Loathing for former colonial master casts 50-year shadows between Korea and Japan
Beneath its giant tiled roof is the Statue of Indomitable Koreans, an epic, swirling mass of muscular figures, energetically casting off chains and surging into the future. The atmosphere is both nostalgic and futuristic - you half expect to come across Flash Gordon doing battle with Ming the Merciless. And the Independence Hall does indeed present itself as a battle of good against evil, an ancient struggle which even after five decades of peace refuses to be resolved.
"This is a national shrine - please behave accordingly," warns the sign, and there certainly is a near-religious atmosphere about the hall, especially on a clear, bitterly cold winter morning, with the monuments casting long shadows over the icy paths. But this is a complicated cult, based not so much upon pride in national achievements, as on mistrust, self-righteous contempt and frank loathing for Japan, Korea's near neighbour and former colonial master.
The heart of the Independence Hall is a series of seven galleries, covering Korean history from the late 19th century to post-war independence. Among the exhibits are thousands of photographs, documents and everyday objects, displayed beneath long panels of explanatory text. The collection was begun in 1945, and is now supported by a research department of archivists and historians. But the documentary value of their work is eclipsed throughout by a relentless chauvinism, bordering on xenophobia.
Enlarged photographs show the severed heads of peasants killed by the hated coloniser. In an animated film, the beautiful tear-streaked face of a 19th-century Korean queen is intercut with those of her snarling Japanese assassins. The most extraordinary exhibit is a wide display case containing wax work scenes from the torture chambers of the Japanese colonial police. Uniformed interrogators interfere with a naked, bleeding girl; a pair of policemen smirk at an old man, bent double in a box lined with spikes.
Two and a half million visitors come here every year and among them today is a boy, Lim Jin Mook, being shown round the exhibition by his parents. "The Japanese are bad," he tells his father. "When I grow up, I want to bash them." He is 10 years old. Around his neck hangs an expensive Japanese camera.
Why do Korea and Japan, so close in culture and ethnography, and with so much to gain from friendly relations, still find it impossible to get on? Their businessmen manage it (two-way trade amounted to $45.5bn last year), and so do their students (there are 15,000 Koreans studying in Japan). But official relations remain hopelessly snarled in a web of prejudice, propaganda and historical resentment.
The Independence Hall may be one-sided (it makes no mention, for instance, of the millions of Koreans who co-operated and profited from the occupation), but the atrocities dramatised here are not invented. Japanese brutality in Korea began in 1592, when invading samurai carried away with them art treasures, the severed ears of dead enemies, and many of the finest craftsmen and artists. In the later years of the colonisation, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and language in a brutal attempt to eradicate national identity.
Until recently, the grim facts of the period were skated over in Japanese schools - a generation of new textbooks, which make cautious reference to such matters, are regularly denounced by right-wing intellectuals and politicians. Among older Japanese, one frequently finds a polite xenophobia towards Koreans, an equivalent of the middle-class anti-Semitism of Edwardian England, coupled with a reluctance to face the ugly truth about their parents' colonisation of the peninsula.
A fortnight ago, a former cabinet minister, Takami Eto, cutely compared Japan's act of annexation in 1910 to "the merger of a town and a village". Last week, the night before an official visit to Japan by President Kim Young Sam, Tokyo's chief government spokesman, Seiroku Kajiyama, caused an even bigger flap when he remarked of the "comfort women" - foreign slaves, most of them Korean, used as front-line prostitutes by the imperial army - that "many of them did it for the money".
But if Japanese sentiment expresses itself through historical amnesia, Korean feelings are rarely so subtle, and the Independence Hall is not the only example of government-sponsored xenophobia. Japanese popular culture (including pop music, films and comics) is banned here, a state of affairs supported, according to official polls, by most Koreans. Gaffes, such as Mr Kajiyama's, routinely provoke ugly demonstrations - as Japan laid claim last year to a rocky islet controlled by Korea, its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were burned in effigy in the streets of Seoul. When the two countries competed last year for the rights to host the 2002 World Cup, the rivalry between them became so intense that Fifa, football's world governing body, took the unprecedented decision to award the tournament jointly.
Many Koreans, particularly those old enough to remember the colonial period, have genuine reasons for suspicion of Tokyo, but the roots of anti-Japanese feeling are complicated and closely tied with the single most important influence on politics in the peninsula: its enduring partition along Cold War lines. While the communist North was ruled by Kim Il Sung, a war hero and former resistance fighter, South Korea's defining post- war leader was Park Chun Hee, an officer of the Japanese imperial army.
In the North, collaborators with the Japanese were quickly purged, and their land confiscated; but the US generals who took custody of the South preserved much of the former colonial machinery and those Koreans who administered it. Shame at the complicity of its leaders, and the desire to be more patriotic than the North, explains much about the Independence Hall.
But it remains a sad place, as well as a magnificent one, a shrine not to pride and achievement, but to victimhood, self-pity and xenophobia.
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