[OUTLOOK]Let’s get on with our livesThese days, Korean politics and society abound with talk about “cleansing history.” With the economy in a slump and many households experiencing financial hardships, it is puzzling to see so many politicians, especially those in the government party, suddenly concentrating all their energy and time on digging up the past, supposedly for the sake of setting history straight. Why all of a sudden an urge to disclose more about the pro-Japanese activities of collaborators during the colonial occupation, and to clear up former President Park Chung Hee’s attempt to prolong his military dictatorship under his “revitalizing reform” constitution?
Even without these distractions, our hearts are troubled enough with several issues that have bruised our history and identity. The sea that we have always called the East Sea is still being called the Sea of Japan by others. Japan calls our island of Tokto by the Japanese name of Takeshima and claims it for itself. Now China has started to insist that Goguryeo is part of its history and has launched a national campaign to distort history.
We have many international issues to resolve, including the ever-widening gap between Seoul and Washington. Despite all that, here is what our politicians are paying all their attention to and spending all their time arguing about these days: the Donghak farmers’ movement that took place in 1884, the April 3 massacre in Jeju Island soon after liberation, the massacre of civilians during the Korean War, various unexplained deaths involving alleged abuse of authority under past military regimes, and possible ties between the Park Chung Hee regime and the scholarship fund led by Park Geun-hye, President Park’s daughter and Grand National Party leader.
Of course, it is important to clarify and evaluate historical facts. People who forget things in the past easily do not learn lessons from them and are liable to repeat past mistakes. And they cannot succeed in managing the present and the future. Obsessing about the past is simply not healthy. The digging up of the past that the Korean political community is putting up right now is all the more regrettable and worrisome, because it smells too much like partisan bickering.
Our history ― whether we are proud of it or not ― is our history. The things that happened in the past remain facts, no matter how we interpret and understand them. For example, the Korean government tore down the old colonial headquarters as part of a campaign to get rid of reminders of the colonial era. But no matter how many buildings we tear down, we cannot change the historical fact that Japan once occupied our country. It is important to understand history but one should not attempt to change history.
This is why it could be dangerous to use history as part of a political ploy. When a political party tries to use history to legitimize and strengthen its position against its rivals, it falls easily into the temptation of distorting history even without knowing it. How did we ever end up acknowledging communist guerrillas and North Korean spies as “fighters for democracy?” How did South Koreans end up hating former President Park Chung Hee more than Kim Il Sung? How did we end up thinking worse of the United States, whose soldiers shed blood to help us, than of China, that spilled the blood of thousands of our brothers during the Korean War and now wants to steal Goguryeo from us? Are these not the consequences of fiddling too much with our history?
Most of the people who were accused of having collaborated with the Japanese are now dead. When judging their acts now, we might make the mistake of condemning the past with the viewpoints of today. It is even more undesirable that we punish the descendents of these people. For those of us who living in the United States, where the norm is that individuals are strictly responsible only for their own actions, it is simply impossible to understand how one can be judged in Korean society by whether one’s grandfather cooperated with the Japanese or fought against them.
If Korea truly wants to see a better future, it should literally look ahead. There is no need to be gripped with a loser and inferiority complex about the past and complain about the Japanese prime minister going to visit the Yasukuni Shrine every spring. There is no need to beg and plead with other countries to call the East Sea by its proper name. These things will all come about when we have extended our national influence. In reality, the reason China is coming after us with the Goguryeo business is to check in advance the potential power of a united Korea in the future. Right now, there are more important things to do than change the official spelling of our country’s name from “Korea” to “Corea” and to complain about Chinese characters being used in the designs of the National Assembly members’ badges. Not only is fiddling around with history to fit one’s own political agenda a very inconsequential thing to do, it is a very low trick ― even for politicians.
* The writer is a professor of law at Illinois State University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Chang Suk-jung