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Bad blood brewing: Two authors at odds over Korea's colonial past

Novelist Jo Jung-rae during a news conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his literary debut at the Press Center in central Seoul on Monday / Yonhap
Novelist Jo Jung-rae during a news conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his literary debut at the Press Center in central Seoul on Monday / Yonhap

Famed novelist's irritated reaction to 'pro-Japan' Koreans explained

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Jo Jung-rae, author of million-seller "Arirang" (1994), had caused the public to raise their eyebrows earlier this week for his sweeping hostile description of Koreans who had lived in Japan as overseas students.

The award-winning novelist called all of them "Japan sympathizers."

Jo, 77, called for the reestablishment of the taskforce named the Special Investigation Committee of Anti-National Activities that was initially set up in 1948 to investigate Koreans who had cooperated with the Japanese Empire during the colonial period, calling for a purge of some 1.5 million Japan sympathizers in Korea.

"People who studied in Japan are doomed to become pro-Japanese. They become traitors. Some call them 'homegrown Japanese pirates'…," he said during a news conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his literary debut at the Press Center in central Seoul.

"I know there is a campaign going on and it aims to purge Koreans who are sympathetic about Japan regarding its past evil acts and distortion of history. People like them must be punished in accordance to law. I'm willing to actively participate in the campaign."

His remarks created a stir.

Critic Chin Jung-kwon said Jo's remarks reflect "insanity" and "outdated nationalism." Chin wrote on social media that if all Koreans who spent some years studying in Japan are Japan sympathizers, then President Moon Jae-in's daughter must be pro-Japanese as she studied at Tokyo's Kokushikan University.

Jo is a respected novelist having authored many best-selling books. His award-winning historical fiction work "The Taebaek Mountains" is considered the best novel of the 1980s.

It's rare for such an established novelist to publicly denounce a certain group of people with such extreme hostility. He would have nothing to gain because it is apparent his remarks would backfire.

Lots of guesswork was presented to decode the motives behind his sensationalist remarks. One of the convincing theories revolves around "bad blood" brewing between the author and economist Lee Young-hoon, co-author of last year's best-seller "Anti-Japan Tribalism."

Jo's remarks about pro-Japanese persons educated in Japan seem to have targeted Lee as the economist spent a year in Japan from 1992 to 1993 as a visiting scholar at Kyoto University.

Jo called Lee "a liar."

"I know he is highly critical of my book. But I think he is a traitor," Jo said on Monday. "My novel is based on historical facts."

The novelist reacted to Lee's book in which the author claimed Jo's 1994 novel "Arirang" is a book of hatred and has factual errors. "Arirang" is a historical fiction novel revolving around people living in the southern rural area of Gimje famous for fertile farmland during the Japanese colonial rule. The book tells of Japanese police's executions of Koreans without trial and the massacre of thousands of Korean slave laborers who were taken to Japan.

Lee Young-hoon, a retired Seoul National University professor of economics and co-author of
Lee Young-hoon, a retired Seoul National University professor of economics and co-author of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" / Korea Times file

Lee denied this is a factual representation, saying public executions of Koreans without a trial didn't happen during the Japanese colonial rule.

In 1913 alone, he said, 53 Koreans were executed for murder or burglary and all of them were brought to trial before they were sentenced to death.

"During the colonial period, the police were not allowed to put people behind bars without a trial," he said in his book "Anti-Japan Tribalism."

In the book, Lee and five other authors debunked some of the widely accepted "misconceptions" about the Japanese colonial rule. Slave labor is one of the colonial issues that pitted the six authors against other historians. The authors claimed Koreans who were taken to Japan or China in the 1930s and in the 1940s during World War II were migrant workers dreaming of making money, and they chose to work overseas, as opposed to popular descriptions that they were taken by the Japanese military against their will.

Readers' reviews of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" are poles apart. Some said it's a collection of six academics' empirical studies of the Japanese colonial rule featuring some inconvenient truths for Koreans but the authors' claims are fair and fully supported with evidence.

But the book raised the ire of some readers and politicians. They criticized the book, claiming the authors were pro-Japanese trying to curry favor with Japan.

"Anti-Japan Tribalism" stormed into the best-seller list and topped the list for weeks after its release.

In the book, Lee and the five other authors strive to find the roots of Koreans' deep-seated anti-Japan sentiment.

Lee said progressive intellectuals and novelists are partly responsible for stoking the anti-Japan sentiment, saying among others, literature played a pivotal role behind the creation of Koreans' negative perception toward Japan.

He pinpointed Jo's best-seller "Arirang" as a prime example displaying distortions of history. Lee said, "Even though it's a fiction novel, it needs to be in line with historical facts."

Lee's remarks irritated Jo, and the two exchanged barbs last year. Calling Lee a traitor, Jo said he felt no need to comment on Lee's characterization of his book.

The clash of the two authors may be inevitable, considering their opposite standings in terms of political orientations. Jo is a left-leaning writer, while Lee is a right-wing economist.


