Rectifying History: Japanese versus Nazi Collaboration

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Occupation to guard the Little Girl statue  in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul[Source heraldk.com]

On August 24th, the Japanese Abe Shinzo government approved the 1 billion yen (US$ 9.9 million) fund for last year’s “final and irreversible” agreement with the South Korean Park Geun Hye government. The fund would not be reparations but would be a “healing fund” for the remaining former sexual slaves, whose average age is 89. In exchange the South Korean government would remove the Little Girl statue (symbolizing the sexual slaves) in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and absolve the Japanese government of future responsibility. The former sexual slaves immediately protested the agreement: The South Korean government hadn’t consulted them - the victims - and the agreement was not the official apology they had been demanding for nearly 25 years. This was the second time an agreement between the South Korean and Japanese government over the former’s historical atrocities sparked outrage and protests. This tepid pursuit of justice by the South Korean government is possible only in a society where the children of Japanese collaborators thrive and rule and those of independence fighters languish. US led occupation, division, and war halted the liberation process and allowed Japanese collaborators to remain in power rather than be brought to justice. South Korea’s dealing with its past stands in sharp contrast to a country like France that has been investigating and punishing French Nazi collaborators since the Nazis were defeated and driven out.

The Nazis occupied Germany from 1940 to 1944. After the Nazis were defeated and driven out of France, the French immediately punished those that had collaborated: 40,000 were sent to prison; 1,500 were executed. At first punishment fell only upon the most visible Nazi collaborators such as Vichy’s militia, and the bureaucracy and business sectors were spared. Yet with the 1968 student revolution, society began questioning even the role of the bureaucracy and business sector in the occupation. In 1995 when a new generation of post-occupation leaders came into power they began to investigate high ranking officials. Finally, in 1997, a member of the administrative elite was tried and sentenced to 10 years in prison: Bordeaux’s Secretary General of Police Maurice Papon was sentences for crimes against humanity for facilitating the transport of Jews to Auschwitz. The French search for justice and reconciliation with the past continues to deepen: In 2015, the government provided public access to police and legal archives during the occupation.

In contrast, even though Japan’s occupation of Korea was far longer (from 1910 to 1945), no collaborators with the Japanese have been punished. The special committee formed in the National Assembly right after independence to identify and punish collaborators was disbanded and its members arrested in less than a year by Syngman Rhee (who’d formed a coalition government with the collaborators). Those sentenced were pardoned. Later in 2005, Liberal President Roh Moo Hyun attempted to implement a law to address Japanese collaboration, but implementation efforts were blocked by the conservative parties. In contrast to France’s opening up of its public records during the occupation, even something as simple as the recent attempt (2016) by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to provide copies of the Encyclopedia of Japanese collaborators to school libraries is being blocked.

Much like Korea, many of those that resisted occupation in France were Communists. Thus, when the de Gaulle government took power after independence it worked with collaborators in the bureaucracy as an alternative to working with the Communists. Yet, while the student revolution of 1968 forced French society examined even the role of the administrative elite during the occupation, South Korea has failed to punish even the lowliest police officer during its occupation. That’s because South Korea’s liberation process was halted by U.S. military occupation. A nascent liberation process that emerged with the sprouting of people’s committees all around the country was not only halted but was revered by the US backed Syngman Rhee government: In the context of the Cold War, Japanese collaborators were kept in power to form a coalition government; meanwhile, Communists and leftists were marginalized, repressed, then killed during the Korean War. Collaborators fully consolidated their hold on Korean society after the war when anti-Communism displaced anti-Japanese sentiment making the latter but a bitter afterthought. Since then, Japanese collaborators and their progeny have maintained their wealth and position in society.

It was in this anti-Communist atmosphere, that Park Chung, who had hunted down independence fighters to come to power, came into power. In 1965, he signed an agreement allowing Japan to wash its hands off of historical responsibility in exchange for grants and loans. The 2015 agreement by President Park Geun Hye is but a continuation of her father’s legacy.

There is a Korean saying that when putting on a shirt, it is important to put on the first button right. If the first button is put on wrong, then each subsequent will also be wrong. While we can’t change Japanese colonization and collaboration, we can rectify history for those that have survived it and learn its lessons for those that follow us. If the government is unwilling, then we must.

France 2One of many campaigns around the country to raise funds and public support for building Little Girl statues nationwide. [Source: Yonhap News]