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Korea's Tricky Task: Digging Up Past Treachery
By Norimitsu Onishi
A display of life-size models of Koreans who resisted Japanese imperialism. But maybe it wasn't that simple.

This country may be selling plasma television sets to America and it may have the highest percentage of broadband Internet users in the world. But these days, South Korea's political and intellectual class is also looking back, not only at the military era that ended in the late 1980's but also at the Japanese colonial period that ended six decades ago.

A bill to delve into the issue of Korean collaborators during Japan's colonial rule recently moved through the National Assembly. Members of another committee to investigate forced labor under the Japanese have just moved into their new headquarters in downtown Seoul. Yet another committee, this one focusing on abuses by the National Intelligence Service under military rule, has already begun meeting. Others are looking at isolated incidents.

The talk of the past, mingled with comparisons with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, may sound discordant. But it is in keeping with the historic shift in power that has occurred here, one that saw this country's traditional power holders yield to new leaders with a very different take on history, North Korea and the United States. With the country at a turning point, the struggle over the past is a struggle over the future.

A museum exhibit of pro-Japanese posters from the imperial era, 1910 to 1945.

Supporters of the truth committees say that precisely because of this shift, South Korea can now come to grips with its past. Critics say the efforts amount to score-settling or, in a society where offspring are judged guilty by association, to a naked attempt to damage certain politicians.

Whatever the reason, South Korea is going ahead with an exercise that has taken place in several corners of the world, though not in East Asia - where a reluctance to take a hard look at a difficult past keeps the history intensely alive.

Each country in this region emphasizes the injustices and suffering it has endured. But South Korea will also look at how its own countrymen collaborated with the colonial rulers to forcibly send laborers to the far reaches of the Japanese empire and young women to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. And it will examine the postwar era of military rule, assessing responsibility for political assassinations and the periodic crackdowns, like the one on pro-democracy demonstrators in the Kwangju massacre of 1980.

It is, of course, too early to tell whether this exercise will lead to the goal of, if not national healing, at least national consensus. Supporters and critics alike, though, do start off agreeing that South Korea, until recently, had been governed by the same ruling class that stretched back to the colonial era.

Syngman Rhee with His Wife — South Korea's first President Syngman Rhee (second from left in front row), poses with his Austrian wife, Francisca Donner (to his right), and his aides at his residence in Seoul.

After the end of Japan's 35-year occupation in 1945, high-ranking Korean military officials and bureaucrats serving in the Japanese Imperial Army and administration were purged or imprisoned. But by 1949 they had been freed and rehabilitated by South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee.

"He couldn't run the country otherwise," said Youn Jung Suk, a professor at the Sejong Institute specializing in Japan-Korea relations.

These people went on to run the country, including under President Park Chung-Hee, a Japanese-trained military officer whose 18-year reign was marked by economic growth but also by human rights abuses. Even after South Korea became a democracy in the late 1980s, their influence remained strong. Members of this class - who tend to be fiercely anti-North Korean and pro-American - survive today in the conservative Grand National Party, whose head is Park Geun-Hye, the daughter of the late president.

Park Chung-HeePark Geun-Hye

Things changed in early 2003 with the surprising victory of the current president, Roh Moo Hyun, a political outsider and self-taught human rights lawyer. Then the change became complete earlier this year when the Grand National Party lost control of the National Assembly to the Uri Party, which supports Mr. Roh.

"The new people in power come from the periphery of Korean society," said Kim Mun Cho, a sociologist at Korea University. They tend to be more nationalistic as well, emphasizing the need to build ties with the North and casting a skeptical eye on the United States.

A few months after this historic shift in power, Mr. Roh used the 59th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule, on Aug. 15, to announce a campaign to look into the past.

"We are still unable to rid ourselves of the historic aberration that the families of those who fought for the independence of the nation were destined to face impoverishment for three generations, while the families of those who sided with Imperial Japan have enjoyed success for three generations," he said.

The committee on forced labor, with headquarters already here, is expected to open regional offices soon, in an investigation likely to last two years.

Major Gen. Park Chung-Hee (center) poses with his lieutenants in downtown Seoul immediately after the successful "May 16 Coup D'etat" in 1961.

The committee on the National Intelligence Service - sponsored by the agency, but made up of 10 independent members in addition to 5 high-ranking agency officials - will look into abuses during the military era by combing through newly released government archives and by interviewing people.

"We must right the wrongs of the past to make sure history is not repeated," said Moon Byung Ho, a lawmaker for the governing Uri Party. "It is the responsibility of a democracy to look into the past."

But members of the Grand National Party say the goal is simply to single out some of its members, especially the leader, the daughter of President Park. The new bill on Japanese collaborators will allow investigators to look at Korean officers in the Japanese Imperial Army with the rank of second lieutenant and above. The late president was - not coincidentally, they say - a second lieutenant.

"It's a political game," said Gong Sung Jin, a lawmaker for the Grand National Party. "They're afraid that Park Geun Hye, who is very popular, will become president in the next term."

Indeed, the focus on the past has already unearthed unpleasant truths - for the very politicians who had been clamoring for it. The chairman of the Uri Party, Shin Ki Nam, was forced to resign from his post after it was disclosed that his father had not been a teacher but a military policeman in the Japanese Imperial Army.

The resignation, if anything, made clear that in a society where the sins of the father may be the son's - or the daughter's, in the Park family's case - the present battle over this country's past will forge its future.

The above article is from The New York Times.

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