SEOUL, South Korea — Paik Sun-yup, South Korea’s first four-star general, who was lionized as a Korean War hero by the South Korean and United States militaries but dismissed by many in his country as a traitor, died on Friday. He was 99.
Though widely credited for leading his troops in a pivotal and fiercely fought battle of the Korean War, Mr. Paik was a deeply divisive figure in his home country. In 2009, a South Korean presidential committee put him on a list of “pro-Japanese and anti-nation” figures who collaborated with Japanese colonizers during their rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Whether to treat Mr. Paik as a hero or traitor has also highlighted differences in how South Korea and the United States have read modern Korean history.
When they arrive in South Korea, top commanders of the U.S. military have always made a point of inviting Mr. Paik as an honored guest. On Saturday, the American commander in South Korea paid tribute to him.
“General Paik is a hero and national treasure who will be truly missed,“ Gen. Robert B. Abrams, the top U.S. general in South Korea, said in a statement on Saturday.
Many South Koreans don’t share that sentiment.
In a poll conducted last month, 54 percent of respondents said that the remains of pro-Japanese collaborators interred in national cemeteries should be moved elsewhere. The survey was taken as a debate raged over whether Mr. Paik’s family should be given the option of burying him in a national cemetery. Thousands of Korean War veterans have been interred there.
After consulting with his family, the South Korean Army said Mr. Paik would be buried in a national cemetery south of Seoul on Wednesday in an army-arranged funeral. Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said Mr. Paik “helped defend freedom and peace in South Korea.”
The United Future Party, the main conservative opposition party, also praised Mr. Paik.
“He has been a living hero of the Korean War, a living legend,” said Kim Eun-hye, a party spokeswoman. Conservative leaders who emphasize the importance of the United States alliance had often pointed to Mr. Paik as a personification of the bilateral ties forged during the war.
But the governing liberal Democratic Party decided not to comment on Mr. Paik’s death.
Some of its lawmakers have opposed burying Mr. Paik in a national cemetery and have called for revising the law on national cemeteries to disinter the bodies of 11 pro-Japanese collaborators already buried there and make their families bury them elsewhere. Most of the 11 were buried there for their roles in the Korean War.
Mr. Paik was born in 1920 in Gangseo in what is now North Korea. Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945.
In 1941, he joined the army of Manchukuo, a puppet state that imperial Japan established in Manchuria, serving in a unit known for hunting down Korean guerrillas fighting for independence. Mr. Paik said that while he served in the unit, he never engaged in battles with Korean guerrillas.
He was a first lieutenant when Japan was defeated in World War II and Korea was liberated — then divided into the pro-American South and the Communist North. Mr. Paik was among the Koreans in Japan’s colonial military who were recruited when the United States helped build a military for the South.
He was a division commander when North Korea invaded the South in 1950 to start the three-year Korean War. The invaders quickly pushed the South’s ragtag army into the southeastern corner of South Korea, behind what was known as the Pusan Perimeter.
Mr. Paik is credited for leading his division in the Battle of Tabu-dong, one of the fiercest in the war, which helped block North Korean troops from breaching the Pusan Perimeter. South Korean troops fought as part of the American-led United Nations forces, which later pushed the North Koreans back to the north.
“The day we entered Pyongyang was the best day of my life,” Mr. Paik recalled later.
During the war, Mr. Paik was made Army chief of staff and then, at age 33, a four-star general, the first in South Korea. The war eventually ended in a stalemate that continues today under a 67-year-old truce.
After retiring from the military in 1960, Mr. Paik served as South Korea’s ambassador to Taiwan and France, among other diplomatic postings. He also served as transportation minister from 1969 to 1971.
In 2010, the South Korean military tried to make Mr. Paik its first honorary five-star general. But that plan was quickly scuttled because of a backlash from the public and from his detractors among Korean War veterans.
“If Paik Sun-yup is called a ‘hero,’ what does that make Korean independence fighters who lost their lives at the hand of his old Manchuria unit?” asked Kim Won-woong, head of Heritage of Korean Independence, an influential group recognized by the government for its members’ struggle for independence. “If he really wanted to be treated like ‘a Korean War hero,’ he should at least have expressed repentance and remorse for his pro-Japanese deed.”
“But he never has,” said Mr. Kim in an interview published last year.
Mr. Paik is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.