Paik Sun-yup, a Korean War hero and South Korea’s first four-star general, died Friday night and will be buried Wednesday in the national cemetery in Daejeon, in central South Korea.
It is regrettable that the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs failed to secure a plot for him in the Seoul National Cemetery, where former presidents, war heroes and other top patriots are laid to rest.
It is not right for the government and the ruling party to treat the funeral of a war hero this way, while holding a taxpayer-funded city funeral for a Seoul mayor who apparently took his life a day after being accused of sexual harassment.
About a month ago, controversy surfaced over whether Paik should be buried in a national cemetery. In late May, having won the general election, the ruling party vowed to revise the law so that collaborators with Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea would be excluded from national cemeteries.
In 2005, Paik was stigmatized as a pro-Japanese collaborator by a presidential committee formed by the leftist government of President Roh Moo-hyun to determine who those collaborators were. The committee cited Paik’s membership in Japan’s Gando Special Force, created in 1938 to subdue armed resistance forces in the Jiandao region of Kirin province in Manchuria, known in Korean as “Gando.”
However, according to historians, independence fighters had already moved out of Gando by 1943, when Paik joined the force. Paik acknowledged having served in the force but stressed that he never saw any independence fighters.
In evaluating a historical figure, the context of the person’s time must be considered. For Paik’s generation, no country called Korea existed at that time. Those days cannot be judged by today’s yardstick.
Paik is a war hero who saved the country from a grave crisis with its very existence at stake. Without him, South Korea might not have the freedom, peace and prosperity that it enjoys today. Its people might be living under the rule of the North Korean leader. Paik’s division played a critical role in deterring North Korean troops from taking over the South. He became a four-star general, the first in Korean history, in 1953. He rebuilt South Korea’s military and laid the cornerstone for the US-Korea alliance.
But the presidential office and the ruling party made no official comment on his death. Rather, the White House National Security Council mourned the passing of Paik, highlighting his contributions to defending South Korea against the communist invasion.
The government did not set up an altar where citizens could remember him. Rather, a civic group made up of young people installed one and about 25,000 citizens reportedly laid flowers there in spite of the rain.
In a Memorial Day address last year, Moon praised Kim Won-bong, a figure appointed to a ministry post by North Korean founder Kim Il-sung for his meritorious service when the North invaded the South. Moon called Kim Won-bong “the root of the South Korean military.” It is surely no accident that Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party made no comment on Paik’s death.
Most fallen soldiers who fought the war together with Paik are buried in the Seoul National Cemetery. It is too bad that the war hero and Korea’s first four-star general could not be buried next to the rank-and-file soldiers who fought under his command.
Earlier conservative administrations took steps to ensure Paik’s eventual burial in the Seoul National Cemetery, but the Moon administration undid their work. Those in the ruling camp condemned him as “a collaborator with Japanese imperialism.”
An even more serious problem is that Paik may be moved out of the Daejeon National Cemetery because the ruling party is seeking to revise the law on national cemeteries. But if a war hero such as Paik cannot be buried in a national cemetery, who can?
Considering that the national cemetery in the capital was established for those killed in action in the Korean War and is a more symbolic site than the one in Daejeon, it is desirable to move his grave to Seoul if possible.
His service in the Japanese military when his fatherland was a colony of Japan is a blot on his life. But his contributions to the survival and prosperity of Korea were much more significant. Focusing only on a flaw without doing justice to his meritorious service is far from fair. Paik is a hero whose contributions far outweigh his faults.