Novelist Jo Jung-rae during a news conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his literary debut at the Press Center in central Seoul on Monday / Yonhap
Novelist Jo Jung-rae during a news conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his literary debut at the Press Center in central Seoul on Monday / Yonhap

Famed novelist's irritated reaction to 'pro-Japan' Koreans explained

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Jo Jung-rae, author of million-seller "Arirang" (1994), had caused the public to raise their eyebrows earlier this week for his sweeping hostile description of Koreans who had lived in Japan as overseas students.

The award-winning novelist called all of them "Japan sympathizers."

Jo, 77, called for the reestablishment of the taskforce named the Special Investigation Committee of Anti-National Activities that was initially set up in 1948 to investigate Koreans who had cooperated with the Japanese Empire during the colonial period, calling for a purge of some 1.5 million Japan sympathizers in Korea.

"People who studied in Japan are doomed to become pro-Japanese. They become traitors. Some call them 'homegrown Japanese pirates'…," he said during a news conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his literary debut at the Press Center in central Seoul.

"I know there is a campaign going on and it aims to purge Koreans who are sympathetic about Japan regarding its past evil acts and distortion of history. People like them must be punished in accordance to law. I'm willing to actively participate in the campaign."

His remarks created a stir.

Critic Chin Jung-kwon said Jo's remarks reflect "insanity" and "outdated nationalism." Chin wrote on social media that if all Koreans who spent some years studying in Japan are Japan sympathizers, then President Moon Jae-in's daughter must be pro-Japanese as she studied at Tokyo's Kokushikan University.

Jo is a respected novelist having authored many best-selling books. His award-winning historical fiction work "The Taebaek Mountains" is considered the best novel of the 1980s.

It's rare for such an established novelist to publicly denounce a certain group of people with such extreme hostility. He would have nothing to gain because it is apparent his remarks would backfire.

Lots of guesswork was presented to decode the motives behind his sensationalist remarks. One of the convincing theories revolves around "bad blood" brewing between the author and economist Lee Young-hoon, co-author of last year's best-seller "Anti-Japan Tribalism."

Jo's remarks about pro-Japanese persons educated in Japan seem to have targeted Lee as the economist spent a year in Japan from 1992 to 1993 as a visiting scholar at Kyoto University.

Jo called Lee "a liar."

"I know he is highly critical of my book. But I think he is a traitor," Jo said on Monday. "My novel is based on historical facts."

The novelist reacted to Lee's book in which the author claimed Jo's 1994 novel "Arirang" is a book of hatred and has factual errors. "Arirang" is a historical fiction novel revolving around people living in the southern rural area of Gimje famous for fertile farmland during the Japanese colonial rule. The book tells of Japanese police's executions of Koreans without trial and the massacre of thousands of Korean slave laborers who were taken to Japan.

Lee Young-hoon, a retired Seoul National University professor of economics and co-author of
Lee Young-hoon, a retired Seoul National University professor of economics and co-author of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" / Korea Times file

Lee denied this is a factual representation, saying public executions of Koreans without a trial didn't happen during the Japanese colonial rule.

In 1913 alone, he said, 53 Koreans were executed for murder or burglary and all of them were brought to trial before they were sentenced to death.

"During the colonial period, the police were not allowed to put people behind bars without a trial," he said in his book "Anti-Japan Tribalism."

In the book, Lee and five other authors debunked some of the widely accepted "misconceptions" about the Japanese colonial rule. Slave labor is one of the colonial issues that pitted the six authors against other historians. The authors claimed Koreans who were taken to Japan or China in the 1930s and in the 1940s during World War II were migrant workers dreaming of making money, and they chose to work overseas, as opposed to popular descriptions that they were taken by the Japanese military against their will.

Readers' reviews of "Anti-Japan Tribalism" are poles apart. Some said it's a collection of six academics' empirical studies of the Japanese colonial rule featuring some inconvenient truths for Koreans but the authors' claims are fair and fully supported with evidence.

But the book raised the ire of some readers and politicians. They criticized the book, claiming the authors were pro-Japanese trying to curry favor with Japan.

"Anti-Japan Tribalism" stormed into the best-seller list and topped the list for weeks after its release.

In the book, Lee and the five other authors strive to find the roots of Koreans' deep-seated anti-Japan sentiment.

Lee said progressive intellectuals and novelists are partly responsible for stoking the anti-Japan sentiment, saying among others, literature played a pivotal role behind the creation of Koreans' negative perception toward Japan.

He pinpointed Jo's best-seller "Arirang" as a prime example displaying distortions of history. Lee said, "Even though it's a fiction novel, it needs to be in line with historical facts."

Lee's remarks irritated Jo, and the two exchanged barbs last year. Calling Lee a traitor, Jo said he felt no need to comment on Lee's characterization of his book.

The clash of the two authors may be inevitable, considering their opposite standings in terms of political orientations. Jo is a left-leaning writer, while Lee is a right-wing economist.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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