TV Drama Stirs Ideological Controversy

June 09, 2006

By Kim Rahn
Staff Reporter

Was former President Syngman Rhee a respected leader to become the first head of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG) which ruled from Shanghai during the Japanese colonial rule? Or did he lead the division of Korea after colonial rule by establishing a government in the South separate from the North?

This is a scene from the KBS TV soap opera “Seoul 1945” in
which Yeo Un-hyong, an independence fighter, is killed by a
terrorist. The drama has caused controversy as it depicted
Yeo and other figures differently from what most South
Koreans learned from textbooks. Courtesy of KBS

Those who watch television are now asking another question: Was Yeo Un-hyong, a freedom fighter at that time a mere leftist? Or did he try hard to prevent the nation from being divided?

An ideological dispute has recently erupted regarding a soap opera "Seoul 1945" of local broadcaster KBS. The drama is set around 1945 when the colonial period ended and the nation was in ideological turmoil.

Guest-boards of soap opera web sites are filled with stories about actors and their performances. But the board of "Seoul 1945" is seeing a heated debate over ideology, especially regarding the way the main character Yeo is depicted.

In reality, Yeo, a fighter for independence, participated in establishing the provisional government in Shanghai and organized a group for independence activities on the colonized Korean Peninsula. He also struggled to unite south and north in post-liberation Korea. He was killed by an extreme-rightist in 1947.

However, Yeo has not been properly recognized in South Korea, mainly because of his alleged inclination toward communist ideology.

The soap opera’s main character Choi Un-hyok is a leftist intellectual who turns from a socialist fighter for independence to a communist. Not a single drama depicting the time of liberation has ever told stories from leftist point of view.

In the drama Choi follows Yeo. Yeo is described as a prominent nationalist, while former president Rhee is depicted to take advantage of pro-Japanese collaborators in order to seize power. The story is quite different from what most of South Koreans have learned from textbooks.

Some of the viewers say the soap opera distorts history.

"It depicts communists were righteous people who sacrificed themselves for the people, for the nation. Isn’t it dangerous to justify communism in the situation where the South is still confronted with the North?" a viewer named Oh Ji-yon wrote on the guest board.

Another viewer, Hwang Dal-gun, said, "KBS made the drama from the leftists’ point of view, as the broadcaster’s president and the governing party have that view. They regard leftists as a pure group and claim those who struggled for the establishment of the nation were pro-Japanese collaborators."

However, others say the drama shows a side to history, which South Koreans have not been made aware of.

"I felt more keenly that we have been prejudiced against leftists since the South became rightist with the separate government of former president Rhee. Leftists or communists were also fighters for independence and struggled hard for the people and for the unification," an Internet user named Ho Da-im wrote.

Regarding such disputes, Kang Joon-sik, secretary general of a commemoration committee for Yeo Un-hyong, said, "Seoul 1945 is a drama, a fiction that tells about situations that might have arisen at that time. It also carries some errors. So it would not be appropriate to argue which is right and which is wrong."

"But the soap opera gives people a chance to reconsider history. Yeo was a progressive and nationalist, not a communist, as he suffered terrorist attacks from both rightists and leftists. But he has been treated in a light so far, while the drama depicts him as a person who worried about the nation," Kang said.

"Let us watch the drama with an open mind. The history we have learned is also a story based on a certain point of view, and we need to broaden our understanding by listening to the story of others’ points of view. We cannot say the thing we believe is the only truth," a viewer named Lee Oh-hyon said.

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