Monday, November 20, 2017

Colonial-era collaboration and the controversy surrounding Helen Kim's statue

An article titled "Controversy continues over 'treacherous' 1st Ewha President" appeared in the Korea Times a few days ago. It reports on Ewha University students who put up a sign Monday near a statue of the university's first president, Kim Hwal-ran, or Helen Kim, to draw attention to her "treacherous," "pro-Japanese" statements "under the Japanese occupation."
The students said a continued failure to remove the statue represents the shameful history the country is in the process of eradicating.

“Pro-Japanese activities are a crime that in no way can be justified under any circumstances. Many figures including Kim who committed such acts are still revered on the campuses of many universities,” they said.

Kim’s controversial remarks included, “We are now able to welcome the overwhelming joy of the long-awaited conscription. We, the women, should send our husbands and sons to the battlefield with a graceful smile.” She justified her words as "necessary in order to keep Ewha open under harsh colonial policies.”
Personally, I don't think a sign including some of a public figure's less laudable acts to give a more balanced picture is a bad thing. I doubt "balance" is what these fundamentalist students are aiming for, however. Rather than celebrating a woman who "spent 40 years at Ewha as an educator," who was "the first Korean woman to earn a Ph.D.," and the founder of the Korea Times, the students want the statue removed and one of Yu Gwan-sun put up instead. Personally, I'm surprised there isn't a statue of Yu at Ewha University (there is one at Jangchungdong Park). At the same time, despite her courage, it seems to me it's her martyrdom - her "innocent victim" status, of the sort that motivated the 2002 candlelight protests - that has been memorialized above her accomplishments. She seems more remembered for her death than her life, and replacing Helen Kim's statue with one of her would be like tearing down Horace Underwood's statue (for the third time) at Yonsei and replacing it with one of Lee Han-yeol. (Admittedly this isn't the best comparison; Lee's death, despite his presence at the protest, was more of a tragic accident; Yu organized and took part in protests, and continued to protest in prison, knowing full well the fate that likely lay in store for her.)

To give an idea of what the sign the students erected looks like, it's not the placard or banner I was expecting (from here):

There's nothing wrong with highlighting the less-than-patriotic statements of public figures, but it seems to me what Helen Kim wrote or said was not all that uncommon at the time. It really should say above that her statements were made during the Pacific War. Saying "under the Japanese occupation" creates the impression she did this for years, and not under the extraordinary conditions of total war and "imperialization" of Koreans in the Japanese Empire in the early 1940s. While there are certainly people who deserve the label "pro-Japanese" (Yi Wan-yeong, for example), others fall into a much grayer area, particularly those who made statements during the war.

Though combat never reached the peninsula (other than a few bombings), the Pacific War was still a time of suffering and difficult choices for Koreans, particularly for those drafted / coerced into the Imperial Army, labor battalions, or into becoming comfort women. Korean intellectuals and artists faced challenges throughout the colonial period, what with being educated most often in Japan but finding little chance for employment in Korea (see Chae Man-sik's story 'Ready-Made Life,' for example). During the Pacific War, however, they faced two options: to make statements or art supporting the war effort, or to not work. Some, like author Yi Tae-jun, retired to the countryside for the duration of the war (as detailed in his story 'Before and After Liberation' which is translated in On the Eve of the Uprising and other stories from colonial Korea). For most people, however, foregoing an income was not an option.

To what degree intellectuals actually supported the war effort can be hard to tell. To be sure, some people were rather genuine supporters of Japan. That younger people would have supported Japan wouldn't be too surprising, considering that generation grew up under Japanese rule. Once the war started, some who were more critical of Western imperialism may have been happy to see Japan "liberating" Asia. As described in Mark Caprio's book Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945, for example, Yun Chiho responded to the "electrifying news" of Pearl Harbor by writing in his diary, "A new Day has indeed dawned on the Old World! This is a real war of races—the Yellow against the White." For the first six months of the Pacific War, Japan was winning (and did its best to hide its subsequent losses), so it wouldn't be surprising that some would have seen Japan as the right horse to back.

To highlight their defeat at the hands of the Japanese Army, 1,000 British and Australian Prisoners of War captured in Singapore were shipped to Korea, marched through the streets of Busan, Incheon, and Seoul in late September 1942, and interned in POW camps in the latter two cities. Some POWs were ordered to labour in front of Koreans to emphasize how defeated they were. From accounts by these POWs, however, it's clear that many Koreans were sympathetic to them and did things like give them food. Even Korean POW guards shared information with them, wanted to learn English from them, or even, in one case at the end of the war, offered to give them their guns to break out of the prison camp.

