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South Koreans Are Locked in a Battle Over Historical Interpretations

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The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

South Koreans Are Locked in a Battle Over Historical Interpretations

A recent debate over the legacy of independence struggles and anti-communism reveals a long-running ideological divide.

South Koreans Are Locked in a Battle Over Historical Interpretations

A company of Korean rebels photographed in 1907 by Frederick A. McKenzie.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the first historical figures South Korean kids learn about is Hong Beom-do (1868-1943), a fierce resistance fighter against the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Having been orphaned from early on, Hong led an erratically peripatetic life. One day, after quitting a Buddhist monastery, he bought a musket and ensconced himself in a deep valley, where he farmed and honed his shooting skills by hunting tigers and boars. Still, world affairs caught his attention. In 1895, Korea’s Empress Myeongseong, who was inching closer to Russia in an attempt to stem Japan’s ambition in Korea, was hacked to death by ronins in an attack orchestrated by a Japanese ambassador. Hong was then determined to train his musket on the Japanese occupiers.

Before and after Japan’s official annexation of Korea in 1910, Hong led an armed resistance against Imperial Japan. In 1920 in Manchuria, for instance, Hong’s forces wiped out one entire Japanese battalion with only a few casualties in Fengwudong and killed more than 1,200 Japanese soldiers in a matter of a few days in Qingshanli.

This hitherto venerated figure, however, has fallen into disgrace since late August, when South Korea’s Defense Ministry supported the Korea Military Academy (KMA)’s decision to remove his bust from its precinct. The ministry is also considering rebranding one of the navy’s submarines bearing his name. Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup labeled Hong’s later life as a “communist career,” and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) called him a “Bolshevik stalwart.” Meanwhile, KMA alumni insisted that cadets shouldn’t salute “the Soviet apparatchik.”

On the surface, the denigration derives from the decontextualization and misconstrual of Hong’s activities in the Soviet Union. In October 1920, humiliated by their defeats at the hands of ragtag independence fighters, the Japanese authorities dispatched several divisions into Manchuria and massacred thousands of Koreans. As they tightened the noose on Korean resistance fighters, the latter fled to Svobodny in the Soviet Union. The Red Army, however, demanded that they disarm, lest the presence of thousands of armed Korean men trigger a Japanese invasion.

Although incensed, Hong thought it best to abide by the Red Army’s order so that his men could settle and replenish their forces for future forays. Yet some factions refused to give up their arms, risking the future of armed resistance against Japan by alienating their Russian host. In June 1921, the Red Army, along with Hong’s men, neutralized those refusing to hand over their weapons, in the process of which around 600 Korean fighters died. The Defense Ministry now alleges this constitutes Hong’s “collaboration” with the Red Army in the murder of fellow Koreans.

But Hong wasn’t in the city at the time, and there are no records and testimonies indicating his involvement, let alone his direction. Rather, he reportedly flung himself to the ground and wailed upon arriving at the bloodied scene.

Hong put down his occupation as a militiaman in the Soviet Union’s dossier on him, which was translated into “partisan” in Russian, meaning a guerrilla fighting against an occupying force. Yet later on, the term took on a negative connotation in South Korea, where it was used to describe a Stalinist or a North Korean communist.

There’s more fodder for the Defense Ministry’s allegations against him. Hong received a gilded pistol from Vladimir Lenin in 1922 – though he didn’t ask for it. He participated in collective farming – to survive. He joined the Soviet Communist Party in 1927 – to receive a pension. Hong was merely trying to adapt to his new life as an exile and secure resources to raise independence fighters and awareness of their struggle.

Historians and journalists are livid at the administration’s wholesale dismissal of Hong as a communist, without any regard for the historical context of his actions.

On a deeper level, however, the scandal is part of the government’s broader attempt to shift the tenor of the South Korean military history to a narrative more palatable to Washington and Tokyo, while also advancing a security stance antithetical to authoritarian neighbors. In 2020, the Defense Ministry maintained that “Hong’s resolve and mettle reverberate through the Korean people … and inspire our future generations.” But its recent communique regarding Hong’s bust said that “commemorating Hong isn’t appropriate for the academy’s identity,” which was shaped by “our officers fighting against North Korean communists” and a wish “to honor Korean War heroes … and the significance of the South Korea-United States alliance.”

In this new narrative of bringing to the fore South Korea’s history of anti-communism, Hong’s birthplace (Pyongyang) and his slog through Manchuria (China) and Siberia (Russia) seems too reddish. Besides dragging off his bust and potentially erasing his name from a submarine, the Defense Ministry’s PR arm deleted from its website a video detailing his feats.

Busts of other independence fighters are also in the crosshairs – albeit not removed from the KMA, like Hong’s, only relocated. This suggests the ministry’s desire to sideline the legacy of armed resistance against Japan in favor of a new emphasis on the fight against communist forces. And thus Hong’s sidelining finds its inverse in the administration’s promotion of a revisionist view of Rhee Syngman, South Korea’s first president. Following three years of trusteeship under the U.S. military, Rhee would rule South Korea from 1948 to 1960.

