Rewriting History in South Korea

Ever since the end of the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea in 1945 and the nearly unparalleled horrors of the Korean War, South Korea’s political and cultural classes have struggled with accusations of cooperation with Japanese imperialists. Those accused are called “chinilpa” – people friendly to Japan. Against this backdrop, a massive political debate has recently been brewing over who should be in charge of creating middle and high school-level history textbooks. At the root of the controversy is President Park Geun-Hye’s plan to mandate the use of government-written textbooks. According to Park’s government, the current textbooks are much too critical of South Korean history, especially that of collaboration with the Japanese imperialists. Park’s plan marks a turning point in a society that has grown increasingly concerned with the legacy of colonial collaboration.

While the issue of collaboration was not on the public agenda until democratic reforms in the late 1980s put an end to authoritarian rule in South Korea, it has become a more prominent concern since then, especially over the past decade. For starters, a special Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators’ Property was created in the mid-2000s in order to nationalize and redistribute the property of said pro-Japanese collaborators. By 2010, which was also the 100th anniversary of the annexation of the Korean peninsula by Japan, over $100 million USD worth of property had been confiscated from the descendants of collaborators by the South Korean government. The confiscated property is considered to have been given or relegated to collaborators by Japanese colonial authorities and its possession is thus illegal. This narrative has not been successfully challenged and there is, as of now, political consensus surrounding the actions of the official Commission.

The committee has investigated people from all walks of life, with even high-ranking politicians failing to avoid scrutiny. For example, a party chairman was forced to resign in 2005 after it was revealed that his father had collaborated with the Japanese colonial regime. Further, descendants of some of the most egregious criminals of the colonial and pre-colonial period had their land confiscated. This includes the descendants of the assassins of Empress Myeongseong, whose murder is considered a dark turning point in Korean history. It also includes those whose ancestors signed away Korea’s sovereignty in a series of unequal treaties with Japan. Some consider these collaborators the “worst-of-the-worst” and view the confiscation campaign as a belated but legitimate recovery of the rewards reaped by these “chinilpa” for their collaboration.

Since the early 2000s, two other bodies have been in charge of identifying Japanese collaborators within South Korea. The new drive to prosecute the chinilpa was launched by the President Roh Moo-hyun, the first liberal ruler of South Korea in decades. His government set up the Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaboration for Japanese Imperialism, which named 1,005 Koreans as collaborators. The privately run Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities named 4,389 individuals. According to the New York Times, those accused range from some of the most famed scholars and leaders of universities, to composers and artists, to authors of the constitution, to former Prime Ministers. This is a grave indictment of the cultural and political elite of the time, a group that appears to have collaborated deeply with the colonial regime. Most shockingly, the private institute’s list includes the father of the current President, former President and dictator of South Korea Park Chung-hee. He is alleged to have been an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. Despite these accusations, his name only appears in the non-government-sanctioned list, while it doesn’t figure on the other one.

While there is no contemporary complicity among these innocent political leaders, the fact that their wealth and political power is rooted in a history of collaboration is a stain on their reputation.

Such controversial cover-ups call into question the government’s ability to write fair and balanced textbooks that truly interrogate its own history. By the same token, they lend credence to the fears of opposition politicians and teachers that the government’s aim in issuing its own textbooks is to shift the focus away from the elites’ troubling history of collaboration. With a majority of contemporary South Korean political history being dominated by conservative, authoritarian rulers, there is much ammunition for left-wing intellectuals to utilize. Some of the most potent is, of course, a history of disregarded collaboration among the ancestors of some right-wing politicians. While there is no contemporary complicity among these innocent political leaders, the fact that their wealth and political power is rooted in a history of collaboration is a stain on their reputation. Covering this up by tampering with the educational system, however, is clearly not the answer.

Former President Park Chung-hee, the current President’s father, is controversial for more than just his collaboration with the Japanese military during the Second World War. An open admirer of Japanese imperialism, including its colonization of Manchuria, he even relied on pro-Japanese collaborators to enact similar policies of industrialization and the building of infrastructure that mimicked Japanese methods with little regard. Similarly, his predecessor Syngman Rhee, the founding president of the Republic of Korea after the end of Japanese occupation, is known for having included many Japanese collaborators in his cabinet and ministries in order to, as the Times puts it, “run his authoritarian government.”

Allegations of past collaboration are even creating tension within President Park Geun-Hye’s family. The President is at loggerheads with her sister, a member of the ultra-conservative “New Right” movement that seeks to paper over the collaborationist past of many South Korean politicians, including their father. The sister has met with near constant public scorn as she says that Korea shouldn’t force Japan to continue to apologize for its actions during the colonial and wartime periods. She has gone on to echo her father’s thoughts by thanking the Japanese government for laying the “groundwork for industrialization” in South Korea. Her views represent an absolute extreme of South Korean politics, but the controversy it has drawn due to the family from which she comes is striking.

The government’s textbook program has drawn a fierce backlash from multiple groups around the nation. Leading union groups have accused the government of conducting an elaborate scheme to clear the name of pro-Japanese collaborators during the colonial period. Many educators have since sworn to either disobey the law mandating government-issued textbooks or circumvent it by using supplementary materials that contradict them. The law is also opposed by many left-wing opposition politicians, who accuse the ruling party of using the new textbooks to erase the history of collaboration with the Japanese government. They point to the drama unfolding in President Park’s familial life and history, to other cases of leading officials forced to resign, and to the fact that the father of the current leader of the ruling party, Kim Moo-sung, was recently revealed to have been a Japanese collaborator who helped raise finances for the Japanese air force. Such collaboration thus makes him indirectly responsible for some of the death and devastation of the Second World War.

When it comes to the guilt of those who collaborated with the Japanese, the answer may always remain unclear. Significant, nation-altering damage was done over the course of multiple generations, but it remains ambiguous how much agency the collaborators had over their actions—for example, could former President Park Chung-hee have resisted joining the Japanese armed forces? Were many of the collaborators, or chinilpa, truly willing participants? What is clear, however, is that ignoring the country’s pained history by whitewashing textbooks is a dangerous strategy. For years, the government of the Republic of Korea hid the actions of collaborators, who were never held accountable for the damage done. While it is questionable whether this can be solved by shaming the descendants of collaborators, the current government’s revisionist ambitions risk resurrecting a spirit of public amnesia that is just as harmful to the country’s national fabric. A government with a history of hiding its sins should not be in the textbook-writing game.

Photo: Republic of Korea