SEOUL -- Outspoken progressive Kim Won-wung stole the spotlight from South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a key ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule.
At the Liberation Day ceremony in Seoul on Aug. 15, Kim delivered a fiery speech lashing out at "pro-Japanese forces" that is reverberating across South Korean society. He serves as chairman of the Korea Liberation Association, consisting of living independence activists and surviving relatives of those who have died.
"Syngman Rhee colluded with pro-Japanese forces," Kim said in the speech, referring to the country's first president. "South Korea became the only country that cannot squarely clear itself of traitors to the nation."
Kim, who took the podium ahead of Moon at the ceremony, also criticized Ahn Eak-tai, a South Korean composer and conductor who died decades ago, as a "traitor to the nation."
"Ahn Eak-tai, who composed 'Aegukga,' conducted a concert in Berlin to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the foundation of Manchukuo," Kim said. "South Korea is the only country in the entire world that made a song composed by a traitor to the nation its national anthem."
Manchukuo was a puppet state created by Japan in northeastern China before World War II. Aegukga, South Korea's national anthem, was also played at the Liberation Day ceremony.
After blasting Rhee and Ahn, Kim noted that 69 "pro-Japanese people who committed acts against their own nation" are buried in the Seoul National Cemetery and demanded that they be reburied elsewhere.
"Otherwise, I believe that a bill to revise the national cemetery law will be enacted in this autumn's parliamentary session to build a monument with their pro-Japanese conduct inscribed on it."
In South Korea, the term "pro-Japanese" is used to refer to people and organizations that cooperated with Japan's colonial rule in the past as well as to the adoption of certain customs. It is almost synonymous with being a traitor and has a strong negative nuance.
Progressive forces supporting the Moon administration basically think in the following way: After being liberated from Japan's colonial rule, South Korea should have been run by independence activists from the start. But former bureaucrats with business skills, military personnel, capitalists and others who cooperated with Imperial Japanese rule and normally should have disappeared from center stage continued to wield power. Without sweeping away such pro-Japanese remnants, the nation cannot be said to have been truly founded.
In that sense, Kim's remarks at the Aug. 15 ceremony are nothing new to forces supporting the Moon administration.
In fact, the bill to make it possible to exclude the graves of pro-Japanese people from national cemeteries has been submitted to the current parliamentary session by lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party.
But Kim has drawn a strong backlash for his speech as he publicly labeled his forefathers as "traitors to the nation" at the Liberation Day ceremony, which should have been an occasion for him to call for the unity of the people.
On Aug. 15, Won Hee-ryong, governor of Jeju Province, hastily changed the content of his prepared speech at a ceremony in Jeju City and squarely expressed his objections to Kim's remarks.
Won did so as Kim's controversial speech was also read by a member of the Korea Liberation Association at another Liberation Day ceremony held in the island province.
"Among the military personnel who defended the country at the risk of their lives during the (1950-1953) Korean War are people who had served in the Japanese military," Won said in his address.
"People who built today's South Korea made both achievements and mistakes," he added. "We must look at both aspects humbly. I can never agree with finding such people guilty based only on their mistakes and dividing the people again."
Jeju Island is well-known as South Korea's leading resort area. It also has a tragic history.
On April 3, 1948, when the Korean Peninsula was already divided into north and south, Jeju saw the outbreak of an armed uprising by forces objecting to the holding of elections only in the southern half under U.S. military rule.
The United States Army Military Government in Korea and the South Korean government, which was established in August 1948, crushed the uprising.
Many Jeju residents were embroiled in the unrest, which is also known as the Jeju 4.3 incident. It is said that up to 30,000 residents, or one-tenth of the island's population of 300,000, were killed.
Thus, the Jeju uprising is a politically polarizing issue in South Korea.
Conservatives see it as "an armed uprising by the Workers' Party of South Korea advocating communism," while progressives position it as "violence by state power."
In 2006, then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, a progressive, acknowledged the state's responsibility for the Jeju 4.3 incident and apologized to the island's residents.
Because of such experience of confrontation, people living on Jeju Island are said to be highly cautious about expressing their political positions. Such sentiment was reflected in Won's argument against Kim's controversial speech.
Recounting an old and unforgettable episode, one South Korean business leader said: "Do I come from a family of patriots? Or am I pro-Japanese?" The story is about the house where he was born in a rural area.
During Japan's colonial rule, the head of his family cooperated with authorities to protect its members. That was the only way to survive. But the family head continued to secretly send funds to his younger brother participating in the independence movement.
As this episode shows, it was difficult to divide Korean people between patriots and those who were pro-Japanese.
If people belong to organizations or society, they sometimes cannot live as they believe they should. Kim himself seems to have been fully aware of that. He was a progressive parliamentary member, but he had previously worked at the secretariat of the Democratic Republican Party.
The Democratic Republican Party was South Korea's ruling party when President Park Chung-hee was in power. Park was a leading pro-Japanese figure in the eyes of progressive forces.
During an interview with South Korea's MBC Radio on Aug. 17, Kim acknowledged the fact that he had once worked for the Democratic Republican Party. "I have original sin," he said. "I have no intention of erasing my past. Based on reflection, I want to live the rest of my life faithfully."
While progressives are making a sharp distinction between "patriots" and "traitors" at an accelerated pace, conservatives are moving toward "reconciliation."
Kim Chong-in, head of the conservative opposition United Future Party's emergency leadership body, on Aug. 19 visited a national cemetery in Gwangju where victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising are buried.
Military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who later became South Korea's president, used force to suppress the pro-democracy movement in Gwangju, leaving many people dead or injured.
Kim knelt down in the cemetery and apologized to the victims. "I am ashamed and sorry," he said.
After plunging on former South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment, the United Future Party's support rate has now recovered to levels on par with the ruling party.
That appears to show that many people in South Korea do not want to see "division and confrontation."