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INTERVIEW | Are the Yoon Suk-yeol History Initiatives Important? Veteran Journalist Weighs In

Veteran journalist Kim Young-sam talks about the Yoon Suk-yeol Liberation Day speech and why it's important for South Korea to get its history straight.



Kim Young-sam during an interview with JAPAN Forward (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

On August 15, South Korea celebrated its 75th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule. President Yoon Suk-yeol, as with his predecessors, delivered a congratulatory remark. But this year's speech was quite noteworthy, even historic in many respects.  

Yoon made it abundantly clear in his speech that South Korea's independence movement was predicated on establishing a liberal democratic state, not communist totalitarianism. He argued that post-liberation efforts to revitalize the South's economy while repelling communist aggression were an extension of this movement. 

What really mesmerized many onlookers, however, came a third of the way into his remarks. For the first time in the nation's history, a sitting leader openly acknowledged the existence and the detrimental consequences of "anti-state forces" that cherish communist ideology. 

Yoon's tone was consistent with an earlier speech delivered at the Korea Freedom Federation. In June's speech, he also reprimanded the Peninsula's anti-state forces that possess "distorted historical views and irresponsible views of the state."  

Yoon Suk-yeol delivering his Liberation Day speech at Ewha Womans University (©Office of the President of the ROK)

Several experts at home and abroad deciphered Yoon's comments as a declaration of war against communism and history distortion.   

Kim Young-sam, a veteran journalist and expert on modern Korean history, shared this sentiment. Kim is a co-author of the bestseller Anti-Japan Tribalism (2019, in Korean and Japanese). He has also published a dozen books on Korean politics and history. Kim views President Yoon's recent endeavors with great optimism and believes they are necessary means to building a stronger democracy

JAPAN Forward recently sat down with Kim for an exclusive interview. Excerpts follow. 

President Yoon recently declared war against communism and history distortion. What is your overall assessment? 

I assess positively President Yoon's recent venture. In his Liberation Day speech, he pinpointed the essence of our independence movement. It was to advocate freedom, human rights, and the rule of law to establish a mature liberal-democratic state. His speech, in many ways, resembled Syngman Rhee's first Liberation Day speech in 1948. 

People tend to forget the following. We sought independence fundamentally to regain our right to act, think, and speak freely. Thus, only those who valued and fought for these rights should be recognized as independence activists. President Yoon is striving to correct the deep-seated, leftist-originated fabrication of our liberation history that worships historical figures with unsavory track records.  

President Yoon seemed less interested in dealing with historic quarrels early in his term. Why address this issue now? 

There are two main reasons. 


From several reliable sources, President Yoon understood that his predecessor Moon Jae In had meticulously planned to subvert the true meaning of our independence movement. 

Notably, Moon tried to change South Korea's Armed Forces Day (observed every October 1) to September 17, the day in which the Korean Liberation Army was established. For many leftists, October 1 bodes ill with their ideology. First, October 1 1950 marked the day of South Korea's pushback against North Korea after it was invaded in June of that year. Second, October 1 1953 is the day when Seoul signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington. Both events symbolized the South's triumph but the North's humiliation.  

Moon also intentionally propped up supposed independence activists who intimately fraternized with and even stood on the side of communists. These include Hong Beom-do, Kim Won-bong, and Kim Chwa-jin. The Moon administration furthermore awarded Hong Beom-do the Order of Merit for National Foundation and erected his bust in Korea's Military Academy. 

Kim Jong Un and his wife greeted then-President Moon Jae In and his wife in Pyongyang in 2018. (©South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

I would say 90% of the history surrounding Korea's independence movement is distorted. But this history is so crucial that somebody has to address this situation at some point. Past conservative leaders like Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye have attempted but ultimately failed. (Park tried via textbook reform.) Yoon, however, has taken matters into his own hands and is fully committed to seeing this through. 

Yoon administration recently ordered the removal of Hong Beom-do's bust. There's been resistance and criticism as well. What is your take? 

Personally, I think removing the statue was necessary. The incumbent government's instructions to do so are an actual manifestation of the President's verbal commitment. Those who oppose have a poor understanding of Hong and his communist ties. 

Busts of five alleged independence activists (Hong Beom-do on the furthest left) were erected in front of Korea's Military Academy. Yoon administration ordered the relocation of the bust. (©Korea Military Academy) 

Who is Hong Beom-do and what is the Battle of Fengwudong? 

General Hong Beom-do (1868-1943) is regarded as a liberation hero who spearheaded the Battle of Fengwudong (1920). This Battle and the Battle of Qingshanli (1920) are known as the two largest and victorious armed resistance carried out by independence fighters against the Japanese forces. 

Poster image of the film "Battle of Fengwudong" released in 2019. Many experts have criticized the movie for its fictitious depiction of the battle. (©SHOWBOX)

However, both facts are the furthest from reality. Primary records in Japan directly contradict the conventional belief that Korea's independence fighters secured a sweeping victory in the Battle of Fengwudong. Major Jiro Yasukawa's infantry which actively participated in the battle recorded only one death and two injuries among Japanese troops. 

