‘A hero dressed in a skirt’ and a king’s returnFeb. 17, 1977
“A hero dressed in a skirt” is how Im Yeong-shin is remembered. Ms. Im was born in 1899, and until she died on this date, she plowed her way through a conspicuously male-chauvinist age. History today cites, among her many achievements, becoming the first woman government minister and founding Chung-Ang University.
Ms. Im was lucky enough to have parents who were not only affluent but also interested in giving their daughter a modern education, a rarity in those days. Thus, from childhood she was exposed to Western life, going to Christian schools and other institutions set up by the Japanese.
After starting her career by teaching at what is now Ewha Womans University, Ms. Im then went to the United States in 1925, after seeing her country colonized by Japan in 1910.
Studying in the United States until 1930, Ms. Im attended the University of Southern California, and while there developed great respect for Syngman Rhee, a reputed Korean independence activist based in Hawaii.
On her return, Ms. Im founded Chung-Ang School, now Chung-Ang University. But she was too ambitious to stay in academia, especially after the long-awaited liberation from colonial rule in 1945. After the joy of liberation came confusion and conflict, with people divided into rightists and leftists, under the trusteeship of the former Soviet Union and the United States.
In the midst of this, Ms. Im rallied her fellow women and founded the Republic of Korean Women’s People Party. While promoting a feminist platform, she was also actively engaged in bringing back Mr. Rhee, the activist. Initially the future first president of Korea was prevented from returning to his homeland.
By doing this, Ms. Im firmly positioned herself as a politician, winning Mr. Rhee’s confidence. Soon she became a secretary to Mr. Rhee, who later appointed her the first minister of commerce.
As a minister, Ms. Im attracted a lot of attention for driving forward a series of policies and holding the most press conferences. Some of her policies, such as establishing civil advisory groups and a technology committee for future industries, are still highly regarded today. With Ms. Im cutting a conspicuous figure as a minister, then-President Rhee had her run for the National Assembly, to which she was duly elected.
In 1960, Ms. Im made a bombshell announcement to run for vice president. By then, President Rhee’s dark ambition to rule the country for life had emerged and he was ready to take measures to ensure this by fabricating the election results, using his right-hand man, Lee Kee-bung, the vice president. Mr. Lee resorted to secret, terrorist-like attacks on Ms. Im, never allowing her to make public speeches. In addition, public opinion said it was too soon for a woman to run for the vice presidency.
Some commentators used the old saying, “When a hen cries, it’s the end of the family.” Ms. Im was undaunted, however, retorting, “When a hen cries, it’s a sign that the family is in a crisis so serious that even a hen feels it has to do something.”
She failed in her bid, and although the Rhee administration itself was abolished by the grassroots April 19 Revolution a few weeks after the election, she never returned to the Korean political community. While Mr. Rhee was exiled back to Hawaii and Mr. Lee committed suicide, Ms. Im went back to being an educator until her death at age 78.
Feb. 20, 1897
In 1895, King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty had to witness his queen assassinated by the Japanese. It is no wonder that he became anti-Japanese in sentiment and fled to the Russian legation near his Deoksu Palace in central Seoul.
This flight helped the king to slow down Japanese influence over the Korean Peninsula under the umbrella of the Russian legation. Yet it worsened the diplomatic battle among world powers over Korea, while the Korean public itself grew resentful over the frailty of their king.
On this date, King Gojong unwillingly took the road back to the palace, where he soon had to bear witness to his country being annexed by Japan in 1910.
by Chun Su-jin