Hitting the red button: What side are you on?
Or so it would seem.
Supporters of the Dongguk University sociology professor are derided as pinkos. His opponents are branded right-wing Cold War warriors.
Mr. Kang began generating controversy in late July, when the Chosun Ilbo, a conservative newspaper, drew attention to Kang’s criticism of the U.S. for defending South Korea against North Korea’s attempt in 1950 to unify the country by force. The hullabaloo has engulfed society and impacted the highest levels of government. On October 16, the nation’s top prosecutor resigned in protest after the Minister of Justice sought to prevent Mr. Kang’s detention under the National Security Law.
In order to add some nuance to the black-and-white debate over Kang’s pronouncements, five associations of university professors met recently to discuss the issue. The three-hour meeting between historians, legal experts and professors of political studies revealed a more varied and neutral perspective on the issue compared to society at large.
“I didn’t know that Professor Kang was so influential among the media and the public on the national security issue,” said Han Hong-koo, a history professor at Sunggonghoe University, shaking his head.
“It should not be about whether you agree or disagree with his ideas. It’s a question of whether society has the generosity to view this as scholarly freedom,” Mr. Han said. “That’s what we should start thinking about.”
The discussion covered the various ways to study history (from the hypothetical to the purely investigative), how the Korean War is characterized (a purely civil war or something caused by foreign powers), how the media handles ideological issues (in an inflammatory way) and how the National Security Law affects the study of Korean history (politicizes it).
University professors clearly have much at stake when it comes to academic freedom. Their relatively neutral stance on Kang is reflected in recent surveys.
According to a poll by the Kyosu Shinmun, 42 percent of university professors thought that the Mr. Kang incident should be viewed as a purely academic matter, and 36 percent thought it was ridiculous for the issue to cause a nationwide controversy. The remaining 22 percent said Mr. Kang should be punished if found guilty of violating the National Security Law.
Meanwhile, Korean society is squarely against Mr. Kang. A recent JoongAng Ilbo survey found that 53 percent absolutely do not agree with Mr. Kang’s position on the Korean War, 35% disagreed somewhat, 9% agreed somewhat, 2% agreed very much, and 1% had no opinion.
University students, on the other hand, have a much more fair-weathered position on the controversy.
One month ago, Mr. Kang’s students at Dongguk University were bold enough to hold a press conference criticizing the media for making this an ideological issue. They also asserted that rather than punish Mr. Kang, the anti-communist National Security Law should be abolished. Choi Seong-hwa, president of the student government of Dongguk’s sociology department, even taunted prosecutors to arrest Mr. Kang’s students for not turning him in ― a violation of the National Security Law.
But their solidarity with Mr. Kang didn’t last long. When public opinion turned negative, many college seniors expressed fears that Dongguk graduates could face disadvantages in finding a job if they were viewed as pro-North Korea.
Even university presses, generally known for asserting radical ideas, stayed quiet over the issue. Student editors for English newspapers at Yonsei, Kyung Hee and Kookmin universities said they had no plans to run editorials because it was a sensitive matter.
“Aside from the fact that many students tend to be apolitical these days, a lot of students worry they will face disadvantages at job interviews if they take a clear stance on this matter,” said Im Hyo-jeong, a student editor of The Argus, the English-language newspaper at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
Student worries about job prospects appeared justified given a recent speech by Kim Sang-ryeol, vice president of the Korea Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Kim said he doubted whether a student who studied under Professor Kang would have a normal understanding of capitalist society and markets in order to adjust as a normal employee at a Korean corporation.
Meanwhile, ChungAng University cancelled a scheduled lecture by Professor Kang because it felt his teachings could offend many people.
As a sociology researcher, Mr. Kang has written about the Korean War and modern Korean history. Mr. Kang has continuously questioned whether the role of the United States had been beneficial to modern South Korea, while asserting that foreign powers may have hindered the country from developing its own nationality and culture.
In an Internet posting in July that sparked the current controversy, Mr. Kang described General Douglas MacArthur as a “warmonger” whose statue in Incheon should be removed.
In protest, 50,000 gathered in front of Seoul City Hall last week to demonstrate against Mr. Kang’s “pro-North” remarks. Among them was Bong Tae-hong, head of Jayu.net, a web site that deals with national security issues.
“Students are naive to think that this is a matter of freedom of speech,” said Mr. Bong. “Freedom of speech does not exempt someone from making obscene remarks in public. Similarly, Mr. Kang’s words are also punishable.”
Incautious professors and inglorious fates
Kang Jeong-koo is hardly the first professor to stir up a hornets’ nest of protest from conservative South Korean groups. Whether the occasional ideological showdowns are a witch hunt for pinkos or a legitimate defense of national security is always the heart of the debate. What’s clear is that the professors always lose.
Professor Seo Gwan-mo of Chungbuk National University published a treatise stating that Korean society developed because the middle classes had liberated themselves. Some critics said his idea was similar to North Korean ideology, and demanded Mr. Seo be investigated. He had to write an apology to calm the public and clearly show that his works were not benefiting North Korea.
Han Wan-sang, a professor who became Minister of Unification, permitted the repatriation to North Korea of Lee In-mo, a long-term political prisoner who refused to renounce his allegiance to the North. Critics accused the Blue House of having a pro-North Korean official. Mr. Han was quickly sacked.
Lee Jang-hie, a law professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, wrote a children’s book about the challenges of national reunification. The Monthly Chosun, a conservative magazine, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Lee, saying that he was distributing pro-North Korean ideology to young people. He was prohibited from leaving the country for three months during questioning.
Choi Jang-jip, head of the presidential commission of policy planning during the Kim Dae-jung administration, was forced to step down after his writings were highlighted by the conservative press. In his research, he wrote that the Korean War “was a historical decision by Kim Il-sung.” The Monthly Chuson characterized the phrase to mean “a great decision” and claimed that the administration was filled with leftists.
by Lee Min-a
More in Features
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?
A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages