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Monday, April 15, 2024

South Korea’s founding President Syngman Rhee is revived in history

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Lee Young-il

By Lee Young-il
The author is a former lawmaker of South Korea.

* This column, originally written in Korean, was printed in Hansun Brief No. 287, published by the Hansun Foundation on Feb. 20, and is republished here after translation by the Korea Daily staff with the assistance of Chat GPT. -Ed.

Poster for the movie ‘The Birth of Korea’


1. Introduction

“The Birth of Korea,” a documentary film directed by Kim Deog-young, delves into the life and death of President Syngman Rhee, the founding father of South Korea, or Republic of Korea. It explores his role as a leader of the independence movement, the founding and reform of the Republic of Korea, the Korean War and its recovery, the U.S.-ROK alliance, and economic development, presenting South Korea’s modern history in a time-series manner. The unexpected success of the film in mobilizing audiences in the Korean film industry attests to the hard work of the director and crew. Moreover, it reintroduces Dr. Syngman Rhee, a founding president who has been erased or forgotten from history for the past 60 years, into our lives.

While people in their 70s and 80s, who make up about 20 percent of Korea’s living population, are somewhat familiar with Dr. Syngman Rhee, surprisingly few know the truth about his pivotal role in shaping Korea’s trajectory, including its liberation and founding, the Korean War, and the U.S.-ROK alliance. Particularly, the generation born after the April 19 Revolution (President Yoon Suk Yeol was born in 1960) grew up amidst overwhelming propaganda against Syngman Rhee. Subsequent presidents deliberately ignored or overlooked Dr. Syngman Rhee, despite his superior education, experience, and intellect, in favor of leaders of the independence movement whom they deemed unworthy of respect.

“The Birth of Korea” stands out for satisfying the curiosity and thirst of modern Koreans who have not been taught the truth of modern history or have been misinformed. It presents the truth of history with empirical data and corrects distorted or misunderstood perceptions about President Syngman Rhee, reminding us of its significance.

It is heartening to witness a Korean documentary film shedding light on the truth of Korea’s founding history. Director Kim Deog-young predicts that if the number of viewers exceeds 1 million, there will be a significant change in the political consciousness of those who watch modern history.

2. Kim Il Sung’s Psychological Warfare against South Korea
Syngman Rhee’s place in history has been thoroughly trampled underfoot not only because of the successive regimes in South Korea that ignored the founding president but also because of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung’s anti-Syngman Rhee propaganda. Kim Il Sung bears full responsibility for initiating the internecine war that led to the division of the Korean Peninsula into North and South Korea and devastated the entire peninsula. Kim founded North Korea as the Soviet Union’s puppet regime in February 1946, two years before South Korea was founded on August 15, 1948.

To escape responsibility for these enormous crimes and to manipulate the North Korean regime he established as the legitimate government of the Korean Peninsula, Kim Il Sung had to blame and thoroughly deny his crimes on President Syngman Rhee, who established the Republic of Korea in a free general election under UN supervision and whose legitimacy was recognized by the international community, including the UN.

It also considered the North Korean invasion of South Korea as an aggression against the legitimate government legitimized by the United Nations and realized the need to erase from history the leadership of President Syngman Rhee, who defeated the North Korean invasion with the help of UN forces. This was the core of North Korea’s psychological warfare against South Korea that began in 1948.

He collaborated with the Comintern, the international communist organization run by the Soviet Union, to stage psychological warfare to discredit President Syngman Rhee. At the time, North Korea’s psychological warfare slogan was “Syngman Rhee, a dictator, the cause of dividing the nation by establishing a sole government in South Korea, and the cause of internecine war,” and the North Korean government made every effort to discredit Rhee.

The April 3 riots on Jeju Island and the Yeosun rebellion were also part of the intense psychological warfare. From the moment the UN General Assembly passed the proposal for a general election across the entire Korean Peninsula under UN supervision to this day, North Korea’s psychological warfare against South Korea has not stopped for a single day to vilify, erase, and denigrate President Syngman Rhee. North Korea’s anti-Rhee propaganda campaign did not end after Rhee was forced to step down by the April 19 Revolution in 1960. Successive presidents have either ignored or turned a blind eye to North Korea’s attacks on Syngman Rhee because they were not directed at them.

