Distorting history againGyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, a frontrunner among candidates for president from the ruling Democratic Party (DP), made bombshell remarks last week. In a trip to Andong, North Gyeongsang, his hometown, Lee said, “Pro-Japanese forces maintained their ruling system in collaboration with the U.S. occupation force in Korea after its liberation from Japanese rule.” His portrayal of South Korea as a country that “could not be founded in a clean way from the start” has stirred much controversy after Kim Won-wung, chairman of the Heritage of Korean Independence, called the American forces an “occupation force” and the Soviet forces a “liberation force” in a virtual speech to high school students earlier. Even after his comment triggered a sensation, Gov. Lee claimed that the U.S. forces defined themselves as an “occupying force,” urging his opponents to first reflect on their “lack of knowledge about history.”
The historical perspectives Lee has demonstrated are very inappropriate — and dangerous — for a presidential hopeful. His distorted view of history seems to have originated from the now-defunct theory widely shared by democracy activists in the past. But Lee’s views are wrong. While the Soviet military government established a Communist regime led by its puppet Kim Il Sung in North Korea, a divergent mix of the anti-Communist faction, the nationalist faction and the socialist faction fiercely competed with one another under the rule of the U.S. military government in South Korea.
Lee’s claim that South Korea was ruled by pro-Japanese forces after liberation is also misleading. The heads of the three branches of the government were all independence fighters. Our founding president Syngman Rhee and Shin Ik-hee, the founding speaker of the National Assembly, both fought against Japanese rule as top officials of the Provisional Government in China. Our first Chief Justice Kim Byung-ro also served as chairman of an influential anti-Japanese group. Ministers of the first government led by Syngman Rhee also were mostly independence fighters.
Professor Choi Jin-seok of Sogang University, an authority on Chinese philosophy, lamented such twisted views of our modern history. “It was fortunate that we received help from the United States, not the Soviet Union, when we desperately needed it,” he said. “We must stop ridiculing and shaming ourselves while helping justify the legitimacy of the North Korean regime.”
Nevertheless, the ruling front repeats such ludicrous arguments for political reasons, as seen in the Moon Jae-in administration’s persistent dividing of people into friends and foes to reap political gains. Those in power tend to manipulate historical facts and encourage people to take their sides. Yet the Blue House keeps mum about such irresponsible remarks from the liberal camp.
The disputes over history have escalated into the political realm. Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor general and frontrunner in polls among conservative presidential hopefuls in the next election, refuted their arguments, asking whom they really represent and what direction they really want to lead the country in. It is a tragedy for political leaders to still fight over the past even eight decades after liberation.