Magazine article History Today

The Capitol, Seoul

Magazine article History Today

The Capitol, Seoul

Article excerpt

On Independence Day August 1995, to the accompaniment of patriotic music, folk dancing and a large floating national flag, South Korean engineers using explosives removed the cupola from the neo-classical Seoul Capitol (Chungang-Chong), a budding symbolising the historical oppression of Korea by Japan.

To many South Koreans it was a moment to be savoured, a rebuff to Japan's historical attempt to disrupt Korean traditions and eradicate Korean national culture during the period of her colonial rule from 1910 - 1945. In the ritualised destruction of the Capitol, a loathed edifice, deep forces of religion, historical memory and national identity are at work.

The Seoul Capitol building (1926) served as the offices of Japan's colonial administration (Government General), from the forced colonisation of Korea until its defeat in 1945, and is viewed by many Koreans as a hateful if now anachronistic architectural legacy and symbol of Japanese subjugation. Already stripped of its cupola, the building is now in the process of demolition as part of South Korea's purging of its colonial past at an ongoing cost of several million dollars.

Almost half a century after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule, South Korea is firmly placed as one of Asia's `Tiger' economies. It enjoys buoyant forecast growth in national economic indicators (annual growth in GDP of around 7 per cent to 2005) and is the beneficiary of its own West German-style `economic miracle'. Today the country displays a huge national obsession in its 5,000-year recorded history, in keeping with her desire for a `place in the sun' among the world's leading economies. From this newly-found position of confidence, South Korea is now busy addressing issues from the past which are considered difficult and shameful. She is examining both her own record and those of her neighbours.

This willingness to address such issues, as a process of national catharsis. was exemplified in the arrest, trial and imprisonment during 1995-96 of two former prime ministers, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, on grounds of corruption and complicity in the violent suppression of internal dissent. This was the literal equivalent of John Major sanctioning the incarceration of Margaret Thatcher and James Callaghan and has prompted a wide-ranging internal debate of Korea's past and envisioned future. This impassioned discussion is also concentrating Korean minds on her ambiguous relations with Japan.

Any visitor to Seoul's huge National War Museum will be struck by an exhibit concerning the period of Japanese colonial rule - a simple plaque declares:

During the 5,000 years of history this nation has recovered wisely from many foreign aggressors and national crises. However, in 1910 we left a shameful page in history by letting the Japanese infringe upon our nation. Through activities of the righteous armies, independence movements on foreign soil, the national independence movement, the feeling of unified national sentiment, and various resistance movements, we ultimately achieved the long awaited liberation from the Japanese occupation of this country.

Korean history has traditionally been characterised by invasion and attempted colonisation by a succession of neighbouring powers. Until the early twentieth century Chinese, Japanese, Manchu and Mongol forces regularly attacked the Korean peninsula eager to achieve East Asian regional hegemony and Western powers attempted unsuccessfully to secure potentially profitable trading concessions. Her relations with Japan were particularly acrimonious, the natural result of centuries of invasion and commercial rivalry. The destruction in 1592 of most of Korea's royal palaces and her subsequent naval victory over numerically superior Japanese forces by deploying so-called `turtle' ships, the forerunner of iron-clad warships, remain potent in national Korean consciousness to this day.

From the late 1860s onwards, Japan became the most active of these adversarial powers and extracted a series of forced concessions, most notable during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, leading to outright colonial control in August 1910 when, without international opposition, Japan established her Government General over the nation. …

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