What They Said is a regular series on the quotes Korea is talking about.
There are many difficult topics in modern Korean history, from the issue of Japanese military sex slaves, euphemistically known as “comfort women”, to South Korea’s conduct in the Vietnam War. But interestingly, the most recent public debate was sparked by something that didn’t seem like it should be particularly contentious.
On July 1, while on a visit to his hometown of Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, Lee Jae-myung, the incumbent governor of Gyeonggi Province, announced his candidacy for the presidency of the Republic of Korea. Speaking at the Yi Yuksa Museum in Andong, he said:
“The Republic of Korea went through a slightly different stage of government establishment than other countries, where it failed to reconcile with the legacy of pro-Japanese collaboration, and the people who had collaborated with Japan worked together with the occupying US forces to maintain the governing regime. The country did not get off to a clean start, and the poet Yi Yuksa also passed away in prison while fighting for Korea’s independence. I have to question whether we have made adequate historical assessment or accorded due respect or compensation regarding that point, and in that sense I would like for us to start anew, for us to renew this country…”
— Lee Jae-myung, Governor of Gyeonggi Province, July 1, 2021.
His remarks attracted the attention of Chosun Ilbo, one of the conservative Korean newspapers, as well as people from the opposition party, who immediately accused Lee of having a skewed perception of modern Korean history.
On the same day, Yoo Seong-min, one of the top presidential candidates from the opposition party, posted on his Facebook page:
“The Republic of Korea had a great beginning.
In Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, Governor Lee Jae-myung said, ‘The Republic of Korea was governed by pro-Japanese forces in collaboration with the US occupying forces, the country did not get off to a clean start.’
Governor Lee’s perception of history, in which he denies the beginning of the Republic of Korea, is very shocking.
If President Syngman Rhee, who took part in the independence movement, is pro-Japanese, and if the United States, who shed blood alongside the Korean military to safeguard the Republic of Korea, is an occupying force, then does he mean to say that the Republic of Korea is a country that has been ruled by the US and Japan?
Where have the blood and sweat gone of our ancestors who made today’s Republic of Korea possible?
The president of the Heritage of Korean Independence, who lectured high school students about how the ‘US military were the occupying forces, and the Soviet army were liberating forces,’ and Governor Lee are the same kind of people.
I would like to hear whether Governor Lee plans to drive out the ‘occupying US Forces Korea’ if he becomes president.
How can we entrust our country to someone with such a twisted perception of history that he thinks the Republic of Korea did not get off to a clean start?”
— Yoo Seong-min, former National Assembly member, July 2, 2021.
According to JoongAng Ilbo, Kim Won-woong, the chairman of the Heritage of Korean Independence had said in a video lecture to high school students of YangjuBaekseok High School:
“The Korean Peninsula was divided into north and south, with the Soviet military going into North Korea and the US military into South Korea. On entering North Korea, the Soviet troops put up declarations everywhere, saying ‘Congratulations to Korea for regaining independence and freedom,’ ‘The fate of the Korean people going forward is up to the Koreans,’ ‘Hoorah for Korean liberation.’ Around the same time, the US military occupied South Korea. As they did so, General MacArthur wrote, ‘We are not liberating forces but occupying ones,’ ‘Koreans must do as I say from now on,’ ‘If they don’t obey me, they will be court-martialed and punished,’ and ‘The official language is English.’ They put up these declarations everywhere.”
— Kim Won-woong, president of the Heritage of Korean Independence, May 21, 2021.
Of course, when considering these statements, the speakers’ intentions have to be taken into account. And it is necessary to paint the whole picture. Korean scholars have already pointed out that both the US and Soviet forces occupied the two Koreas—neither were liberators. On the other hand, it could be argued that they were, and that the US in fact played a bigger role in defeating Japan, thereby liberating Korea. But it is also true that the US and the USSR took different first steps on the Korean Peninsula after Japan’s surrender. While US General Hodge declared the implementation of a military government and denied the People’s Republic that Koreans had established, USSR Colonel General Chistyakov shouted, “Hurrah to the liberated Korean people!”
Setting aside what actually happened under these occupying forces, there was a stark difference between the very first impressions of the US and the USSR that Koreans received.
So Kim is perhaps at fault for not fully explaining that eventually the Soviet Union put Kim Il-sung in charge of the communist regime in North Korea, while South Korea was able to establish its own independent government.
And Yoo is perhaps at fault for reading into Lee’s remarks a bit too much and falsely concluding that he agrees with the view that the US “occupied” while the USSR “liberated” Korea.
On July 3, Lee Jae-myung responded to Yoo via Facebook:
“First, the remarks in question refer to what happened in the ‘liberation space’ under the rule of USAMGIK, before the government of the Republic of Korea was established on August 15, 1948. The United States won the war, and its forces disarmed Japan and militarily controlled the area, and therefore it is correct to refer to them as the ‘occupying forces’.
The US military in their own proclamation described themselves as the ‘occupying forces’ and treated the Korean Peninsula as part of the defeated Japan rather than as a victim. This is a historical fact, proven by many historians. … Due to a lack of understanding of history, some have even asked, ‘Then will you drive out the occupying US Forces in Korea?’
