Friday, May 04, 2007

Traitor’s Land: Who Does it Belong to?

A presidential panel this week decided to confiscate land owned by people whose ancestors supported Japan when it governed Korea early last century.

The nine-member Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators Property said the government will seize 250,000 square meters of land still owned by the descendants of nine prominent traitors. A greater portion of land they acquired, but no longer is held by the families, is exempted. Proceeds will go to support the descendants of independence activists.

We may expect more such seizures by the panel, which is reviewing cases of other collaborators.

In pondering this news, please note that the traitors are dead. And please also consider that some of the assets being seized were given as reward for actions in support of Japan taken over 100 years ago. So, clearly the idea is not to punish anyone. But rather it is to _ do what, exactly? As a taxpayer, I’d like some clarification of why innocent people today are being penalized in the interest of clearing an old historic record. I’m wondering whether our tax money should not be spent on nine fine minds focused on the more current matter of real estate prices.

But there is a more important objection than government priorities. There is a basic moral issue here and it may not be the one that people think it is.

Clearly, the panel feel themselves to be ruling from a moral high place. They are vicars in the high church of nationalism. Not only are they clearing the legacy of the Japanese period, but also, by doing so, they are highlighting the nationalistic shortcomings of all previous governments, which failed to do so.

``The confiscation has been made 58 years after a special committee to clear off remnants of Japanese colonization failed in 1949,’’ an unnamed panel member said in a story in this newspaper yesterday. The implication is, of course, that because then-President Syngman Rhee back-pedaled on punishment because he wanted to harness the administrative talents of collaborators, he was morally tainted. He should have purged even if it meant leaving only bumpkins to run the country. Bespectacled intellectuals like it that way, which is why they are so scary when they have political power.

No, the real issue is not nationalistic purity but individual rights.

The owners of the land to be seized will likely file suit. If you believe that democracy is based on the rights of the individual, you should get your headband on and support them. The rightness of their claim has nothing to do with Japan or traitors. If their acquisition of their land, which we may assume they have owned for decades, was legal, the vicars are on shaky ground. They might lose.

If, on the other hand, you believe in blood guilt, that children are responsible for the sins of their fathers, then you should push the panel to clear up all of Korean history. Why stop at the Japanese occupation? What about the military coup of General Yi Seong-gye in 1392? A lot of people benefited from that. Didn’t Seonggyunkwan, the Confucian University that still exists, get free land? How about confiscating it and using the money to support the truly pure and innocent people of Korea, those who will step forward and admit that they are the descendants of slaves (unless they became slaves because of the sins of their fathers in the previous dynasty)?

My point here is not that collaborators should be allowed to benefit from their actions. My point is that the collaborators are dead. It’s too late.

In retrospect, Syngman Rhee should have taken clearer steps to remove anyone who benefited from collaboration. But what do we know of the circumstances for his decision? Korea at that time was suffering from lack of capable manpower. Literacy was under 20 percent. Few had administrative experience, let alone understanding of democracy and human rights. We may not like Mr. Rhee because he was not a democrat. But that is no justification for actions of a government 60 years later that betray the spirit of present democracy.

Resolving the long gone past is no longer a matter for government. It is no longer a matter for the courts. It is a matter for historians. These scholars should decline positions on government bodies and, instead, research and write about the history of the colonial period in an intellectually free marketplace. It is truth that sets the record straight. When government tries to do it, there is always a risk of abuse.

Michael Breen is the president of the public relations agency, Insight Communications Consultants, and author of “The Koreans.”


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