The essence of North Korea’s attack on South Korea was not an attack on Syngman Rhee but an attack on the legitimacy of the establishment of the Republic of Korea. Nevertheless, successive administrations have either ignored the North Korean attack on Syngman Rhee or turned a blind eye to the attack on the legitimacy of the founding of South Korea. Taking advantage of the defenselessness of successive regimes to pay attention to North Korea’s psychological warfare against President Syngman Rhee, leftist historians in South Korea, tainted by North Korean propaganda, have embarked on the academic practice of accepting Kim Il Sung’s North Korean version of “Korean history” as if it were orthodoxy.

“Recognizing the Reality of the Divided Era” authored by Kang Man-gil manipulates the logic of “all unification is right,” pushes the idea of unification, and instead of seeing the nation as a constellation of individual members with human rights, the leftist historian defines the nation as “individuals are part of a whole,” and bring out the fictional discourse of “our people” to distort Korean modern history. They launched a historical revolt that erased and denied the founding president, Syngman Rhee. Leftist historians follow the view of George Orwell’s “1984,”- “He who controls the past controls the future.”

However, the South Korean government has either condoned or turned a blind eye to this movement in the Korean history academy. The issue of history textbooks was raised during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. However, the government failed to act decisively due to the opposition from the progressive teachers’ union. The government was unable to take a firm stance on the history textbook issue, and instead of taking a firm stance, the issue was effectively ignored. What were the consequences of the successive governments’ easygoing attitude toward modern history and lack of philosophy?

3. The Rise of North Korea Sympathizers
Kim Il Sung’s psychological warfare against South Korea succeeded in creating conditions for the emergence of North Korea sympathizers in South Korean universities in the 1980s. The unification view of some leftist historians does not question what kind of unification. In their viewpoint, any unification is always deemed good. This implies that communist unification is also favorable. Those who opposed communist unification and advocated liberal democratic unification were labeled as anti-unification forces, national divisive forces, or pro-Japanese.

Kim Il Sung’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, which he termed a war of national liberation, is justified because it aimed at unification, and the April 3 riots on Jeju Island, which occurred to oppose the establishment of the South Korean government founded through a free general election under UN supervision, were also categorized as national unification movements because they supported communist unification.

Looking back, the 1980s was a period when South Korea achieved rapid economic development driven by exports and large companies, succeeding in the Second Industrial Revolution. In this process, the gap between the rich and poor widened in society, and the demand for equal values emerged. Seizing this opportunity, North Korea’s propaganda organizations actively disseminated and propagated Kim Il Sung’s so-called Juche (Self-reliance) ideology, and university students sympathizing with North Korea listened to North Korean broadcasts and engaged in North Korea’s psychological warfare against South Korea, branding South Korea as a country that should not exist.

Right-wing forces in South Korea lacked the philosophy or proper experience to respond to these changes, and they were overwhelmed by the left-wing offensive, followed by events like the mad cow disease outbreak and subsequent candlelight vigils under the name of impeachment protests, ultimately leading to the left gaining control of the government. In such circumstances, Dr. Syngman Rhee, the founding president of South Korea, was erased from the national memory to the extent that he could not be revived in modern Korean history.

Kim Il Sung’s strategy seemed to have reached the peak of its success. The Moon Jae-in administration, propelled by an offensive from North Korea sympathizers known as the “Juche faction,” pursued a peculiar policy of shifting leftward with right signals. Under the pretext of eradicating past corruption, it undermined the economic foundations of the right wing and engaged in excessive hoarding to maintain power, resulting in a failed regime characterized as a “dark age” by the standards of fairness and common sense.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, in control of the country’s sovereignty, has turned North Korea into the poorest country on earth, a rogue state that no one in the global community wants to visit or live in. This situation led to a leftist regime in South Korea, which barely won the elections on the back of propaganda, losing power to a rightist regime. This is a very rare event in modern history, followed by the Yoon Suk Yeol administration.

