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The lightness of honorific title for patriotic martyrs

Posted January. 06, 2014 03:25,   


“What kind of Uisa (醫師) (meaning a medical doctor in Korean) is Ahn Jun-geun?” This question from my preschool son made me burst out laughing. Although Uisa (義士) and Yeolsa (烈士) (both meaning a patriotic martyr in Korean) is not a legal term, it is an honorific title for patriots who fought for the independence of Korea. According to the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, Uisa is “a person who rose against the enemy by force at the risk of his life, whether successful or not.” Patriots like Ahn Jung-geun, Lee Bong-chang and Yun Bong-gil are notable examples. Yeolsa refers to “a person who manifested the strong spirit of resistance through death instead of using armed force.” The case in point includes Lee Jun and Yu Gwan-sun.

The title of Yeolsa has not been given only to the people who sacrificed their lives for the nation during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Yeolsa Kim Ju-yeol who died during the March 15 Movement fighting against the dictatorship and election rigging of the Liberty Party triggered the April 19 Revolution. Yeolsa Jeon Tae-il who burned himself to death, crying out, “Abide by the Labor Standards Act,” set off labor movements in Korea. For those who agonized over the harsh reality under the brutal dictatorship and devoted themselves to democratization, people who survived have given them the title of Yeolsa to pay tribute.

Even after the democratization of Korea, people given with the honorific title have not diminished. From some point, those who burned themselves or committed suicide started to be called Yeolsa as well. It seemed what kind of life they had lived before then did not matter. Their deaths were made absolute and used as a breakthrough for fights by stirring up anger amongst the public. Such a practice got more ridiculous in some cases. At the memorial ceremony for national and democratic martyrs in June last year, North Korean partisans during the Korean war and spies sent to the South by the North after truce were included in the list of Yeolsa.

On the last day of 2013, Lee Nam-jong burned himself on the overpass in front of the Seoul Station and died on the following day. Organizations in remembrance of national and democratic martyrs, the Alliance of Progressive Movements and Living with Jesus argued that “his death is not a simple suicide but a protest against the Park Geun-hye administration” and gave him a funeral of “democratic citizen” calling him “Yeolsa Lee Nam-jong, the democratic activist.” He was buried in the Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju where patriotic martyrs who fought for Korea’s democratization are buried. It is very regrettable that he died, and no death outweighs another in importance. Nevertheless, giving him the title of Yeolsa cannot but be doubtful. If he is just called “citizen” or “laborer,” is it an insult to the deceased? The weight that the term “Yeolsa” carries feels so light.

City Desk Reporter Kim Jae-yeong (redfoot@donga.com)