Colonial-Era Dispute Agitates South Koreans

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A nondescript post office here provides an appealing footnote to the history of Korean literature. From 1945 until his death in 1967, the poet Yu Chi-hwan strolled in almost daily, mailing thousands of letters to a widowed poet, his muse in one of the country’s most celebrated literary love affairs.

Now, a century after Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, this same post office stands at the center of a not-so-lovely affair mirroring a larger debate over history, the responsibilities of intellectuals and the accommodations many Koreans made during the nearly four decades of Japanese colonial rule.

The local dispute began in 2004, when some townspeople proposed commemorating Mr. Yu, who is one of South Korea’s most widely read poets, by renaming it the Cheongma Post Office, after his pen name. Other residents were outraged, condemning Mr. Yu as a collaborator with the Japanese.

“What could be more preposterous than memorializing someone who sold out the nation to Japan in its time of peril?” said Choi Jeong-gyu, 58, himself a poet and a leader of a campaign to block the renaming of the post office.

This anniversary year has become an occasion for much soul-searching as Koreans review the colonial experience and consider highly divisive questions: To what extent should South Korea revisit that period, 65 years after it ended with Japan’s defeat in World War II, and expose pro-Japanese collaborators, most of them already dead?

And what does “collaboration” mean when speaking of an occupation that lasted more than a generation, during which Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, bow in the direction of the emperor in Tokyo and fight for Japan?

These questions touch raw nerves in a society inculcated with anti-Japanese sentiments so deep that songs and some other forms of mass culture from Japan are still banned on South Korea’s main television networks. The label of chinilpa, or a member of a pro-Japanese clique, can ruin the reputation not only of the accused but also of his or her descendants....

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