Born into a fallen royal family and educated in the United States, Rhee was a hardcore anti-communist to the extent that he preferred a divided Korea to a unified one incorporating communists – and even liberals. Collaborators of Imperial Japan banded under Rhee’s banner of anti-communism as a means to preserve their prerogatives, taking up important positions in the government, military, police, and judiciary.

Efforts to weed them out kicked into gear in 1948 with the launch of a special committee by the constitutional assembly. In 1949, however, as the committee undermined the president’s henchmen and support base, Rhee had legislators upholding the committee arrested on trumped up charges of communism and personally ordered the police to storm and trash the committee office. The mandate for the committee fizzled out that year, solidifying his pro-Japan right-wing flank.

Rhee did more to mar South Korea’s incipient democracy. In 1952, realizing that he stood no chance at a second presidential term through parliamentary voting, he declared martial law. Rhee rounded up dozens of legislators opposed to his shenanigans and threatened to dismiss the parliament. He managed to amend the constitution and was re-elected under a direct election.

Then in 1954, he fielded candidates for midterm elections based on their fealty to him and barred opposition party candidates from registering. His lackeys in the police and the government employed coercion and terror to garner votes. Subsequently, Rhee passed an amendment scrapping the constitutional two-term limit on his presidency.

His regime resorted to assassination, police brutality, torture, and judicial travesty, the totalitarian nature of which was made possible by former collaborators converted to far-right anti-communists. In 1960, as his election-rigging became more blatant, nationwide protests led to his exile in Hawai’i. His requests for re-entry to South Korea were denied and he could only return in a coffin. To this day, the epithet “founding father” hardly appears alongside his name, and no memorial has been built in his commemoration.

Yet Rhee’s no longer a persona non grata under South Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol administration. During cabinet meetings, Yoon reportedly has complained that “Rhee is historically so underrated.” His close aides recall Yoon saying that “Rhee laid the cornerstone for the South Korea-U.S. alliance and our liberal democracy.” In this revisionist light, that Rhee secured the Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Seoul in 1953 and sieved the South Korean polity of the tiniest communist elements is his saving grace. The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs is now spearheading the construction of Rhee’s memorial.

Burying Hong and exalting Rhee reflects the government’s two-pronged approach to promoting the so-called New Right. This historico-political movement casts the Japanese occupation of Korea in a benign light of colonial modernity. Its 2008 textbook narrated that South Korea owes its foundation to “lessons of modern civilization during the colonial time … and the United States.” The New Right’s overarching argument is that South Korea’s liberal democracy budded from “competence accumulated during Japan’s colonization that triumphed over ideological confrontations with North Korea.” Proponents of this view admit that the faults of the Japanese occupation and collaborators are many but that their unflinching antipathy to communism paved the way for South Korea’s liberal democracy. 

Therefore, they tend to disparage anti-imperial resistance fighters as communists resisting progress. And the New Right traces the essence of South Korea’s armed forces to the military personnel, nostalgic for colonial rule, that served as Rhee’s muscle during and after the Korean War, not to the independence fighters. In a similar vein in 2007, the PPP tried and failed to change South Korea’s Independence Day (August 15, 1945) to National Foundation Day (August 15, 1948). In 2011, the New Right followers built a monument and statue of two generals who cracked down on fellow Koreans as colonial collaborators but later contributed to the Korean War effort. And then in 2016, former President Park Geun-hye tried to standardize all history textbooks according to the government-tailored narrative that downplayed colonial collaboration and Rhee’s sketchy dealings.

Today, Hong’s detractors within the government are Rhee’s advocates. Yoon has appointed the New Right personnel to positions handling national security, inter-Korean relations, and historical interpretations. 

There’s a linear line threading Rhee, his hostility to communism, and his unalloyed belief in the South Korea-U.S. alliance all the way to the Yoon administration’s security alignment and geopolitical calculations. Erasing the footsteps of independence fighters from the bedrock of the South Korean armed forces makes the government’s military cooperation with Japan easier to digest. Following in Rhee’s footsteps – considering anti-Washington sentiments to be communist sedition and overlooking Japan’s colonial atrocities –jives better with the current trilateral cooperation among Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.

In March, Yoon exhorted South Koreans to move on from the colonial past and look to a brighter future. That Yoon doesn’t press the issues of comfort women and forced labor in conversations with Japanese leaders precisely reflects Rhee’s and the New Right’s vision that anti-communism – or anti-authoritarianism in today’s global arena – justifies historical wrongs. In that light, it’s best to usher out the elephant in the room, Hong’s bust.

A victim of Stalin’s deportation policy, Hong lived out his life on the steppes of Kazakhstan. Just like Rhee, he returned to his homeland in a coffin – which was transported back to Korea in 2021 on an air force plane. History is turbulent, and its vicissitudes keep turning even in graveyards. The fact that these stories continue to be disputed demonstrate how far South Korea is from closing its political chasm.