[the trouble with history]

Topic: Korea

In reading Ki-baik Lee’s A New History of Korea, I’ve come to the period of Japan’s colonial occupation and annexation of Korea, a topic that exercises Koreans more than any other. Lee makes some effort to keep his anger in check, but as with every other Korean source I’ve seen on the subject, he can’t help but portray the period in black-and-white terms: the Japanese are wholly nefarious in their intentions, the Koreans who hand over the country are “traitors,” and the Korean guerrilla fighters are “righteous armies.”

I suspect that there is truth to all these ideas. Unfortunately, the lack of nuance makes it hard to understand what really took place, and hard to trust the Korean sources. Two key questions that are never asked are how the Japanese justified their actions to themselves and the world, and what motivated their Korean collaborators.

Lee seems to believe that Japan’s annexation and exploitation of Korea was part of an orchestrated long-term plan whose only goals were to enrich the Japanese at the expense of the Koreans and to provide a platform for war against Manchuria and Russia. If this is the case, then Japan exercised considerably more forethought than the colonial powers it was emulating, such as England, France and Russia, who tended to advance willy-nilly in defense of commercial or military interests as they arose, rather than as part of a grand strategy to conquer a vast territory.

Even more difficult for me to believe is that Japan, alone among the colonial powers, felt no need to justify its actions in terms of aiding the people it conquered. England, France, even Russia saw themselves as civilizing forces, bringing economic development and decent standards of behavior to the benighted peoples of the world. In some cases — notably the Belgian Congo — the mad scramble overwhelmed any attendant civilizing mission, but the exploitation of Korea required sustained economic development. Actions that Lee characterizes as wholly aggressive, such as seizing all uncultivated land for distribution to Japanese colonist farmers, encouraging Japan’s vastly more efficient fishing fleet (which in 1912 caught more fish than the Korean fleet with about half as many boats and just 14 percent as many fishermen) to expand into Korea, and greatly expanding Korea’s mining industry, seem like actions that could have been characterized by the Japanese as intended to benefit the Korean people over the long term by bringing this backward, underdeveloped territory into the progressive Japanese fold.

That this was contrary to the wishes of the Koreans themselves, and indeed required harsh repression and an astonishing 140,000 arrests in 1918 alone, is certainly a point that must be emphasized. So is the opportunism of the Japanese who used the undemocratic colonial administration to extract vast profits for themselves, often by cheating and impoverishing Koreans. These tendencies are at the root of the problem of colonialism, and they can be seen today in the no-bid contracts handed out to American companies by the American-run Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. At the time, however, the weight of international opinion still favored the colonial enterprise as the best way to foster economic development, and the Japanese were right to recognize that if they didn’t take administrative control in Korea, some other great power would. Nor can it be questioned that the dithering, helpless Korean monarchy had lost all legitimacy by the time of the Japanese takeover.

As for the Koreans, did those Koreans who signed away sovereignty stand to gain personally by doing so? Were they forced to put their signatures to the traitorous documents? If so, what methods of coercion were used? If not, what could have motivated them? Did some Koreans, recognizing their own government’s weakness, actually welcome the Japanese, hoping that they would modernize Korea as they had modernized their own nation?

Korea has perhaps not come far enough from its difficult period of humiliation to be able to look at it squarely. Certainly it hadn’t by 1967, when Ki-baik Lee published his book, in what was still the hopeful period of Park Chung-hee’s long dictatorship. The Korean War was then still an open wound, while the economic “miracle” was yet to come. But even now, when Korea has much to be proud of, there is still a tendency to portray the Japanese colonization as an evil scheme plotted by terrible men bent on tormenting Korea for their own narrow gain. The reality is perhaps more frightening: Korea’s humiliation, exploitation and suffering were carried out, at least in the early years, by well-meaning officials who believed in the decency and necessity of what they were doing.