Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Roots of conflict

Popular prejudice in the world perceives South Korea as democratic and liberal society which opposed totalitarian North. In reality the picture is a little bit more complicated than that. Let me introduce you to Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, and the first one of subsequent South Korean dictators.

When Syngman Rhee had taken power as the first president of the Republic of Korea, he faced the reality of a post-war, post-occupation country with a society striving for survival.

In 1945 when the American presence on the Korean panninsula began, the country's economy was totally devastated. Although infrastructure had been spared from larger destruction, anything of economic value had been exploited to the fullest by Japanese military needs during the war.
More over South was the agricultural part of the penninsula with not more than 1/4th of the heavy industry, but in return, a food supplier for 65% of Korea.

Growing tensions with North under the communist regime did not make it any easier either. It is said that between 1945 and 1950 US overseas aid and UNRA donations saved lots of Korean lives, because hunger and starvation occured a lot.

Syngman Rhee was a Korean aristocrat born to a Yangban family. Under Japanese occupation had been involved in resistance movement and because of that was forced to leave the country. In exile he spent most of his life in USA where he gained university education but also continuously campaigned for Korean independence. He was also a member of Shanghai based Korean Provisional Government, however most of the time he stayed in USA.

His time in Korea came when it became apparent that short-term lived war alliance between US and Soviet Union will no longer be continued. Any attempts to discuss the future of the Korea by joint US-Soviet commision had failed and so the armistice line was settled on the 38th parallel. In such circumstances Rhee had started his term in the presidential office. The country urgently needed constitution and it was prepared. It secured a lot of civil rights which general Hodge had previously secured and was largely copied from the constitution of USA but with ready and effective escape clauses that guaranteed the right to impose martial law with direct presidential executive order if any danger arising from foreign relations should occur (Art 57).

Such solution seemed inevitable. Even before establishing the Republic, communist guerillas from the North had initiated a lot of unrest and uprisings. Authorities had been attacked on various occasions, the biggest uprising occured on Jeju-do and started to expand all over the country which faced already starvation and other problems.

These rebelions had been reason which led to the open surpression of civil liberties and excused why the first president of Korea had to act agressively on society by establishing the National Security Law.

By that time (1948) occupation forces withdrew from the penninsula and Kim Il Sung started to prepare for war which eventually broke out on June 25th 1950. The struggle led to a loss of 1 million lives and had been the direct challenge for the UN Chartter. 95% of the territory had been taken over by North Korean communists, some 0,5 mln Koreans were forcely dragged into Soviet lagers or for starvation in the middle of nowhere in vast Uzbekh and Kazakh territories. Seoul had been torn down to debris.

By the time the armistice was eatablished in 1953 Rhee became a ruthless authocrat. Although he bravely opposed the invasion he also used it as an excuse to strengthen his legitimacy and get rid of the opposition. He amended the constitution twice expanding the power of the president and to be elected by public vote. By the end of his term Rhee reminded more of the king surrounded by aristocrats than of a modern democratic leader.

Repressive measures towards society and growing infiltration, control and surpression of human rights using the anticommunism as an excuse had led to clash with American diplomacy. US Secretary of State delivered note stating that Rhee's style of ruling was ''unsuited for free democracy”. Although during this time anti – Americanism has been also growing because the American army had never openly critisized Rhee, all whatsoever critique had been done behind closed doors.

After 12 years in power facing massive growing protests president Syngman Rhee resigned from the office of the president and went into exile to USA.

Some may say that it is not an easy task to run a democratic society which permanently faces danger of war but also internal infiltration and provocations. Indeed history of the world shows that during transition from feudal state into modern democracy some form of autocratic rule often occurs.

Although critiques may say that president Rhee abused power to get rid of the opposition and exagerated threat from the North. In my own point of view both reasons occured. Also as a representative of Yangban family he belonged to the cast which very often had temptation to abuse power. And indeed he had opposition to get rid of.

The number of rival leaders is a very interesting issue itself. Could Koreans have prevented their own division? This question is not to be asked directly and is not answered.

Nevertheless for more than 20 years of it's existence Korean Provisional Government was not recognized by many countries. Too many rival organizations and voices called for the legitimate right to represent the interests of Koreans. A consistent unified voice would maybe change a lot. Syngman Rhee failed to think bigger than his own personal interest both during times of Japanese occupation and also later as president. Rhee took an occasion to became a dictator, just as an occasion makes one a thief. Although he had done one very honourable thing – he knew when to step down. And this was the end of the ROK First Repiblic.

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