[Viewpoint] Facing down the odds

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[Viewpoint] Facing down the odds

‘The Shawshank Redemp-tion” is a 1994 movie and an enduring masterpiece that you should see before you die.
A young banker named Andy Dufresne is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover based on strong circumstantial evidence and is sentenced to two consecutive life sentences at the notorious Shawshank Prison. Andy is eventually appointed to assist in the prison library.
He writes to the Maine Senate for funds and improves the library day by day. One day, Andy’s knowledge of finance enables him to set up a tax shelter for the prison’s top guard. Andy becomes a member of the power elite inside the prison by hiding embezzled funds for the warden.
But how could a prisoner reach a position of power in a prison? It is a figment of someone’s imagination and an unrealistic story.
Korean prisons have had the same experience twice in the past.
One story is that of Kim Gu, the sixth and last president of the provisional government of the Republic of Korea; the other is Syng-man Rhee, the first president of South Korea.
In February 1896, Kim killed a Japanese general named Tsuchida, who was involved in the murder of Queen Min, the last queen of the Joseon Dynasty. Kim was arrested and sentenced to death. At that time, he was still only 21 years old. However, nothing rattled him. Young as he was, he presented a dignified appearance.
He always recited from “Great Learning,” a book that his father sent to him in prison, and devoted himself to teaching his illiterate prison inmates to read.
The Hwangsung Daily released an article saying that Kim was responsible for taking the Incheon Prison to a whole new level. Due in large part to his efforts, it went from being a prison to a school.
He wrote petitions on behalf of his fellow prisoners for no charge. When word spread that every petition he wrote won a victory, even officers asked him to help them.
He also succeeded in informing a high-ranking official about the great mischief that corrupt officers inflicted on the community, and the officers were subsequently relieved of their posts.
Kim established himself as one of the most influential leaders in Incheon and its vicinities, rather than as a condemned criminal.
He saved his own life just before he was put to death. His execution was suspended by the order of Emperor Gwangmu the same year he was supposed to die.
In March 1898, he broke out of prison and never went back, just like Andy does in the Shawshank Redemption.
Syng-man Rhee, who was so Westernized that he acted as a modern reformist at a young age, strongly criticized the imperious conservatism of Emperor Gojong.
The final outcome was that he was arrested in January 1899 for allegedly attempting a coup that was designed to oust Emperor Gojong and help Prince Imperial Uihwa take the throne. He was 25 years old at the time. Soon after being imprisoned, he threatened a prison guard with a gun and escaped.
However, he was caught and returned to custody once again. Brutally tortured with a heavy shackle around his neck, he waited by himself in a police cell for what he thought was certain death.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment and subsequently released in August 1904, specially pardoned by Emperor Gojong.
While he was in jail, he converted 40 government officials and intelligentsia to Christianity.
He persuaded a chief guard to open a prisoners’ school and taught Korean, Chinese characters, English, arithmetic, history and geography. He decided to compile an English-Korean dictionary for the first time in Korea, and completed entries from A to F.
He also operated a library inside the prison, which was equipped with 425 books that missionaries sent to the prison. Kim and Rhee were superior to the imaginary Shawshank character Andy as they changed their prisons into schools.
Even though they were not prisoner heros there have also been leaders who faced the death penalty.
They are Park Chung Hee, a former army general and dictator of Korea from 1961 to 1979, and Kim Dae-jung, a former president and the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
Park was arrested for his alleged involvement in the Namro Party in 1948, and Kim Dae-jung was sentenced to death on charges of sedition and conspiracy in May 1980 in the wake of another coup by Chun Doo Hwan.
Both of them are great historic figures who possessed superhuman traits and capabilities.
Chun and Roh Tae-woo, two former presidents, were later separately charged with mutiny and treason for their roles in a 1979 coup, the 1980 Gwangju massacre and slush funds.
Chun was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment, while Roh’s jail sentence was reduced to 17 years on appeal.
Both were released from prison in early 1998, pardoned by Kim Dae-jung, who was president at the time.
Among the presidents who have held office since the founding of the Republic of Korea, three faced the death penalty at some point in their lives.
This is a reflection of contemporary Korean history’s ups and downs. If the lives mentioned in this column had ended on the gallows, a number of remarkable achievements, such as the independence movement led by Kim Koo as president of the Provisional Government; the founding of the Republic of Korea by Syng-man Rhee; modernization and industrialization led by Park Chung Hee; and democratization and horizontal turnover of political power led by Kim Dae-jung.
Two days ahead of the 17th presidential election, it is interesting to look back on the lives of past presidents.
One message comes through loud and clear ― if a person wishes to become a top leader in Korea, he should follow through on his convictions at the risk of his life. It is never a post that an ordinary person desires.
As times and environments change, we cannot expect presidential hopefuls to fulfill the same goals. However, we believe that they should be determined to produce tangible results at the risk of their lives, at least in one or two areas, such as the economy, education or real estate policy.
Korean people clearly remember that even leaders of superhuman determination had more than a few deficiencies during their presidencies.
The 10 presidential aspirants should bear in mind the fact that the Korean people have high expectations for whomever becomes the next president.

*The writer is the senior editor of the sports and culture desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Ha-kyung

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