Truth Commission Should Be Truthful
By Michael Breen
Nov. 16, 2006
(Coyner's Comment: Once again, Mike Breen should be commended for getting this kind of issue out for discussion. I, too, have my own personal tale regarding this sordid matter.
While I was still in Peace Corps, I proposed marriage to the same nice lady who is (unbelievably) still my wife. Right after making the marital offer, I took off on a trip to the Philippines with a Peace Corps buddy who was still uncommitted. In the typical playful banter of the Filipinos, we two young men were often teased as to our availability. My buddy was in one of the better locations of the world to proclaim that he was "still negotiable," whereas I was pretty happy about just popping the question and getting a positive answer.
When the Filipinos discovered that I was marrying a Korean, a couple of times they recoiled in horror, asking why would I want to do that ? I soon learned that the Korean jailers were infamous for their sadistic treatment of Filipinos during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. And at least as late as the mid 1970's, that horrible image of Koreans remained with many Filipinos. As much as they detested the Japanese, many Filipinos hated the Koreans even more for their sadism and unnecessary cruelty.
Mike's explanation for the Korean behavior is what I guessed some 30 years ago. It's interesting to read some validation of my old assumption.)
At my father's funeral in England some time ago, I fell into conversation with his closest friend. They had worked together in a local bank. After some words of condolence, he asked if I was still living in Korea. ``Yes, I am,'' I said. By that time, I had been in Seoul for 18 years. It was more familiar to me than England. ``What do you think of the Koreans?'' he asked. I waxed lyrical about the Irish of the East. After a minute, I knew I had lost my audience. ``Maybe they have changed from my time,'' he said.
Then he told me his story. He had met his Koreans in the 1940s, when he was a prisoner of war under the Japanese. Like thousands of other young British and allied soldiers in World War II, he had been captured in Southeast Asia. The Japanese were unspeakably cruel to those they defeated. I worked in London once with a man who had, as a POW, witnessed guards executing a lineup of Australians with a bayonet up the rectum. Many of the Japanese guards in those camps were from Korea, which, you will know, was part of Japan then.
In fact, my father's friend told me, the Koreans were the worst. ``Horrible people,'' he said. I've never had the heart to tell my Korean friends this story because it is hurtful. But also because I know they would have no idea what this man might be talking about. But they should. The government of President Roh Moo-hyun is trying to clear up the pain from this period and needs serious help with its moral compass. Take, for example, the outrageous reversal this week by a Korean government panel of the rulings by allied tribunals after World War II on Korean war criminals.
The Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under the Japanese Imperialism (sic) announced on Monday that 83 of the 148 Koreans convicted of war crimes were victims of Japan and should not be blamed. A ruling on three more is pending, and families have requested a review of the 23 Koreans who were executed. I accept that war crimes tribunals are biased. The victor catches the losers in his net. And that net had holes. Just as some got away -- like the monsters of Unit 731 in China, who did gruesome medical experiments on prisoners but were let go by the Americans in exchange for their biological warfare research findings -- so perhaps some were unjustly accused.
But not all were found guilty. War tribunals in Japan tried 25 Class A criminals (for ``crimes against peace,'' ie, starting a war) and 300,000 in the Class B (war crimes) and Class C (crimes against humanity) categories. Around 5,600 were prosecuted in numerous trials elsewhere in Asia, and 4,400 were convicted. Of these, around 1,000 were executed, including the 23 Koreans. The 83 Koreans in question were Class B and Class C war criminals who received sentences from one and half years to life.
They were not tried as soldiers or POW camp guards who had done their jobs. They were tried for over-zealousness, for decisions and actions over and above the call of duty. They were the thugs, the brutes, the monsters, the most horrible of the ``horrible people'' my father's friend knew. By what authority does the Truth Commission have to remove their individual responsibility with its class act defense of nationality? Such skewed morality led to the crimes against the lowest class-- ``prisoners'' -- in the first place. People who committed crimes against humanity are not innocent by virtue of being Korean any more than Japanese who brutalized Koreans are innocent by virtue of being Japanese.
If the Truth Commission wants to get its moral bearings straight and live up to its name, it should examine the broader assumptions with which it is approaching its mission to resolve the pain of the past. In doing so, it should recognize that the idea that Koreans were all unhappy citizens of imperialism bar a few collaborators is a myth. Koreans were Japanese citizens, and it did not occur to many to support the allies against their own country. Ask anyone who lived in that period, and they will tell you that the political correctness of the post-colonial generation is distorted.
They will also tell you that from 1937-42, Koreans in the Japanese army were volunteers -- who included King Kojong's son, an army general -- and that large-scale forced conscription only started in 1944. The Commission should know that those rounding up comfort women were Koreans and those torturing people in police stations were mostly Koreans. Koreans, in other words, were more ``horrible'' to Koreans in many cases than the Japanese were. The solution to this dilemma is to accept the notion of individual responsibility. I asked my father's friend why he thought the Koreans camp guards were so nasty. ``When the camp commander was angry about something, he'd berate his officers,'' he explained. ``The officers would take their frustration out on the Japanese privates, and they would take theirs out on the Korean privates. The Koreans would then take their anger out on the only people beneath them -- that was us.''
So, Truth Commissioners, who's the victim, my father's friend or the camp guard? Ultimately, we can say with distance that both were. But there is a process to get there. First, the criminal must acknowledge his crimes, and only then can he be forgiven. The Truth Commission has no right to intervene in this process and forgive Korean war criminals. That is for their victims to do. How many of their stories has the Commission examined?
As it goes about addressing issues from the Japanese period, modern Korea owes it to the primary victims -- in this case, the prisoners brutalized by those convicted war criminals -- to tread with sensitivity on their graves.
Michael Breen is the president of the public relations agency, Insight Communications Consultants, and author of "The Koreans."