[OUTLOOK]Hero-making and witch-hunts

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[OUTLOOK]Hero-making and witch-hunts

The manipulation of symbols is one of the most useful political tactics. In the world of politics, each political power reinterprets historic figures and events and exploits them to attain its political goals. It sometimes results in the invention of a hero through glorification, or a witch hunt through demotion. If constructing the statue of General Douglas MacArthur in the past had been an act symbolic of inventing a hero, the recent attempt to remove the statue is an act symbolic of a witch hunt.
In history, there have been many similar acts of manipulating symbols. Professor Park Ji-hyang illustrated in his book “Inventing Heroes,” that Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Mussolini and Bismarck had all been national heroes invented by modern nation states in times of need.
According to the book, “Making Heroes of Public Autocracy,” which Professor Gwon Hyeong-jin compiled, Lei Feng, the “good soldier” of Chairman Mao Zedong; Kil Hwak-sil, whom late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had called the “eternal Chollima,” the legendary horse which runs 1,000 li (2,500 miles) a day; and Aleksei Stakhanov, the socialist working-class hero of the Soviet Union, were heroes invented by the autocratic regimes in order to effectively manipulate the public.
In the field of hero-making, the Korean Peninsula does not fail to do its part. During the era of former President Park Chung Hee, Admiral Yi Sun-shin was admired as a symbol of loyalty, bravery and patriotism, and Lee Seung-bok became the symbol of anti-communism as the courageous boy who resisted communist atrocities. Though it was not mentioned in these books, the most notorious of all artificial heroes is the idolization of Kim Il Sung in North Korea. Mr. Kim had himself deified, and this legacy is continued by his son, Kim Jong-il.
The flipside to hero-making is the witch hunt. The witch hunt was a governing tactic often used by Catholics in medieval Europe in order to prevent the spread of heretical religions and to protect the Roman church’s authority. However, the witch hunt did not stop in modern times. The target of Adolf Hitler’s witch hunt were Jews, and McCarthyism, an anti-communist hysteria and witch hunt, was prevalent in the United States in the early 1950s.
Similar witch hunts were rampant in the Korean Peninsula. The South preyed on Kim Il Sung and the North Korean communism while the North enjoyed witch hunts against “Imperial America” and its minion, the elite class of the South. The burning of an effigy of Kim Il Sung or a North Korean flag at anti-communist rallies and the burning of an effigy of the president of the United States or the Stars and Stripes at anti-American protests are not too different from the medieval practice of burning witches at the stake, at least in terms of symbolism.
Hero-making and witch hunts are governing tactics often used by rulers regardless of age and place. However, the more modern a country is, and the more democratic its politics are, the less often such tactics are exploited. Aside from McCarthyism in the United States, most cases of hero-making or witch hunts happened under “public autocracy.” Then how should we interpret the phenomenon of unusually frequent witch hunts in the Roh Moo-hyun Administration, which claims to be the most democratic government of all?
In the current administration, the target of witch hunts keeps changing. It began with the “five enemies” of the Gangnam region, Seoul National University, the judiciary, the three major newspapers; the Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-a Ilbo, and Samsung Group, and then those who had collaborated with imperial Japan during the occupation period were condemned.
Today, the witch hunt is aimed at the statue of General MacArthur. To make things clear, I want to affirm that I have no intention of defending these groups. If any of them had rendered a distinguished service, they would deserve recognition, and if any had faults, they would be held accountable. Therefore, I do not intend to criticize the process of asking for responsibility for wrongdoing in the name of reform.
However, I would like to point out that the method resembles the provocative kinds of witch hunts that are based on public agitation. I don’t understand why a task that can be done without using humiliation or hostile language has to be pursued like a witch hunt.
I am more concerned about what would be the ultimate goal of such witch hunts. Let’s consider the case of the statue of General MacArthur. He might not have been a hero, but there is no reason for him to suddenly become a target of a witch hunt. But this group still picked General MacArthur as its new prey, even though it is obvious that the statue of General MacArthur is not the ultimate goal of the hunt. The statue is merely one of the selected sacrifices in the group’s journey toward anti-American self-reliance. Until the day its ultimate goal is attained, it will continue to invent targets for witch hunts.
Creating heroes and hunting for witches are both based on a paralysis of reason and mass hysteria. Korean politics needs to escape from such curses. If not, only dark clouds are gathering in the future of this country.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Il-young
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