The Korean on Pro-Japanese Collaborators

Dear Korean,

The issue over so called "Korean collaborators" is quite the hotbed issue amongst the general Korean populace. Many so-called collaborators are dismissed by Korean nationalist historians, and Koreans in general as vile traitors to Korea and the Korean people. However, to simply dismiss these "collaborators" as such is a gross oversimplification, if not unfair. For example, Helen Kim was a champion for Korean woman's rights and access to education, but she is oft-characterized as a Japanese collaborator. Yes, Helen Kim was a "collaborator" in the sense that she fully cooperated with the Japanese. However, is it entirely right to dismiss her as a vile collaborator? At a time when rights and opportunities of Korean women were limited, Helen Kim embraced the option that she felt would best improve the situation of Korean women. For Kim, collaborating with the Japanese was the only way for Korean women to gain modernity and improve their livelihood.

Anyways, to put all of this into a question: What is the Korean's personal opinion on so called "Korean collaborators?" And how does the Korean assess the way in which a person such as Helen Kim is reviled as a traitor by Korean historians and Koreans in general?


First, a little bit of background. As T.S. correctly stated, the pro-Japanese collaborator issue is an extremely sensitive one. Because the Imperial Japan's colonial rule over Korea was so unmitigatedly awful, for a Korean to be associated with the Imperial Japan's rule is a social death sentence. T.S.'s example of Helen Kim is a good one. While her achievement as Korea's first female Ph.D. and early feminist was undeniable, equally undeniable is her call for Koreans to sacrifice themselves for Imperial Japan's victory in World War II. Accordingly, her place in Korean history is very much in dispute.

Helen Kim [κΉ€ν™œλž€]
The discourse surrounding the collaborator issue in Korea is not unlike the discourse surrounding racism in America in a number of ways:
(1) Both issues are spurred by incredibly painful historical memories. (Although, to be sure, slavery and Jim Crow lasted far longer and was just as abhorrent, if not more so, as Imperial Japan's rule over Korea.) 
(2) Because of the origins of those issues, the discourses surrounding those issues are highly emotionally charged. (Although, this being the Internet, the obvious point must be noted -- being emotionally involved is hardly an indication of being in the wrong position.) 
(3) Also, because of the origins of those issues, the consequence of being on the wrong side of the issue is extremely damaging. Being labeled a racist in America is a social death sentence. Likewise, being labeled a collaborator in Korea is enough to completely erase one's historical achievements. 
(4) Because of such severe consequences, all kinds of distortions enter into the discourse regarding these issues, making an uninhibited discussion on these issues very difficult. To wit:
(a) At least partly because it is such an easy way of discrediting one's foe, people are quick to resort to the accusation of these issues.
(b) For the same reason as (a) above, the line between who is and who is not a racist or who is and who is not a collaborator is constantly blurred, particularly when politics are involved. In Korea, even being the children of collaborators comes with some level of stigma, on the theory that the collaborators who benefited from betraying their country passed on that benefit to their children, giving them unfair advantage at the cost of their country.
(c) Counter-intuitively, the extremely severe consequences hinder a forthright discussion on who indeed is a racist/collaborator. On this point, writer Teju Cole said it best
"There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as "racially charged" even in those cases when it would be more honest to say "racist"; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic." 
Similarly, simple logic dictates that countless number of Koreans would fall under the (broader) definition of "collaborators," considering the number of Koreans who must have cooperated with the Imperial Japanese government on some level. Yet, except for scattered outbursts of accusations (often politically motivated,) many who truly deserve the label of "collaborators" (or their descendants) continue on unnoticed.
So, what does the Korean think about all this?

His personal stance for dealing with racism is the same as dealing with the collaborator issue. In the "chink-gate" involving Jeremy Lin, the Korean wrote:
Any condemnation of the writer himself must be made cautiously, keeping in mind the explosive power that the accusation of racism has in contemporary America. Just as much as we urge people to carefully consider racism in expanding number of situations, we must be ready to undergo an equally careful analysis before exposing people to harsh consequences. While not avoiding judgment, let us be generous with it.
Same is true for the collaboration issue in Korea. The judgment of the collaboration issue must not be avoided, because the crime, and the after-effects of that crime remaining to this day, are simply too great to be ignored. The collaborators at the top -- the high-ranking Korean officials who forced the emperor to hand over Korea's sovereignty to Imperial Japan -- actively sold out their country for their personal gain, condemning Koreans to 36 years of mass murder of independence activists, forced labor in war efforts leading to millions dead and injured, systemic rape of hundreds of thousands of women and live human experiments of biological and chemical weapons. The collaborators at the bottom -- the low-level Korean officers for Imperial Japan -- acted as the eyes, hands and feet of Imperial Japan that brutally oppressed their fellow Koreans, again for their own personal gain. Together, they irrevocably distorted Korean history, and caused untold amount of pain, suffering and death.

If the crime is so hideous, why must Koreans be generous to those criminals? For this simple reason:  neither you nor I are much better than them. Indeed, the call to be merciful to those who sin comes from this humbling realization -- that, if we were put in the same situation as those who sin, there is great likelihood that we would sin just the same. Koreans who are ready to condemn the collaborators to eternal vilification must, at some point in the process of that condemnation, confront the fact that in all likelihood, they may have acted the same. This self-confrontation is not made frequently enough, and even when it is made, it is done with an inflated self-evaluation of awareness and courage.

(With respect to that inflated self-evaluation, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates put it perfectly. To people who say "If I was a slave I woulda rebelled!", Coates says:  "Fool, you woulda picked that cotton.")

In short, the Korean's principle is this: do not eschew condemnation, but be generous with the condemnation's consequences. As a practical matter, this means a full disclosure and exploration of everything that happened, and of the roles that everyone relevant played, during Imperial Japan's rule of Korea. But in order for that to happen, those who are making those disclosures and explorations must do so in the spirit of truth-seeking and generosity, rather than that of vendetta and spite. Recognizing both the good and bad of imperfect people who were facing forces greater than their own does no more than speaking to what is human. In doing so, Koreans will be able to finally elevate the independence fighters in their proper place -- truly extraordinary people with superhuman courage.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at