[OUTLOOK]Hiding the power of historyTokyo University returned “The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty” to Korea two and a half months ago, something that has helped bring Koreans a greater sense of historical consciousness.
The annals, comprising 1,893 volumes, documented the official royal history of Korea for the period, which lasted 472 years and comprised 25 kings. Writing and maintaining the records was one of the Joseon Dynasty’s largest and most important projects.
However, nobody, not even kings and officials, was allowed to read the books. Why did they then work hard to write and keep the records? Did they want to give historical lessons to descendants? Probably not. I assume that they wrote the books for themselves ― more precisely, writing and keeping the annals was seen as something that kept the dynasty healthy.
Asians have traditionally viewed being recorded in history as a hero as the greatest achievement, and being recorded as dishonorable as the greatest shame. Thus, recording historical data to be made public only in the future is in a sense similar to the Christian doctrine of predestination. The Joseon Dynasty could last for as long as 500 years probably because it had the annals ― the judge of history.
The current administration has been eager to investigate wrongful acts in history. The goal of this is also to make judgments based on history. Doing that basically means examining historical documents and complimenting rightful acts while condemning wrongful deeds. It is an evaluation of ethical values. However, the administration’s investigation of past wrongdoings goes beyond making mere ethical value judgments and veers into the realm of legal punishment.
On Friday, the government is scheduled to inaugurate a special committee whose aim is to confiscate the assets of people or their descendents who collaborated with the Japanese during Korea’s occupation. In 1948, a special committee for the same purpose was formed but was forcefully disbanded the next year.
This administration’s committee can be said to be the rebirth of a project to straighten out the wrongdoings of the past after 57 years.
There are worries, however, that this could easily become an exercise in judging history rather than in judging from history. When categorizing Korean history, the period of Japanese occupation is seen as part of the nation’s pre-modern history, not its modern history. The period of Japanese occupation has settled into the berth of a specific historical period, but in reality people have not gotten over that era. The period still haunts us.
During the occupation, the Republic of Korea did not exist. Being pro-Japanese might be a crime against Korean nationals, but not against the state. Is it possible then to confiscate their assets under Korean law? Is it possible to annul only part of the laws during the Japanese occupation, instead of all of them? In a constitutional state, violence cannot replace the law simply because the former is more convenient.
The goal of judging by the law is to punish crimes, but the goal of judging from history is to prevent the same wrongdoings from happening again. If the government drafts a law in the name of history and uses it to punish people, that law also will stand in the court of history.
The assets that former collaborators have accumulated must be confiscated. There is no doubt about that. The problem is, however, that we need to find a method to do so by judging from history, not by using the power of law.
Our ancestors collected historical materials and left the job of writing the actual history books to the next dynasty. But historians still recorded ethical judgment on specific incidents.
The other day I learned on a television program that Shin Chae-ho, an activist who fought for independence from Japan, had no nationality. He did not register himself on the family roster during the Japanese colonial period. History leaves things as they were. To fulfill justice for the past is the duty of a historian.
Historiographers know that kings might wield mighty power, but that their power ultimately disappears, leaving behind only the records of their rule. Because of this belief, historians have been able to collect materials and keep records without being afraid of losing their lives. Only a person who has got what it takes to become that kind of brave historian will be allowed to punish those who committed wrongdoings in the past.
* The writer is a professor of history at Kyonggi University.
by Kim Gi-bong