Righting the Wrongs of History

old-kr-flag-aRecently was talking to a friend in the US about Korea and global political history, or something along these lines. I was a bit surprised when, in passing, said friend mentioned, among other things, Korea’s role as colonizer in the context of historical global relations.

Surely, I did not just hear that, I thought. Surely, this person doesn’t believe Korea, of all the countries of East Asia, once colonized some other country? And if so, what country would that have been?? In my remote and lurking Korean (American) national pride, it was kind of like a little bit of salt on my race’s historical wounds (I realize I am conflating nation and race here, but that’s how insidiously unconscious this stuff can be). I was sadly reminded of how so many people in the West — and a lot of people I know — actually don’t really know very much about Korea and its history. And what they do know is abstract, vague, generalized at best.

And I guess, why should they? Much of Korean historical scholarship is written and consumed by those with a particular specialization in Korea or East Asian Studies, Korea has traditionally not been perceived as a major global power nation, and because of Korea’s history of invasions from outside forces, as well as a period of incredibly brutal colonization by the Japanese – Korea has been just a little bit protectionist, and also because of these factors, so much of written Korean history has been lost; documents pillaged and records destroyed (or stolen, see below), not to mention the systematic cultural and religious oppression by Japanese colonizers in forbidding the study of Korean history, art, and language, as well as making worship at Shinto shrines compulsory.

This is really Korean History 101. Pick up any book on the subject and one of the first things it will talk about is Korea’s unfortunate geographic location and the subsequent history of foreign invasion that’s descended upon “the Land of the Morning Calm.” Of course, much more could and should be said about this, but for now what I wanted to share was this opinion article from the Joong-Ang Daily: “Winning Back Stolen Culture”.

Case in point, this article states:

According to a recent survey by the Cultural Heritage Administration, a total of 107,857 Korean historic properties are scattered over 18 countries. Japan holds the largest number with 61,409 items, followed by the United States with 27,726 items. Some items, such as Uigwe, were confiscated by foreign invaders while others fell into the hands of collectors through trade.

France, Japan, the US — all have historical and cultural artifacts that were stolen during invasions and occupation currently displayed in their own libraries and museums. Koreans want them back. Why can’t these people return what is not rightly theirs? (This is all really working up my haan.)

dscf1667Righting the wrongs of history in Korea has undoubtedly been an ongoing  and deeply-rooted psychological, cultural, and emotional process that plays out on so many levels – from reclaiming stolen cultural artifacts, to former comfort women protesting every Wednesday in Seoul, to trying to correct the misconceptions of the outside world. Every nation has its own demons to exorcise, its own psychological and collective healing it must do. These are just a few examples of contemporary (south) Korea’s particular situation, and this is something that Koreans themselves will continue to negotiate and work through for a long time coming…

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02 2010

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