Finding a founding father
People who praise Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, argue that he should be respected as a founding father of this country. They are often conservatives, rightists. That argument is rarely made by the progressives, leftists. But a surprise recently took place. Prof. Han Sang-jin, one of the leaders of the launch preparation committee for the People’s Party, called Rhee a founding father. Han is a renowned progressive socialist. Politically, he shares emotional ties to the late President Kim Dae-jung. And Han called Rhee a founding father.
The founding fathers in world history are those who made decisive contributions to the establishment of a modern republic. If you go back much further in history, no leader - no matter how great an empire he built - can be called a founding father. Muhammad of the Islamic Empire, Alexander of Macedon, Caesar of Rome and Napoleon of France were not called founding fathers. Yi Seong-gye of the Joseon Dynasty is also not a founding father.
Founding fathers are those who fought against feudal loads and established modern republics. Establishing a modern state built on liberty, equality and civil rights is more important than establishing a dynasty or expanding it. Of course, the process requires sacrifices and patriotism to overcome various ordeals. And there are founding fathers who have had both. George Washington of the United States, Simon Bolivar of Gran Colombia, Sun Yat-sen of China, Mohandas Gandhi of India and Kemal Pasha of Turkey are the renowned founding fathers.
And Korea has Syngman Rhee. During the Japanese colonial period from 1910-45 and the early days of Korea’s liberation, he was the most crucial leader. He was president of the provisional government in Shanghai and inaugural president of the Republic of Korea. He played a critical role in fighting against communism and establishing the republic as a liberal democracy.
His ordeals and sacrifices were as serious as those of Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen. He was imprisoned for five years and six months for a conspiracy to stage a coup against King Gojong. His way of life was humble and transparent, and the belongings left behind after his death were proof. He defended the country from North Korea’s invasion. After the Korean War armistice, he opened a path for Korea’s development with a strong alliance with the United States.
But he made mistakes. He did not aggressively go after Japanese collaborators because well-trained officials and police were crucial to the fight against the communists. After the National Assembly created a special committee to punish the Japanese collaborators, he protested it based on the principle of separation of powers.
Dictatorship is also a serious misdeed. Park Chung Hee was a true believer that dictatorship was the most effective path for development. He believed that democracy could wait in the early days of a nation’s development. In contrast, Rhee was a strong believer in democracy. He, however, chose dictatorial means to rule the country for a long time. He oppressed the legislature using the police force and legal loopholes and amended the Constitution.
Suspicions were raised that the March 15, 1960, election was rigged, and student protesters were killed. Rhee did not order the election rigging or the firing at protesters. But the tragedy of April 19, 1960, and the fall of the Rhee administration were caused by his desire to rule the country for a long time.
Is a leader guilty of misdeeds not allowed to be considered a founding father? The answer is no. Mustafa Kemal of Turkey was a dictator, but he is still called a founding father because his merits were greater than his demerits. He struggled to destroy Turkey’s feudal system and establish a modern state. He played a critical role in the battle against the allied British forces during the battle at Gallipoli. He protected the Muslim state from the attacks of Greece and Armenia. He, then, became Kemal Pasha.
But after he became the inaugural president, he became a dictator. The country was run on a one-party system, and resisting newspapers were shut down. He crushed the resistance of the minority Kurds and executed their leaders. Even before his retirement, statues of him were erected.
Despite the controversy, the Turkish people still call him the founding father. The legislature, before his death, presented him with the title Ataturk, which means “Father of Turks.”
When will Rhee, the Kemal Pasha of Korea, finally be considered our founding father? He may win the title if the two Koreas are united. History is interpreting events. When the materials to interpret are increased, the interpretation can change. When unification comes, the terrible secrets of the Communist North will be made public. Then, new light will be shed on Rhee’s effort to bring liberal democracy to the South.
It was a blessing for the Republic of Korea that Rhee lived in the United States, not China. In China, where Kim Koo and his associates operated, Sun Yat-sen’s capitalist philosophy was being muscled out by Mao Zedong’s Communist ideology. Many of Korea’s independence fighters in China were exposed to socialism. Kim lowered his guard against the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung, perhaps because of this situation. In contrast, Rhee witnessed the prosperous growth of capitalism in the United States.
After unification, Rhee’s choice will be understood more clearly. The people will realize how dangerous it was to seek inter-Korean cooperation in the period of liberation, how superior Rhee’s land reform was to the North’s state-owned collective farms and, more importantly, how Rhee’s Korea-U.S. alliance stopped the North’s invasion of the South.
When memories of the April 19 revolution are balanced with an appreciation for the establishment of a liberal democratic Korea, Rhee will be called our founding father.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 27, Page 31
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin