A betrayer? Think again

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A betrayer? Think again

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The country is split once again. Last year, public sentiment was divided over the controversy surrounding President Moon Jae-in’s appointment of Cho Kuk as the justice minister despite his corruption allegations. This time, the people are split over the deaths of the Korean War hero Gen. Paik Sun-yup and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon. The controversy is over how to pay respect to the deceased and what kind of a funeral ceremony they deserve.
The controversy is unavoidable for Park, who committed suicide — though it is unclear if his choice was an expression of atonement to the alleged victim of his sexual harassment or just an attempt to avoid an investigation. But the case of General Paik is different. Korea had enough time to reach a social consensus on how to bid farewell to Paik. Yet controversy continues.
There is no need to revisit the merits of General Paik, who saved the country during the Korean War. It is also undeniable that there were some less worthy moments. Are we fairly evaluating his merits and demerits based on facts? The people who are concentrating on his flaws are often underestimating or ignoring his merits.
Gen. Paik earned himself a label that he was a pro-Japan collaborator who defeated our independence fighters. After his death was reported, many comments in cyberspace communities are repeating the same label.
The logic behind the label is simple. First, Paik had served the Gando Special Force, an independent unit within the Manchukuo Imperial Army tasked with suppressing anti-Japanese and anti-Manchukuo groups. Second, the Gando Special Force killed independence fighters. Third, Paik is therefore a Japanese collaborator, according to the critics’ logic.
General Paik Sun-yup (1920-2020).

General Paik Sun-yup (1920-2020).

But Korea’s independence fighters — the armed nationalists that we often remember — had left Manchuria in the 1920s for inland China. The anti-Japan fighters in Manchuria during the 1930s were mainly the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army supervised by China’s Communist Party.
For two and a half years beginning in 1939, Japan mobilized the Kwantung Army and Manchukuo Imperial Army to suppress the anti-Japan forces. The Gando Special Force also was mobilized to join the operation.
As a second lieutenant, Paik was assigned to the Gando Special Force in February 1943 — three years after the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army was defeated and its Korean members, including Kim Il Sung, had already escaped to the Soviet Union in 1940. In his memoir, Paik wrote that he had only participated in patrol missions and there was no combat engagement.
In his interview with the JoongAng Ilbo in 2009, he said, “I never had a target in front of my eyes, so I just collected information or participated in pacification activity toward civilians.”
The Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaboration for Japanese Imperialism’s 2009 report or other research materials also had no specific case that Paik had suppressed Korea’s independence fighters. Therefore, it is unfair to hold Paik, who joined the Gando Special Force in 1943, accountable for everything that the unit had done since its establishment in 1938 and criticize him for having suppressed independence fighters.
But we cannot deny that Paik had joined a Japanese military academy in Manchuria and became a member of the Imperial Army. If he had joined the military earlier, he could have been mobilized to participate in the campaign against the anti-Japan troops and fought against the Koreans.
Paik, born in 1920, spent his youth in a colonized Korea. We cannot hold all the people who were born during colonial period (1910-45) became public servants teachers or workers of Japan’s many war criminal companies as Japanese collaborators.
There is no need to praise Gen. Paik’s grand accomplishments in the Korean War after liberation. Merits and demerits should be weighed on the scale of history —and measured without errors.
For Paik, we already have the answer.
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