[OUTLOOK]A life well-livedYesterday, March 26, was the 131st birthday anniversary of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee. There was a memorial service at Chungdong Church just like every year, where people paid tribute to his memory, but the truth is that not many Koreans look back on or even remember the poetic ups and downs of his life. It is a shame that someone like Dr. Rhee, who was one of the most important people in Korean modern history, is being forgotten like this. It is even more of a pity now, when the government is making a national effort to bring forth history as an issue for people. As Syngman Rhee played such a central role in the establishment of the Republic of Korea, it is regrettable that there is no effort to shine new light on the former president’s life.
Dr. Rhee’s 90 years (1875-1965) can be largely divided into his youth, his independence movement period and the beginning of the Republic of Korea. The political ups and downs of his independence movement period and the early days of the Republic of Korea have been the subject of great debate, and I believe that historians will evaluate the value of his accomplishments in time.
We now live in a generation where youth culture makes up the general trend of society. Therefore I think it would be meaningful to look back on the youth period of our first president by examining some interesting facts from the book of a reputable researcher on Dr. Rhee’s life, professor Yoo Young-ik’s “Syngman Rhee in His Youth.”
The young Mr. Rhee was an extremely bright man who learned the basics of Chinese literature such as the Four Books and Three Classics at his village school, but failed every time he took the state examination from age 14 till 1894, when the system was abolished. This goes to show that whether or not a person passes a test does not absolutely decide that person’s capacity or future. Imagine how different his life or our country’s history would have been if he had passed the examination? He entered Baejae School, which was established by American missionaries, at the late age of 20, and learned English for the first time. He went to the United States at the age of 30 and obtained a doctorate degree at Princeton University in just five years. He showed people early on that studying abroad at a young age, as the trend is nowadays, was not a requirement of success.
Mr. Rhee had already studied the basics of world history and Western civilization at Baejae School, and was a member of the Independence Club led by Seo Jae-pil, a patriotic government official also known as Philip Jason. Upon graduation, Mr. Rhee was active in spearheading reform movements, civil rights movements and popular movements for the establishment of constitutionalism and a democratic system. He also played a leading role in the press, as the forerunner who led the launch of the first daily newspaper “Maeil Sinmun” and the chief editor of a newspaper that was printed in Hangul for the public, including women, “Jaeguk Sinmun.” Meanwhile, he also stood out as a fighter for the reform movement by leading such activities as a mass rally at Jongno in Seoul to protest against the leasing of Jeolyoungdo island near Busan to Russia, and an all night sit-down demonstration in front of the police headquarters, demanding the release of people like Lee Sang-jae, who had been arrested on charges of conspiring to establish a republican government by overthrowing the royal regime.
In November, 1898, when Mr. Rhee was 23 years old, the Joseon Dynasty established the Jungchuwon that was modeled after an early stage of a parliament and Mr. Lee was appointed as one of 50 assembly members. This was his first and only government position in the Joseon Dynasty. However his government position of ninth rank ended after just 34 days. He was linked to a conspiracy to dethrone Emperor Gojong and reform the government, and was arrested and imprisoned. After rigorous torture, he had to await execution, wearing a heavy yoke on his neck and cuffs and shackles on his hands and feet. Fortunately, his sentence was reduced to ten years after two special pardons after a death sentence in July, 1899. Eventually he was released after just five years in 1904, after the war between Russia and Japan. Mr. Rhee converted to Christianity during the five years he spent in jail until he was 29, at the Jongno prison near today’s Youngpoong Bookstore, and played a leading role in establishing a school and library inside the prison for the prisoners.
He spent his years in prison preparing for the future by writing a book, “The Spirit of Independence” and compiling an English-Korean dictionary, and went to the United States the year after he got out of prison at the age of 30, following the advice of government official Min Young-hwan. In the United States, he succeeded in finding the opportunity to meet Secretary of State John Hay and President Theodore Roosevelt and explained Korea’s position against Japan. Mr. Rhee’s life in his youth was like a drama with youth, intelligence and patriotism, and his story is one that would help the youths of today have big aims and desires for their future.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an advisor to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo