[Observer]Help Koreans move on from victimhood

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[Observer]Help Koreans move on from victimhood

Alarming news in my in-box: “Recently this week, the U.K. removed the Holocaust from its school curriculum because it ‘offended’ the Muslim population which claims it never occurred.” The e-mail asks me to send this to 10 friends, because: “It is imperative to make sure the world never forgets.”
Sorry, but I did not forward the e-mail to 10 friends. It is certainly imperative that the world should never forget, but I simply do not believe that British schools are no longer allowed to teach the truth. Why didn’t I read about it in the newspaper? Like many forwarded e-mails that we all receive, there is no source, only inflammatory statements. I asked the person who sent this e-mail to me if she knew where the information came from, and how it could be checked. So far, no reply.
Lesson No. 1, then, is don’t believe everything you see on the Internet. No greater multiplier of gossip ever was invented.
But there is a Lesson No. 2. Why do we fall for Internet rumors?
Surely, it is because these rumors fit into pre-existing patterns in our minds. It is pretty easy to believe that Muslims might have bullied the British government into withdrawing the study of the Holocaust. Cultural bullies do prey on those who are so spinelessly tolerant (or “sensitive”) that they will roll over for any group (or self-appointed group spokesman) that claims to be aggrieved.
These thoughts lead me back to the Korean controversy about the children’s book, “So Far from the Bamboo Grove.”
I have written before about this book, and I will not dwell again on its particular qualities. But I think the issues raised by the controversy reach the question of what kind of people Koreans imagine themselves to be ― and how Koreans self-stereotype.
People of every nation stereotype themselves. Ame-ricans vaunt their freedom and democracy, the French their language and cuisine, Swedes their egalitarianism, and so on. Koreans take pride in their victimhood.
Perhaps in this pride, Koreans resemble some Jews who feel they are defined as a people by Hitler’s Holocaust. These Jews claim the Holocaust is a singular event and refuse to permit the word to be used for other genocides, such as those in Africa or Armenia. To acknowledge the sufferings of others would diminish the unique suffering of the Jews.
A similar attitude seems to be behind the Korean outcry over “So Far from the Bamboo Grove,” the memoir of an 11-year-old Japanese girl caught in the maelstrom of war in 1945. In fleeing from newly liberated Korea to her Japanese homeland, she meets kind Koreans and cruel ones. She meets brutal Japanese policemen and bullying Japanese schoolmates. But with the wisdom and resourcefulness of her mother and elder sister, and aided by the occasional kindness of Korean and Japanese strangers, she survives her ordeal.
Some Koreans, egged on by their government, cannot stand the idea that a little Japanese girl could be a sympathetic figure. The unique suffering of Koreans must not be diluted by acknowledging the adversity of others.
Koreans are not monolithic on the issue. Both in this newspaper (“Novel is not anti-Korean, it’s anti-war,” by Lee Hoon-beom, Jan. 24) and others, Korean writers have called for a broader, more positive ― and in fact more truthful ― view of Korean history when considering the book.
But the Korean government insists on selling the stereotype of Koreans as pitiful victims.
Victims? South Korea has the 11th-biggest economy in the world; its citizens are among the best-educated in the world. This is not a pitiful country. The Koreans I know are not pitiful people.
Perhaps this idea of Korea as an eternal underdog, this “grudge against history” ― a formulation that I have heard offered as a definition of han, the peculiar Korean melancholy ― supplied the energy for Korea’s brilliant successes.
But we foreigners who live here find “pitiful Korea” to be simply bizarre. I have lived in five countries outside my own, and Korea’s combination of amenities, charm, safety, comfort and convenience matches any of them.
But apparently many Koreans are quite insistent on the stereotype that they are history’s punching bag. (More than the Poles, whose country disappeared from the map of Europe for nearly 150 years?)
At a conference that my daughter, a high school teacher, attended the other day, the “No. 1 priority” of the Korean Consulate in Seattle was described as getting this book removed from the American school curricula. Not developing Korean trade, not visa and passport services ― but attacking the memoir of a single Japanese child.
Why? Because it is “historically inaccurate.” Then what are the historical inaccuracies?
Mary Connor, president of the Korea Academy for Educators, organized the conference my daughter attended. She receives financial backing from the Seoul government to run seminars and workshops for schoolteachers and other groups. Thus, she is a paid publicist rather than an impartial academic. Still, that qualifies her to speak authoritatively on the campaign against “So Far From the Bamboo Grove,” if not on the content of the book itself.
In an e-mail distributed to conference participants, Ms. Connor repeatedly asserted that the book was filled with “inaccuracies” and “mistakes,” but she cited only one ― an incorrect date for the second atomic bomb that fell on Japan in August 1945, hardly justification to suppress the entire memoir.
We may surmise, however, that the real grievance is that the book is about a Japanese girl’s experience, and not about Korea’s suffering. The child had a scary trip across Korea and back to Japan. But so what, compared with the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945; the conscription of tens of thousands of Korean women for sexual service to the Japanese army; the bloody Korean war; the continued division of the country, and so on?
In other words, the “historical inaccuracy” of the book is the suggestion that a Japanese girl ― or anyone other than Koreans ― has suffered in this life. We must be “sensitive” to Korean victimhood thinking ― just as the British government, according to my phony e-mail, supposedly was sensitive to the feelings of a Muslim grievance group.
Ms. Connor is just doing her job. But those of us not in the employ of the South Korean government have a job to do, too. We must not give in to cultural bullies. We must resist Korea’s desire to infantilize itself. The fact that the victim stereotype is one chosen by Koreans, not assigned to them by outsiders, makes it no less a stereotype.
And stereotypes dehumanize. This stereotype denies Koreans the richness of their experience and their achievements. It denies them their humanity.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.

by Harold Piper

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