But the US Forces in Korea are stationed here through the official Mutual Defense Treaty signed by the independent Korean government. Even if they are the same army, there is a difference between the army of a victorious country that occupied the territories of a defeated country and the army that was stationed through a treaty with the independent government of a country. It is sad to see how one fails to distinguish between the independent Korean government and a former Japanese territory that was occupied after Japan’s defeat.”
— Lee Jae-myung, Governor of Gyeonggi Province, July 3, 2021.
Despite Lee’s clarification, the war of words continued.
On July 4, Yoon Seok-yeol, who recently announced his presidential bid, accused Lee of “distorting history” in his Facebook post. He then took it a step further and asked Lee whether Korean soldiers and the Korean people fought in the Korean War for the benefit of the pro-Japanese forces and the US, although they are clearly talking about different time periods—Lee was referring to the period from 1945 to 1948, after Japan’s surrender and before the Republic of Korea was established, whereas Yoon began to talk about the Korean War, which was waged from 1950 to 1953, after the establishment of the independent government of the Republic of Korea.
“Self-distortion of history should never be tolerated
Recently, many Korean people, including myself, have been shocked. Governor Lee Jae-myung, the leading [presidential] candidate of the ruling party, has echoed the preposterous and ludicrous remarks from the president of the Heritage of Korean Independence claiming that ‘the US military were the occupying forces, and the Soviet military were the liberating forces.’ ‘The Republic of Korea emerged as a collaboration between the pro-Japanese forces and the US occupying forces.’ This is an argument that has all Koreans disbelieving their ears. What is even more shocking is that neither the president, who is the chief executive of the government, nor Cheong Wa Dae have made any statement regarding the remarks.
They speak as if the Republic of Korea has some humiliating and dirty secret regarding its establishment.
To those who are taking control of the state, distorting history, and going after the next administration: what are you aiming for now, and who are you representing? Were the tens of thousands of American and UN soldiers who died during the Korean War mobilized in an unjust war to protect the occupied territories? Did the countless dead and wounded soldiers and civilians fight for the interests of the pro-Japanese and the United States? …”
— Yoon Seok-yeol, former Prosecutor General, July 4, 2021.
On July 5, at the People Power Party’s supreme council meeting, Lee Jun-seok, the newly elected leader of the party, harshly criticized Lee Jae-myung’s remarks. Interestingly, he did not mention the “US occupying forces” and instead focused on the “pro-Japanese forces”:
“I would like to point out that it was very inappropriate of Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung to conclude that the establishment of the government of the Republic of Korea was a collaboration with pro-Japanese forces. … Creating a pro-Japanese controversy to disparage the establishment of the Republic of Korea’s government itself is a very shallow tactic to gain political advantage by dividing the people. Governor Lee already made divisive politics his identity once in 2017, when he declared his candidacy for president and refused to pay respects at the graves of former presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee. Perhaps afraid of a similar controversy, this time he went as far as to make the absurd decision not to visit and pay respects at the graves of any former presidents in an attempt to avoid those of presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee. I am growing curiouser whether the Democratic Party will take the path of divisive politics in its future.”
— Lee Jun-seok, chair of the People Power Party, July 5, 2021.
On July 6, Hong Jung-min, an assembly member for the Democratic Party and the spokesperson for Lee Jae-myung’s presidential campaign, explained in an interview with Yonsei Professor Kim Jong-dae:
“But in actuality, Governor Lee Jae-myung didn’t refer to the Soviet military as the liberating forces, and, like the US military, prior to 1948, [the Soviet military] came in as occupying forces in the former Japanese territory. He was expressing the sentiment that Korea didn’t reconcile with pro-Japanese collaboration at the time, that the governing system was maintained in collaboration with the US occupying forces. Yet [Yoon Seok-yeol] took this as something bigger, saying that [Lee] was denying the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea.
Prosecutor General Yoon subtly twisted this part, that the Republic of Korea was a collaboration between the pro-Japanese forces and the US occupying forces, and said that Governor Lee Jae-myung has an ideologically prejudiced perception of history. And he accused [Governor Lee] of trying to change the Republic of Korea into a country that promotes the wrong ideology. But such remarks are actually twisting and manipulating [Governor Lee’s] words, and seem particularly like red-baiting, which doesn’t really look that good to me either.”
— Hong Jung-min, spokesperson for Lee Jae-myung’s presidential campaign, July 6, 2021.
Will this so-called controversy continue to rumble on? Red-baiting is a tactic often utilized by conservative Korean politicians, resulting in many liberal politicians being labeled as “pro-North Korea” or “pro-Communism”. It is considered one of the evils of old politics that needs to be eradicated, yet it seems to have reared its head once again. Watching the two political parties bicker, each accusing the other of divisive politics, and newspapers siding with their candidates of choice, I wonder if they realize that they’re sinking into the same old trivial spats that the general public is sick of seeing.