Fri, Mar 08, 2019 - Page 5 News List

Collaboration with Japanese hangs over South Korea

AFP, ANSAN, South Korea

Shin Young-shin, whose family members were key figures in the Korean independence movement against Japanese colonial rule, holds a photograph of her family at her home in Ansan, South Korea, on Feb. 22.

Photo: AFP

A century after mass protests against Japanese colonial rule on the Koream Peninsula, the issue of those who collaborated with Tokyo — many of whom later become part of the South Korean elite — remains hidden.

When the Seoul government signed a 1910 treaty handing sovereignty over the peninsula to Japan, their new overlords awarded 76 key politicians and officials Japanese noble titles and pensions.

Over the next 35 years, hundreds of thousands of Koreans worked for colonial authorities as civil servants, soldiers, teachers or police.

According to historians, hundreds of thousands more were forcibly recruited as frontline troops, slave workers and wartime sex slaves.

A few thousand others went into exile in China to fight Japanese forces.

The independence struggle is at the heart of Korean national identity in North and South Korea, but eight in 10 South Koreans believe their country has never properly come to terms with the issue of collaboration, according to a government study released for last week’s 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement.

Mass protests against Japanese rule began that day in 1919, only to be forcibly put down, with 7,500 people killed within two months and 46,000 arrested, according to Seoul’s national archives.

In a commemorative speech, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said: “Wiping out the vestiges of pro-Japanese collaborators” was a “long-overdue undertaking.”

However, it is an intensely political issue, with collaborators generally seen as right-wing and Moon under pressure from conservatives looking to paint him as a Northern sympathizer.

The US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, forced Tokyo’s World War II surrender and ended colonial rule only for the victors to divide the peninsula.

Then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung’s Moscow-backed regime executed Japanese collaborators en masse.

In the South, the US-oriented administration of then-South Korean president Syngman Rhee recruited many colonial-era officers and officials into its ranks to exploit their expertise and experience.

“Even in the liberated homeland, those who used to serve as police officers during Japanese colonial rule painted independence activists as Reds [communists] and tortured them,” Moon said.

Historical resentment sours relations with Tokyo to this day and prevents South Korea making a proper reckoning with its past, says Lee Young-hun, a former professor of economics at Seoul National University.

“Those who are labeled as Japanese collaborators are Koreans who actively embraced modernism,” Lee said.

Among those who went into exile was Shin Young-shin’s great-grandfather, a Korean general imprisoned and tortured by Japanese-backed troops. Both of her parents took part in the campaign, but struggled to feed their family when they returned to the South in the late 1940s.

“My parents got nothing — not even a penny from the government — for their activism while they were alive,” Shin, 71, told reporters in her small basement flat in Ansan, south of Seoul.

According to local government data almost three-quarters of independence activists’ descendants in Seoul make less than 2 million won (US$1,800) a month.

However, many descendants of collaborators — defined by South Korean law as those who received titles under Japanese rule, or arrested or killed independence fighters — have prospered.

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