Looking Back in Anger: Why We Must Preserve Historical Data

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Looking Back in Anger: Why We Must Preserve Historical Data

Earlier this week, Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun reported on the vivid testimonies from businessmen and officials who worked in Korea during Japan's colonial rule (1910-45), recently made public. The article was titled, "Verbal Testimonies of 120 Colonial Rulers." There were many absorbing accounts, such as confessions that even the highest ranking officials, including some director-generals of the administration, the second highest office after the governor-general, had believed it was impossible to continue to suppress the Korean resistance, and thus had come up with a plan for a commonwealth system modeled after that of the United Kingdom. Also worthy of note were the testimonies suggesting a bacteriological assault against anti-Japanese forces.

Aside from the historical value, we can also take note of the Japanese practice of documenting, compiling and preserving such historical testimonies. A former high official of the colonial government of Korea carried out the huge project of audio recordings from 1958 to 1962, about 15 years after Japan's defeat. Many of the 120 witnesses are now dead, and none of the government officials are still alive today. Although we can discern attempts at self-justification in many places, it has to be appreciated that the Japanese have made the effort to preserve the testimonies of those who were directly involved in exploiting its colony, and that these were made public 40 years later.

Compare this with the situation in Korea. High-ranking officials of the Park Chung Hee regime are now passing away one by one. Rather than exerting efforts to collect and preserve historical records and documents, the Koreans are expending their passions on the useless debate on the pros and cons of building a memorial for President Park.

The time has come for Korea to erect an archive hall dedicated to its modern history. We have to begin by collecting documents and records on past presidents. In the same vein, the controversial Park Chung Hee Memorial would better be changed to a historical or documentation hall, and used for preserving data on past presidents. Instead of arguing over whether to build a memorial hall for Park Chung-hee, we should place priority on collecting basic historical data with a neutral approach.

We do not even have a basic appreciation of the significance of historical data. This lack has resulted in the deliberate destruction of documents by government ministries, like the one immediately after the last presidential election. We have seen first-hand that assembly hearings are liable to end up lying contests if there are no relevant data and records on hand. Before it is too late, we must hasten to collect the presidential documents scattered in various universities throughout the nation or in the hands of past presidents, to preserve them for future generations.

Korea historically fostered a rich culture of documentation. The Annals of the Chosun Dynasty and 'Hunminjeongeum' (King Sejong's introductory book to the new 'hangul' writing system in 1446) have been put on the UNESCO-designated World Cultural Heritage List. We must restore our proud traditions, now that we have come a long way from dictatorship and political suppression.

We have ensured minimal institutional support to this end through last year's law on the management of documents and data preserved at public institutions. If all the documents and records are safely preserved and passed down to posterity, it could serve as a deterrent to presidents and high-ranking officials from implementing erroneous politics or policies, for fear of historical judgment. They could better lead the nation by learning and taking example from existing data and testimonial records, if we pass them down to future generations.

by Bae Myong-bok

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