Gwangju Metropolitan City is constructing a park at the cost of 4.8 billion won ($3.61 million) to honor Jeong Yul-seong, who composed a song for the People’s Liberation Army of China and a marching song for the North Korean People’s Army.
Jeong, a Gwangju native, received a hero’s welcome in both China and North Korea. He entered a Korean independence fighter training academy in Nanjing, China, and later joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1939. After Korea gained independence in 1945, he crossed into North Korea and participated in the Korean War (1950-1953) as a soldier of the Chinese army that entered the war to fight alongside North Korea. He was naturalized as a Chinese citizen in 1956 and died as a Chinese national in 1976.
The previous Moon Jae-in administration and Gwangju praised him. Hwasun-gun in South Jeolla Province restored his hometown house in 2019 at the expense of 1.2 billion won and displayed a photograph of him in the house. Its caption reads, "a precious picture of Jeong Yul-seong taken in the days when China resisted the US to help North Korea during the Korean War.” The word "resist" that China uses when it refers to its participation in the war implies the US was the attacker and the North the victim. This is a reversal of historical facts.
As Gwangju’s recent announcement of a project to build “Jeong Yul-seong history park” stirred up controversy, other lesser-known monuments honoring him belatedly came to light as well. They are a large portrait of him on the outer wall of an elementary school in Hwasun that he attended, the officially designated Jeong Yul-seong Road and his bronze statue at the entrance of the road.
Gwangju Mayor Kang Gi-jung, who served Moon as senior secretary for political affairs, posted on Facebook: “Gwangju neither treats Jeong as a hero nor disparages him. He is an outstanding musician and his life reflects the agony of the age.” This is sophistry. If the road, the statue, the mural and the park do not memorialize him as a hero, then what else are they? By Kang’s logic, Lee Wan-yong, a pro-Japanese traitor who is also known for his superb calligraphy, could be praised for artistic value.
Kang also said that “thanks to his achievements, many Chinese tourists visit Gwangju.” Attracting Chinese sightseers cannot be more important than the South Korean identity of liberal democracy. It is hard to understand that in the eyes of the Gwangju mayor it looks like an achievement to compose songs for the Chinese and North Korean armies that killed South Korean and UN troops.
Kim O-bok, mother of Marine Staff Sgt. Seo Jeong-woo, a Gwangju native who died in North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeongdo of South Korea in 2010, said that “the park project makes families of veterans shed tears of blood and flare up in anger.” It would be terrible to see an enemy that killed beloved ones eulogized. She sent a message to Kang, demanding that he scrap the project immediately, but her demand is said to have been rejected.
A group of intellectuals based in the Jeolla provinces has criticized the creation of the Jeong Yul-seong commemoration park. Many other Gwangju residents might agree with them.
Jeong is a figure who participated in the war as a Chinese soldier to encourage front-line forces to kill South Korean troops. Praising him is an affront to numerous South Korean and UN soldiers who fought to defend South Korea. No country in the world would spend government funds praising its enemy.
Memorializing Jeong is not different from treating South Korea with hostility. Spending government funds to commemorate him is like fooling the nation. Gwangju must stop building the park and also change the name of the road honoring him. The large mural at the elementary school must be removed. If Kang wants to praise him, he should do it privately. It is not Jeong but those who died to protect the country whom people should remember.