Why South Korea and Japan still can’t put the past behind them

Feb 28, 2019

ONE HUNDRED years ago this week, 33 Korean intellectuals called for independence from the colonial overlord, Japan. Its gendarmes struggled to contain the revolt this sparked, in which over 800,000 Koreans took part. At least 900 Koreans were killed. In one notorious incident police locked protesters in a church and burned it down.

To mark the anniversary, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is encouraging hundreds of commemorative events in the coming weeks. Japanese diplomats are nervous about the beating Japan is to get. For Mr Moon, the founding of a provisional government by exiles in Shanghai, as the March 1st movement was being suppressed, more neatly marks the birth of modern Korea than the creation of the Republic of Korea in 1948. After all, that took place, somewhat embarrassingly, under American tutelage. The first president, Syngman Rhee, was a dictator. And only two years later the country was plunged into a civil war that has left the peninsula still cruelly divided today.

History is messy and painful. Even today few Koreans acknowledge that millions of their compatriots collaborated with the Japanese. Far better to define the Korean character as emanating, pure and brave, from a far-distant moment when it revealed itself in opposition to a monster. For some politicians, Japan-bashing is part of the...

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