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(Yonhap Interview) Scion of independence fighter vows to strengthen national identity

All News 17:00 July 11, 2011

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, July 11 (Yonhap) -- Kim Eul-dong is not afraid to beg to accomplish what she thinks ought to be done to improve the legacy of Korea. It's in her blood.

Her grandfather, Kim Jwa-jin, Korea's first general of independence fighters, released 50 families of slaves at the age of 18 and used all of his family fortune to set up armed forces to fight against the imperial Japanese army in the early 1900s.

Her father, Kim Du-han, a legendary Korean gangster who raised conflicts against Japanese police, had no money throughout his life, though he was elected twice to the parliament after the post-colonial government in the 1950s and '60s.

Kim Eul-dong, a 66-year-old member of the minor opposition Future Hope Alliance, is one of 41 women in the 299-member National Assembly. She has invested all her property to set up a war memorial and cultural center for Korean minorities in northeast China, historically known as Manchuria.

"It took almost a decade to hand down the legacy of independence fighters who sacrificed themselves to fight against the Japanese occupation," the actress-turned-lawmaker told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview.

In 2001 when Kim decided to use all of her money and property, including her house, to start a project to restore the historical vestige of independence fighters in Manchuria, she didn't know what it would take to connect contemporary Koreans with freedom fighters from nearly a century ago.

"There were several moments when I wanted to give up this project," Kim said. "I bounced back whenever I faced hardship, because I'm a Korean general's granddaughter."

During the last 10 years, a squad of some 100 college students has made a pilgrimage every summer to the battle fields of independence fighters and historical sites, under the guidance of the Kim Jwa-jin Memorial Foundation and veterans affairs agency. The course runs some 5,000 kilometers in northeast China, covering areas that include what was once Korea's Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C.-668 A.D.) and its inheritor Balhae (699-926).

General Kim established the Northern military administration office army in 1919 and led it to victory at the Battle of Cheongsan-ri in 1920, recording the greatest victory in Korea's armed struggle against Japanese colonial rule. He was assassinated in 1930 in his shelter.

"Manchuria is the place where Korea's independence spirit is still alive. I hoped this pilgrimage could connect Korean youngsters to their ancestors who fought to save the country and their people," Kim said.

The foundation has also hosted cultural events for ethnic Koreans in China at the Korea-China Friendship Park in Hailin, in China's Heilongjiang province, to help them learn about Korea's modern history and traditional culture through various programs.

Although the four generations ranging from Kim's grandfather to her son, actor Song Il-kook, were registered in Korea's biographical directory, Kim said her family is among a few good cases of descendants of independence fighters, many of whom are still living in poverty.

"Descendants of pro-Japan collaborators are well educated and well off, while most offspring of independence fighters are living in poverty," Kim said after pausing for a moment. "It's an irony. The government should acknowledge patriots' sacrifices and support their descendants."

Since taking office in 2008, Kim has submitted a package of bills calling for expanding benefits for families of war veterans and freedom fighters and increasing facilities for them. The bills are currently pending in the parliament.

Although his father was a famous Korean freedom fighter, Kim Du-han lived like a beggar under a bridge at an early age during the Japanese occupation. Before his surprise entry into politics in the 1950s, he was regarded as Korea's most notable gangster, often raising conflicts with Japanese police.

"My father lost his father at an early age, had no money through his life and even faced a death sentence. He had nothing to fear," the loud-speaking Kim said with a big hand gesture.

With a sigh, Kim acknowledged that she hated her father, who didn't take care of his own family.

"But I forgave him after his death when I found out that he was helping suffering people and orphans. That's when I decided to follow his path," she said.

Even in a nation famous for its sharp-elbowed political theater, she is not afraid of resorting to stunts to win battles: She once showed up at the National Assembly in Korean traditional dress, hanbok. She condemned a luxury Seoul hotel that banned customers in voluminous dress from entering buffet restaurants out of concern that they could interfere with other customers.

"It is nonsense that those who have to promote Korean culture to the world look down on their own cultural assets," Kim said. "The government should encourage luxury hotels to take initiatives in introducing Korean cuisine to foreigners."

Kim also knows how to use her status as a scion of an independence fighter in dealing with diplomatic issues.

In April, she sent a letter to Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto to ask Tokyo to disclose documents on the remains of Ahn Jung-geun, who was executed a century ago for assassinating Japan's first prime minister, Ito Hirobumi, in Harbin, China, in 1919. Matsumoto is Hirobumi's great-great grandson.

As Ahn's remains are still unaccounted for due to the lack of information on the details and exact place of his execution and burial, Kim believes Japan's help is crucial in finding his remains.

"In Japan's perspective, Ahn may be a figure who killed the Japanese hero. But he had the rationale to shoot him to save his country in Korea's perspective," Kim said, following a recent visit to a former Japanese prison in Ryojun, now called Lushun, where Ahn was executed. She has yet to receive a response from the Japanese government.

With only one year left on her parliamentary term, Kim said she does not know her political fate, nor does she care much about it.

"But I know this for sure: I will continue to work to infuse patriotism into people's hearts by strengthening Korea's national identity," she added.


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