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Dispute Erupts over Posthumous Honor for Hwang JY

Posted October. 14, 2010 11:17,   


Opposition is rising over the government’s plan to award a posthumous medal of honor for the late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to defect to South Korea.

If the award is bestowed, Hwang’s body will be eligible for burial at the National Cemetery in Daejeon, but even conservatives have criticized Seoul for making a populist decision.

Experts say the treatment of the late defector could cause division among conservative forces in South Korea.

A source in the ruling Grand National Party quoted party floor leader Kim Moo-sung as telling a review meeting on parliamentary inspection of the administration Tuesday, “The awarding of the medal to Hwang is inappropriate.”

Kim apparently meant that honoring Hwang as a patriot could run counter to South Korea’s identity, though expressing regret over the death of the “misfortunate political refugee” is appropriate.

“Party members said Hwang fled from North Korea after losing a power struggle and that his criticism was directed at the Kim Jong Il government, not the ‘juche (self-reliance)’ ideology that undergirds the North’s authoritarian system. Hwang’s failure to reflect on himself was also mentioned,” the source said.

The party also warned that burying Hwang’s body at the National Cemetery will incite a backlash from Korean War veterans and the families of fallen soldiers in the war, resulting in conflict among conservative forces. It said Hwang contributed to the establishment of the Kim Il Sung dictatorship that triggered the war.

Voices in the main opposition Democratic Party are also showing signs of opposing Hwang’s burial in Daejeon. Leading party member Chung Sye-kyun told a supreme council meeting, “It’s doubtful whether (Hwang) deserved a medal given to those who made significant contributions to raising national welfare and development.”

“(Hwang) established the theoretical basis of the juche ideology and is responsible for North Korea’s dismal situation. If he’s buried at the National Cemetery, this will cause confusion in national identity. So the government’s move is inappropriate.”

The South Korean people showed mixed reactions. A phone survey of 700 adults conducted by Realmeter Tuesday said 40.6 percent agreed with the government’s decision, while 36.3 percent disagreed.

Of those who support the ruling party, 57 percent agreed with honoring Hwang and 37.3 percent of those who backed the main opposition party disagreed; 31.7 percent agreed on Hwang’s burial at the National Cemetery.

Among those with no political affiliation, those against (49.6 percent) outnumbered those for (27.2 percent).

The government is closely monitoring such criticism. Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik, who visited Hwang’s funeral hall Wednesday, said, “We’re aware of the criticism of the posthumous honor of Hwang and his burial at the National Cemetery, but the government made a prudent decision after listening to various opinions.”

“(Hwang) is a valuable person of our time who took care of North Korean defectors and served as their inspiration.”

egija@donga.com rews@donga.com