[Viewpoint] A president overlooked

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[Viewpoint] A president overlooked

The life of the country’s first president, Syngman Rhee, was an epic drama. It was spectacular and tumultuous, distinctively dichotomous in elements of glory and disgrace. The 90 years of his life epitomizes South Korea’s turbulent history - full of volatility and dramatic turning points. Most South Koreans today hardly remember him. For those who do, the memory isn’t particularly positive.

The tragedy lies with Rhee’s deepest flaw: his desperate attempt to cling to power during his later years. He resorted to both the use of force and election-rigging to remain in power even after 12 years in office. He was finally stopped by a massive student-led protest on April 19, 1960, and was forced to live in exile for the remainder of his life. The strongman stigma eclipsed all his other accomplishments. Few dared - or bothered - to try to restore his historical image, and his leadership eventually went into the history books as a failure.

Rhee’s flaws are crystal clear and similar to the country’s other strongmen. But his positive legacy is more remarkable. He is the founding president of the Republic of Korea. He erected the two pillars - a free democracy and market economy - that set the right direction for a country coming out of years of colonization and monarchical rule.

The choices made by the Princeton-educated Rhee shaped this country. If he had been tempted by North Korea’s communist ideology, we would probably be starving today and suffering under a heedless dictatorship with no concern for its people. Rhee also clashed with his main war ally, the United States, over the armistice to end the war with North Korea, and only agreed to it in exchange for a mutual defense pact with Washington. The United States wanted to get rid of him by encouraging a rebellion. But the mutual security pact, which provided defense and financial support from the U.S., served as the basis for this country’s reconstruction.

April was indeed a cruel month for Rhee, fatally wounding him and leading to his fall. More than a half-century has passed. The heroes of the April 19 democracy movement are now over 70 years of age. How do they view the leader they helped bring down? On the eve of the April 19 uprising, students rallying on the campus of Korea University were attacked by a mob. The bloody attack led to protests on university campuses across the nation. Park Chan-se, then a senior at Korea University, was a central figure who wrote the April 18 declaration calling on students to rise up against Rhee’s authoritarian regime.

“University stands for revolt and freedom. We no longer can repress the rage of our blood,” he wrote, “against suffocation from the desperate lunacy of a dictator.” It was a magnificent rhetorical unleashing of youthful rebellion in the name of a higher goal.

I had a chat with the former hero and asked him some questions.


Q. Syngman Rhee shrinks in stature every time April 19 comes around. Are his faults highlighted too much?

A. It is unfair. We need to re-evaluate Rhee and balance his feats with his flaws. Take the China case as an example. Deng Xiaoping was purged twice by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. But when Deng came to power, instead of discrediting his predecessor, he upheld Mao’s accomplishments. Syngman Rhee is the starting point of modern Korean history. Without an accurate re-evaluation of the founding president, we cannot fully define the legitimacy and identity of this nation. The authoritarian atrocities and follies during his final years in power should be seen as just a part, not the whole, of Rhee.

Q. April 19 and Rhee represent opposing values. This may be one of the reasons the younger generation has an innate dislike for Rhee.

A. Rhee never avoided or disregarded the April revolution. In fact, he humbly acceded to the students’ demand to step down. He answered the call of the age. He visited the hospitalized rioters and told them, “It is not youth if it doesn’t rage against injustice.” Compare the aftermath of that protest with the uprisings in Arab societies. Rhee wasn’t like those leaders, even 50 years ago.


Rebellion was in Rhee’s blood. Despite his aristocratic background, Rhee raged against Japanese colonialism as well as the impotence and corruption of the Joseon Dynasty. He was an active independence fighter after annexation and, with a $300,000 reward from Japan on his head, fled to Shanghai posing as a corpse in a coffin. He was sentenced to life in prison, and upon release, studied in the United States. His life brimmed with struggles, challenges, triumphs and defeats - a true epic.

The April 19 movement was the tipping point for democracy in this country. It was a monumental achievement by the people. The more we celebrate the event, the smaller Rhee becomes. Some left-wing forces capitalize on the event to glorify Rhee’s antagonist, Kim Il Sung. They underscore Rhee’s recruitment of pro-Japanese government officials and discount his endeavors to claim Dokdo as South Korean territory. They distort the relationship between Rhee and his political rival Kim Gu, an independence hero. To them, the April revolution is a tool to discredit Rhee.

It is time for the heroes of the April 19 revolution to free Rhee from the prison of his reputation. They should allow younger generations the liberty to assess him on their own grounds. There are many among the young who wish to see our history from a more balanced perspective. Former long-time legislator and key figure in the April 19 movement Lee Ki-taek once said the spirit of the April revolution would be fully appreciated when democracy reaches North Korea. For such a goal, we must put Rhee’s legacy in the right context. A reconciliation between the April 19 generation and Syngman Rhee would be a turning point for a mature society.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Park Bo-gyoon
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