[VIEWPOINT]Determining history’s truthRobben Island, where former South African President Nelson Mandela served an 18-year term as a political prisoner, is a small place not far from Cape Town.
On the island, where many who fought against white-ruled South Africa’s apartheid policy of race segregation were imprisoned for years, traces of the oppression and pain still remain.
Visitors feel solemn there. Still, a guide, who was said to have served a term on the island at the same time as Mr. Mandela, showed us around the prison with a bright look and explained the painful experience with a smile.
In a broad discussion of South Korea’s national identity, “truth” and “reconciliation” have recently become topics of conversation in political circles. President Roh Moo-hyun has publicly supported the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths in a series of controversies over its activities and decisions.
Going a step further, Mr. Roh noted that the commission’s scope of activity had limitations, and announced the need for a national project to deal with the historical past extensively.
The Uri Party instantly responded to the call by deciding that it would form a “Truth, Reconciliation and Future Commission” which could comprehensively re-examine the periods of Japanese colonial rule, the Cold War and dictatorship.
Controversy over a national identity triggered by the truth commission’s activities and decisions eventually seems to have returned to the problem of cleaning up history, going beyond the issue of suspicious deaths.
The Truth, Reconciliation and Future Commission is modeled after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1994 to examine apartheid.
But what is important is not the name of the commission but the spirit that has led its system and operation. If the party wants to have “true reconciliation” and correct history, it is urgently required to properly connect the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to its effort.
The Truth, Reconciliation and Future Commission should be based on the premise of discussion and agreement among the parties from its planning phase. Isn’t it realistically impossible from the beginning to exclude opposition parties from membership in the commission? It is not a matter that can be materialized by planning, announcing and making it public onesidedly. If the ruling party hurries in pushing the plan, the plan itself mistakenly could be seen as a political tactic.
It would be awkward if the Uri Party thought that this was a good opportunity to take the initiative in correcting history now that it has won the majority of seats in the National Assembly. History is not an object to be possessed exclusively by a political party or a faction, or to be easily judged.
The history of Japanese rule, the Cold War and dictatorship is a pained history shared by all of us and, accordingly, is a history that we should agonize over and resolve together. It is indeed a dangerous thing if the party takes the issue of cleaning up history as a breakthrough and victory by making it a confrontation between “regressing to the Yushin era and progressing to the future,” “democratic and anti-democratic,” “conservative and liberal,” and “ rightist and leftist” forces.
It is worrisome if its intention to handle history generally leads to division at the slightest slip under the present circumstance in which ideological, regional and class conflicts are taking place.
If the Uri Party cannot maintain a stance that goes beyond all parties, our national opinion will be divided, confusion will increase, and finally its effort to clean up history will become a political tactic.
In the same context, what is more important in re-examining history is a virtue that transcends politics. The virtue is the very heart of forgiveness and love as shown in the smile of the guide on Robben Island.
His was not a face hardened with hatred to convict past faults, but rather a bright and peaceful one that could forgive the past.
In South Africa, the examination of truth and reconciliation was possible because the majority of oppressed black people had the heart and generosity to forgive the minority of oppressing white people. With the logic of power, neither reconciliation nor examination of truth is possible.
When the virtues of reconciliation, forgiveness and love, which transcend politics, spread among the political community, historical truth can be discovered and corrected regardless of the form, system or name of the commission.
The gentle look of the unknown guide on Robben Island and that of former President Nelson Mandela were really alike.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Jung-hee