In Contemporary South Korea, Sins of Grandfathers Are Still Sins of Children

More than 70 years since Korea’s independence from Japan, having a traitor as one’s ancestor still brings great shame — if made public. Most South Koreans decline to mention such parts of their family history. A-list actor Kang Dong-won isn’t one of them, much to his own detriment.

Kang is at the center of a controversy that erupted on Mar. 1 — the day marking the 1919 uprising against Japanese occupation. Film news site Max Movie triggered the scandal by running a profile of actors and actresses whose forebears were pro-Japanese collaborators or independence fighters. Topping the list of collaborators’ descendants was Kang, whose maternal great-grandfather allegedly funded Japan’s war efforts and grew rich from mining rights granted by the colonial government.

The article has since been removed (but is still available on various blogs like this one). Max Movie claims that the posting, made by an individual user on its community page, had been unsolicited and contained some “information that deviates from the truth.” But the debate rages on. Under scrutiny is a comment Kang made in an interview a decade ago: “My maternal great-grandfather was [amazing]. His name was Lee Jong-man. He was chairman of Daedong Corporation. He ran gold mines.”

Worse than collaboration itself, according to many South Koreans, is refusing to acknowledge or being ignorant of colonial-era family sins. A “twisted” or “wrong” historical consciousness is a label frequently attached to views of the past that differ from or deny the ‘true’ history of the nation. Glorifying collaborator ancestors, unknowingly or not, falls squarely within this category. The only thing one can do to satiate an irate public is to confess the crime and silently disappear.

It’s a bizarre reality of South Korea: One’s career can be affected by ancestors’ deeds decades ago, for better or for worse. Another celebrity, Song Il-gook, known for starring in a popular child-rearing reality TV show Superman Returns, basks in the glory of having notable independence fighters as his maternal great-grandfather and grandfather. (He has also burnished his credentials as a patriot by naming his triplets Daehan, Minguk and Manse — the six characters that make up the expression “Long live the Republic of Korea.”)  

Then there is actress Moon Geun-young, whose maternal grandfather spent more than three decades behind bars for pro-North Korean activities. For that, she has been trolled for years as a “commie.” When it was revealed in 2008 that she had been giving large sums to charities, right-wing pundit Ji Man-won accused her of trying to “elevate” her family’s leftist record with her good deeds and pretty face. In short, her actions couldn’t be accepted at face value because of who her grandfather was.

After the news broke, Kang Dong-won and his management agency, YG Entertainment, made a poor attempt at damage control by requesting that the claims against his great-grandfather, which they see as defamation, be removed from various sites and search portals. The move has only provoked angry reactions online; people now think Kang is trying to conceal the unsavory past. He is slated to star in an upcoming movie about the 1987 democratization movement, but this prospect is now in jeopardy. Since the scandal broke, Kang’s detractors have been claiming he is unfit to play the role of an iconic student activist as planned.

“The grandson of a pro-Japanese collaborator shouldn’t play [student activist] Lee Han-yeol.”

“Even if he had apologized earlier, this doesn’t seem like a role he should play. Because a movie about history becomes history.”

Such sentiments are equally widespread in South Korean politics. There is plenty to criticize in the impeached president Park Geun-hye and the former Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung without delving into their parentage. Yet the left’s favorite gossip, at least before the Choi Soon-sil scandal, was stories of what Park’s and Kim’s fathers got up to as collaborators before 1945. To me, how General Park Chung-hee — Park’s father — worked his way into Japan’s good graces is as irrelevant to assessing his daughter’s career as what her fans say: that president Park deserves support simply because her father was a great leader. Either way, the logic is the same. Love or hate her not for what she has done, but for who sired her.

The controversy surrounding Kang betrays two impulses in South Korean society. One is to use the past to judge children who weren’t responsible for that past. Holding figures accountable for the sins of their kin is a vestige of feudal politics. In Joseon, the Korean dynasty that endured until 1910, blood and marital relations of treasonous subjects could incur punishment even if they themselves were not disloyal to the throne. The system survives on a smaller scale in contemporary South Korea. Not only do descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators and communist sympathizers suffer shaming; children of criminals, too, are often socially shunned as the product of “bad seed.”  

Another impulse is to quickly condemn a past that may be too complex to be grasped through a few factoids, especially concerning the colonial era. Of all South Korean media outlets, it is surprisingly the liberal Hankyoreh that has leapt to Kang Dong-won’s defense by reprinting a column from last year: The article contends that while Lee Jong-man, Kang’s great-grandfather, did offer money to Japan, he also donated 800 times that amount (roughly 70 million dollars in today’s terms) for the education of Korean workers and farmers. This complicates the narrative surrounding the man. But it won’t be enough to turn the backlash against the actor.

My own lineage has made me wonder whether I ought to be ashamed of my family’s past. My father’s side of the family were once large landowners in South Jeolla Province. After 1945, my paternal grandfather headed the local chapter of the Anti-Communist Youth League. On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather was vice-principal of a venerable girls’ school in Seoul while the city was the colonial capital.

Such facts conform to typical profiles of collaborators. Under Japanese rule the percentage of land owned by Koreans decreased steeply; those who held on to sizeable tracts of land likely accommodated and even assisted the foreign rulers. The same landowners often became anti-Communist stalwarts after liberation, fearing land redistribution similar to that enacted in North Korea. Meanwhile, holding a position of authority in the colonial education system could easily attract a charge of betraying the nation.

But were they traitors? If so, how much did they benefit from collaboration? My maternal grandmother hastily married, in the twilight of colonial rule, a man she didn’t care for. She did it as the only way out of becoming one of the comfort women who were coerced into sexually servicing Japanese soldiers. Only after marrying was she safe from forcible recruitment, I am told. Being from a family of ‘collaborators’ did nothing to protect her.

We may never get the chance to learn the complete truth about Kang Dong-won’s great-grandfather, already branded a collaborator in the internet trial. Kang himself has apologized for “not correctly perceiving [my maternal great-grandfather’s] actions.” In that same apology, he also spoke about his maternal grandmother, an “independence fighter’s descendant,” clearly in an attempt to salvage his family’s and his own reputations. It’s perhaps the only thing he can do now. In history as defined by the majority of South Koreans, there is only right and wrong, white and black. And collaboration is the blackest sin of them all, passed down from generation to generation, till the end of time.


For more on the Kang Dong-won controversy, read Pro-Japanese Roots Haunt South Korean Actor Kang Dong-won” in ké radar.

Cover image: A 1919 funeral procession for Gojong, the penultimate ruler of Joseon, at the gate of Deoksu Palace (Source: Munhwa i)



Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.