[VIEWPOINT]Big powers and Syngman Rhee

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[VIEWPOINT]Big powers and Syngman Rhee

While George Santayana's observation that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it may not come to pass in Korea, nevertheless, it still has a certain resonance. Two of the most disputed areas of Korean historiography concern Syngman Rhee's role and relationship with the United States in pre-war Korean politics and Korea's demand for immediate independence in 1945 and opposition to trusteeship.

In fact, Rhee's relationship with U.S. officials fluctuated over time. While he was the most prominent postwar Korean leader, he was also an extremist who built his reputation on opposing the Soviet Union and demanding immediate independence for Korea, whereas the United States was pledged to cooperate with the Soviets in implementing the Moscow Agreement and was skeptical about granting Korea immediate independence.

Fearing the domination of Korea by the Soviet Union, Rhee threw a monkey wrench into the negotiating process in the Soviet-American Joint Commission and thwarted General John H. Hodge's coalition-building efforts between Left and Right.

He also attempted to discredit General Hodge, the American military commander in Korea at the time, who referred to Rhee as a terrorist for his radical policies and tactics. Objectively, Rhee stands second only to Kim Il Sung in terms of responsibility for Korea's division. The latter humiliated Kim Koo and Kim Kyu-sik, the two most prominent leaders of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, which led the independence movement until 1945, at the 1948 Pyeongyang summit of leaders of North and South. Kim Il Sung conducted this effort, aimed at avoiding separate elections and national division, like a party plenum. Rhee's terrorist tactics that aimed at crushing opposition to his authoritarian rule weakened American support for his regime before the Korean War, resulting in U.S. contingency planning for a military coup to replace him and leading Koreans themselves to drive him from power after the war.

The larger issue is whether Korea was ready for self-government in 1945, and if not, why not? The consensus among the allied powers at that time was that after 35 years of Japanese rule, it was not ready. To be blunt, the historical record of what occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century did not inspire confidence. (There were three wars on the peninsula, two between China and Japan and one between Japan and Russia between 1885 and 1905).

At the end of World War II, Korea was caught between Soviet and American power blocs, as it had been caught earlier between the Japanese and Chinese empires, unable to fend for itself, largely because the autonomy it enjoyed under Chinese protection did not equate with genuine independence in a modern state system. And, while great power rivalry, largely a consequence of Korea's geography, was obviously a major factor in national division, of equal importance was Korean factionalism and the absence of competent, unified leadership in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1945, the eminent historian, Arthur Toynbee, then working for the British Foreign Office, wrote several memoranda that cited Korea's lack of leadership and experience in managing its own affairs in arguing for a preparatory period before self-rule. Indeed, the failure of Korean leadership in both Koreas to transcend ideological and personality schisms, which eventually brought the Korean War, would seem to bear out his warnings.

It is indeed unfortunate that the notion that Korea needed assistance in self-government, the ostensible goal of the Moscow Agreement, is still widely seen as a trick to impose another period of foreign rule. In reality, however, it was essentially a plan for eventual self-government centered on a Provisional Korea Democratic Government to be created through consultation with Korean democratic political parties and social organizations. Trusteeship, itself, was couched in language calling for "self-help and assistance." It was a step forward toward self-rule although the United States and Soviet Union would have exercised final authority over the decisions of the provisional Korean government for a period up to five years.


The writer is a foreign professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.

by John Barry Kotch

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