[OUTLOOK]The 386ers’ ‘song of the sword’

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[OUTLOOK]The 386ers’ ‘song of the sword’

“The Song of the Sword” is the title of an acclaimed novel about 16th century hero Admiral Lee Sun-shin. It is also the theme of the music that the “386 regime” has chosen as its political tactic these days. Perhaps those in the present government who are from the generation characterized as having been born in the 1960s, attended college in the 1980s and risen in society in their 30s, were so deprived in the past that their present grip on power isn’t enough compensation. Their recent saber-rattling is enough to send shivers down one’s spine even in this stifling heat.
But there is something awkward and forced about their claims and accusations. It is our modern history that makes the government sing triumphant songs of vindicated injuries when talking about “the authority” and sharpen their knives of revenge. The 20th century for Korea started with the Donghak movement against the newly arriving foreign influences and ended with the “International Monetary Fund regime” brought on by the 1997 financial crisis. Our song, instead of extolling our progress from the periphery to the center of the international stage, is a song of blood, ever so ready to accuse others and cut off their heads.
Who is to say no when the government insists that it is delving into the truth behind pro-Japanese activities committed by certain figures, and restoring the honor of those fallen in the cause of the Donghak movement? Yet, why do we feel so uncomfortable with this? First of all, it is too late and too long ago. Of what use would it be to compile the list of men who fought and died in the 1894 Battle of Ugeumchi other than perhaps to make their great-grandchildren have a sense of family pride?
Of what use would it be to make a list of men who collaborated with the Japanese authorities other than to give their descendants an unfair burden of shame? If we are to call not only the Koreans who acted as judges and prosecutors under the Japanese rule, but also the Koreans who acted as village leaders, lieutenants and detectives, pro-Japanese, then all the Koreans who worked as bureaucrats in the colonial era would be guilty. Before accusing them of collaborating with the Japanese, we must at least try to understand under exactly what conditions Koreans were living during that period of time.
What is even more problematic is making a collective judgment on various individuals. Even most of the “biggest” collaborators were contributors to the patriotic movement in their earlier days. Social movement leader Yun Chi-ho and literary figures Choi Nam-seon and Lee Gwang-soo are some of those who worked for the independence movement before apostatizing later in their lives. Their prominence, and therefore their “crime,” was greater than those of the common people who also gave in to the order to change their Korean names to Japanese ones.
Kim Seong-soo was a newspaper owner, an education advocate and a businessman. He, too, collaborated with the Japanese after the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. However, the special commission formed in 1949 after independence to judge collaborators with the Japanese colonial government ruled that his contributions to the Korean people had been enough to offset his offenses. Choi Lin, a leader of the Cheondokyo religion, gave this remorseful answer when questioned in a trial on unpatriotic acts: “Under the harsh rule of Japanese colonialism, the only choices we had were self-exile, suicide or collaboration.”
Second Lieutenant Park Chung Hee of the Japanese Army, who was a fingerling compared to these figures, joined the independence army in August 1945 right before independence. He changed his Japanese uniform for that of the Liberation Army under the ceaseless rebuke of Jang Jun-ha, the legendary independence fighter who was a first lieutenant in the Liberation Army at the time. Park Chung Hee’s great sin is not having sold himself out to the Japanese but having sent democracy fighters to jail when he became president.
The whole issue of pro-Japanese activities is an academic one and politics should not be involved. Moreover, the 36 years of Japanese occupation were essentially different from the five years of the Vichy government in Nazi-dominated France. Every move that prominent national figures made was watched closely by the Japanese. Under the rule of General Minami, who was infamous for his disregard of the law, the Dong-a Ilbo bravely erased the Japanese flag from the uniform of Song Ki-jung in the picture taken after he won the gold medal in the marathon in the Berlin Olympics. Yet what choice did the newspaper have when the Japanese powers ordered that the Korean language be forbidden and that all Koreans should change their names to Japanese ones?
They could have written a front page article extolling the Japanese emperor in order to carry even a line on the victory of the Liberation Army fighting in China, or it could have been to the contrary. In the face of the ultimatum from the colonial office in 1941 that the newspapers be published in Japanese, the Chosun Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo chose to put an end to their pro-Japanese activities. That is, they voluntarily closed down. If we see only the five years of pro-Japanese activities, we would be burying the valiant suffering of the national newspapers that survived for 16 years under the colonial rule.
Granting that the Japanese rule of Korea was an unprecedented rule of oppression in world history, it will only lead to our downfall to punish individuals or institutions by cutting their past to pieces. Think carefully before throwing stones at someone. Is the 386 generation’s “song of the sword” a song to comfort the victims of history? Or is it what our forefathers wanted ― a daughter of a Liberation Army member and a daughter of a dictator fighting a final war swearing at each other?
Would history turn pure if the 386 generation, with their average of 20 years fighting for democracy, a warrant guaranteeing their 100 percent purity in their hands and a smug smile of self-righteousness on their faces, buried all those accused of pro-Japanese activities in the sea of Noryang where Admiral Lee fought his last battle? Remember that those who want to judge history will also become part of history for others to judge.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Song Ho-keun
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