[Viewpoint] Let’s first face inconvenient truths

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[Viewpoint] Let’s first face inconvenient truths

A few days ago, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan made a statement marking the centennial anniversary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula.

The most notable point of the statement was the implicit acknowledgement of the forcible nature of the annexation. “As demonstrated by strong resistance such as the May 1, 1919, independence movement, the Korean people of that time were deprived of their country and culture, and their ethnic pride was deeply scarred by the colonial rule, which was imposed against their will under political and military circumstances.”

I believe that this sentence, in particular, illustrates the will and limitation of the Kan government as well as the state of Japanese politics today. The statement, which falls short of declaring that the annexation was invalid from the beginning, is the result of complex consideration of conservative resistance in Japan, of consequent compensation issues, and of possibly setting a precedent when negotiating diplomatic ties with North Korea.

While it sounds like deceptive reasoning to us, some Japanese scholars such as Fukuju Unno and Shigeki Sakamoto still promote the so-called theory of “an unfair yet legitimate treaty” and claim that the annexation was an act of aggression yet was legitimate under international law.

As expected, critics in Korea and Japan are condemning Kan’s statement. Intellectuals of Korea and Japan have issued a joint statement on the fundamental invalidity of the annexation treaty, but Tokyo could not go beyond its limitation regarding the seemingly reasonable and fair issue. And it is likely to remain a pressing issue between the two countries for the time to come.

At this juncture, we, as Koreans, need to discuss things by ourselves. Of course, we cannot be oblivious to the aggression of Japan and its colonial rule, and we should not forget the tragic past forever. As a matter of fact, the biggest responsible party that turned Korea into a colonial state is imperial Japan, which was the invader.

However, we also need to contemplate the problems that followed because we might have neglected to figure out who was responsible internally. How weak and fragile was the country to let another country invade and take over so completely? Was there a person or persons responsible for letting it happen? Was it a failed system that made the country so weak and vulnerable?

We, Koreans, need to seriously look back at what Korea had been like 100 years ago. Not just the scholars and experts, but ordinary citizens need to ask themselves this profound question and seek answers, consider any wrongdoings and investigate causes and accountabilities. That’s because we will gain the power to not repeat the shameful history ever again only when we make sincere efforts in looking back on the past.

For now, Korean society has only asked responsibility from a handful of Japanese collaborators such as the leaders at the time of the fall of our country, including the infamous Five Eulsa Traitors. And all remaining responsibilities was placed on imperial Japan. There also are theories that the Noron faction, which held political sway in the late Joseon Dynasty, was largely responsible for our misery. Does throwing stones at Japan and Lee Wan-yong, the main figure of the Five Eulsa Traitors, conclude the investigation of the causes?

Any fallen country is bound to have accumulated many factors for internal ruination before it collapses. What factors have made the country so vulnerable in the long time from the foundation of Joseon Dynasty to the Daehan Empire? Why did Japan, Qing China and Russia compete to take over the Korean Peninsula?

We need to study the “sickbed diary” of Korea’s internal ailment as much as we investigate the history of Japan’s aggression. For example, let’s look at the issue of returning cultural assets that Kan had mentioned in the statement.

A July 7, 1909, issue of Hwangseong Daily features an article about the emperor’s purchase of ancient calligraphy works, paintings and books as gifts to Prince Hirobumi Ito. Our Emperor Gojong had acquired valuable cultural properties such as old art works, books and calligraphy for Ito, the man who would become the Resident General of Korea. Because of such incidents, it is rather awkward to aggressively demand that Tokyo return all Korean cultural assets in Japan unconditionally.

If you are a victim of an assault, you must protest to the offender and hold him responsible. But, at the same time, you need to calmly analyze why you were beaten. We have dark memories of failing to repent for giving a cold reception to “Hwanhyangnyeo,” the women who were kidnapped during the second Manchu invasion of Korea, when they returned home. In fact, we regarded them as comfort women of the time.

Aug. 15 marks the liberation of Korea from Japan’s colonial rule. Before we celebrate the liberation, we need to remember and repent for some inconvenient truths that eventually led to the colonial rule.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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