Political sins of the fathers still trouble Koreans

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Political sins of the fathers still trouble Koreans

Even in the 21st century, public figures in Korea are suffering for the political sins of their fathers and other relatives - even though it’s strictly forbidden by the Constitution.

The latest public figure to discover this is Lee In-ho, the 78-year-old professor emeritus of history at Seoul National University who has faced a firestorm since she was named chairwoman of the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) this month.

Lee has been faced with backlash because her paternal grandfather was pro-Japanese during colonial rule. She has been accused of having a biased historical viewpoint.

It’s not supposed to be this way. Such guilt by association, as it is commonly called in Korea, or punishment of family members of criminals, was forbidden in the 1894 Gabo Reform movement during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

In modern times, Koreans have suffered because their relatives were collaborators with the Japanese during the colonial period, or on the other side of the ideological spectrum, supported communism. A 1980 constitutional referendum did away with that social wrong.

Article 13, Clause 3, of the Korean Constitution now stipulates, “No citizen shall suffer unfavorable treatment on account of an act not of his own doing but committed by a relative.”

But old social evils die hard.

Lawmakers of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, KBS unionists and leftist civic groups held a press conference on Sept. 4 to protest Lee’s nomination.

They said that Lee’s grandfather, Lee Myeong-se (1893-1972), a Confucian businessman, was listed among the founders of the left-leaning Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, encouraging Koreans to participate in the Pacific War, a pro-Japanese act.

They called him a “pro-Japanese who was a founder of an organization that was created in order to mobilize Koreans into the Pacific War.”

Contacted by the JoongAng Ilbo by phone, Lee In-ho said, “What is important is leading KBS in a neutral manner, and it is not a personal situation. History speaks for itself.”

Lee served as Korea’s ambassador to Russia from 1998 to 2002, the first woman to be appointed as ambassador to a so-called top-four country. (The other three are the United States, Japan and China.) She also served on the KBS board of directors from 1988 to 1992.

“At the time of the amendment of the Constitution [in 1980], the clause was introduced to prevent discrimination against those who were pro-North rather than being pro-Japanese,” said Kim Chul-soo, a Seoul National University professor emeritus of constitutional law. “Bringing up someone’s grandfather’s past is not in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution, at a time when those arrested with Rep. Lee Seok-ki from the Unified Progressive Party for anti-government activities have been let off easier and released and were elected as National Assembly lawmakers again.”

Lee Seok-ki of the opposition UPP was convicted of treason in February for plotting to overthrow the government in the event of a war with North Korea. The conviction was reduced by an appeals court in August to discussing an armed rebellion.

“Chairperson Lee’s maternal grandfather, Lee Beom-se [1874-1940], and Lee Jung-ha [1846-1917], her maternal great-grandfather on the mother’s side, held high official positions during the late Joseon period,” ruling Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung said, “but refused to compromise with the Japanese and are figures who held their ground as Koreans.”

Ha added, “Just mentioning the paternal grandfather and ignoring the maternal side is vulgar behavior.”

As the struggle between conservatives and liberals intensifies, each side continues to label the other “pro-Japanese” or “pro-North.”

This is resulting in a type of 21st-century guilt by association.

Lee came into the public spotlight when she defended a church lecture by Moon Chang-geuk, a former prime minister nominee, in June.

The lecture, in which Moon said Japanese colonization of Korea and the division of the peninsula were gifts from God to make Koreans strong, was distorted to make Moon appear to be pro-Japanese and doomed his nomination.

Lee said, “If you look at candidate Moon’s speech as a whole, it makes no sense to call him pro-Japanese.”

Liberals also faced similar cases of guilt by association.

The late President Roh Moo-hyun was attacked during his presidential campaign in 2002 because of his father-in-law’s Communist past.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Kim Geun-tae, who served as the health and welfare minister in the Roh administration and as a senior adviser for the Democratic United Party, faced allegations during the 2004 general election that his brother defected to North Korea.

“Progressives who have been very critical of guilt by association engage in another type of guilt by association,” said Kang Won-taek, a political science professor at SNU. “We need to stop wasting national energy on this and get away from such outdated arguments.”

“We cannot choose our ancestors or birthplace,” said NPAD lawmaker Park Jie-won. “The issue is what sort of historical or nationalistic viewpoint the individual has at the current time.”

BY LEE KA-YOUNG, LEE YU-JEONG [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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