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A Korean identity

Esther Felden / gdAugust 31, 2015

Kim Soon-sil was born a second-class citizen during Japan's colonial rule of Korea. Nowadays she lives in Germany, but is still haunted by the past.

Kim Soon-Sil
Image: DW/E. Felden

"Whoever spoke Korean was punished," said Kim Soon-sil, reminiscing about her school life. The use of the language was forbidden not only at her school in Seoul, but everywhere on the Korean Peninsula. Instead, the Korean students had to speak Japanese, the language of the colonial rulers, who first occupied the country in 1910.

For the people of Korea, this meant oppression on a daily basis. "I didn't know it any other way," said Kim Soon-sil. "No one needed to tell me I wasn't free in my own country. I came to that conclusion on my own." Only at home with her parents and two sisters was she allowed to be Korean and speak her native language.

Every morning, the Protestant family got together to celebrate a kind of mass before starting their day. Her mom and dad read from the Bible and also spoke about the history of both Japan and Korea.

Kim becomes Kaneda

Kim Soon-sil's family was relatively well off. Her father had studied economics and was able to make a name for himself as a banker and then as an entrepreneur, founding a company which specialized in exporting canned fish. And, unlike many fellow Koreans who at the time were forced to give away their produce to the occupiers or toil in coal mines, Soon-sil's father was allowed to keep his job.

A man scatters posters depicting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during an anti-Japan rally on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, on Liberation Day in Seoul, South Korea, August 15, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji)
Anti-Japan protests in Seoul on the 70th anniversary of the WWIIImage: DW/Kim Hong-Ji

But one thing had to go: The Kims were forced to swap their Korean name for a Japanese one. "Our last name became Kaneda," said Kim Soon-sil, adding that she was only allowed to keep her first name as long as it was pronounced in Japanese.

The 83-year old still remembers vividly the events of August 15, 1945, the day on which former Emperor Hirohito announced on the radio that Japan had surrendered, thus marking the end of World War II.

Kim Soon-sil, who was 13 at the time, remembers: "I was with my cousin and some other people when we heard the news. 'Thank God,' I said. I was so happy." But fear and insecurity were also widespread among Koreans: "We simply didn't know if it was true. Should we rejoice ourselves? Was this even allowed?"

In search of an identity

Thirty-five years of Japanese occupation had led many Koreans to raise basic questions. "We asked ourselves: 'What is to become of us now that Japan has lost the war?' Under Japanese rule we only knew life as second-class citizens, so we just didn't know who we were anymore," said Kim Soon-sil.

She explained that many children and youth in the country had never had a Korean identity. And given that they had never been taught Korean in school, they simply didn't know how to write their native language.

However, Kim says she had no identity crisis. "I've always felt Korean. But it's important to point out in my case that my strong and stable family background had a lot to do with it. We were much better off than many other families who had to cope with poverty on a daily basis. Barely anyone could afford rice or cereal."

Life in a war-torn country

After the end of WWII, Kim graduated from high school and began studying theology. But world events would continue to have an impact on her life as Korea's liberation from Japan would only be followed by the division of the peninsula a few years later - a result of the power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The next tragedy came in 1950 with the beginning of the Korean War. Backed by their respective allies, North and South Korea waged a brutal war against each other for control of the peninsula. The conflict ended only with an armistice - and no peace treaty - thus laying the foundation for the still ongoing division and animosities between the neighboring states.

Although the war crippled both Koreas, Kim managed to complete her studies and get a job as a Korean teacher in a secondary school. She got married in her early 20s and gave birth to two children. After living as a housewife for a couple of years, she decided to re-enter the workforce and make use of the Japanese she had learned in school. She got a job as a Japanese teacher, and later worked as an interpreter and a tour guide.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers a silent prayer for victims of the 1945 atomic bombing, during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the city at Nagasaki's Peace Park in western Japan, August 9, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Toru Hanai)
Japanese PM Abe avoided an explicit apologyImage: Reuters/T. Hanai

In 1973, she left South Korea with her children to re-unite with her husband, who had been living a few years in Germany as a Protestant theologian.

Writing about Korea

For over forty years now, Kim Soon-sil has lived in Frankfurt, working as a translator. She translates, for example, Japanese novels and documents into the Korean language. But she also writes her own novels and stories, and has even won the international PEN Club literary prize in Korea.

Anger and disappointment

Kim also keeps an eye on how Japan deals with its own wartime past, particularly in comparison to Germany. Chancellor Willy Brandt's Warsaw Genuflection in 1970, for example, impressed her deeply. His ensuing speech was quite different from the one delivered by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of his country's WWII surrender in mid-August.

(L-R on blue chairs) South Korean former 'comfort women' Kim Bok-Dong, Gil Won-Ok and Lee Yong-Soo, who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II, attend a protest with other supporters to demand Tokyo's apology for forcing women into military brothels during World War II outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul on August 12, 2015 (Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
Since 1992, the former "comfort women" have been protesting outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every weekImage: Reuters/J. Yeon-Je

Abe said that Japan felt deep remorse for his country's actions during the war. Moreover, Abe conveyed "deep sorrow and everlasting compassion." The PM, however, avoided an explicit apology. Instead, he stressed that future generations should "not be obliged to apologize."

The speech sparked harsh criticism in China as well as North and South Korea, and disappointed Kim. "Something makes me angry. I wanted a sincere apology; hence what Abe said was not enough. The Japanese consider themselves victims in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But they forget that they established a reign of terror on the model of Nazi Germany, conquering territories in Korea, China and Southeast Asia."

Present and past

Ever since Kim has been living in Germany, she has come into contact with the Japanese. On a personal level, it is been never a problem, she says, however, it is quite different with the Japanese government. The anger runs deep: "It does not affect my everyday life, but I can't be indifferent to what happened in the past." As long as there is no clear admission of guilt from the other side, old wounds will not heal, she said.