4. The Rebirth of President Syngman Rhee in History
With the departure of the Moon Jae-in administration and the emergence of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, poignant self-reflections on the Moon Jae-in era have begun to surface in various sectors of Korean society. First and foremost, on March 26, 2023, the 148th anniversary of President Syngman Rhee’s birth, more than 60 senior citizens from the April 19 Revolution generation across various universities visited his grave at the National Cemetery in Seoul. They prayed for his memory by observing a moment of silence, thus bridging the historic gap between the April 19 Revolution generation and President Syngman Rhee, initiating a history of reconciliation.

The event resonated strongly with the public. Later that same afternoon, Minister of National Veterans Affairs Park Min-sik, representing the government at the anniversary event organized by the President Syngman Rhee Memorial Project at Ewha Plaza in Seoul, emphasized the need to build a memorial for Dr. Syngman Rhee. President Yoon Suk Yeol suggested that the memorial should be funded by public donations under the ‘Presidential Honor Act.’ He proposed honoring President Syngman Rhee as the founding president of the Republic of Korea, rather than just as an independence hero. He emphasized the importance of fairly evaluating both his merits and faults to serve as a historical example.

On September 1, 2023, Dr. Lee In-su, the adopted son of Dr. Syngman Rhee, visited the April 19th National Cemetery. He apologized to the families of those who died and were wounded during the April 19th Revolution as a representative of the bereaved families. In response to Dr. Lee’s apology, expressed while visiting the cemetery in a wheelchair, the April 19th Revolution-associated organizations accepted it as genuine. This gesture removed all obstacles between the April 19th Revolution and President Syngman Rhee, paving the way for reconciliation.

In this atmosphere, several documentary films have been released, reshaping the public’s view of Dr. Syngman Rhee. Director Kwon Soon-do’s film “Birth of Miracle” highlights his achievements, while “33 Years of Independence Diplomacy,” directed by In Bo-gil and Kim Hyo-sun, focuses on Syngman Rhee’s independence diplomacy.

“The Birth of Korea,” directed by Kim Deog-young, is gaining momentum in the movie industry and is expected to exceed 1 million viewers soon. It offers an unparalleled collection of documentary footage, filling gaps with narrators and additional footage to aid understanding. The narrators, including scholars who have studied Syngman Rhee, enhance the credibility by translating and explaining original language content into subtitles. However, there is room for improvement in terms of clarity in subtitles and distinguishing between subtitled and narrated content.

Celebration is due as the Yoon Suk Yeol government has reevaluated and revitalized the role of founding President Syngman Rhee in Korean history. If the North Korean Kim Il Sung family’s 70 years of efforts to erase Syngman Rhee are reversed, and his true character is revived in history, Kim Il Sung and the DPRK will be relegated to the position of “the original culprit responsible for the division of the Korean people, the division of the national territory, and the internecine war by becoming a satellite state of the Soviet Union.”

It is not irrelevant to the historical resurrection of President Syngman Rhee that Kim Jong-un stated in late 2023 that “North and South Korea are not even the same people,” declaring “South Korea is an enemy country and a target for invasion and conquest.” This assessment followed the complete failure of all propaganda campaigns to discredit South Korea over the past 80 years.

5. The Achievements of the Founding President Syngman Rhee to Be Remembered
I will examine President Syngman Rhee’s achievements from both the perspective of the independence movement and the founding and patriotic paths.

