Cheong Wa Dae emphasizes the unity of the people, but what it actually says causes disunity.
In his Memorial Day address on Thursday, President Moon Jae-in mentioned Kim Won-bong, a fighter who was decorated by North Korea for his distinguished service in the Korean War (1950-53).
Moon mentioned Kim and several other independence fighters, suggesting they had formed the roots of the Republic of Korea’s (South Korea’s) armed forces and helped to lay the foundation for the Korea-US alliance. He indirectly associated Kim with South Korean military forces.
This is bizarre and preposterous logic.
Kim organized a corps of independence fighters during the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945), but after Korea gained independence he participated in the establishment of the North Korean regime, where he held senior government positions. He received a top-class medal from North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, for his exploits related to the war.
Memorial Day is a day to pay respects to the soldiers who died fighting North Korean invaders during the war.
Insinuating on such a day that Kim Won-bong helped form the roots of the South Korean forces is an insult to the fallen soldiers and their bereaved families. It is no wonder that blunt criticism and cries for Moon’s resignation have poured out from the right-wing opposition camp.
“The age when we could divide society dualistically into ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ has passed,” Moon said in the speech.
His words of praise for Kim Won-bong are not the only ones to have intensified ideological divisions and raised political tensions. In an Independence Movement Day address delivered March 1, he appeared to be targeting the conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party and its supporters when he said, “The eradication of the remnants of collaborators with the Japanese colonial rulers is long overdue.” In a speech commemorating the Gwangju Democratic Uprising of May 18, 1980, he labeled those who viewed the democratization movement from a different angle “the descendants of dictators.”
Moon reinforced a long-standing split in public opinion by stigmatizing those with different views as if they were pro-Japanese supporters of autocracy. Yet now, the president suddenly declares that the time for division is over.
In response to criticism of Moon’s reference to Kim Won-bong, the ruling party portrayed Kim as an inspiring independence fighter who defected to North Korea in 1948 after being humiliated by a police officer -- an individual who allegedly tracked down independence fighters during the colonial period and later hunted leftists in the South after Korea gained its independence.
One can’t help but ask whether the ruling camp was trying to spark anger at former collaborators with Japanese colonial rule, like that police officer, with the intention of channeling that fury toward the Liberty Korea Party and conservatives.
Two days before Memorial Day, Cheong Wa Dae hosted a luncheon for the families of soldiers killed in the Korean War, in the North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean naval vessel and in the battle of Yeonpyeong on the West Sea. The presidential office provided them with brochures that contained photos of Moon holding hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their summits.
One guest reportedly wanted to storm out immediately after seeing the photos, but endured the luncheon and left with indigestion.
One cannot but ask if Cheong Wa Dae was so eager to show off its close ties with Pyongyang that it could not anticipate how the families of soldiers who died fighting North Korean troops would feel upon seeing those pictures.
Another guest, whose father was killed in action in the Korean War, said at the luncheon that North Korea must apologize for starting the war. It was belatedly revealed that Cheong Wa Dae had left that remark out of its written briefing on the luncheon. The presidential office may have decided not to include it for fear of displeasing the North.
The Moon administration has been desperate to improve inter-Korean ties and hold another summit with the North. Still, it must not turn its back on war heroes or the bereaved relatives of fallen soldiers.
The ruling party swept gubernatorial and mayoral elections last year amid heightened expectations of closer inter-Korean ties and the denuclearization of North Korea. With the general election about 10 months away, the party may be looking forward to similar results. But if Moon continues to utter divisive words, the people will suspect his motives and conclude that he is seeking political gain by fomenting ideological divisions.
If Cheong Wa Dae wants to achieve a true integration of the nation, it must stop blindly trying to appease the North and speaking words that ideologically divide the people.