Lessons from documentary: ‘The Birth of Korea’

By Lee Sun-ho

A documentary film directed by Kim Deog-young called “The Birth of Korea,” seems to have received a very warm reception from theatergoers. I went to Apgujeong CGV in Seoul on Feb. 4 to appreciate the dramatic lifelong fact-based story of Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), who was also known as Unam.

Unam, no doubt, was one of Korea’s most important independence fighters, the first president of the provisional government in exile in Shanghai, and the founding father of the Republic of Korea, whose policy implementations were partly wrong but mostly brilliant to the average Korean or foreign national. Rhee’s critics against his storng anti-communist and pro-American views have continuously committed to erase Unam’s patriotic devotions and accompishments out of history, as no other country has treated its founding leader in such a manner.

The documentary frankly records the overall life struggles and sacrifices of Unam from his childhood in Hwanghae Province until his death in Hawaii. The movie truly executed a balanced approach to the turbulent legacy of Unam, whether bad or good.

I remember that Rhee passed the desired amendment to hold elections by direct vote to circumvent not being reelected by the National Assembly. He ordered the mass arrests of opposition politicians and passed the desired amendment in July 1952. After being reelected in 1956, he pushed to modify the Constitution to remove the two-term limit and was again reelected in March 1960. However, upon his running-mate Lee Ki-boong, winning the corresponding vice-presidential election due to fraudulent ballots, widespread opposition escalated into the student-led April 19 Uprising, which was quelled with government-sanctioned violence, and eventually led him to resign on April 26.

Aside from the above offenses, Unam’s dream, passion and enthusiasm for the building of a new republic as well as policy enforcement throughout the late Joseon Kingdom, the Japanese colonial rule, American military control, and the new republic in the south of the peninsula before and after the Korean War (1950-53), were patriotically brilliant and outstanding, to the best of my knowledge.

Unam served as the prime role model concerning Korea’s political leadership as an independence movement activist, pioneering journalist, high-achieving student in the U.S., and key negotiator with U.S. authorities and other international organizations. Returning to Korea in 1945 from the U.S. after the peninsula was liberated from Japan, he led the country by assuming various innovative key policy measures for the enlightenment of the new republic on the peninsula such as land reform, upgrading women’s rights, the release of anti-communist POWs before the end of the war, the theatrical conclusion of the Korea-U.S. mutual defense treaty after the war, the rehabilitation and reconstruction of a war-devastated homeland, with support from the U.S. and its allies.

More than anything else, without Unam’s efforts to safeguard the Republic of Korea, I want to stress that the northern regime could easily have occupied the whole of the peninsula, following Kim Il-sung’s sudden full-scale invasion of the South in 1950.

I think the documentary movie will be very informative both to contemporary audiences and future generations in view of candid, real explanations of Unam’s true story without prejudice, exaggeration and distortion. I still remember his convincing motto that I first heard in my childhood, “United We Live, Divided We Die!”

The writer (wkexim@naver.com) is a freelance columnist living in Seoul.

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