It was perhaps the most dramatic gesture of apology ever made by any nation's leader.
On 7 December, 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt dropped to his knees in front of a monument in Warsaw. Unplanned and unscripted, it was a powerful moment. Today, Brandt's "kneefall" is seen as a global benchmark for national contrition.
In Korea, there are hopes, suggestions and demands that a Japanese leader should replicate Brandt's move. At least one Korean president has suggested this. An NGO paid for ads in US media urging it. And most recently, students have displayed posters outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul of Brandt on his knees.
I wonder if those urging this action are aware of what the monument which Brandt dropped in front of commemorates? Or what happened to the city wherein that monument is located? Or, indeed, what occurred in Poland from 1939-1945?
The monument commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. During that event, Jews forced into the ghetto - a sectioned-off section of Warsaw ― rose against Hitler's notorious SS troops. Some 13,000 Jews were killed during the fighting. And of 300-400,000 persons in the Ghetto, approximately 254,000 were transported to a place called Treblinka.
At the time, Treblinka did not appear on maps. A camp in a forest, it was so secret that its barbed wire fencing was sewn with twigs and leaves. But residents living nearby noted that trains, packed with Jews, went in full and came out empty. At night, they could see a huge fire burning; and for miles around, a horrific smell hung in the air.
Today, we know what happened at Treblinka. Trainloads of Jews were unloaded. On the platform, they were separated by gender and ordered to strip. Then, they were marched through a barbed wire corridor to a "shower chamber." Inside, some 800,000 men, women and children from across Europe were murdered by diesel fumes; their bodies were incinerated on giant grills.
How to visualize this number? It represents approximately 16 football stadiums filled with corpses.
The monument stands in Warsaw. In 1944, Warsaw partisans undertook the biggest uprising of World War II. In response, the Nazis deployed their most barbaric units ― the SS Dirlewanger Brigade (led by a convicted pedophile, manned by felons) and the SS Kaminski Brigade (formed of renegade Soviet troops) ― to suppress it. Their atrocities are almost unprintable: They included the slaughter of hospital patients, mass rape and the murder of babies using bayonets.
Heroic but doomed, the uprising was crushed. In combat, "collateral damage," and through executions, some 168,000 Poles were killed. Hitler ordered Warsaw razed. Its surviving population was deported; the city was blown apart. (U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower subsequently called it the worst urban destruction he had witnessed. Warsaw's "old town," which stands today, was lovingly rebuilt after the war).
And the monument is in Poland. While Hitler's regime built concentration camps in Germany, the extermination camps which slaughtered millions ― Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka ― were exclusively on Polish soil. Moreover, by the end of the war, Poland's population had plunged by 16-17 percent.
These events are arguably the blackest in mankind's history. Did Imperial Japan carry out crimes similar in nature, or in extent, in Korea?
No cities were destroyed; no death camps were operated; no genocide took place. In fact, Korea's population doubled from 13 million to 26 million during the colonial era. (Japan's worst atrocities, such as the rape of Nanjing and the biological warfare operations of Unit 731, were carried out not in her colonies, but in wartime China.)
Then, what of comfort women? Some, particularly Japanese, may have volunteered. Others were sold by parents or village heads, or were coerced, tricked or forced. It is unclear what proportion were Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Southeast Asian, though 238 Koreans have been identified in recent years. Nor do we know the total: The vague figure of 200,000 is commonly quoted.
But even if we take that figure as gospel and if we argue that all were Koreans: Would this crime be equivalent to Nazi crimes in Poland?
Moralists and philosophers may argue, but judicially the answer is "no." Rape, in most judicial systems (including Korea's), is less serious than murder. Then there are the issues of numbers and material damage. Brandt was apologizing for the slaughter of 5.9 million Jews and the eradication of a capital, Warsaw.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December apology was quoted by media worldwide, but many Koreans question his "sincerity." That is their right. But if Korean activists demand further apologies from Japanese leaders, they need a benchmark other than Brandt's. No Japanese leader can draw a moral equivalency between the crimes committed by the colonial forces in Korea (1910-1945) and those committed by Nazi forces in Poland (1939-1945).
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of The Korea Times. Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. Reach him at email@example.com.