[Viewpoint] Honoring our founding presidentEvery country has a leader or hero who enjoys the respect of history and the love of the entire population. The name Mohandas Gandhi is cited by Indians, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk by Turks, Giuseppe Garibaldi by Italians, Ho Chi Minh by Vietnamese. Americans formally cite seven figures who framed the foundation of the United States through the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and John Jay - as their Founding Fathers.
When the democratic government of the Republic of Korea was proclaimed on Aug. 15, 1948, Syngman Rhee was elected as the founding president. Even the most famous independence movement leader, Kim Gu, is said to have referred to Rhee as the founding father of modern Korea.
The U.S.-educated Rhee strongly opposed communism and promulgated democracy when such a free ideology was a novel idea to a society swept up in ideological mayhem after liberation from Japanese colonial rule. Unfortunately, he lost public favor after a decade of clinging to power - a rule tainted by corrupt elections - and had to flee the country labeled as one of the culprits who divided the Korean Peninsula.
But Rhee alone did not found this nation. When Kim Il-sung - installed by the Soviet Union as the head of the Communist forces - agreed to a joint trusteeship by the Americans and Soviets, a separate government was established in the South in order to escape more humiliation of Korea being governed by outside forces.
In February 1948, the United Nations approved a separate election in the South. And the first election for assembly recorded a voting turnout of 95.5 percent. The South Korean government was born with the full blessing of the international community and most residents of the South.
Soon after Korea was bisected at the 38th parallel, the communist North implemented land reform in 1946 and confiscated private properties. South Korea revamped its land holdings in 1949 a year after it established an official government. North Koreans printed their first currency in 1947, but South Koreans were able to see their own money only in 1950. Land and currency are the nuts and bolts of a sovereign state.
North Korea was formed into a sovereign state before South Korea. It only proclaimed itself as an independent government 20 days after South Korea did. The North was fully prepared, otherwise it could not have created a government in just 20 days. It is unfair to claim a perpetual division of the Korean Peninsula could have been avoided if Rhee didn’t hurry to establish a state in the South.
After liberation came following the end of World War II, France took up “blind vengeance” against those who collaborated with the Nazi regime, executing thousands. Francois Mauriac, a Nobel Prize literature laureate and an active French Resistance member, pleaded for mercy for the collaborators for the sake of national reconciliation. He was opposed by Albert Camus, a journalist-hero of the resistance who campaigned to purge all Nazi collaborating elements. But at the sight of such insanity, Camus later admitted, “Monsieur Mauriac was right, not I.”
It is lamentable that some collaborators from the Japanese colonial period took part in the establishment of the South Korean government. But intelligentsia and statesmen were hard to find so soon after the country was liberated after 45 years of occupation. Except for some severe traitors, some of the civil servants that worked under the Japanese government inevitably had to be kept on to administer the nation.
We were different from France, which had a solid bureaucracy before it entered the war. Charles de Gaulle, who led the Free French Forces in the war and became the founding president of the Fifth Republic, dropped out of public favor - especially with students - due to his authoritarian style. He clung to his position even after large-scale protests from students and workers that ended in a bloody clash between student protestors and police in May 1968 and only resigned after losing a referendum a year later.
But until this day, few in France doubt his accomplishment of re-establishing France after the war. Despite criticism of his arrogant rule, he remains a national hero and is honored with a statue in Paris and a memorial museum at his hometown.
Rhee stepped down six days after the student protest on April 19, 1960 - a protest that ended in casualties - and went into an exile. To this day, the founding president remains disregarded, without a statue or memorial museum.
On a hill at Mansudae, Pyongyang stands a 20-meter bronze statue of Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Somewhere in the country a statue of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il stands next to his father, the eternal supreme leader. The world’s only communist dynasty stands tall in a country where most of its people live in extreme hunger, with most of its wealth used to make nuclear weapons and sustain the luxurious lifestyle of the Kim family.
Founding presidents can have flaws. It is time we bring the unfamiliar and sad portrait of Rhee home. We are a country that is at the crossroads of becoming an advanced society. A country of such pride can afford to rehabilitate the name of its founding president.
*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, P.C., and the former head of the Seoul Central District Court.
By Lee Woo-keun