Light the flame of reconciliationThe 51st anniversary of the April 19 uprising against the Syngman Rhee administration has special meaning and executive members of the Rhee Foundation and his son In-soo plan to pay tribute to victims of the government’s iron-fisted repression at a national cemetery in northern Seoul.
As it turned out, President Rhee was not actually aware of the fraud committed by his subordinates in the March 15 presidential elections nor of the fact that they gave the order to shoot the protesters to death. Responsibility for the deaths of innocent civilians, however, should ultimately be borne by the president.
Considering Rhee’s response to the April revolt, the condolences offered by Rhee’s family and the parties involved appears a bit belated. On hearing the news of the hundreds of victims, Rhee expressed his regret over the bloody suppression at a hospital where injured students were treated. He then went on a self-imposed exile to Hawaii.
But a majority of Koreans, including the 4/19 generation, have kept him in a grave of dictatorship and corruption, and their fury, which climaxed when his statue was dragged down on that day years ago, has continued. One typical example of this animosity was former President Roh Moo-hyun’s characterization of Rhee’s reign as a shameful chapter in our modern history. By highlighting Rhee’s decision to rehire pro-Japanese officials in the government and underscoring his penchant for authoritarian rule, the liberals are still driving him into the shadow of our history. We don’t even have a decent statue of Rhee nor a modest presidential library.
A fair judgment of the pro-Japanese leaders of the past requires a broader picture of their legacy than a narrow-minded view allows. When he was young, Rhee spearheaded a campaign to enlighten the public and devoted himself to our independence from Japan’s colonial rule. After liberation, he made a priceless contribution to building a free and democratic nation against the turbulent wave of communism. After he was elected president, he brought Western-style democracy and a market economy to this country, while laying the foundation for industrialization.
The Rhee Foundation’s laying a wreath at the 4/19 memorial represents his apology for the ignominious crackdown on the protesters. The bereaved families of the victims should forgive him in return, because the glorious moment in 1960 can shine more brightly when we rekindle the flame of genuine reconciliation.