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.