[INSIGHT]Learning from colonial history

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[INSIGHT]Learning from colonial history

Every Wednesday, a protest rally is held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul demanding justice for the former victims of organized sexual slavery by the Japanese Army. It is usually a quiet rally, with less than two dozen protesters. Last Wednesday, this quiet but steady rally marked its 500th week. There might be voices doubting the need for clinging to the past with this "comfort women" issue when so much lies in the future - both to welcome and to worry about - in Korean-Japanese relations. But this quiet group standing in front of the Japanese Embassy, more than any red-banded, fist-waving rally on the streets, is teaching us a lesson in history.

History is the past seen from the present with the future in mind. One has to let go of the past to live in the present and move forward into the future. But one also has to remember the past to live today, and somehow we find ourselves repeating the same words over and over when it comes to our relations with Japan. We stand divided between the pain in our past and the future of coexistence. We raise issues and then let them die away without any conclusions.

A classic example of our inability to draw conclusions can be seen in the list of alleged Japanese collaborators announced this year on Independence Movement Day, March 1. The list came out, we read the names and expressed our anger at the alleged collaborators - and then we let the list crumble to oblivion. The same goes for our reaction every time a Japanese prime minister visits Korea and apologizes for the deeds done during the colonial period. We hold rallies; we hold press conferences denouncing the apology as not "good enough" - and then we sit back and wait for the next Japanese prime minister to come along. What are we to do with a past that we can neither forget nor settle? Here are a few basic guidelines I'd like to suggest.

First, any historical research or findings about the past, especially about the Japanese colonial period, should be respected as such. The list of alleged Japanese collaborators was announced by the Korea Liberation Association and a group of legislators without much background in historical studies. But the list itself is the result of painstaking work by historians and although some details of the list might be debatable, the list itself should be left alone as the result of historical research. People should realize that history in time judges itself.

On the other hand, historical research is subjective, to say the least. No one's life can be fully explained by a few lines in a list. We cannot simply throw stones at the names found on the list of those accused of sympathizing with the Japanese colonial cause. There are too many conditions and considerations to take account of before rendering a judgment. The light must be seen as well as the darkness. Striking Suh Jhung-joo's poems out of the post-colonial Korean literature because of the poet's undeniable pro-Japanese actions would be a terrible shame. Let's not waste our time with dichotomies that neither help nor heal.

In order to avoid dichotomies, historical research should not destroy jade with pebbles, as the old saying goes. The list announced by the legislators held the 708 names equally accused. But Suh Jhung-joo writing his pro-Japanese poems should not be compared to the five officials who actually signed Korea's sovereignty over to Japan. This leveling of responsibility damages the legitimacy of the list itself. Kim Jun-yop, a former member of Korea's liberation army and former president of Korea University, once said, "If you don't have much to eat and there's a box of apples, you need the wisdom to choose the not-so rotten apples from the downright rotten apples." Let's acknowledge our desperate situation in the post-liberation period when we needed all the help we could get - even from certain "not-so" Japanese collaborators - to establish our nation.

I would like to conclude with a plea to break ourselves free from the manacles we use to bind ourselves to the colonial past. Why do we show allergic reactions to any reference to the Japanese occupation? The behavior of certain newspapers, which refused to acknowledge the recently announced list because certain newspaper-related persons were included, shows how we are still bound to the past. The pro-Japanese actions of a minority could never take away the dignity and fight for independence that our newspapers showed the Japanese. There should also be understanding that for some people, sometimes, it must have been just too hard to resist entirely the pressures of the Japanese government. A willingness to acknowledge what should be acknowledged is the only way we will settle our past.


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The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-bin

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