Ben Hills

There it stands, dominating the city from the top of Sejongno – Seoul’s main boulevard – an immense four-storey pile of grey granite topped with a copper dome, once the grandest building in all of north-east Asia. In its vaulted halls and marble-pillared galleries, the National Museum displays floor upon floor of priceless art and artefacts, the crown jewels of Korean culture. In a previous incarnation, the building housed the parliament where Syngman Rhee proclaimed the independence of the Korean Republic in 1948.

For nearly 70 years this great, historic neo-Renaissance landmark has dominated Korea’s political and cultural life and loomed large in millions of postcards and tourist snapshots.

In two years’ time, workmen with dynamite, jackhammers and steel balls will pulverise it and cart the rubble away to be dumped.

Cultural vandalism? Development gone mad? No, says Chung Jae Hoon, director-general of South Korea’s Culture and Leisure Bureau, from his office less than 200 metres from the building.

“Almost all Koreans, including myself, look at the museum with a feeling of lingering anger – it was the heart of the cruel Japanese regime which sought to obliterate our culture. It must be destroyed.”

The museum, as it is now, was built by the Japanese in 1923 – 13 years after the Imperial Army deposed the last Korean king and annexed the peninsula to its rapidly expanding empire which stretched from Taiwan to the (Russian)Kurile Islands.

The main halls of the magnificent Kyongbokkung Palace, for five centuries the seat of government of the Yi (Chosun) Dynasty, were demolished to make way for the building from which the Japanese governor would rule the country. It is bigger than the Diet building in Tokyo, “a temple to authority meant to awe and subdue”, wrote a historian.

A Seoul newspaper editorialised the other day: “It stands as a humiliating symbol of Korea’s enslavement by Japan. It is like a tattoo or scar branded on our forehead. Unless we get rid of it completely, we can never be liberated from the stigma of Japanese rule.”

And so, a few weeks ago, Kim Young Sam – South Korea’s first civilian president in 32 years – gave the final go-ahead to demolish the museum, erect a replica of the palace in its place and build a new home for the 120,000 priceless exhibits: paintings, scrolls, golden crowns and celadon pottery.

The building’s demolition will not be in time for next year’s celebrations marking the 600th anniversary of Seoul being proclaimed the country’s capital

The project will not be completed before 2000 and it will cost a whopping$780 million.

There has been some carping in the local press that the money would be better spent on schools and sewers for this still-developing country, but Chung Jae Hoon believes it is well worth the cost if it helps “heal the pain and establish a basis for a new relationship between the two countries”.

That is obviously President Kim’s plan and it got off to a good start in November when he welcomed Japan’s new Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, on his first official visit to South Korea. It was all the more poignant because Mr Hosokawa lost an uncle during the war and his grandfather was a wartime Prime Minister who swallowed a cyanide capsule rather than submit to a war-crimes trial.

Speaking in the ancient Korean capital of Kyongju, Mr Hosokawa impressed his hosts by ignoring the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s attempts to water down his speech when making a forthright apology for “various forms of unbearable pains and sorrows inflicted by Japan’s colonial rule”.

Nearly 50 years after the war, those unbearable pains still rankle with most Koreans, and have blighted relations between Northeast Asia’s two most important economies.

“It’s mutual,” says Chung Jae Hoon. “We don’t like the Japanese and they don’t like us.”

In a recent poll of young men eligible for Korea’s compulsory national service, more than half named Japan as the greatest military threat to the country – the United States came a distant second and the menacing nucleararmed regime of North Korea third. The latest best-seller in the bookshops is a “near future simulation novel” called The South Korea-Japan War of 1999.

FOR A glimpse of just why this is, visit what must be the region’s most macabre museum, tucked away in the corner of Independence Park near the ancient city gate of Tongnimmun.

Independence, of course, means independence from the Japanese – the main national holiday is August 15, Liberation Day.

All around are the ruins of the cell blocks where the Japanese held thousands of Korean political prisoners.

In a small stucco building, schoolchildren are taken to view dioramas of the horrors that were inflicted on their grandparents.

In scenes like a blood-curdling Madame Tussaud’s, lifelike wax models of Korean prisoners are held in boxes like vertical coffins and are tortured by being strung up by the feet and branded with glowing irons. Photographs on the walls show Korean dissidents being rounded up to be publicly decapitated with swords.

As well, most Koreans will never forget the systematic attempts during 35 years of occupation to commit cultural genocide against their country, with its three millennia of recorded history. The unique Korean language was suppressed, Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and to abandon their traditional Buddhism and worship at State Shinto shrines.

