After being promoted from a provincial-level park to a national park, Taebaek National Park authorities are pursuing a policy of cutting down the Japanese larch trees and replacing them with indigenous Korean trees. Currently, they estimate that there are about 500,000 Japanese larches in the park, consisting of 11.7 percent of the entire tree "population."
Starting in 2021, the park plans to spend about U$4 million for this project over 5 years. A park spokesman is quoted as saying that it's only appropriate, especially since Taebaek is considered a "holy" site for Koreans, to get rid of any foreign trees and replace them with Korean ones. This also is in line with the overall national park policy.
Let me translate. A Korean national park is cutting down a tree because it's Japanese. I didn't realize that a plant could have a nationality, but here we are.
Seoul Metropolitan Government recently introduced an ordinance that would prohibit the city government and Seoul's Office of Education from buying goods made by "war criminal" firms. By this, they mean manufacturers who are accused of benefitting from forced labor conscription or other economic exploitation that Imperial Japan perpetrated against Korea during colonization. While the ordinance didn't make it out of the committee, it's pretty astounding that it was even conceived, let alone introduced.
The Gyeonggi Provincial Assembly similarly invited public comments on a proposed ordinance that would mandate labeling of goods owned by all the schools within the province with a sticker proclaiming that the product ― if it was produced by one of 284 manufacturers listed as Japanese collaborator firms or by companies that benefitted from investments by the said firms ― was made by a "war criminal" company.
This is happening in 2019. You'd be tempted to dismiss these anti-Japanese efforts as irrational outliers by rogue politicians looking for populist support. You'd be mistaken.
Unresolved resentment over legacies of Japanese collaborators is, dare I say, a foundational national narrative in modern Korean society. It's as mainstream as they come. In his March 1st speech commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Korea's independence movement, President Moon said, "Fellow Koreans, wiping out the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators is a long-overdue undertaking. Only when we contemplate past wrongdoings can we move toward the future together. The task of setting history right is what is needed to help our future generations stand tall. Firmly upholding the national spirit is the state's responsibility and duty."
These "vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators" are blamed as the main reasons for the inequality and inequities of today's South Korean society. The narrative is as follows: after the independence, the occupying U.S. authorities, for logistical and ideological reasons, allowed Japanese collaborators to remain in their privileged positions. The Japanese collaborators took advantage of this opportunity to reinforce their positions, protect themselves from being punished and purged, and distort the system in their favor to ensure that their families would continue to thrive. Worse, they rebranded themselves as rabid "anti-communists" to cater to their American patrons in the Cold War context, further gaining favor and wealth. These families now form the core of South Korea's elite and are running the country as an invisible power behind the throne.
This narrative is not wholly without justification. However, the organic complexities of relationships and allegiances in post-independence Korea have devolved into a more simplistic black and white story of evil Japanese collaborators taking on the role of the boogieman or Korea's version of the omniscient Freemason's, not only subverting long-awaited justice but perpetuating injustice to their own ends.
Then it gets interesting.
In the same speech, Moon said, "The Japanese imperialists labeled independence armies as bandits and independence activists as thought offenders to justify their crackdowns. The word "Reds" originated from them… Hostility between the left and the right and ideological stigmas were tools used by Japanese imperialists to drive a wedge between us. Even after liberation, they served as tools to impede efforts to remove the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators."
So, we now have the societal formula whereby successful elites are equated to Japanese collaborators. And these are the same people who are also responsible for the left vs. right division in Korea. The elite vs. the people. Left vs. Right. Koreans vs. Japanese. These fault lines have now merged into one fissure riven apart by the unjust legacies of the Japanese collaborators. And Korea's original sin is not having purged the country of these traitors when Korean became independent.
The problem with original sin is that it never goes away. It's inherited and universal. And the only way to overcome the original sin is to be redeemed by a Messiah. It's not a coincidence that messianic language is often used by the progressives when describing President Roh Moo-hyun and Moon. Unfortunately for Korea, messiahs take their time to show up. And I am not sure divine comeuppance is a good national policy.
Jason Lim (email@example.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.