[VIEWPOINT]Examining the occupationA revision of the special law to investigate pro-Japanese activities during the colonial period will be presented to the Assembly by the representatives of the ruling party soon. The original law was approved in March.
There are people who claim that there is a hidden political intention in widening the range of pro-Japanese activities to be investigated, targeting specific people and specific news media. This in turn is probably going to provoke another political debate about clearing up the wrongdoings committed under Japanese rule. It is troubling to see the possibility of another issue causing social conflicts and friction, on top of the issues of troop deployment to Iraq and the transfer of the administrative capital.
Of course, clearing the past is an issue that would bring about conflict rather than social agreement in any society, and if there is a past that needs to be examined, there is no reason to avoid conflict out of fear. However, looking back on the debate in our society about Japanese rule, there are a few things that we need to worry about.
Clearing the past means closely examining the reasons for our unfortunate history and making sure such misfortunes are not repeated. The real meaning of clearing the past starts with truly understanding and examining all the dimensions of our past. However, a part of our society seems to think that finding people who participated in pro-Japanese acts is all there is to clearing up the past. Examining the work of the pro-Japanese faction and judging them may be a simple way of clearing our colonial period, but it is not the best way. It is actually a way that is equal to refusing to learn from history. We would not learn anything because by limiting the responsibility for our 30 years of colonial rule to a pro-Japanese faction, we would prevent ourselves from having a chance to examine widely and reflect deeply on the history of the Japanese occupation.
The argument for clearing our past mobilizes many different justifications. Some say that the contradictions and evils of Korean society after liberation were due to the pro-Japanese faction which continued to betray our country, and so judging their anti-national actions would set our national spirits right and put social justice in place.
Hiding or patching up the work of pro-Japanese people is definitely hard to accept morally and should be criticized. Nevertheless, there is a need to reconsider whether it is reasonable to make the betrayal of a specific value, fatherland and compatriots, the subjects of the past to be cleared, instead of anti-humane acts that go against universal human values, such as mass murders, racism, torture or infringement upon personal rights.
Furthermore from a historical researcher’s point of view, there is nothing more dangerous than approaching history with just a political justification and ruling on historical acts in the name of historical judgment. The process of clearing the past has a danger of falling into the trap of dichotomy if people cling too much to the justification and necessity of the process or if it is approached out of a present political need.
Unless the purpose is not exposing the past deeds of the pro-Japanese faction, thus gaining psychological catharsis and ultimately reaching a political goal, more mature deliberation is needed on what standards and methods will be used in the process of clearing pro-Japanese deeds, and what the real meaning of “clearing” is.
The complex dimensions of historical reality or actions should not be overly simplified, and the norm and the law of present day should not be used as a standard when evaluating historical actions. In addition, on the basis of abstract and general rules, if the meaning of a historical deed is interpreted in broader terms, it can lead to witch-hunting of deceased people.
The lesson that can be learned from foreign countries that have cleared their past is that it is a process that requires self-examination, tolerance and efforts for the future. That is to say, clearing the past is not just a problem for people of the past who went through misfortunes, but also a problem for a society as a whole, which will have to overcome and examine the problem in order to investigate its identity. Therefore it is a process that has to take place with the interest and response of everyone in society. If the process is suspected of having political intent, or becomes the subject of quarrel or controversy, it will only bring about conflicts, confusion, anger and hostility, and will not be an opportunity for genuine reflection or self-examination.
* The writer is a professor of Western History at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Ahn Byung-jik