[Viewpoint] Let us now praise more recent menI pose the same question every time I train civil servants: Who founded South Korea? They are given multiple choices for answer - Dangun (founder of the first kingdom of ancient Korea), Yi Seong-gye (founder of the Joseon Dynasty), and Syngman Rhee (the first president of South Korea). Usually about five of 100 name Syngman Rhee. Two or so choose the Joseon king, and five pick Dangun. The rest keep silent.
When asked who founded North Korea, more than 20 percent name Kim Il Sung without hesitation. When their ignorance of modern Korean history is mentioned to them, they just shrug it off and say they never studied modern history because it is not a subject in school tests.
I walked into the eye of the storm by questioning the necessity of erecting statues of King Sejong the Great and Admiral Yi Sun-shin in Gwanghwamun Plaza. I was criticized for holding a narrow historical perspective. But I rhetorically wanted to underscore the proud history of modern South Korea. The Republic of Korea is the most successful country in our 5,000-year history. This nation has weathered a brutal 45-year colonial rule, division, and an apocalyptic war to realize a rags-to-riches miracle in just six decades after liberation. It is now one of the world’s 15 largest economies and a major producer of steel, ships, and semiconductors. We accomplished industrialization and democratization faster than any country in world history. South Korea has spawned world-class athletes like Kim Yu-na and Park Tae-hwan. No ancient kingdoms - Silla, Baekje, Goguryeo, Balhae, Goryeo and Joseon - can match the accomplishments of today’s Korea.
The country’s success has been bred by a free democratic system. In contrast, the communist state of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a disastrous failure. The people suffer from hunger and extreme deprivation in an antiquated hermit kingdom devoid of freedom and democracy. Socialistic societies that once controlled a third of the world’s population have all failed.
We must honor and commemorate the establishment of this great country as much as anything in the more distant past, such as liberation from Japanese occupation. Why do we need colossal monuments of King Sejong and Admiral Yi at the heart of the city when we could have smaller statues of them in elementary school grounds? What we need is statues of our former presidents - Rhee, Park Chung Hee, Kim Dae-jung, and Roh Moo-hyun - in the capital’s center. The other presidents can be honored beside them when they pass away.
But such a suggestion is contentious because many teach and learn that if not for President Rhee, our country may have avoided being broken up into two, experienced a painful war, and became dependant on American troops. President Rhee is not only the founder of the Republic of Korea, but also the figure who defended democracy from communists.
He fought against the Japanese monarchy during the late Joseon Dynasty and served six years in prison after receiving a death sentence. In 1952, in the midst of the war, he declared sovereignty over the waters around the Korean Peninsula, drawing up a maritime demarcation line that he called the “Peace Line,” which included the Dokdo islets.
The U.S.-educated leader promulgated democracy to a population that had neither learned nor experienced free democratic society. Of course, the man made many blunders. He ordered the police to shoot at hundreds of innocent citizens and students for protesting against his drawn out authoritarian rule on April 19, 1960. But one can’t but be in awe of his farsightedness and depth of thought when reading passages on the value of freedom in his magnum opus “The Spirit of Independence” - written when he was 29-years-old.
“We must open the path of freedom to encourage everyone to work and study hard to succeed. Only in this way, can a country can gain vitality and energy to become a wealthy and powerful nation in later years.”
When President Park Chung Hee declared his intention to build the Kyungbu expressway - a non-stop highway from Seoul to Busan - few among the intelligentsia and politicians approved. I was one of them. The expressway was hyped as an incubator for the automobile and steel industry. Professors at my school, Seoul National University, laughed at the idea, saying such industries of advanced economies cannot be created in a country without any technological skills or capital. Yet with its unique tenacity, this nation has accomplished Park’s goal. Park spearheaded a project that no economist believed feasible. My opposition then brings me chagrin, as the automobile industry is accountable for a large portion of jobs across Gyeonggi Province.
The world is in a fierce contest. Backed by immense land and population, the Chinese economy has been expanding by an average of 9.6 percent annually for the last 30 years. We have a duty to make Korea a top-rate, advanced, and unified nation. But there seems to be no committed goal or vision for our role and assignments in the next 10 to 20 years. Various fields, including politics, are in disarray.
The first task should be a clear understanding of the trajectory of our success. We should all be well acquainted with the history of this great nation’s achievements. No leap forward is possible without such wisdom.
*The writer is the governor of Gyeonggi Province.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Kim Moon-soo