By Yang Sung-jin
Last week a host of civic organizations threatened to reveal personal information about politicians who want to join in the race for parliamentary election on April 13.
That is a good thing for Korean politicians, many of whom have dark and often shameful pasts. Some dodged their compulsory military service, others were entangled in corruption scandals.
Many of today’s politicians appear hellbent on promoting their own interests even though they unabashedly give impassioned speeches about the welfare of the people and prosperity of the nation.
Switching parties for opportunistic reasons is routine for a number of swaggering parliamentarians, rendering the voter’s decision on election day almost meaningless.
The vulgar opportunism, showcased by the self-styled national leaders, is a familiar story, especially for those who witnessed the turbulent downfall of the Choson Kingdom at the hands of the Japanese.
In 1908, an interracial marriage between a high-ranking Choson official and a Japanese wife was a hot scandalous issue.
Cho Chong-hee, a ranking official filed a petition for his nephew who married a Japanese wife: “My nephew — Justice Minister Cho Chung-ung — married Choe but then went abroad alone. Without a person to depend on in Japan, he led a lonely life. But a Japanese lady named Mitsuoka took care of Chung-ung, who was then sick and had no hope of returning to Choson. Moreover, he could not get in touch with his legitimate wife in Choson. That’s how he married the Japanese lady.”
The story itself was not that immoral considering the situation, but the issue became sticky when Cho Chung-ung later returned to Choson — with his Japanese wife.
His first wife here, it turns out, had served Cho’s parents and did what she was supposed to do as a daughter-in-law.
King Sunjong, after reviewing the case in detail, ordered Cho to live with Cho and Mitsuoka, giving them the same status as lawful wife.
The decision itself seems more democratic and reasonable than today’s general perception of the issue. If a minister-level official marries a Japanes woman, he is very likely to receive harsh criticism from anti-Japanese figures.
And such a background is a fatal weakness when running for a parliamentary post.
On closer look, however, King Sunjong’s decision did not embrace the global perspective. In 1908, the Choson court was virtually controlled by the Japanese
imperialists and if the king overtly discriminated against a Japanese, he may face a hostile attack from the Japanese.
In other words, King Sunjong deliberately and cowardly attempted to avoid the troubles that could have a far-reaching impact on the subtle relations between Choson and Japan, even ditching the time-honored principle that the first wife’s position is protected regardless of the situation.
While the king and officials were maintaining a highly cautious stance toward the Japanese, the populace acted boldly to fight against the Japanese invaders.
On May 19, 1908, Kim Pong-ki, who launched a civic force against the Japanese in Kyonggi-do, was executed on the charge of murdering a Japanese solider.
“I could not stand the oppression of the Japanese especially at a time when the nation is on the verge of destruction at their hands. Moreover, I couldn’t help criticizing the Choson officials who sided with Japan and service the enemies,” Kim said during the investigation which followed the murder.
“Letters, posters and other documents revealing the treacherous acts of court officials, however, were blocked by the police,” Kim added.
As Kim’s case demonstrates, ordinary Choson people were willing to express their resentment against both the opportunistic court officials and Japanese invaders.
Inevitably, clashes between the Choson people and the Japanese occurred frequently during the late Choson period. The conflict further deepened as the Japanese, who crossed the East Sea to Choson under unfair bilateral treaties, showed a deep contempt toward the Choson people.
It is little wonder then, that a group of Choson people killed several Japanes who were staying at a Seoul residence in June, 1876.
On Feb. 4, 1883, a little-known figure named Ahn Pong-sun was arrested for firing arrows at Japanese soldiers stationed in the palace. Ahn was sentenced to exile on a remote island.
Anti-Japanese sentiment ran higher than ever in 1884 when an unsuccessful coup was staged by a group of Choson officials in a bid to drive out the Japanese.
“Soldiers and people living in Seoul treated the Japanese in a hostile manner. Whenever they met a Japanese, they fought and sometimes beat the Japanese to death,” an Annals article dated Oct. 20, 1884, noted.
In contrast, Choson court officials did not waste any time in terms of profit-taking. In 1901, court officials including Kim Chun-hee and Lim Won-sang, forged official documents and attempted to sell Wol-mi Island, off the Inchon coast, to a Japanese.
On Sept. 3, 1905, King Kojong received a report on the exploitation of land by a group of Japanese: “Mountains in Kumsan are changing their appearance because the Japanese employ hundreds of workers to dig up the land to get natural resources.”
The investigation found that local governor Lee Bom-chul sold the area to the Japanese, one example where Choson officials sought profit rather than acting against the Japanese.
The sad historical fact that many Choson officials sided with Japan to secure their own welfare and safety is indeed insightful.
Just look at today’s statistics — the least powerful and wealthy Korean men serve the nation in the military for over two years while for various suspicious reasons few of the self-styled patriotic parliamentarians (including their proud sons) have finished their military service.
And the least desirable candidates for the April 13 elections are none other than those who react very negatively to the civic groups’ decision to reveal information about their ugly pasts.