The “comfort women” issue – the 200,000 or so mainly Korean women who were press-ganged into service in the Imperial Army’s brothels – refuses to go away. Likewise, the hundreds of thousands of Korean men who were shipped away to work as slave labourers in Japan, Siberia and Manchuria in one of history’s great forgotten diasporas.

Mr Hosokawa has apologised to the survivors, declaring that Japan and Korea”will no longer have to discuss the past at future summits”. But his Government has so far made no gesture to settle the lawsuits that have been issued.

So it is hardly surprising that animosity lingers, or that it has poisoned relations between the two countries in arenas as diverse as sport, culture and particularly industry.

On the streets of Seoul, you will see imported Fords and Mercedes but no Hondas or Toyotas; the markets of bustling Itaewon must be the only shopping district in the world where you can find no Canon cameras or Sony VCRs. These are just a few of the 285 Japanese manufacturers which have been banned from import into Korea since the war.

To the Koreans, their closed market makes commercial as well as emotional sense. Korea runs a festering trade deficit with Japan – mainly the capital goods imported to tool Korea’s industrial miracle – and with its economy tentatively picking up after a three-year slump, the Government does not want to jeopardise recovery.

President Kim, as part of his “new beginning”, has pledged to cut this”blacklist” in half in the next five years. But just how and when have not been announced. “We are not about to drop our guard in front of the heavyweight boxing champion of the world,” said a Ministry of Finance official. “One jab and we would be flat on the canvas.”

THERE is also only a chink of light around the closed door of cul tural exchanges. So deep is the hatred that Japanese movies, videos and even pop songs are banned in Korea. A special exemption had to be made for a traditional Japanese song-and-dance group to perform at the Taejong Expo. Japanese companies in Seoul change their names to sound “less Japanese”.

In sport – and particularly the Korean national obsession, soccer – the antagonism is even more obvious. At the recent World Cup play-offs the South Korean news agency described Japan’s defeat of Korea as “the second worst day of disgrace for Korea since the annexation”. Never mind that Korea went on to the finals and Japan – which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to host the World Cup in 2002 – got knocked out by Iran.

Barely a week goes by without some new manifestation of Korea’s attempt to reassert its place in the world and recast its colonial legacy. “Any race devoid of national self-esteem is destined to perish,” declares the President.

In August, Korea reclaimed some of its resistance heroes – the ashes of five men who founded a government-in-exile in Shanghai during the occupation were interred with full honours in the national cemetery.

In Parliament, a bipartisan group of legislators has passed a motion denouncing former Prime Minister Ri Wan Young (Korea’s quisling who signed the surrender document and became Japan’s puppet) and is threatening to confiscate the property of his heirs. Some more thoughtful Koreans think all this has gone a bit overboard.

“Of course atrocities were committed, and we can never forget that,” said a Foreign Ministry official. “But there is also a tendency among Koreans to look for an excuse, a scapegoat – anything we don’t like tends to be blamed on the Japanese.”

Still, any attempt to write a more balanced history of the occupation will have to wait for a future generation when the coals of anger glow less fiercely.

Earlier this year a book called Minikui Kankokujin (Ugly Koreans) was published in Japan claiming that the occupation actually did Korea a lot of good – it rid the country of its feudal autocracy and laid the foundations for modern education, medical and legal systems.

It is a theory heard quite commonly in Japan.

“The Koreans are the Irish of Asia,” says a Japanese magazine journalist of my acquaintance. “They travel all round the world but when they return home they are never grateful for what the Japanese did for them.”

But in Korea today it is not yet acceptable even to joke that “at least Hirohitler (as the Okinawans call him) made the trains run on time”. The book was denounced as a fake, and frenetic attempts were made to prove that its author, Pak Tae Heok, was really a Japanese writing under a pseudonym.

Chung Jae Hoon acknowledges that the demolition of the museum building is symbolic – there are, after all, many other pieces of Japanese architecture around Seoul, not least the magnificent Edwardian railway station. Nor will it mean an overnight thaw in the prickly relations between the two countries.

“But it will be a fresh start,” he says, warily eyeing the great alien monument. “We can’t go on living in the past forever.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 29 January 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section: News Review
Page: 30
Word count: 1875
1. The exhibits in a macabre Tussaud-like museum include Japanese torturing Korean dissidents.
2. As a lingering metaphor for Japanese rule, the Japanese-built National Museum is to be demolished.
3. President Kim … “Race devoid of self-esteem.”