The Birth of Korea Documentary Leaves No Room to Deny Achievements of Syngman Rhee

Rhee conveys Korea’s gratitude to the U.S. after the war. (Source: The Birth of Korea documentary)

SEOUL – “If it weren’t for President Syngman Rhee, South Korea today would hardly differ from North Korea,” said Jo Dong Jin, a 45-year-old North Korean defector.

Jo made the comment on February 23 after watching The Birth of Korea, a documentary on South Korea’s first president which has been creating something of a sensation since its release in mid-January. 

“I have to say I cried a lot throughout the movie,” Jo said. “I kept feeling so sad that President Rhee has not been properly appreciated.”

The movie, produced by Kim Deok Young, addresses some of the negative assumptions about Rhee that have passed into history as true and produces evidence to show that he was misunderstood. 

It has been favorably commented on by President Yoon Suk Yeol and other politicians. It is also gaining popularity among North Korean defectors, 

“Just by looking at the nighttime satellite photos of the Korean peninsula, shown in the movie, you can see clearly whether Kim Il Sung or Syngman Rhee was right,” Jo said. “As a North Korean, I wonder about the common sense of people who deny South Korea’s founding president. The country may not have been perfect but he gave South Koreans the gift of a free democratic system that eventually enabled the prosperity you see today.”

At the beginning of this year, Elon Musk made this point when he posted nighttime satellite photos of the peninsula on X with the comment: “Crazy idea: Let’s divide a country into half capitalist and half communist and check on it 70 years later.”

As someone from North Korea, I can tell you that to be born there is like being born in hell. But it’s not hard to find people who don’t believe this. For example, Victoria, the daughter of the Russian Ambassador to North Korea, often showcases the developed aspects of North Korea and shares glimpses of daily life there across all her platforms, including YouTube.

In South Korea, there are also people like this. Some politicians make the point that South Koreans should avoid disparaging Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. Not that any of them would choose to live there.

My interpretation is that they think that North Korea is good in theory, but not good enough in practice for them. In other words, even these people, by appearing to be positive, in fact confirm my claim that North Korea is hell.

It is typical of Kim Il Sung and the North Korean regime that they consistently obscured their own unfair and inhumane policies by constantly pointing the finger at Rhee, portraying him as an incompetent leader and a traitor who sold the country to the United States. 

There is a 1980s North Korean movie, Snow Melts in Spring, where the main character criticizes his friend for joining the South Korean army and calls Rhee “a man who used to do business in Hawaii.” The implication is that Rhee was not more than a greedy capitalist. 

As this suggests, North Koreans have been raised to despise Rhee and still are, even decades after his passing. 

The reason for this strong dislike is that, to the North Korean regime, the very establishment of South Korea as its rival is a testament to his achievements. 

Though born to a fate akin to that of slaves, North Koreans who defect to South Korea find freedom. They often remark among themselves about the gulf between the two versions of Korea. Rhee gets the credit for founding the better version and ensuring that it endured the war and eventually thrived.

The documentary “makes us reflect on how dire our reality would have been without him,” said Thae Yong Ho, who was stationed in London as a North Korean diplomat and is now an elected member of the South Korean National Assembly.

Jung Su Jeong, 51, a defector who arrived in South Korea in December 2022, expressed astonishment upon hearing that people in South Korean society openly disparage the first President. “I was shocked when I first heard people denouncing him,” she said. “I thought they were all North Korean agents because their interpretation was so similar to what we were taught.”

The South Korean GDP is over 57 times larger than North Korea’s. However, this prosperity can only be sustained when history is remembered. The Birth of Korea documentary serves as a wake-up call to the younger generation which may be forgetting it.

Given that North Korea considers the South its enemy and has nuclear weapons, the consequences of losing sight of what is important are unimaginable.

Jung Young-seong, 43, a defector who arrived less than a year ago, in March 2023, said, “When history is distorted and ignored, the suffering of our grandparents under Japanese colonial rule or the enslavement of citizens today in North Korea could soon become the reality of young people in South Korea.”

Syngman Rhee
Rhee came from North Korea. He was born on March 26, 1875, in Hwanghae Province. A Christian democracy activist, Rhee was jailed for anti-government activities and later went to the United States where he earned a BA from George Washington University, an MA from Harvard and a PhD in 1910 from Princeton. In Hawaii, he became the superintendent of the Korean Christian Academy. He was the President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea from 1919 to 1925. From 1945-48, he served as the first Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, and from 1949-61, he was the first President. He resigned following protests against rigged elections and went to Hawaii where he died on July 19, 1965.

Kim Il Sung
Born on April 15, 1912, in Pyongyang. After elementary school, Kim moved to Manchuria. He enrolled in school when he was 15 but dropped out. He was arrested and imprisoned. From 1936-41, he served in the Anti-Japanese Allied Army of Northeast China. From 1942-45, he was a captain in the Soviet Army. After World War Two, when the Soviets occupied the northern zone of Korea, they installed Kim as the leader. After obtaining backing from Stalin, his troops invaded South Korea. Despite his failure to achieve victory, he remained unchallenged in power until his death in 1994, when he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il, establishing the communist world’s first family dynasty.

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