Frog in a Well welcomes a guest posting from Sayaka Chatani on the issue of Korean War Criminals and the difficulty Korean historians have found in addressing them in modern Korean historiography. Sayaka is a PhD student in the History Department of Columbia University. Her research interests are in the transnational history of early to mid-twentieth century East Asia, mainly focusing on the colonization and decolonization of Korea and Taiwan.
Colonial legacies are one of the most hotly debated political issues in South Korea. The phrase “legacies of Japanese imperialism (ilche chanjae)” is ubiquitous in newspapers and in bookstores, and the topic not only triggers controversies among academics, but inspires social movements, and leads the government to adopt policies to resolve the remnant problems.
Among the many controversies surrounding the history of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, much attention has centered on the question of collaborators. Many Korean historians argue that former pro-Japanese collaborators subsequently prevented Korea’s unification and brought about significant harm to South Korean society. They see punishing them as a prerequisite to restoring a healthy society.1 In the context of ‘setting history straight,’ The South Korean government has confiscated the property of descendants of nine collaborators.2 A presidential fact-finding panel has finished its second investigation to identify the names of pro-Japanese collaborators, and continues working on a third investigation.3
In contrast to their excitement over the issue of collaborators, historians have only given very limited attention and analysis to the issue of Korean war criminals despite the significant number of Koreans put on trial and executed as Japanese prison guards. When a few Japanese and Korean historians do face the issue, they tend to simplify the complex experiences of Korean war criminals to fit the dominant minjung discourse that blames a distinct group of collaborators for betraying the majority of Korean people. The fact that Korean war criminals were both victims and victimizers makes it difficult for nationalist historians to openly discuss the issue.
- For example, Ahn Byung-ook, “The Significance of Settling the Past in Modern Korean History,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.7-17, and Chung Youn-tae, “Refracted Modernity and the Issue of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in Korea,” Korea Journal, Autumn 2002, pp.18-59 [↩]
- New York Times, “World Briefing, Asia: South Korea: Crackdown On Collaborators” May 3rd 2007. [↩]
- The Korea Times, “202 Pro-Japanese Collaborators Disclosed.” September 17, 2007 [↩]