Past present

In seeming counterpoint to the curiously inconclusive G-20 summit in Seoul this week, there was a development in the curiously inconclusive posthumous political travails of the Korean violinist and composer Hong Yeong-hu, better known by his pen name, Hong Nan-p’a. Hong is popularly, if slightly inaccurately, considered the father of Western classical music in Korea; while others were working the vein before him, it was the success of Hong’s song “Garden Balsam” (Bongseonhwa), first written as a violin piece in 1919, that showed the viability of combining Korean-style melody with Western harmonies and instrumentation.

Hong’s career coincided with the Japanese military occupation of Korea, and, as a result, standard textbook encapsulations of his biography emphasize his patriotism, how his student years at the Tokyo Conservatory were cut short by his participation in the March 1st Movement for Korean independence, how “Garden Balsam” became an unofficial anthem of the Korean resistance, how, in 1937, he was arrested and jailed for six weeks, an ordeal usually cited as contributing to his death, in 1941, at the age of 44. So it was a little dissonant to read that, this week, Hong’s descendants dropped their lawsuit to keep him off of an official government list of pro-Japanese collaborators:

Accordingly, the composer, who has been exempt from the list under a temporary court order issued last November, will likely be put back on the “disgraced” register…. The court said more extensive inquiries should be carried out to confirm whether the composer actively cooperated with Japanese authorities during the colonial rule.

Hong’s alleged collaboration came in the last four years of his life, as the Japanese rather fiercely ramped up their imperial pressure across Korea; having suffered a recurrence of pleurisy during his prison stay, Hong apparently compromised with the colonial government, possibly in return for medical treatment. His accommodation included editing music publications and advising the government on cultural matters.

However, if you’re wondering about a ruling that puts a dead man on a “disgraced” list at the same time that it admits to needing more extensive inquiries, welcome to the somewhat strange world of the Korean Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations for Japanese Imperialism (PCIC). Given that Korea has spent two-thirds of the past century under either foreign occupation or military dictatorship, the country certainly has more than the usual number of skeletons in its closet, but the PCIC has always been as much about contemporary South Korean politics as a reckoning with the past. The first attempt to identify collaborators, just after World War II, was stymied by the Republic’s first president, Syngman Rhee. The effort was suddenly restarted under Roh Moo-hyun, who became president in 2003; while the move was, plausibly, long overdue, the Presidential Committee also allowed Roh to both stoke anti-Japanese sentiment (always a popular move in Korea) and, at the same time, tar those of his conservative opponents who came to power under a succession of Japanese-trained military leaders. As if to confirm the politicization of the investigation, the administration of Roh’s successor, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, has both tried to sideline the PCIC and has pretty well scrubbed any mention of its activities from Korean government websites. And there’s the danger of financial corruption as well—descendents of named collaborators can have land taken away if the government says that the land was originally illegally granted by the Japanese occupiers. The broad brush wielded by the PCIC and related bodies doesn’t seem to have brought Koreans any closer to coming to terms with their history.

Anyway, here’s Bongseonhwa (along with another Korean resistance song, Jun Su-rin’s “Imperial Ruins”), sung by the great Korean pop singer Cho Yong Pil, from his 2005 concert in Pyongyang:

Fun fact: Hong Nan-p’a lived in the United States from 1931 to 1933, studying at Chicago’s Sherwood Music School (now part of Columbia College). Had he stuck around until 1934, he could have been classmates with Phyllis Diller—demonstrating, once again, that the only force strong enough to reliably bring humanity together is coincidence.

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