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[Lee Kyong-hee] A dead truth seeker’s unfinished war

By Korea Herald Photo

Published : Dec. 22, 2022 - 05:40

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As 2022 draws to a close, I want to pay tribute to a man who devoted his entire life to correcting inaccuracies of modern history and thereby preventing a repeat of foreign territorial ambition on Korean soil.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the death of this self-taught bibliographer and historian, Lee Jong-hak. In remembrance, museums celebrated his life. With the impact of Russia’s territorial grab in Ukraine echoing around the world, the importance of Lee’s self-appointed mission has even louder resonance.

Before passing away, Lee vowed that “even as a handful of ashes, I will protect Dokdo, our territory.” As he wished, his remains are buried on the grounds of the Dokdo Museum, which stands on a mountain in Ulleungdo, an island in the East Sea, looking toward the beautiful rocky islets, Dokdo, 87.4 kilometers to the southeast. Lee served as the museum’s director from its founding in 1997 to 2001.

Korea’s first and only territorial museum, Dokdo Museum is the fruit of tripartite collaboration: The Ulleung County provided land; Samsung Foundation of Culture afforded construction; and Lee donated Dokdo-related historical documents and maps from his lifetime collection. The rocky islets couldn’t accommodate the museum, so it was built in Ulleungdo, the nearest viable site.

In March, the Dokdo Museum opened a special exhibition titled “Plowing through the Furrows of History,” a metaphor from Lee’s pen name, Sawoon (cultivating the field of history). The exhibition traced Lee’s entire life, including his tireless efforts at discovering, compiling and publishing historical materials, and his decisive role in establishing the museum.

Lee was a born book lover, but due to his family circumstances, he only completed elementary school in his native city of Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. When the Korean War broke out, he enlisted in the Air Force and after the war he opened a bookstore in Jongno, central Seoul.

In 1957, Lee moved his bookstore to the neighborhood of Yonsei University and began specializing in old books. He gained a reputation among antique book dealers for his diligence and generosity and that led to a pivotal encounter in the early 1970s. Seo In-dal, a famous bibliophile and educator, visited and offered to sell his entire collection of ancient books and documents.

Lee thus acquired a trove of valuable historical material, including Yi Sun-shin’s “War Diary” and Joseon-period scholars’ writings about the heroic admiral, describing his character and activities, which deeply impressed him. He read Yi’s diary over a hundred times and helped correct mistakes in its Korean editions. He also visited many places where the admiral is known to have stayed, collecting related historical materials.

In the process, Lee realized that Japanese imperialists had severely distorted Korean history. His devotion to the study of Adm. Yi and the Hideyoshi Invasions naturally led him to Korea and Japan’s conflicting territorial claims surrounding Dokdo and the East Sea; Japan’s illegal annexation of Korea; and unresolved territorial issues along the Korean-Chinese border, residue from Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea. The scope of his document collection expanded accordingly.

To effectively counter Japan’s erratic claims over Dokdo and the East Sea, Lee felt it was incumbent upon him to search for relevant Japanese historical sources and disclose them. He believed that when confronted by objective evidence of its own, Japan may admit the weakness of its territorial claims, and at least the world would know the truth. Beginning in the early 1980s, he rummaged through public archives, libraries and antique bookstores in Japan, making over 60 trips and earning the nickname “Mr. Takeshima.”

His solitary endeavor, tenacity and perseverance was not in vain. He obtained numerous invaluable pieces of evidence backing his judgment. “This is a war. I’m waging a silent war,” he said.

It is deplorable that the war still goes on; it even seems to escalate with Japan toughening its position, as expressed in its new National Security Strategy announced last week. In the key security document, the first update in nine years, Tokyo has certainly been emboldened to proclaim Dokdo as its “inherent territory,” so it will make “persevering diplomatic efforts based on the principle of peaceful resolution of conflicts in accordance with international law.”

Apart from worries about Japan’s “counterstrike” capability on enemies and radical defense buildup program possibly fanning regional tensions, effectively abandoning its post-World War II pacifist constitution, its position regarding Dokdo represents shameless impudence. It contradicts the border between Korea and Japan as marked in the “Map of the Three Adjoining Countries,” made by Hayashi Shihei, a Japanese military scholar, in 1785, among many other ancient Japanese sources collected by Lee.

Accompanying Hayashi’s book, “Illustrated Description of Three Countries,” the map has color-coding clarifying the respective territory of Japan, Korea and China. It shows Ulleungdo and Dokdo colored yellow, like the Korean mainland, under which Hayashi wrote “Korean possessions.” It also makes clear that Oki Islands, belonging to Shimane prefecture, were the northwestern boundary of Japan.

In 1992, while searching records on Japan’s clandestine incorporation of Dokdo into Shimane prefecture in 1905, Lee ran into a crucial document on the forcible procedure of Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910: “Chosen Governor-General’s Report on the Annexation of Korea from Beginning to End: With Attachment on Relations between the Annexation and the Military.” The report was written in the name of Terauchi Masatake, the first governor-general in Korea, to be perused by the emperor.

In 2004, Lee’s family donated some 20,000 items in his collection to Suwon city. The Suwon Gwanggyo Museum opened in 2014, with the Sawoon Lee Jong-hak Gallery. The museum’s exhibition honoring Lee, entitled “Modern Tourism, Opening Mount Geumgang,” presents books, paintings, photographs, tourist leaflets, postcards and travel accounts featuring the scenic mountain in North Korea, all from Lee’s collection and dating from the Joseon era to the colonial period. The exhibition ends on Jan. 1.

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.