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Seodaemun Independence Park: Daring South Korean Reporter Investigates the Truth

"No one has bothered to verify these exaggerations and demagoguery" — Chosun Ilbo reporter on historical misrepresentation at Seodaemun Independence Park.

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Anti-"pro-Japanese" protests are held in front of the former Seodaemun Prison located in Seodaemun Independence Park. March 16, 2023. (©Kyodo)

Just past the Seodaemun intersection in Seoul's central district lies Seodaemun Independence Park. The park is home to the historic Independence Gate and the former Seodaemun Prison, now serving as a history museum. Offering insights into history, the park is an important educational spot for citizens, children, and students.

A Monument to Historical Fabrication

A large stone structure stands within the park with a projecting platform known as the Patriotic Martyr Monument. Behind the monument, there is a long stone relief adorned with scenes from the history of the anti-Japan independence movement. 

Among the eight scenes depicted, one portrays the "execution of patriots and independence activists." However, it has been pointed out that this scene is inaccurate. The image was apparently modeled on a photograph showing the execution of notorious criminals in South Korea. It has nothing to do with Japan or the independence movement.

In an April 13 report, Chosun Ilbo journalist Park Jong-in critiqued the public facility's distortion of the independence movement's history. "No one has bothered to verify these exaggerations and demagoguery," he wrote. 

Challenges of Historical Accuracy in South Korea

I have long been aware of South Korea's tendency to misrepresent the history of this period. For instance, South Korean media once extensively reported on photos of Chinese warlords publicly beheading criminals. They claimed that these photos depicted scenes of the Japanese army executing Korean independence activists. In response, The Sankei Shimbun exposed the truth behind the pictures.

In South Korea, there is a common practice of historical fabrication exaggerating Japan's history of aggression. A notable example is the wartime labor issue. Recently, South Korean textbooks and museums have been using photos of Japanese workers, falsely portraying them as Koreans coerced into service. Organizations have even created forced labor statues based on these fake photos.

Additionally, South Korean reports frequently reference dramatized films in coverage of the comfort women issue. They often cite scenes depicting Japanese soldiers forcibly abducting girls as though they were factual. 

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 Then there are stories about the Japanese military "Unit 731." The unit is said to have conducted research on biological and chemical weapons in Manchuria. South Korean media often highlight dramatized human experimentation scenes from movies as if they were genuine footage.

Families of plaintiffs in lawsuits involving former South Korean wartime laborers and female volunteer corps demonstrate in front of the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul on December 21, 2023. (©Kyodo)

Origins of a Fallacy

This time, the falsification concerns the relief depicting the "execution of patriots." The carving portrays several men suspended from logs with nooses around their necks and their hands bound behind their backs. However, this scene originates from a photograph that appeared in a French publication in 1908. 

A South Korean government organization, the National Institute of Korean History, later incorporated the photo into its anti-Japanese movement materials. Disregarding facts, the institute described them as victims massacred by Japan during the March 1 Independence Movement in 1919. That is how this distortion of historical facts on the independence movement began. 

In his reporting, Park examined early 1900s Korean (Joseon dynasty) archives and even searched for records of public executions. Critiquing historical facts, particularly the history of the anti-Japan independence movement, is not easy in South Korean society. Many South Koreans consider this history sacrosanct. Therefore, it is commendable that the South Korean media has taken steps to verify facts this time. I sincerely commend them for their efforts.

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Katsuhiro Kuroda, The Sankei Shimbun