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     Mar 31, 2005
Politics, price of Seoul's collaboration probe
By Jaewoo Choo

SEOUL - Since the presidential campaign of 2002, South Korea has not had a moment's respite from ideological clashes between progressives and conservatives. The former emerged the winner when Roh Moo-hyun was elected president. He still has not triumphed, however, in his ideological and political battles. A potent and potentially dangerous strategy, fueled by anti-Japanese sentiment, is a probe into those - many of them powerful conservatives who oppose him today - who collaborated with the Japanese during the colonial era. Some committed atrocities, some shuffled papers in the Japanese bureaucracy, some swept the floors, some looked the other way, and some amassed fortunes thanks to close ties with the occupiers. Some walk tall today because their relatives and ancestors bowed to the Japanese occupiers.

The probe has not yet begun and all details of how it will function are not known. The legal framework was approved by the Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly last December, and the Assembly itself, convening in April, is expected to adopt a "Truth and Reconciliation Law", setting up an investigation and some sort of truth and reconciliation commission. The government already has established a "Truth, Reconciliation and Future Committee". The idea is to expose collaboration with the Japanese and also collaboration with past repressive Korean military governments. The timing is propitious, say Roh and his Uri Party; after all, August 15 marks the 60th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan's occupation from 1910-45.

Not a few big names will be exposed and major figures and their descendants - mostly descendants - humiliated. Questions of compensation and return of property have not yet been settled. Several North Korean organizations have compiled lists, a dictionary of collaborators - 3,000-4,000 - but the key number is 786. The names have not been made public though the prominent figures are well known. The "dictionary" will be like a Who's Who of infamous, as well as heretofore unknown, collaborators, to be published later.

The opposition hasn't said much, given the current climate of anti-Japanese sentiment, but it has said that it will not oppose the bill.

In Japan, analysts naturally are carefully watching developments in the collaboration campaign. Many South Korea experts in Japan see Roh's investigation as being primarily politically motivated to strengthen the shaky political ground for Roh's progressives in advance of the 2007 presidential election - and to harm Park Guen-hye's opposition Grand National Party (GNP). They also point out that South Korean governments, except for that of former president Kim Dae-jung, have used anti-Japanese elements to strengthen the sitting administration's political standing and divert the people's attention away from such domestic difficulties as a sluggish economy. Using anti-Japanese sentiments makes it easier to unite the nation and boost nationalist feelings. Roh's political ratings are also said to have improved with his tough talk about Japan and his stand over the disputed Tokdo Islands.

Roh passionately is pushing his efforts to unearth Korea's still shrouded and shameful history, tainted by coverups and and distortions by former military governments once headed by the patriarchs and matriarchs of current political party leaders and members, especially of the major opposition, the GNP. The repercussions of Roh's efforts at political and sociological archeology, however, go far beyond South Korea's domestic politics, affecting the whole Korean Peninsula and, of course, Japan. It may also have implications for East Asia and for other countries whose nationals collaborated with the Japanese.

Before launching his anti-collaborators campaign, Roh was establishing his own credentials and independence. He has said it was time for South Korea to become autonomous in its foreign policy and international relations - more independent of the United States - and to restructure the current US-Korean alliance. He has a powerful conviction that this relationship is a snare that prevents South Korea from independently pursuing its national interests in general and its relationship with North Korea in particular. Unfair treatment by the United States when its military inflicted physical and economic losses upon Koreans was the motivating factor behind his independence initiative, though South Korea can ill afford to dispense with US military and other assistance. Many Koreans are offended at the presence of US bases, their costs to South Korea, the immunity of US military personnel, and so on. In recent years, South Korea has witnessed and experienced anti-Americanism not seen since the 1880s. Although that hostility seems to have subsided in recent times, the damage to the bilateral relationship has not been healed.

Some powerful and conservative Koreans, however, emphatically do not share Roh's view of South Korea going its own way in terms of foreign policy and no longer being at Washington's beck and call. These are some of the figures who conceivably also might be targeted by the anti-collaborationist probe.

Beginning last autumn, Roh started making every possible effort to unearth the truth about Japanese collaborators. He has justified his initiative in the name of resurrecting the truth about modern Korea, with all its strengths and weaknesses. In addition, the president justified his anti-collaboration efforts by observing that Korea's 60th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule is approaching - certainly, he argues, this is an appropriate time to take stock and seek the truth.

