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Which one is the real Syngman Rhee?

Posted September. 28, 2013 07:20,   


Lew Young-ick, who has been appointed to head a committee for history school textbooks, describes Syngman Rhee, South Korea`s first president, as a "rare" intelligent politician in the history of Korea`s independence movement. The historian wrote that Rhee had the eye to accurately and quickly grasp the international political situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula and presented a vision to South Koreans who were in a state of chaos after liberation from Japan`s colonial rule.

By contrast, the Research Center for National Issues` video material describes Rhee as a politician who was involved in independence movement to satisfy his personal desire for power and used every means for his success in life. The video program titled "The 100-Year War" also argues that in an interview with the Washington Post, Rhee said Japan`s colonial rule developed Korea.

Such contrasting descriptions show the polarized view of the country`s first president. Following "The 100-Year War," a new round of war over Korea`s modern history is going on over a high school textbook written by historians advocating the conservatives. Debates based on historic facts are rare, while struggles using unreasonable language and acts are being waged.

The progressive camp attack the textbook for providing lengthy descriptions of the achievements by former Presidents Rhee and Park Chung-hee, arguing that the government should cancel its approval of the textbook. However, the founding of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) owes much to Rhee`s eyes for reading international politics. At a time when the former Soviet Union created the Kim Il Sung government, making it impossible to hold general elections under the United Nations` monitoring, Rhee opted to found the Republic of Korea even in the southern half of the peninsula. He should also take credit for South Korea`s rapid rise from one of the poorest countries in the world to the 12th largest economy and fulfillment of democracy, as he laid the foundation for democracy, local autonomy and freedom of press and protected the South from the North`s threats. It is not fair to labeling him only as the main culprit behind the national division and a dictator.

It is hard to agree to a claim by Lee Myung-hee, professor of history at Kongju National University, that the leftist camp occupies 60 to 90 percent of the education, media, arts and publishing sectors and that the South Korean society could structurally be overthrown within 10 years if the current situation continues. Not everyone in the progressive camp sympathizes with North Korea. The South Korean society is not so frail as to be overthrown by those who negates its system.

Among independence fighters during the colonial era, many were socialists. Nevertheless, it is difficult to agree to some conservatives` argument that movements to improve Korea`s diplomacy or national power was more realistic than armed struggles against the Japanese colonial rulers. Admiral Yi Sun-shin, with just 12 warships available to him, defeated Japanese invaders 10 times the size of his troops. The excuse that Koreans are a weak people and thus should seek independence by depending on powerful countries is the masochistic defeatism. South Korea`s failure to punish pro-Japanese collaborators after its liberation should be recorded as an error. The conservatives should not make the excuse that they failed to liquidate the collaborators because they had to fight communists.

Seven other history textbooks could distort students` perception history because they do not mention truths about communism while criticizing South Korea`s dictatorships. The textbooks also provide a great deal of negative descriptions of large corporations including their collusive link with the government. Such descriptions should be revised at least in order to promote entrepreneurship among young students.

If modern-history scholars cooperate, they will be able to make a textbook with balanced views. Different scholars have different interpretations of history. New debates take place when new historic materials are discovered. It is desirable, however, that they should seek a common and reasonable ground for school textbooks to be used by future generations. If the two sides fail to reach an agreement on some historical issues, both sides` views can be put into textbooks.