[Guest essay] The real reason Korea’s new right wants to dub Rhee a founding father

Posted on : 2024-04-23 16:38 KST Modified on : 2024-04-23 16:38 KST
Even Rhee himself insisted that the government established in 1948 was “reconstructing” the government established in 1919 by independence activists
President Syngman Rhee of South Korea declares the establishment of the government of the Republic of Korea on Aug. 15, 1948. In his remarks, he referred to “30 years” of the Republic of Korea. (courtesy of the Memorial Association for the Founding President Syngman Rhee)
President Syngman Rhee of South Korea declares the establishment of the government of the Republic of Korea on Aug. 15, 1948. In his remarks, he referred to “30 years” of the Republic of Korea. (courtesy of the Memorial Association for the Founding President Syngman Rhee)

By Lee Jun-sik, former president of the Independence Hall of Korea

When Syngman Rhee’s name is mentioned, most people think of a dictator. However, a movement centered around the so-called “new right” has emerged in recent years to elevate Rhee’s status. According to this group, Rhee should be seen as the nation’s founding father, who laid the foundation for what is now the Republic of Korea. 

Recently, the Yoon administration has advanced this idea as well. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon even came up with the absurd idea of building a memorial hall for Rhee in the capital’s Jongno District. 

History has already evaluated Rhee. He was a leader who was kicked out of office twice — once as the president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea and then as president of the Republic of Korea.

Why would a reevaluation of Rhee be necessary? Although he may have had some merit, his many mistakes far surpass his contributions. If there is any credit we must give to Syngman Rhee, it may be that he himself admitted he could never be the “father of the nation” that some strongly advocate him to be.

Rhee was elected as the first speaker of the National Assembly in the Constituent National Assembly, which was formed as a result of the elections on May 10, 1948. In his opening address on May 31, Rhee emphasized the “reconstruction of the independent, democratic government of Korea.” Here, the independent democratic government of Korea means the Republic of Korea.

To quote Syngman Rhee again, “We hereby declare that, after 29 years, it is the day of resurrection of the republic and the year numbering of the republic should start from the year of gimi (1919).”

When drafting the Constitution, controversy arose over what to name the country. Ultimately, it was decided to keep the name the Republic of Korea, which had already been formed in 1919.

As a result, the preamble to the initial version of the Constitution included the phrase, “We, the people of Korea, with a glorious tradition and history from time immemorial, following the indomitable spirit of independence, as manifested in the establishment of the Republic of Korea on the course of the SAM-IL [March 1st] independence movement, Now at this time engage in reconstructing a democratic, independent country.”

The country’s main historical document thus shows that the Republic of Korea was already established during the independence movement and that the launch of the government under the Constitution meant the reconstruction of the Republic of Korea, not the founding of an entirely new nation. 

Similarly, in his commemorative speech to celebrate the establishment of the government on Aug. 15, 1948, Syngman Rhee referred to “30 years” of the Republic of Korea. The first official gazette of the Republic of Korea, published on Sept. 1, also stated “30 years of the Republic of Korea.”

As such, the Rhee government itself clearly stated that the Republic of Korea was not established by virtue of its government taking power on Aug. 15, 1948. 

After several amendments, the preamble to the Constitution changed. Still, the preamble to the current version contains the phrase: “We, the people of Korea, [. . .] upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919.” 

Nevertheless, those who want to elevate Rhee’s status argue that the government’s formation on Aug. 15, 1948, was also the day the Republic of Korea was founded. This not only rejects what the Constitution says but also Rhee’s own multiple claims that the Republic of Korea was established in 1919. 

Those who insist that Rhee is the country’s founding father have been pushing for a “national foundation day” to be established. However, there are very few countries that consider the date of the government’s establishment to be the same as that of the nation’s founding.

Japan is the only country in the East Asian cultural sphere that has a national holiday named National Foundation Day. In 1873, Japan declared the day the country’s first emperor took the throne as the foundational date for its modern nation. Originally, the holiday was named “Kigensetsu,” which has been translated as “Festival of the Accession of the First Emperor and the Foundation of the Empire.” This was revised to simply “National Foundation Day” in 1966 by the Japanese cabinet. 

What’s clear, however, is that Japan’s National Foundation Day is not a celebration of the launch of a specific government or administration. South Korea’s own National Foundation Day, or celebrates the mythical foundation of the kingdom of Gojoseon in 2333 BC. China celebrates National Day of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, when Mao Zedong first proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Taiwan celebrates National Day of the Republic of China, or Double Ten Day, on Oct. 10, which commemorates the Wuchang Uprising of 1911 that ultimately led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. North Korea celebrates the Day of the Foundation of the Republic on Sept. 9, when the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was proclaimed by Kim Il-sung in 1948. Vietnam celebrates National Day on Sept. 2, when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence from France in 1945.

The majority of countries around the world celebrate a type of independence day, the equivalent to our March 1st Independence Movement Day or National Liberation Day. This is especially the case for countries that were former colonies. The Fourth of July in the US commemorates the Declaration of Independence. Americans do not view Independence Day as their “foundational day.”

There is a reason why the new right and the far right are pushing for a national foundation day. It’s to launder a history of dictatorships and collaboration with the Japanese imperial regime. 

Their ulterior motives are to create a national foundation day to bury the historical relevance of independence fighters and activists. By doing so, they would allow the pro-Japanese collaborators and those who upheld the authoritarian regimes that followed liberation to take their place, to make it seem as though Japanese collaboration and dictatorship are Korea’s birthright. 

This is evident in their selection of 1948 as the foundation year, when the Syngman Rhee regime kicked off. This is why they keep pushing for a national foundation day. It’s also why they insist on calling Rhee a “founding father.”  

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