In the meantime, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have finished collecting and categorizing the names of those who allegedly collaborated with the Japanese during the the colonial period in the first half of the 20th century. These names are part of a dictionary of collaborators. The probe, whatever form it takes, or a truth and reconciliation commission would have major negative implications for those who oppose Roh and who may - or whose family may - have collaborated with the Japanese. The least important on the list are the vast majority, believed to have held Japanese government positions in the colonial administration.

Most of those on the list have died, and through the publication of names, their descendants are the ones who are likely to suffer.

Since many Korean NGOs are nationalistic organizations, they don't use English names, only Korean names, and their official homepages are in Korean without English translation. Some, translated by this correspondent, are the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, the History Foundation for Unified Korea, and at the National Assembly level, the National Assembly Members' Study Group for Correcting the Falsified National History.

The goals of the truth and reconciliation commission will apparently be threefold:
  • To identify collaborators and to resurrect the truth about Japanese collaborators who once were charged with anti-ethnic crimes in 1948 but who were acquitted of all charges in 1949 when the committee overseeing the cases was dismantled by the Rhree Seung-man (Singman Ree) government.
  • To find out the truth about the victims of forced/coerced Korean labor during the Japanese war effort, to establish legal grounds to file for compensation from the Japanese government, because such cases brought before the Japanese courts have always been dismissed.
  • To find out about collaborators with past repressive military governments.

    The Korean people are incensed about Japanese history books' description of their colonization, the dispute over the Tokdo Islands (Takashima in Japanese) and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan's war dead, including war criminals. They do want to know who and whose relatives and ancestors brutalized their fellow Koreans for their own profit or livelihood.

    This desire to know more about collaborators with the Japanese is further fueled by a recent Japanese prefectural government's irresponsible and immature - in the view of many Koreans - decision to declare Takashima Day, as a confirmation of Japan's alleged sovereignty over the rocky Tokdo isles and cluster of rocks in a rich fisheries area. That is stirring up strong anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea to an unprecedented degree. This in turn has strengthened Roh's determination to identify collaborators and their atrocities.

    Most, if not all, did commit atrocities of one kind or another. They may not have committed actual murder but they may have committed other atrocities, such as those by the Korean businessmen who exploited their own people to further the Japanese war effort. Or the atrocities by policemen who used any and all means, including violence, to arrest dissident Koreans and eradicate their independent spirit. And in Manchuria, Korean policemen pursued and captured those who fought for Korean independence and turned them over to Japanese authorities.

    Ironically - because it needs its alliances with both the United States and Japan - South Korea now has become a boiling hot pot of anti-Americanism and anti-Japanese sentiment. These are the two nations that South Korea cannot afford to lose for security reasons because of their roles in today's power configuration around the Korean Peninsula, not to mention Northeast Asia and East Asia in general. However, if the animosity escalates, it can only eventually backfire against South Korea, which has already lost a substantial amount of trust as an ally in the view of Washington.

    Roh's government and his Uri Party deny that their efforts to exhume - metaphorically speaking - the political graveyards of the pro-Japanese collaborators have any foreign-policy implications; they claim strictly domestic motivations. To a certain extent, this may be true. What we cannot overlook, however, is the fact that Roh is not purely motivated by history. His efforts also are politically motivated. He wants non-collaborators to go down in history as the disgraced relatives of disgraced collaborators. The political opposition, while not opposing the bill, would not like to see the sins of the fathers visited upon their powerful conservative sons.

    Last August, Roh already set the process in motion with a high-profile example: the chairman of his Uri Party, Shin Ki-nam, was revealed to be the son of a collaborator, a police official, and was forced to resign from the party.

    In other words, Roh's intention is to put the descendants of the pro-Japanese collaborators before the Korean court of public opinion because of their ancestors' wrongdoings. And the "court" is very anti-Japanese. The potential, probably the certain, verdict would be humiliation and loss of face; and while the individuals probably would not be barred from public office or pubic life, they might find the public exposure too painful. Most of the descendants happened to fall in the category of conservatives - who have opposed Roh - in today's Korean ideological dichotomy and political tug-of-war. These are the people who have long cherished the prestige and power established by their ancestors though their collaboration with the Japanese occupiers.

    To condemn them for retaining their inherited wealth and status is somewhat like charging the descendants of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and others in the United States (who plundered its wealth as the nation industrialized) and denouncing their economic and social well-being today by blowing out of proportion their ancestors' illegal and unjust way of gaining their wealth. But even the American robber barons were not like the Japanese occupiers.

    Like Shin, the party chairman who lost his job, Roh and his government want the descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators to vanish from the political landscape. They want to confiscate their wealth - this has not been decided - and crush their prestige. It is far from certain, however, that wealth, however ill-gotten and then legally amplified, would be confiscated.