British and Australian POWs marching through Pusan

Upon the arrival of the POWs in Korea, the Maeil Sinbo, the Korean-language mouthpiece of the Government General, published numerous articles about the POWs over two days. On the second day, September 26, 1942, there appeared numerous testimonials by intellectuals (some Korean, others perhaps Japanese, though since by that point most Koreans had Japanese names, it can be hard to tell). Here is one I translated:
Thinking again about the crimes of the British and Americans
Shirehara Rakujun

After the Great East Asian War our grateful citizens will always be moved by seeing in photos and newspaper articles the military exploits of the invincible imperial army, but today as we saw the POWs directly with our own eyes this deep feeling grew further and we were thankful for the efforts of the imperial army.

Now as we strive to make greater efforts to impress upon those people the spirit and power of the empire, we deeply feel that we are in the glorious position of victorious imperial subjects and will ever more firmly resolve to win.

Looking from the position of a religious person, I think again about the British and Americans when they came in the past with an overly proud attitude of arrogance, of only pretending to believe in Christianity, and also masking this.

Now they have surrendered before the righteous imperial army and the day when they must keenly feel the sins of the past has come.

Now when we face the POWs we will fulfill our duty with a solemn bearing as imperial subjects and meanwhile we will not become careless and carried away by the feeling of victory but will further strive to achieve our goal in the Great East Asian War
The Korean name of Shirehara Rakujun was Baek Nak-jun, better known as George Paik, friend of missionaries and, up to 1939, a teacher at, and then dean of, Chosen Christian College. According to this book, Paik spent much of the war under house arrest, so one assumes he wrote the above column under duress. He went on to organize Seoul National University after liberation, became president of Yonhui College and oversaw its merger with Severence Medical College in 1957 into Yonsei University, and served as Minister of Education from 1950 to 1952.

What Baek wrote (or what is attributed to him) is typical of that kind of writing that was in the Maeil Sinbo when the POWs arrived. It seemed as if the Japanese believed that by repeating mantras like "we felt ever more moved to have become imperial subjects and felt more keenly the deep desire to support the war to its end," Koreans would actually believe it. I thought Jun Uchida put it quite eloquently in her book Brokers of Empire when she spoke of "the veneer of submission that the majority of Koreans were forced to maintain under total war."

Where should Baek be placed on the scale of collaborators and nation builders? And what of Helen Kim, whose statue has so raised the ire of certain Ewha students? It's not an easy question, and is one needing careful examination of evidence, consideration of the pressure put on intellectuals and prominent Koreans in the 1940s, and the weighing of their actions before and after their statements. As Koen De Ceuster's "The Nation Exorcised: The Historiography of Collaboration in South Korea" and Don Baker's "Memory Wars and Prospects for Reconciliation in South Korea" make clear, however, the question of whether someone is guilty of collaboration is beholden to serving current political needs more than anything else.

The truth that many do not want to admit is that most intellectuals at that time made statements or created works supporting the war; it was what they had to do to continue working. Likewise, most people were forced to recite oaths of loyalty to the Japanese Empire, bow at Shinto Shrines, or to compromise in other ways. The Shinto Shrine issue proved incredibly divisive for Korean Christians, particularly when some foreign missionaries thought they should simply obey and tell themselves they were simply "looking at their shoes" when they bowed. Some did not compromise, of course, and actively stood up to Japan, facing prison or death for their efforts, but by the 1940s most of those actively resisting Japan did so outside of the country. The problem with admitting this is that it seems to allow for only exiles, or those serving prison terms at the time, to have any kind of legitimacy. That certainly seems to have been the way Kim Ku felt, as related by Mark Gayn in his book Japan Diary, about his visit to Korea in 1946:
I recalled the story of a press conference at which Kim Koo, the irreconcilable enemy of Japan and of Korean collaborators. was asked what he would do with the latter. With characteristic bluntness, Kim Koo said:

"Practically everyone in Korea is a collaborator. They all ought to be in jail."

