President Yoon Suk Yeol’s Liberation Day speech on Aug. 15 set himself apart from his predecessors. He did not mention Japan’s brutal 35-year colonial rule, from which the nation was freed on the day 78 years ago. Instead, Yoon bore hatred toward his perceived enemies at home, calling them “anti-state forces.”
“The forces of communist totalitarianism have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists while engaging in despicable and unethical tactics and false propaganda,” Yoon said. “We must never succumb to the forces of communist totalitarianism.”
Yoon not only echoed the 1950s and 1960s, when officials used suggestions of communist sympathy to silence and imprison detractors, he later seemed to double down by using Korean independence fighters -- national heroes -- to validate his views. Less than two weeks later, his words metastasized into action.
The Ministry of National Defense announced that it would relocate the bust of independence activist Hong Beom-do from the front lawn of the Korea Military Academy, along with those of four other leaders of anti-Japan armed resistance. In addition, Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup revealed the likelihood of renaming a navy submarine that had been named after Hong, who successfully commanded civilians against Japanese imperial troops.
Faced with widespread public outrage, the Korea Military Academy revised its plan, saying the Hong bust would be removed, but the busts of the four other independence fighters would be relocated at a park to be built on the academy grounds. The academy attributed the removal of Hong’s bust to his membership in the Soviet Communist Party, starting in 1927, and his alleged activity related to confrontations among different groups of Korean independence fighters in Russia.
The academy said the presence of Hong’s bust conflicted with its tradition and identity as an educational institution that trains cadets to become army officers. Although the academy said Hong’s bust would be relocated at an appropriate place that would recognize his fight for Korean independence, the loud public outcry suggests that most Koreans are dissatisfied.
The furor is yet another self-inflicted controversy by President Yoon and his administration, which is still struggling to gain a firm foothold 15 months into its term. Bipartisan dialogue is acutely needed to address pressing domestic and international issues. Instead, the deep ideological chasms in Korean society regarding the nation’s modern and contemporary history are being widened.
Why now? The timing surely blends into Yoon’s vigorous attempt to mend fences with Japan in response to Washington’s longstanding desire for a trilateral alliance. Throughout his tenure, Yoon has sidestepped appropriate moments to recall Japan’s colonial and wartime treatment of Koreans. His efforts have not gained broad consensus at home. Instead, Yoon is widely accused of being overly pro-Japanese, even bordering on the “new right” historical revisionism.
No doubt the overtures to Japan are directly related to how Yoon wants the Korean independence movement to be perceived and how he wants the colonial-period history to be remembered. Whitewashing the Korea Military Academy obviously fits the agenda. The academy’s early history is tainted by the pro-Japanese legacies of its founding members who turned into stalwart anti-communists.
The busts can represent a symbolic expansion of the academy’s historical horizon, as asserted by Lee Jong-chan, president of the Heritage of Korean Independence, a state-sponsored association of independence fighters and their descendants. This is the very point where historical knowledge and insight matters in understanding the cause of the controversy.
Much of Hong Beom-do’s life story and career was dramatic and dynamic but also interlaced with tragic episodes. The dispute surrounding his bust recalls the relocation of Korean residents in the Russian Far East to Central Asia in 1937 under orders by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. He was among the 171,781 ethnic Koreans who were forcibly deported to the uninhabited areas of today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Born to a destitute farmhand in Pyongyang in 1868, Hong was orphaned at a young age. He supported himself with menial jobs, before training with firearms to become a hunter. For his excellent shooting skills and agility in movement, he earned fame as the “Tiger of Mt. Paektu.” His anti-Japanese military activities, mostly engaging in guerilla attacks on Japanese forces, were interspersed with his life as a farmer and hunter. His military leadership culminated in two legendary victories in Manchuria in 1920: The Battle of Fengwudong and the Battle of Qingshanli.
To understand how the accusations of the heroic commander for his alleged communist activities are overblown, one needs to remember the history of Korean armed struggles against Japanese colonialism in Manchuria in the early 20th century. The independence fighters had to move further northward to the Russian Far East and the Soviets demanded their weapons in return for security guarantees and support for continued resistance. Afterward, the Koreans joined the Workers’ and Pageants’ Red Army with hopes to muster assistance to fight against Japan, which sided with the anti-Bolshevik White Army.
Thus, the linkage between independence fighters and communism is more nuanced than the Yoon administration wants to acknowledge. Joining the Red Army meant a path to fight the Japanese occupation, not the first step to being a die-hard communist.
Hong died in 1943 in Kyzylorda, Kazakhstan, where he spent his last years as a guard of a Korean-run theater. In 2021, respecting his wishes to be buried in a liberated homeland, his remains were brought to Korea and re-interred at the national cemetery in Daejeon.
Yoon should allow Hong’s statue to stay at least with those of his fellow freedom fighters. By doing so, he could move a step closer to repairing relations with the opposition. He could also avoid leaving grievances in the hearts of ethnic Koreans in Kazakhstan who respect Hong as their spiritual pillar.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.