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[Lee Kyong-hee] A legendary hero’s return to divided homeland

He was a “flying general,” tactfully eluding and attacking Japanese forces. But to the men under his command, he was “Boss Hong,” a simple expression of their affection and respect for a commander who shared their toils and led them to victory.

Despite his remarkable role in armed resistance against Japanese colonizers from the late 19th to the early 20th century, Hong Beom-do became more of an enigma than a hero. The ideological chasm and power struggles between North and South Korea stifled postwar recognition of his leadership and military exploits.

In this regard, the return of Hong’s remains on Aug. 15 from Kazakhstan, where he died in 1943, two years before Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, was a historic as well as an emotional event. The long-debated transfer of the invincible general’s remains from the Central Asian country and his reburial at the national cemetery in Daejeon is a milestone in the turbulent modern and contemporary history of Korea in two major respects.

First, the two Koreas will have a heroic independence fighter to jointly memorialize without ideological baggage; second, Hong’s posthumous homecoming may help persuade the public and policymakers in the South to expand relations with the ethnic Korean communities in Central Asia and around the former Soviet Union. Also on hand is the improvement of the legal status and welfare of migrants from these communities who have resettled in their ancestral homeland.

In 1937, Hong was among the 171,781 Korean residents (36,422 households) in the Russian Far East who were forcibly relocated to uninhabited regions of Central Asia. The Stalin-led regime distrusted their ethnic and familial ties with the Japanese and suspected spy activities. Of the total deportees, 95,256 (20,170 households) settled in Kazakhstan and 76,525 (16,272 households) went to Uzbekistan.

Most of the deportees were rice farmers and fishermen and their families, ill-suited to the arid landscape of their new home. Malnutrition and exposure to the new environment killed about 40,000 of the deportees in 1937 and 1938. But after building irrigation systems and starting rice farms, they restored their previous standards of living after a few years.

Hong, who was in his 70s, spent his last years in Kyzylorda working as a guard for a Korean-run theater that staged a drama depicting his militia activity in 1942. He was well known and revered in the ethnic Korean communities around the former Soviet Union. Before he died, his final wish was to be buried in a liberated Korea.

Much of Hong’s career as commander of independence fighters was dramatic and dynamic, and so was his life story. He was born to a destitute farmer in Pyongyang in 1868. His mother died seven days after giving birth to him and at age 9, he lost his father. Through his childhood, Hong supported himself with menial jobs. For several years in his late teens, he served in the local army garrison as a bugler and also worked for a paper factory, where he endured incessant exploitation and discrimination. For a while he lived as a novice monk, but eventually he trained with firearms to become a hunter, earning fame around Hamgyong Province as the “Tiger of Mt. Paektu.”

Hong’s anti-Japanese military activities were interspersed with his life as a farmer and hunter, during which time he mostly devoted himself to training farmers as volunteer soldiers, raising funds for the anti-Japanese resistance and building networks with other independence fighters. He rose up in arms upon three prominent occasions: the assassination of Queen Min, the wife of King Gojong, by Japanese swordsmen in 1895; the disbandment of the Armed Forces of the Korean Empire under Japan’s pressure in 1907; and the March First Movement in 1919.

Hong mostly engaged in guerrilla attacks on Japanese forces and their headquarters, as well as on pro-Japanese collaborators. His military leadership culminated in two decisive victories in Manchuria: The Battle of Fengwudong (Bongo-dong in Korean) in June 1920 and the Battle of Qingshanli (Cheongsan-ri) in October of the same year.

These two battles, proudly remembered by the generations that followed, failed to lead to comparable victories after it. The independence fighters faced increasing difficulties in securing combat supplies, while threats from the Japanese forces intensified across Manchuria. Internal discord also erupted among independence fighters when the Soviets demanded their disarmament in return for security guarantees and Soviet support of the anti-Japanese resistance. This led to bloody confrontations among different groups of independence fighters in the Russian town of Svobodny, also known as Ziyou, in June 1921, where many lives were sacrificed.

Hong is known to have taken a neutral stand between the rival groups and exercised leniency when serving as a judge. From January to February 1922, he attended the First Congress of Toilers from the Far East, held in Moscow, as one of 56 representatives of Korean communities. In 1927, he joined the Workers’ and Pageants’ Red Army, hoping to muster assistance in fighting against Japan, which sided with the anti-Bolshevik White Army. But in the years that followed, he mainly engaged in collective farming in Ussuriysk.

Hong’s activities during these years in the Russian Far East and his life on a USSR government pension in Kazakhstan have been a contentious issue surrounding his ideological position. But it is hard to regard this man with single-minded devotion to the independence of his homeland as a die-hard communist. Rather, he tried to pursue Korea’s independence in ways available to him under the chaotic circumstances of the Russian Civil War and Japan’s infiltration.

The homecoming of Hong’s remains will be more significant if it helps remove the ideological prism that has distorted history and instigated unnecessary conflict in our society. It is time to shed outdated ideological prejudice and look back at historical facts with clearer minds. Then, who knows? It may not be so difficult to find clues to unraveling the current stalemate on the Korean Peninsula. 

Lee Kyong-hee 
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (