Note: The following is an expanded version of a letter published in the January 16, 2013, issue of PAW.
Because I have worked as a Christian theologian among Koreans for some 20 years, I was stunned by PAW’s rather abrupt conclusion to its story reporting on the recent honor awarded President Syngman Rhee 1910 by Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs (Campus Notebook, Oct. 24). I do not intend with my letter to enter into the quibbling about the great leader of South Korea and that nation’s struggles for independence and unification before and after our Atomic Age. But I wish to point out that by reporting that President Rhee’s time in office was marked by accusations of corruption and including a quotation that his forced resignation – in the decade of the ’60s and the politics of the Cold War – was “unfortunate,” without any further reference to the actual history of the life and death of this man, tells us more about PAW than about the man the Woodrow Wilson School intends to honor with his name on one of its lecture halls. This is not journalism. Cultural or social changes, along with student protests in our times, do not have the last word on what history actually is. In its reporting on the honor, PAW at least could have referred its readers to a website like rokdrop.com, where a more complete appreciation of Rhee’s life and death might be brought into the light of history.
When I asked those with whom I work, I discovered two quite different perceptions of President Rhee’s history. Corruption was the cry that belonged to later generations, rather than to those who actually fought with him for Korean independence and unification against both Japanese imperialism and Russian-inspired Communism. The student protests viewed his history with the moral eye of their ideal world. Those who actually lived this history with President Rhee see those times quite differently. My interpreter for 15 years, like Rhee born in North Korea and a veteran of South Korea’s wars, finds no corruption in his life and his leadership of his peoples. He knows Rhee as a man of Christian integrity, fundamental to his determination to fight for independence and unification of the nation. Dr. Kim informs me that President Rhee, indeed, was a very great man. “I loved him,” he has said to me, with tears in his eyes. “Whatever corruption that occurred belonged to those both closest to and surrounding him!”
As a Christian man, Rhee fought for Korea all of his life. He was born into a privileged family in North Korea, and he had experienced in the hands of a Christian missionary the healing for his ailing eyes. Later, in a Japanese prison for some five years, he believed in Christ and became devoted to Christianity, as well as to Korea’s independence and unity. He was a friend of Gen. Douglas MacArthur; he allied himself for a time even with the Truman Doctrine in the Cold War politics of the Atomic Age. And like his friend Woodrow Wilson 1879, all were Christian men. These men may have had their faults, but they were great leaders in their times. They were not the egoists and corrupt leaders during the wars of those years. The history of their lives is marked indelibly with their Christianity. To judge the meaning of them in our times, with no reference to their Christianity and only an abrupt reference to Rhee’s “unfortunate” last moment and the “accusations of corruption” of his leadership of the Korean peoples, cannot be characterized as journalism. PAW owes those who wished to honor him at the Woodrow Wilson School a better job of reporting.