Birthdays for Korea’s 1st president, an activist

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Birthdays for Korea’s 1st president, an activist

March 26, 1875
Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea, was born on this date in a small town of North Korea. As a 20-year-old student in Seoul, Mr. Rhee joined the independence movement against Japan’s colonial rule when Japanese officials assassinated Korea’s last empress, Myeongseong. Mr. Rhee became an active member of Dongnip Hyeophoe, or the Independence Society, in 1896.
In 1904, Mr. Rhee went to America to deliver a letter signed by King Gojong to then-President Theodore Roosevelt. Mr. Rhee asked for U.S. support to drive the Japanese out of Korea.
Staying in the United States, Mr. Rhee attended George Washington University and graduated in 1907. Mr. Rhee continued his studies at Harvard University and earned a master’s degree in 1908. Moving on to Princeton University, Mr. Rhee received a doctoral degree in philosophy in 1910, the year Japan officially colonized Korea.
In 1919, Korean freedom fighters took refugee in Shanghai and formed a government in exile with Mr. Rhee as the first president. After the liberation from Japan in 1945, Mr. Rhee finally returned to be the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948.
In 1951, during the Korean War (1950-1953), Mr. Rhee formed the Freedom Party, whose major task was to amend the Constitution and make Mr. Rhee’s re-election possible. After the war, Mr. Rhee continued changing the Constitution for his own good, taking power four times until 1960. He eventually bowed to pressure from democratic activists and fled to Hawaii, where he died in 1965.

March 26, 1947
Cho Yeong-rae was a lawyer who devoted his life to the needy. Born on this date as the eldest son of a poor family, Mr. Cho went to Seoul to continue studying and earn a living through private tutoring.
After graduating from the prestigious Gyeonggi High School, he entered Seoul National University as the top student in the law program. In college, Mr. Cho became deeply engaged in student activism during Park Chung Hee’s military regime.
After graduation, Mr. Cho began studying for the bar exam when a blue-collar worker, named Chun Tae-il, immolated himself to let the world know of the inhumane condition of laborers in Korea.
Mr. Cho stopped studying to organize the funeral, which was strictly controlled by the government. Mr. Cho later worked on a biography about Mr. Chun’s life, which he could not publish under his own name. The book first came out in Japan and was banned in Korea.
In 1971, he passed the bar exam. In the Judicial Training Institute, however, Mr. Cho was arrested as an active member of the Seoul National Students’ Conspiracy for Rebellion. Mr. Cho spent six years in hiding, during which time he wrote Mr. Chun’s biography.
Reinstated in 1982, Mr. Cho became a lawyer, and his only interest was to fight for human rights. He volunteered to take cases that were considered impossible to win, such as the Mangwon-dong flood disaster in 1984. Working pro bono, Mr. Cho revealed the government’s coverup of that incident.
Mr. Cho died in 1990 of pneumonia. He was 43.


by Chun Su-jin
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