This record is consistent with a telegram (朝特43호) drafted by Commander Tarō Utsunomiya on June 9, 1920. Two other primary pieces of evidence indicate the same number of deaths and injuries. Meanwhile, many South Koreans believe the independence fighters utterly ravaged the Japanese forces killing some 150 soldiers and wounding hundreds. 

A similar distortion goes for the Battle of Qingshanli. 

Can you explain Hong Beom-do's communist connections?

In 1920, Yi Dong-hwi, then-prime minister of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea entered into a secret alliance with Vladimir Lenin. Under the agreement, the provisional government was to adopt and promote communism while the Korean military unit in Siberia came under Soviet control. In return, Yi and his crew received a whopping 1 million Russian Rubles (roughly $900,000 USD based on 1917 values). For Lenin-led Bolsheviks that shared the same enemy (Japan) as Korea, Korean independence fighters were merely "useful idiots."

However, the Korean provisional government and independence fighters were largely divided on subordinating to the Soviets. Recognizing the deep factional split, the Bolshevik Army (Red Army) conducted a massive clampdown against those refusing their command in what's known as the Free City Incident. Here, Hong Beom-do downright takes the side of the Soviets.  

In 1922, Hong visited Moscow to attend the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East as the Korean representative. Hong meets Lenin and Leon Trotsky and is awarded with 100 Russian Rubles and a custom-made pistol for his full-fledged support.

Hong Beom-do attending the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East carrying a gilded pistol bestowed by Lenin. (©Hong Beom-do Memorial Service) 

Your online lectures on liberation history and Hong Beom-do have gone viral. Why did you start and what is your reaction?

There are academics and scholars who I think are more qualified to research and investigate this part of history. But unfortunately, no one from both sides of the political aisle has risen to the occasion. That's when I began my serious research and started uploading lectures online. 

Kim Young Sam (center) gives a history lecture on KNL (©KNL YouTube Screenshot)

My lecture series, about 20 videos so far, has amassed gargantuan views. Among the talks I gave on KNL, a leading conservative YouTube channel, the latest two alone were viewed over 360,000 times. This phenomenon illustrates that many South Koreans share similar sentiments with the Yoon administration. But due to societal pressure and other reasons they couldn't reveal them.  

Some have criticized your lectures and made rebuttals to your arguments. Would you like to respond?  

Yes, some scholars and intellectuals have challenged my views. But I emphasize that no one has been able to present counter-evidence nor debunk my core arguments. Take, for instance, a recent statement released by the Korean History Society, endorsed by 51 organizations. It completely forgoes addressing the main premise of my lectures. 


In fact, two serious left-leaning scholars have researched this issue thoroughly. But even they tacitly acknowledge in their papers Hong's close connections to Soviet communism. Shin Hyo-seung, a researcher at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, recently admitted that [the claim of] a major victory against the Japanese army in the Battle of Fengwudong is groundless.

Other rebuttals that I know of are by non-historians or pseudo-intellectuals merely jumping on the bandwagon of popular sentiment.        

Why is the leftist community preserving and promoting erroneous liberation history at all costs? 

From an ideological standpoint, I think the leftist community is highly influenced by ethnonationalism and the teachings of the Cheng-Zhu School. That is a major philosophical school of Neo-Confucianism. 

More fundamentally, they are unwilling to accept that South Korea was founded in 1948 with the help of the United States. They believe the nation emerged in 1919 when the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was inaugurated. To argue this, they need to show that Korean independence fighters actively resisted and fended off Japanese forces. But there simply are no historical records to back their claim. 

Therefore, the leftists try to conceal and crush any evidence that suggests otherwise. Simultaneously, they deliberately fabricate or manufacture history to suit their narrative. 

The fact that the Korean Empire, a nation of 16 million people, essentially relinquished its sovereignty to the Japanese power without any major uprising, is a sad history. But this is the reality and we must accept history as it is.

Is there any chance President Yoon's history war could spill over to historical disputes with Japan?

I think President Yoon is doing the best he can to ameliorate the damaged relations with Tokyo. This is evident from his active role in proposing and implementing the "third party compensation" to resolve the labor mobilization issue. 

With the comfort women issue, I believe the leftists in South Korea have been completely defeated. And with Yoon Mee Hyang's scandal and her recent trip to Japan, the comfort women advocacy group has lost most, if not all, trust of the people.

Comfort Women Statue erected before the former Japanese Embassy in Seoul (©Kim Byungheon) 

There's still an issue surrounding the comfort women statues erected across the country. But I think this should be dealt with after fulfilling the latest history war. Unless we rectify the leftist distortion of our nation's foundational history, we cannot expect much progress in correcting anti-Japan propaganda.         

How should we confront South Korea's history distortion moving forward? 

Some argue that fixing our K-12 textbooks is the key. Although this is important, revising our textbooks is an arduous process where its true effects are unclear. We simply don't have the time and resources for this. 

We're living in a different age – an age of technology. No student today is stupid enough to blindly trust every word printed in textbooks. Therefore, utilizing technology and online platforms is the fastest, most cost-efficient, and effective method to promote alternative views of our history. 



Author: Kenji Yoshida

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