The Koreans and their Enemies

Jon Halliday

Over the past year evidence has been emerging that the Japanese kidnapped more than 200,000 young women into sex slavery during their occupation of East Asia. Those so enslaved were termed ‘comfort women’, about 80 per cent of whom were Korean. Some were as young as 12, hauled out of their schools, often under a quota system, and carted off to army barracks and outposts all the way from Manchuria to the South Pacific. All suffered indescribable brutality and hardship, and untold numbers died in frontline trenches. Almost none would ever return to their homes. So far no compensation has been paid for these atrocities, on the grounds that Japanese reparations to Korea for the occupation period (1910-45) were settled once and for all in the 1965 agreement which normalised relations between Tokyo and Seoul. The kidnappings, like many other outrages, are not mentioned in Japan’s official school textbooks.

Japan transformed Korea more profoundly than any European power changed any of its colonies. It tried to crush the Korean language, and put intense pressure on Koreans to abandon their family names – an act of appalling cruelty in a culture centred on family lineage. Intensive industrialisation was introduced, particularly in Northern Korea, which became the most heavily industrialised colonial area in the world. Moreover, close to seven million Koreans were either lured or coerced into working in the worst jobs in Japan and other parts of the Japanese Empire. But the Japanese also acquired a core of collaborators – businessmen, military and, especially, police.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea was divided and the South was occupied by America. The South Korean armed forces, however, were dominated by former officers of the Japanese Army, some of whom had made their careers hunting down their fellow-Koreans in Manchuria. In this way, and others, South Korea inherited the structures of the pre-1945 Japanese state.

The Japanese period and the post-war development of South Korea take up about half of Korea Old and New. In four hundred clear and well-written pages, five eminent Korean and American historians provide a judicious survey of Korea’s history from palaeolithic times to the present, giving due emphasis to its cultural achievements, including its magnificent pottery, and, not least, the development of metal movable type in the first half of the 15th century. By outlining the extraordinary role of Confucianism in Korea, and engaging (briefly) with the theses of Max Weber on religion and economic development, the book allows a general reader a way into some of the issues relating to South Korea’s spectacular modernisation since the early Sixties. It is extremely fair on the strengths and weaknesses of the various authoritarian regimes which have prevailed in the South since 1945. But it has two weaknesses: no references or bibliography and more seriously, nothing on North Korea since 1950. This omission is not even explained. The only good reason I can think of for this is that North Korea is about to disappear. Even so, because reunification is probably close, it is important to know about the 22 million people who live there in hermetic isolation.

Anthony Daniels’s The Wilder Shores of Marx describes journeys to North Korea, Albania, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba around the time of the collapse of Communism in 1989. Daniels chose his redoubts well: two were the last European dictatorships to fall; the other three are still holding out. Although he was only in Korea for a short time (as a delegate to the World Youth Festival), Daniels saw more than many who have spent much longer in Kim II Sung’s narcissistic ‘paradise’. ‘North Korea,’ he observes, ‘was not so much a factory of flattery as a forced labour camp for it.’ It is a society dominated by fear.

Daniels encountered one of the many surrealist mini-dramas which Kim and his army of stage managers lay on for visiting foreigners: ‘Potemkin shoppers’ – locals dragooned to trudge purchase-less through one of the capital’s leading department stores. Kim’s dictatorial power, Daniels notes, is inextricably linked to the humiliation of his subjects. ‘The most sombre reflection occasioned by the Potemkin shoppers is that concerning the nature of the power that can command thousands of citizens to take part in a huge and deceitful performance not once but day after day, without any of the performers ever indicating by even the faintest sign that he is aware of its deceitfulness ... The humiliation it visits upon the people who take part in it ... is an essential benefit to the power, for slaves who must participate in their own enslavement by signalling to others the happiness of their condition are so humiliated that they are unlikely to rebel.’

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