Debate erupts over movement of a monument to fallen soldiers
Included among these was a monument erected by the Japanese in 1935 commemorating the Japanese soldiers of the 20th Infantry Division who were killed during the Manchurian Incident in 1931. The monument’s cultural significance is in its status as a “negative cultural memory,” a title given to remnants like the Japanese Governor General Building that recall the era when Japan had colonial control over Korea.
Other cultural pieces taken out include a statue of Adm. Yi Sun-shin and a bronze plate inscribed with historic dates pertaining to the Yongsan Garrison’s modern architecture.
The monuments are considered significant because they are relics of modern Korean history, which includes the Japanese colonial period from 1910-45 and the Korean War from 1950-53. After the war, the U.S. military stationed itself in the Yongsan base in central Seoul and replaced the core monument to honor fallen soldiers of the U.S. Armed Forces. The new monument was relocated to the ROK/US Combined Forces Command building.
On a recent visit to the Yongsan Garrison, the foundation stones, base and pillars were nowhere to be found. The area was bereft of this significant monument, and the site had newly laid turf. “The pieces were moved to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek after an agreement was made with the Korean government,” an official from the U.S. Forces Korea said.
The JoongAng Sunday was able to confirm that removal of cultural properties from the Yongsan base began last October. It was around that time when the U.S. Army officially requested moving some of the cultural properties at the site. The move was authorized by the Cultural Heritage Administration.
“A group comprising members from the Ministry of National Defense and the Cultural Heritage Administration was formed and conducted a field study to see what could be taken out,” an official from the administration said. “The results were sent back to the Defense Ministry.”
Of the 68 requests, only 12 were denied, according to the Cultural Heritage Administration. The office refused to release the list of cultural pieces that were taken out or the names of people who conducted the field study.
Since then, the Cultural Heritage Administration has received backlash from academic circles for giving the green light to move many of Korea’s historic properties without conducting deeper studies with experts. Since the military site has been sealed off from civilians since 1906, no comprehensive field study has been done by Korean researchers.
“The Yongsan Garrison monument has the greatest significance as a piece of ‘negative cultural memory’ among all the cultural properties inside the area,” said Kim Cheon-su, head of history and cultural research at the Yongsan Cultural Center. “After the annexation, Koreans were forced to commemorate this piece and then forcibly conscripted to war. In this context, the monument is better suited at Yongsan.”
The green light given by the Cultural Heritage Administration highlights the discrepancies between the government and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which is pushing ahead with a plan to turn the Yongsan base into a public park. When American forces completely move out in 2019, the ministry has promised to conduct investigations on soil contamination there and inspect cultural properties for three years. After the results are finalized, artifacts assigned with greater cultural significance will be preserved in the park.
“This is the only place in the world where the history of the Japanese colonial era, the Cold War and the Korean War converge,” said Shin Ju-baek, a professor at the Institute for Korean Studies at Yonsei University. “Significance lies within Yongsan, not Pyeongtaek. The monument must be brought back here, where it was meant to be.”
BY KANG KI-HEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]