In the mainstream Korean narrative of the wartime period (1941-1945, or more accurately 1937-1945, dated from the outbreak of the continental war against China), Koreans are relegated to the position of victims. It was during this period that Japanese exploitation of Korean socio-economic resources, both material and human, reached its height. It was also during this period, according to most Korean scholars, that the Japanese colonizers tried to eradicate Korean culture by forcing Koreans to worship at Shinto shrines, by banning the Korean language from official use and designating Japanese as the ‘national language’ (kokugo), and by adapting Korean family lineages into the Japanese household system, compelling the latter to choose Japanese-style names. Koreans have come to refer to this set of policies, promoted under the ideological campaign of naisen ittai 内鮮一体 (Japan and Korea as One) as ‘ethnocidal policies’ (minjok malsal chôngch’aek 民族抹殺政策) through which the Japanese colonizers sought to eradicate Korean identity altogether, absorbing it into the ontological category of the Japanese imperial subject (kôkoku shinmin).via Hunjangûi karûch'im
The wartime period was characterized as a pitch-black vacuum (amhûggi 暗黒期, the ‘era of darkness’) in which only certain elite members, the ‘pro-Japanese’ traitors (ch’inilp’a 親日派), were allowed to profit and flourish at the expense of the majority of Koreans. However, this characterization of the wartime period has also suppressed frank, open-minded investigation of the actual circumstances involving Japanese colonialism’s infiltration into Korean culture and society. Studying the colonial-period ‘collaboration’ between Japanese and Koreans was anathema for many years, especially under the dictatorial regimes of Syngman Rhee (1946-1960) and Park Chung-hee (1961-1979). Indeed, President Park, who seized presidential power through a military coup d’etat, was a direct progeny of Japanese wartime militarism, a graduate of the Manchurian Military Academy.
Democratization and rehabilitation of the South Korean public sphere in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following monumental protest and resistance against Park’s junta successors, finally opened the space to examine the collaborationist activities of the Korean colonial elite. ‘Progressive’ scholars and critics, riding the surf of democratization and liberalization and embracing hitherto-forbidden Marxist and radical-populist perspectives, challenged the whitewashing and exposed the lacunae found in historiography, literary collections and the biographical data of ‘collaborators’. Scholars excavated shrill pronouncements written by prominent writers, intellectuals, educators and government leaders of post-liberation South Korea, inculcating Korean youth to throw away their lives for the glory of the Japanese empire, or fictional works enveloped in a sheen of patriotic fervor and serene acceptance of the Holy War, looking to a future when Japan would emerge triumphant in the titanic struggle against the venal white races.
By the mid-1990s, this newfound freedom in exposing the past sins of the fathers and the scholarship it engendered moved into a new phase. While the democratically elected regimes of Kim Dae-jung (1997-2002) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-present) have continued to struggle with ‘the dark legacy’ of the colonial period, South Korean scholars, now relatively unencumbered by the desire to subordinate such reflections to the political objective of overthrowing military dictatorship, have begun a long and arduous process of parsing through the legacy of the colonial period, engaging in long-overdue reflection on the possibility of post-colonial identity for Koreans.
01 November 2005
Korean Scholars Now Exploring Collaboration Issues
South Korean scholars are finally beginning to re-evaluate the sharp dichotomy between "collaborators" and "nationalists" in their narratives of the Japanese colonial period, according to an article entitled "War and the Colonial Legacy in Recent South Korean Scholarship" by Kyu Hyun Kim in IIAS Newsletter no. 38.