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President’s speech ignites old conflict over founding

Aug 17,2017
President Moon Jae-in’s remark in his Liberation Day speech on Tuesday has re-ignited a longstanding partisan dispute, with the ruling Democratic Party praising Moon’s assessment of history and the opposition saying he dragged an ideological conflict into the center of a national holiday.

In his speech, considered one of the most consequential presidential speeches to be given since it lays out a government’s policy agenda and reflects on past achievements, Moon argued that 2019 will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the nation, giving his support to a long-held liberal view that South Korea began with the Provisional Republic of Korea, established by independence activists in their fight against Japan’s colonial rule in Shanghai in 1919.

Conservatives, however, argue that the founding of the state occurred in 1948, three years after the country’s liberation from colonial rule, when U.S.-backed Syngman Rhee was elected the first president of South Korea at a time when the North was ruled by Soviet-backed communists.

The disagreement partly has to do with different perspectives on Rhee, a staunch anticommunist with a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University. While liberals consider Rhee an authoritarian who crushed his opponents, conservatives view him as the founding father who saved the country from falling into the hands of communists.

The word “nation” refers to a government that controls a specific territory, containing a people united by history and culture. While liberals highlight the importance of historical continuity, conservatives stress that neither the current political entity nor the geographic territory of the South Korean nation existed before 1948.

Welcoming Moon’s remark the day before, Democratic Party Chairwoman Choo Mi-ae said Wednesday he had effectively “put an end to a controversy over the state founding day,” describing Moon’s speech as delivering a “historical definition.”

Liberty Korea Party (LKP) leader Hong Joon-pyo said Wednesday that progressives “equated the foundation of the Shanghai provincial government as the state founding because they want to curry favor with North Korea.” Hong went on to say that the South Korean government was founded in 1948 with the United Nations recognizing the Rhee-led government in Seoul as the only legal governing body. He added that claiming 1919 as the state-founding year was to deny the legitimacy of the South Korean government. The conservative oppositions also suspect that President Moon has a political intention to hold a memorable centennial ceremony to mark the founding of the nation while he is in office.

In response to this claim, liberals often cite the Constitution, last amended in 1987, which states that it seeks to uphold “the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independent Movement of 1919.”

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]