A. The Independence Movement Perspective: Syngman Rhee made two significant contributions.

⑴ He consistently upheld the independence movement through diplomacy. He believed that achieving independence through armed struggle against Japan was difficult. He emphasized the importance of the international community recognizing the injustice of Japan’s colonization of Korea and advocated for diplomatic efforts to secure Korea’s independence. Ultimately, liberation was not achieved through armed struggle. The March 1 Independence Movement was an expression of the Korean people’s will for independence to the world public opinion. Our liberation was facilitated by the unconditional surrender of Japan and the Cairo Declaration, which promised Korea’s independence. Syngman Rhee devoted much of his time in exile to promoting Korean independence through various means, including media engagement, letter-writing diplomacy to Allied leaders, lectures, participation in international conferences, and the unity and education of overseas Koreans. In the United States, Rhee’s book ‘Japan Inside Out,’ which predicted Japan’s invasion of the United States, became a bestseller six months after its publication. Rhee’s predictions gained appreciation when Japan made surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor. The book, reviewed by Nobel Prize winner Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, contributed to a better understanding of the Korean situation in the United States. It may have influenced Harry L. Hopkins, a special aide to the U.S. president, who included the Korean independence clause in the Cairo Declaration, according to some scholars.

⑵ Syngman Rhee constructed a new geopolitical theory to break away from fatalism regarding the Korean Peninsula. Viewing the distant sky of his homeland from Hawaii in the United States, he rejected the geopolitical fatalism that regarded the Korean Peninsula as a tail of continental powers. Instead, he envisioned it as a bridgehead to the continent for maritime powers. He dreamed of establishing an independent nation with a liberal democratic system that would attract maritime powers to the peninsula. To realize this dream, he opposed the trusteeship of the great powers and pursued the path of building an independent state through free general elections under UN supervision. Today, North Korea, the tail of a continental power, remains one of the poorest countries on earth, while South Korea has become the envy of the world. Syngman Rhee’s foresight in the geopolitics of the founding era was outstanding.

B. Founding Korea and His Patriotism

⑴ Enactment of a Constitution Guaranteeing Liberal Democracy and Market Economy
On May 10, 1948, Syngman Rhee, as the first speaker of the National Assembly, alongside 198 members elected in a free general election under UN supervision, enacted a liberal democratic constitution. The 103-article draft constitution was finalized through voting on each article, creating a democratic constitution reflecting the people’s will. South Korea stood fundamentally different from North Korea, one of several satellite states of the Soviet Union, which adopted constitutions identical in content to the Soviet satellite constitution, albeit with different national symbols and capitals. North Korea’s sovereignty now resides in the hands of one supreme leader, while South Korea’s sovereignty rests with the people.

⑵ Implementation of Land Reform
At the time of liberation, 90% of South Korean farmers were tenant farmers. In this context, President Syngman Rhee enacted the Land Reform Act, employing a groundbreaking method of paid purchase and paid distribution, transforming farmers nationwide into self-employed individuals. The state purchased all farmland exceeding 3,000 hectares owned by landowners and distributed it to small farmers, who were required to repay 20% of their annual income for five years to convert the land into their ownership. Unlike other countries such as Brazil and the Philippines, where land reform failed due to opposition from landowners, Syngman Rhee’s reform garnered support, notably from Inchon Kim Sung-soo, the largest landowner on the Korean Peninsula, with 3,274 parcels of farmland. This reform safeguarded Korea’s liberal democratic system by enabling peasants to defend their land and resist Communist Party propaganda and demagoguery during the Korean War.

⑶ Signing of the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty
This treaty represents a monumental achievement in Syngman Rhee’s security diplomacy. It was signed by the president of the weakest country on earth in a diplomatic feat deemed historically impossible. Syngman Rhee referred to it as the “ROK-U.S. Offensive-Defensive Alliance.” The treaty allowed South Korea to host U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula for over 70 years, ensuring peace and security in the region. Building on this foundation, South Korea focused on economic development and became the first newly independent nation after World War II to achieve industrialization. Without these safeguards, agreeing to a ceasefire as demanded by the United States would have subjected the Korean Peninsula to Communist bargaining tactics, potentially leading to communist domination similar to Vietnam. Upon signing the U.S.-South Korea defense treaty, President Syngman Rhee delivered a powerful public address: “Thanks to this treaty, even our future generations will enjoy the great benefits of security.” This statement remains relevant today. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, ratified by both countries, and it continues to significantly contribute to peace and the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula.