level members of society who worked with the Japanese regime.
However, limiting the scope of the investigations to a few thousand members of the bourgeoisie also helps fuel the belief that collaboration was only practiced by a handful of Koreans, allowing members of some academic circles and the general public to hold on to the dichotomy of collaborator elites who still hold power today and resisting masses who continue to suffer under the legacy of the past.
Limiting the investigations that way lets the public ignore the fact that active resistance to the Japanese during the colonial era seems to have been practiced by a relative few. In that sense, collaboration was the norm.
That is not to say that Koreans are somehow predisposed to collaboration or lacked patriotic zeal. For example, there was large-scale resistance to the occupation during the 1919 March First movement by Koreans of every strata of society. While the movement succeeded in assuaging some of the harsher aspects of colonial rule (such as limits on press freedom), it was brutally repressed and its leaders jailed or executed.
However, most Koreans during the colonial era chose to go about their normal business, which had the effect of providing material support to the occupation.
The class-centered mythos on alleged collaborator activities allows the general public to leave some ugly questions unanswered. For example; from a moral standpoint, is a farmer who sells his goods or his daughter to the Japanese military somehow less guilty of collaboration than a newspaper operator who keeps his job and stays out of jail by staying within the limits set by Japanese censors?
The class centered patriot-collaborator dichotomy also cannot compute the issue of most of the 148 Koreans convicted as class B or C war criminals in the wake of World War II, mostly for torturing or otherwise mistreating allied prisoners of war. Only three of those convicted were officers, the only people who could have been morally culpable for activities on behalf of the Japanese Empire under the victimization mythos.
A report by Columbia University's Sayaka Chatani at the Korean history Web site www.froginawell.net notes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in every one of the 86 cases of convicted Korean war criminals that it investigated, has chosen to declare the convict innocent.
It further ruled that the convicted suffered the ``double pain" of being forced into the Japanese war machine and then imprisoned for their activities on behalf of it.
Sayaka further notes that Korean class-centered historians' ``simplistic narratives reveal problems in narrating experiences of the Korean prison guards; for example, since many Koreans were openly recruited and employed by the Japanese authorities to work as prison guards in Southeast Asia, it is hard to categorize them within the dichotomy of 'voluntary' collaboration and 'forced' conscription."
While speaking in Ghana last July about the legacy of slavery in Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama said, ``I think it's important that the way we think about it, the way it's taught, is not one in which there's simply a victim and a victimizer, and that's the end of the story." A similar outlook while reviewing the colonial era would give Koreans a more honest assessment of resistance and collaboration during that era.
Koreans in and out of government need to shake off the class-centered limits placed on the capacity for collaboration if they are to fully and openly analyze how Koreans resisted and cooperated with the Japanese colonial regime.
That would be a fitting legacy for Ahn Jung-geun.
Andy Jackson has taught courses on American government and has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for four years. He is the chairman of Republicans Abroad-Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com.