A president overlooked

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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.


이승만은 서사시(敍事詩)다. 장엄하고 처절한 삶이다. 영광과 오욕의 갈림은 극명하다. 그의 구십 평생은 대한민국 근·현대사의 압축이다. 곡절은 긴박하고 반전은 극적인 드라마다. 대다수 한국인은 그를 제대로 알지 못한다. 알아도 일그러진 부분이다. 말년의 과오 때문이다. 독재와 부정선거다. 4·19 혁명은 그를 퇴장시켰다. 그 오점이 그에 대한 평판과 선입관으로 거세게 자리했다. 뒤틀린 이미지는 그의 생애를 추적하려는 지적 호기심을 떨어뜨렸다. 그의 리더십에 대한 흥미를 감퇴시켰다.

이승만의 과(過)는 분명하다. 공(功)은 찬연하다. 그는 건국 대통령이다. 자유민주주의와 시장경제로 나라의 비전과 틀을 잡았다. 그 선택은 위대했다. 북쪽 노선으로 갔으면 집단적 배고픔과 세습 독재에 허덕였을 것이다. 6·25 전쟁의 정리를 놓고 대통령 이승만은 미국과 충돌했다. 한미상호방위조약은 거센 투쟁의 성취다. 미국은 그를 쿠데타로 제거하려 했다. 동맹조약의 군사·경제 지원은 국가 재건의 기반이었다.

4월은 이승만에게 잔인하다. 그의 거대한 삶은 상처투성이로 헝클어진다. 50여 년이 지났다. 4·19 세대는 나이 칠십을 넘겼다. 그들의 이승만 평가와 시각은 어떤 모습일까. 1960년 4·19 전날 고려대 시위가 있었다. 그날 밤 학생들은 정치 깡패들한테 기습당했다. 그 유혈은 다음날 모든 대학의 궐기로 이어졌다. 박찬세(당시 고려대 4년)씨는 압도적 중심인물이었다. 4·18 선언문은 그의 작품이다.

“대학은 반항과 자유의 표상이다. 이제 질식할 듯한 기성독재의 최후적 발악은… 역류하는 피의 분노를 억제 할 수 없다.” 명문이다. 그 시대 대학의 감성, 저항의 대의를 명쾌하게 표출했다. 그와 대화를 나눴다.

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