    At one time, the property of collaborators' families was confiscated by the government, but the children of the collaborators filed suit, appealing to regain their property, and the courts ruled in their favor. The case is ongoing.

    In February, Assemblyman Choi Young-gyu of the Uri Party sent a bill to the National Assembly, legislation that now is known as the "Special Law to Redeem Pro-Japanese Collaborators' Assets". The assets were held by the children of the most notorious and infamous officials in Korean history, who sold the nation to Japan in 1910. The most notorious figures were prime minister Lee Wan-yong and cabinet minister Son Byung-jun, who signed the annexation treaty with Japan in 1910. It is reported that an extraordinary amount of land is still under their names, and the special law is aimed to deny their right of possession and to return it to the people.

    In addition, by setting up a committee known as the "Truth, Reconciliation and Future Committee", a ruling-party organ, Roh's government has made it explicit that it and the Uri Party are committed to finding out the truth about those who were wrongfully accused of activities in violation of the National Security Law, which outlawed support of North Korea. In addition, it wants to restore their honor for their patriotic endeavor against Korean military regimes. In other words, they want to resurrect the honor and rehabilitate those who resisted Japanese occupation. They also want those who supported Korean military regimes, those who are now considered to be very pro-Japanese and anti-communist, to pay the price. The former public figures and leaders during South Korea's era of military rulers ironically are those who are perceived as conservatives in the battle of ideology in today's Korean society. Roh is carrying on with a "Sunshine Policy" to mend fences with North Korea and work toward eventual reunification.

    Indeed, there could be some distorted cases of judgment with respect to anti-military government activities. For a long time, South Korea was under the rule of authoritarian dictatorships headed by former generals such as Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. Their rule lasted more than three decades, from the 1960s to the early 1990s. During their leadership, South Korea achieved great economic development, sustaining double-digit growth and transforming a war-devastated economy into a world-class economic power. By contrast, proportionate political development and democratic evolution became unthinkable and unrealistic because they simply hindered the authoritarian governments' desire for perpetual rule.

    Such desire by South Korea's own dictators was, however, sugar-coated by a strong leadership that could guarantee social stability and security, prerequisites for economic development, especially against North Korea's continuous efforts to infiltrate every sector of the South's society to cause disruption. Under the circumstances, military governments relied on any and all viable means to control the society and people's daily lives. The government applied strict censorship to the mass media so that it could publish only those articles approved by Ministry of Justice and other law-enforcement agencies.

    It also had a firm control over intelligence, police and courts so as to facilitate its monopoly of information, thereby artificially limiting the people's right to know. It was a strong advocate of anti-communism, an ideology that justified prevailing rule by the military.

    These measures, in turn, naturally elevated the government's status far above the law and constitution, granting it immunity from any sort of public challenge. This immunity would eventually create a ruling circle that was able to build its wealth and prestige by illegal and unjust methods, relying on nepotism and cronyism based on one's birthplace, education background and other personal ties.

    Immune under dictatorial rules, military governments were able to crush and cover up many, if not all, political incidents by the opposition in the name of social stability and anti-communism. However, to resurrect the honor of the past opposition by condemning previous military regimes, their families and descendents would have the effect of justifying the social unrest staged by those once known as leftists. While restoring the honor of the leftists, the current government is determined to find the conservatives guilty of their and their ancestors' past wrongdoings. In other words, the act to seek truth, reconciliation and a positive future is a reflection of the current government's intolerance against other values and ideologies, an act of disdaining core values of democracy such as pluralism.

    In the course of carrying out the investigation of the past, it is safe to assume at this stage that ideological struggles will continue well into the future, intensifying the tension and division between conservatives and progressives. If and when the conservatives who oppose Roh are deprived of their status, privileges and wealth upon the completion of the investigation, it will have a devastating effect on South Korea's future foreign relations, because these conservatives traditionally hold a strong view on the positive value of the US alliance and the importance of friendly ties with Washington.

    Jaewoo Choo, PhD, is assistant professor, School of International Relations and Asian Studies, Kyung Hee University.

    (Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.) 

  • Japan-South Korea ties on the rocks
    (Mar 23, '05)

    Roh opens Japan's war wounds
    (Mar 10, '05)

    Japan frets about collaborators' probe
    (Sep 1, '04)

    South Korea's tortured reckoning with collaborators
    (Aug 21, '04)

    Japan collaboration probe divides South Korea (Aug 20, '04)

    Naming names of Japan's collaborators
    (Feb 4, '04)


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