Blunt anti-Japanese remarks by Kim Won-woong, head of the Heritage of Korean Independence, are fanning split in public sentiment about history issues.
His words, which are close to sophistry, infuriate most members of the public, but the ruling Democratic Party of Korea chimes in with him.
In an address to mark the 75th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) on Aug. 15, he said that Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) colluded with those who had collaborated with Japanese colonial occupiers.” He called Ahn Eak-tai (1906-1965), who composed “Aegukga,” the national anthem of South Korea, “a traitor to the Korean people.”
Rhee is undoubtedly South Korea’s first president, but Kim criticized Rhee without mentioning the title. He effectively denigrated the root and legitimacy of the South Korean government.
“Aegukga” was sung proudly by independence fighters, but the head of the group honoring them stigmatized it as a pro-Japanese song to be condemned. His criticism of the song shows that an anti-Japanese instigation taken too far can be self-destructive and self-contradictory.
Citing minor facts, Kim labeled South Korea’s first president and the composer of the national anthem pro-Japanese and anti-nationalist. He noted that Rhee did not punish collaborators with Japanese colonial rulers, but ignored circumstances when Rhee could not help doing so.
Kim took issue with Ahn conducting a concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Manchuria Empire (1932-1945), a puppet state of Japan in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia. It is far-fetched to brand Ahn as a traitor for such reason. At that time, Japan ruled Korea.
Kim, arguing 69 pro-Japanese figures were buried in the national cemetery, called for removal of their graves.
President Moon Jae-in, after attending the ceremony where Kim made the speech, kept silent for three days before Cheong Wa Dae said Tuesday that it has nothing to do with Kim’s speech, without expressing any position. This gives the impression that Moon views Kim’s words as unobjectionable.
In a radio program on Aug. 17, Kim repeated his harsh criticism of Rhee, arguing he pandered to American interests. This is absurd.
When the US planned to get Japan to take part in the Korean War (1950-1953), Rhee vowed to drive out Japanese troops first if they set foot on Korea. Eventually, the US scrapped the plan. He also released a large number of anti-North Korean prisoners of war suddenly. Infuriated at the move, the US considered ousting him.
South Korea’s leftists, sympathetic to North Korea, tend to deny Rhee as its founding father. Probably that is because Rhee was thoroughly anti-Communist.
Kim defamed the late General Paik Sun-yup, a Korean War hero. He said that “Paik’s unit could march forward after US forces killed all of the North Korean enemies in the Dabudong battle by firing their artillery at them. This was untrue. Despite being far outnumbered by North Korean soldiers in the battle, Paiks’ division fended them off in the southeastern region for about a month until US-led UN forces arrived in Korea. The triumph in the battle prevented the North from taking over the South and turned the tide of the war. If the North won the battle, it might be ruling South Korea by now. US forces appreciate the victory in the battle highly.
Kim’s words insult independence patriots and their descendants. Nevertheless, the ruling party sided with him.
“In the capacity of head of the Heritage of Korean Independence, Kim can speak out his critical mind to that extent,” said Lee Nak-yon, a ruling party lawmaker in an election race to be its leader. Several lawmakers of the party already proposed a bill to remove graves of pro-Japanese figures out of the national cemetery.
The party’s reliance on anti-Japanese sentiment is nothing new. Recently public support for it plunged due to policy failures. When approval ratings slid, it often aroused anti-Japanese sentiment to rally their supporters. Political interpretation of history and an incendiary nationalism drain national power and deserve condemnation.
The Heritage of Korean Independence is a group to reward bereaved families and descendants of independence fighters. It signifies Korea’s independence movement and the legitimacy of its government.
Given his divisive and biased remarks, his eligibility to head the group is doubtful.