A twisted historical perspectiveThe speech on Aug. 15 by Kim Won-woong, president of the Heritage of Korean Independence (HKI), marking the 75th year of the country’s liberation from the Japanese colonial rule went too far. In a commemorative address, Kim criticized Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee for “collaborating with pro-Japan forces.” He even called Rhee’s name without his title as president. He said that only Korea had designated a song composed by a “national traitor” as its national anthem.
Syngman Rhee is Korea’s founding father who devoted his life to independence and served as the first president of Korea’s interim government in China during the colonial days. Opponents could find fault with his accommodation of some pro-Japanese figures in the process of safeguarding the country from North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s invasion in 1950. And yet Kim’s relentless attacks on Rhee for “collaborating with pro-Japanese forces” after liberation in 1945 do not make sense. We are embarrassed at his denial of our national anthem sung during the Korean War, Gwangju Democracy Movement and award ceremonies at the Olympics.
Kim went so far as to demand that “69 graves of pro-Japanese soldiers and national traitors in Seoul National Cemetery be dug up” and relocated to other places. The national cemetery is not only for independence fighters, but also for those who dedicated their lives to developing the nation. If someone’s cooperation with Japan is proven, they are strictly prohibited from burial in the cemetery.
The way some people behaved to survive in the colonial days could be seen as “cooperation” with Imperial Japan. But one can hardly stigmatize such moves for survival as being “pro-Japan.” Kim’s over-the-top remarks are suspected to have a political motive to divert deepening public anger at the government’s endless policy failures.
Another problem is that the Blue House largely ignored Kim’s speech. As President Moon Jae-in’s speech was preceded by Kim’s address, the presidential office must have been aware of what he would say. Yet the Blue House did not intervene, suggesting its concurrence with the address.
It is time to put the controversy over the pro-Japanese legacy behind us as Korea faces an urgent uphill battle to prepare for a second Cold War between the United States and China and for the fourth industrial revolution.
We should not forget history, but at the same time, we must not stuck with it. We must seriously wonder if such a provocative, biased and divisive person should continue serving as head of the HKI.