A young adviser doubling in brass as an interpreter did not even blink. "Mr. Kim Koo says," he translated, "that it's problem to be studied carefully." [Page 433-34]
And studied carefully it has been, with a Biographical Dictionary of Collaborators (친일인명사전) listing over 4,300 people having been published in 2009 by the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities (민족문제연구소). In 2004, the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities published Colonial Korea and War Art (식민지 조선과 전쟁미술), which spent 30 pages listing Korean artists who made art "glorifying the war." It charged that these artists
beautified and supported the Japanese Empire’s foreign war of aggression, and it was a time of extreme, treasonous acts like urging [Koreans] to go as far giving their lives for the emperor and the construction of Greater East Asia. Therefore the pro-Japanese activities of a good many Korean artists which got into full swing after the [start of the] Sino-Japanese War were not just anti-national / traitorous acts, but, in regard to driving a good number of Koreans to become cannon fodder in the war of aggression, compelling their deaths, they were also war crimes. The pro-Japanese art of that time deserves to be ruled as anti-national and anti-human criminal activity. [Page 179]
Needless to say, declaring the activities of artists to be "war crimes" pulls off the neat trick of making Kim Ku's "Practically everyone in Korea is a collaborator. They all ought to be in jail" seem moderate in comparison. Kim was right to some degree, in that everyone living in Korea had to make some kind of accommodation with the Japanese, regardless of how they felt. But admitting to such complexity does not seem to make for a useful national memory of the colonial period, so it's easier to draw a line and single out a small number of "traitors" who committed the sin of not resisting Japanese rule like the rest of the nation. As Don Baker pointed out, the argument between left and right in South Korea has not been over whether to allow for more or less nuance, but where to draw the line, with the left wanting Park Chung-hee and other elites connected to authoritarian rule and jaebeols included, and the right resisting this.

With the kind of Manichean discourse quoted above, rife with terms like "anti-national," "anti-human" and "war crime," being seen as not out of the ordinary in South Korea, it's not surprising that Ewha students would want to tear down the statue of a woman who devoted 40 years of her life to their university for her "traitorous" act of making comments supporting the Pacific War, whether it was a common-enough act among intellectuals at the time or not. Returning to the Ewha protest, here is a photo of the banner the students displayed (from here):

The text in red reads "I say goodbye Hwal-ran, okay" in English, but written in Hangeul. Ignoring the rudeness of using her first name, I couldn't help take note of the English in use on the sign. This actually dovetails into a thought experiment that came to mind some time ago in regard to the question of collaboration. Namely, what would happen if North Korea took over the South and and had to deal with a population that included many, many people who had links to the Korean race's eternal enemy, the United States? Would being able to speak English be cause for suspicion? (One assumes many English loan words would be excised from the language, as South Korea's Yusin government announced it would do in 1976.) Defectors have already spoken of the North Korean military's plan to set up camps to exterminate "half breeds," but what of people who had, say, studied in the US? They might say they were just trying to improve their lot in life, that it didn't mean they had any great love for the US, but if the North Koreans used the fundamentalist logic of the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, they'd be sent off to camps - or worse - with little debate. While the excuses they might make for their "collaboration" with the US - a nation that some even now declare is "occupying" Korea - might suffice to justify themselves in their own eyes, it seems such latitude is not to be extended to people faced with difficult choices more than 70 years ago. 

All things considered, the issue of collaboration is a complex one, and is part of a debate which is still very much unfinished in Korea - as I believe much related to the colonial era will continue to be, as long as the country is divided. So it might be worthy of a bit more gravity than party hats and the equivalent of shouting "Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye."


Sperwer said...

Well done!

I wonder about the penultimate line. It makes unification sound like a panacea - which is pretty much how it functions in Korean discourse. One might imagine though, that faced with the challenges of unification, Koreans' energies might be diverted from the historical blame game; or that the inevtibale controversies of how to effect unification will simply fan the flames anew.

matt said...

Good point; that statement does make it sound like a panacea. Being a key, unfinished leftover from WWII (Japanese still hasn't normalized relations with the north) I think it would solve at least some problems... but, yes, reunification is likely to be messy, and, assuming the ROK absorbs the north, and considering how defectors are treated in ROK society today, should the development of the north be followed in the state-jaebeol-led fashion of the ROK, it's not hard to imagine the current left-nationalist narrative being retooled by activists and politicians wanting to appeal to northerners' sense of victimization, of being left out, with "the pro-Japanese clique who suppressed democracy and developed the ROK for their own benefit on the backs of the minjung" extending their unjust rule into the north.