[Viewpoint] No sinner for all time

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[Viewpoint] No sinner for all time

A couple nearing the ripe old age of 80 has lived a life of obsessive frugality. At the market, their hands go for the flawed potatoes and cucumbers to save a few cents. While others paid 100,000 won ($85) at the checkout counter, their basket rarely exceeded 20,000 won. A decade ago, they decided to celebrate their 70th birthdays in a meaningful way by using their savings to help others. They chose the Korea Military Academy, the husband’s alma mater. For the last 10 years, they have donated 5 million won to the school every year.

With the husband’s 80th birthday coming up, the couple made another bold decision. They decided to sell a shop in southern Seoul that generates a monthly rental income of 1.5 million won. They handed over the ownership contract to the military academy last year with the request that the shop’s revenues be used for scholarship for poor students. This is the real story of retired Gen. Pyon Dong-soo and his wife Park Soo-ae.

Park said her husband could not have afforded a higher education had the military academy not accepted him. They made the donations to show their gratitude.

Once cadets graduate from the academy, they are allocated to platoons. Platoon commanders are the men Korean recruits mostly come in contact with during their military service. Fostering excellent platoon leaders can, in the end, serve the country’s future, Park said.

When North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950, one school sent 453 of its young students, or four out of 10, to the battlefield. Of them, 32 never returned home. That school is the alma mater of Lt. Kang Jae-koo, who threw himself on top of a grenade that one of his subordinates accidently dropped to protect his troops ahead of their dispatch to the Vietnam War in 1965. The school erected a memorial in 2010 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. The institution, Seoul High School, pledged donations to the military academy attended by Kang, the alumnus who made it so proud.

Retired Gen. Pyon Dong-soo and his wife and representatives of Seoul High School were among the guests at a fund-raising event at the academy that recently gained attention due to a photo showing former President Chun Doo Hwan returning a salute from the cadets. It was an event celebrating the academy’s donations reaching the 20 billion won mark in the 19 years it’s been accepting them. Chun, who graduated from the military academy and went on to accomplish a coup d’etat with some of his schoolmates, accompanied his wife to the event, which had an audience of 400.

After the photo got out, the celebration was hyped as a tribute to Chun and his wife. They occupyied front-row seats, and Chun stood up to return a salute from a parade of cadets. Opposition politicians cried murder since Chun has been tried for the Gwangju civilian massacre and his coup d-état. The military academy was disparaged and cadets were questioned on their historic and national views. Other guests like the aged couple and the representatives of Seoul High School were hardly noticed.

Chun’s public appearance — standing tall to return salutes — was indeed an eyesore. It reminded everyone of his oppressive military regime. But let’s be sensible. Regardless of his pardoned crimes, Chun deserves some respect as a former president. He is regularly invited to presidential inauguration ceremonies. He was invited by President Kim Dae-jung to the presidential residence a dozen times. Chun visited the ailing President Kim in the hospital and thanked him for his hospitality to former presidents. President Roh Moo-hyun asked for his advice during the North Korean nuclear crisis.

How can one show vitriol toward a president when our heads of state chose to meet him and take his advice? It is not the first time Chun has received a gracious welcome in public. He cannot be commanded to live in self-exile forever. We need not hit the ceiling every time he makes a public appearance.

If he does any wrong, of course, he should be scorned for his deed. But it is madness to assume anyone who comes in contact with Chun approves of a military regime, past or in the future. That is also a rude underestimation of the young generation. One Seoul High School representative received a text message from one of the academy’s alumni thanking the school, with a vow to repay its generosity by staunchly defending his country. This is the genuine feeling of the academy’s cadets.

Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ko Jung-ae
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