Appeasement Human Rights Korean Politics Korean Society

‘Unlike in the past, it is absurd to call a person unqualified because he was a pro-North leftist.”‘

This is the statement attributed to ruling  Uri Party lawmaker Im Jong-Seok during the confirmation hearing for Lee Jae-Joung, South Korea’s next Minister of Appeasement Unification.  Fine, then.  Is it equally absurd for a civilized democracy to question the fitness of a pro-fascist rightist  for a senior cabinet position?  Does Korea’s left hereby waive all grievances against Park Chung-Hee for his collaboration with Imperial Japan, along with any hereditary claims against his daughter, just in time for next year’s election?  Perhaps the Truth Commission can take that one up

If, as Mr. Im suggests, being a pro-North leftist is no disqualifier in this enlightened and tolerant age, then either the  burden of disqualification  has lifted from any remaining “pro-Japanese rightists,” or  Mr. Im considers collaboration with Japan (often involuntary) to be morally  inferior to collaboration  with a North Korean tyranny that is starving millions of Koreans this very day (presumably, a free choice)? 

Why?  One explanation that springs to mind is that  Korean nationalism exclusively licenses Korean crimes against humanity, but I believe that  is  an oversimplification.  Time, and its way of solidifying views of the past,  may be  another reason, but we can select an analogy that reduces that distinction.   In 1935, when  the avowedly pro-Nazi  Pierre Laval became France’s Prime Minister, and when France was  rearming itself  for a possible defense against its  Nazi neighbor, would it have been “absurd” to question Laval’s fitness to serve?

There is another difference, of course: we have  photographs of the crimes of Nazism.  “If we’d only known,” they will  say, as if they don’t know.   But for those who know very well of evils beyond the camera’s view,  photography does not alter the moral equation; it merely alters the emotional equation.  What will be left of Uri’s defense of “pro-North” policies when photography,  video, and the North Korean state archives are  unexpectedly revealed?  What will Mr. Im’s colleagues say to the hordes of skeletal witnesses that will  suddenly arrive to  beat their withered fists against  policies that are constructed  from emotions?

None of this is to say that the nominee himself is “a pro-North leftist;” indeed, I can understand why  this President’s nominee  dodged some of the thornier questions presented by opposition lawmakers.  In time, Mr. Lee  will most likely clarify these matters  himself.  But the defense is striking enough to beg for historical context.