By Devon Rowcliffe
The Korea Times recently published a story about the possible compilation of a blacklist of Koreans who collaborated with Korea’s Japanese colonial rulers.
Numerous civic activists are behind a plan to produce a biographical dictionary of ``major pro-Japanese Korean collaborators.’’ More than half a billion won has apparently already been collected through a fund-raising campaign for the initiative.
The incentive for such a blacklist seems simple enough: to expose any major collaborators who still wield power in Korean society and to remove them from positions of authority, as well as to seek justice against those already deceased in the form of historical research.
Undoubtedly, many Koreans believe that past crimes must be avenged before the dark era of Japanese colonization can be effectively overcome. However, calls for an exhaustive collaborators' blacklist could prove simplistic, naive and possibly even dangerous.
Firstly, what assurances are there that such a project would not produce false accusations of collaboration? In a campaign that is geared toward tarnishing the reputation of potentially thousands of individuals, surely some innocent people would be wrongly labeled. The majority of the would-be accused are already dead, thus leaving them virtually defenseless against any mistaken allegations. The main question is: Will accusations be thoroughly scrutinized before being applied? Will the research of a single historian be enough for inclusion in the blacklist, leaving open the possibilities of abuse from personal grievances and for error?
As already mentioned, the majority of collaborators are no longer alive. With this in mind, would it be worth the effort to chastise what is primarily a group of deceased people? Would such an exercise truly help Koreans gain a sense of empowerment and help them move on from their dark past?
Furthermore, such a blacklist may run the risk of overlooking how some were possibly forced into collaboration against their will. Nobody would dare suggest that the infamous ``comfort women,’’ females forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army, were voluntary collaborators. Why then should we assume that all males who cooperated with the Japanese did so willingly?
It is likely that most Koreans had to make the difficult decision of either aiding the enemy, or risk harm to themselves and their families. Armed merely with documents, how would historians or researchers be able to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary collaboration?
Additionally, a blacklist would likely serve to defame the names of the innocent offspring of those branded as collaborators. Already, National Assembly Speaker Park Kwan-yong's father has been accused of silencing Korean independence activists. Are we to believe that Park’s reputation will remain unscathed from this affair? Even if individuals are found to have voluntarily aided Japanese colonial forces, is it fair to ruin the lives of subsequent generations who had nothing to do with such actions? Should Korean children and grandchildren inherent the crimes of their ancestors, much like the Chinese inherited debilitating class titles during Mao's Cultural Revolution?
Yet another possible outcome of such a blacklist would be an uncountable number of libel cases, potentially leading to the paralysis of Korea's legal system. It seems ludicrous to assume that people would simply accept being labeled as a collaborator without argument, whether the accusation is applied to themselves or to their ancestors.
And let's not forget that the proposed efforts to publish a biographical blacklist could serve to cool strengthening relations between Japan and South Korea. While the two countries are still far from being close friends, tremendous inroads at mending relations have been made in recent decades.
If the purpose of the blacklist is simply to produce more truthful historical records, then so be it. South Korea need not shy away from its unfortunate past and has the right to expose any wrongdoings, either committed by the Japanese or by fellow Koreans. However, one gets the feeling that many proponents of such a blacklist, especially those based on the Internet, seem more interested in serving fervent nationalism than historical accuracy.
If the proposed project of publishing a biographical dictionary of collaborators is aimed merely at unearthing perpetrators who are still in power in Korea today, and whose collaboration with the Japanese was completely voluntary, then it would be a noble cause. But this is virtually impossible to do.
How can the most astute of historians, even with the most detailed of records, sufficiently prove that a collaborator was not forced into the act? How can we ensure that such a campaign wouldn't turn into an overzealous, draconian witch-hunt, perhaps something that would parallel the McCarthyist madness of the United States in the 1950s?
The impetus behind such a blacklist is surely a noble one. However, great care must be taken to prevent the project from becoming a disaster.
Claims of collaboration should be reviewed by several researchers, and the final stamp of guilt only applied when the verdict is ensured. Media will have a responsibility to apply the label of collaboration only to individuals found guilty and not to publish sensationalist stories aimed at tarnishing subsequent generations of the accused. Only if the project seeks historical accuracy and avoids false accusations, can the honorable reasoning behind such a collaborators' blacklist be realized.
** Devon Rowcliffe is a Pusan-based commentator who specializes in Asian and international politics.