Change Aegukga? Think again
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
During my student years, I learned that Pak Yung-hio (1861-1939), a politician from the Joseon Dynasty, created Taegukgi, the national flag of Korea. He created the flag in 1882 while aboard on a Japanese ship, the Meiji Maru, when he was dispatched to Japan as a diplomatic envoy. I was reminded of the episode when I viewed the ship, which was displayed as a cultural legacy on the campus of Tokyo University of Maritime Science and Technology.
Recently, scholars said the flag was first used when Joseon signed the Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation with the United States in 1882, a couple of months before Pak’s trip. After scholars’ research, a book carrying an illustration of the flag was discovered in the United States about two years ago.
I pay my respects to the historians who made the remarkable discovery and feel relieved. Had it had not been for them, we probably would be facing an argument that “we should discard the flag created by a pro-Japan collaborator and create a new one.”
Until several years ago, Pak was credited for creating the flag. He ended his life as a pro-Japan collaborator after receiving the title of nobility from Imperial Japan. Pak’s treason is well known, but no one argued that we must change Taegukgi. It was unimaginable to erase the flag in the hearts of the Korean people.
For the same reason, we must not change Aegukga, the national anthem. No matter who composed the song and wrote the lyrics, it has become part of the soul of the Korean people and their history.
“Someone shouted that he sees the coastline of Joseon. Everyone started singing Aegukga, but we could not finish the song. We ended up in tears,” Chang Chun-ha (1918-1975), an independence fighter, recorded in the airplane in which Kim Gu and other members of the Provisional Government in China were returning to Korea on in November 1945 — three months after Korea’s independence.
When Korea’s biggest chance at international success was winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games, the national anthem united the people, from the gold medalist to the audience watching on television. Along with Arirang, it was also the song that was sung the most by people fighting martial law troops in Gwangju during the May 1980 democratization movement. How can we replace Aegukga with another song? Whether we like it or not, it is our national anthem.
In a poll conducted in January 2019, 24.4 percent said Korea needs a new national anthem, while 58.8 percent disagreed. “Ahn Eak-tai, the composer of Aegukga, is suspected of collaborating with the Japanese colonial government and Nazi Germany,” the poll’s question said, overtly forcing the people to back the idea of a new national anthem. And yet, the outcome was different.
An attempt to replace the national anthem is not about punishing an individual’s collaboration with Japan. Instead, it is intended to deny the 75 years of Korea’s proud history. Heritage of Korean Independence Chairman Kim Won-woong had no hesitation to discard Aegukga in an event attended by President Moon Jae-in and broadcast live to the nation. His speech ended with a call that the “Republic of Korea should be liberated,” which reflects his brazen denial of the country’s history. It is a misleading perception that we are still living in the dark. The problem is that those who have such an unconventional view are increasingly raising their voices.
It is suspicious that a meticulously planned project to change Aegukga is ongoing. If this project is materialized, what will happen? We can find the answer in the case of Gwangju First High School, which changed its school song in November because it was composed and written by Japanese collaborators. The leftists, including the Korean Teachers & Educational Worker’s Union, have promoted a nationwide campaign to change school songs and particular efforts were put into the Gwangju First High School campaign. They said it was embarrassing for the school, which led the student movements against Japan, to sing a song by Japanese collaborators.
During the process, the alumni community was split. Those living in Seoul still sing the old song, because they cannot replace their memories of school years with anything else. “Which part of the song represents Japanese collaboration?” asked former Rep. Lee Young-ill, an alumnus. “Now that I come to think of it, it must have been a prelude to change Aegukga.”
Ironically, Lee is the one who recruited the Heritage of Korean Independence (HKI) head Kim and helped him on his political path.