The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Why is ‘The Birth of Korea’ in cinemas now?

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 28, 2024 - 05:29

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A Korean documentary film entitled “The Birth of Korea,” directed by Kim Deog-young, has been the talk of the town lately. The film, which portrays our first president, Syngman Rhee, has reportedly been seen by about 1 million people so far. Especially considering the fact that it is a documentary, not a blockbuster Hollywood film, such a high number of viewers indicates that the film is indeed a huge success.

Since Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945, Korean left-wing politicians and historians have sought political gain by condemning a number of decent celebrities as pro-Japan. Our first president Rhee has been on top of that list for a long time. However, Rhee spent his entire exiled life fighting for the independence of Korea from Japan, until he returned to Seoul to become the first president of the Republic of Korea at the age of 73. How, then, he can be a pro-Japan person eludes us. Yet, people have naively believed the illogical, malicious slander of left-wing propaganda.

Left-wing radicals also accuse Rhee of being a pro-America person. However, that was not true, either. During negotiations over the truce of 1953, Rhee valiantly confronted Washington when the US wanted to withdraw from the Korean Peninsula. This made him a headache to the Eisenhower administration. Thanks to Rhee’s bold and strenuous efforts, however, South Korea could secure the Korea-US Mutual Defense Treaty, and as a result, our national security has been rock solid for the past seven decades.

Indeed, Rhee was a master negotiator and adroit diplomat who had a keen perception of the international situation and who knew America quite well. Had it not been for Rhee, today’s South Korea would have merged with North Korea, becoming a communist country. Thus, we should be grateful to him instead of groundlessly criticizing him as if he were a national traitor.

Based faithfully on historical facts, “The Birth of Korea” sheds a new light on the importance and accomplishments of our first president Syngman Rhee and repairs his image as a great political leader. Indeed, Rhee was not only a founding father of the Republic of Korea, but also a competent leader who saved the country from domestic and international perils in the mid-twentieth century. The film also reveals that Rhee was a cornerstone of South Korea’s liberal democracy, modern education, and land reformation.

The film persuasively proves that Rhee has been a victim of unjust slander and defamation. The problem is that denouncing the first president also means denouncing the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea. As a result, our left-wing radicals have ended up, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledging that North Korea is the only country that is legitimate on the Korean Peninsula. Of course, that is precisely what North Korea wants. Besides, in the eyes of North Korean leaders, Syngman Rhee was an unpardonable “national traitor” who prevented the Korean Peninsula from becoming a unified communist country.

By presenting historical facts and evidence, “The Birth of Korea” powerfully castigates the leftwing propaganda that has prejudicially defamed our first president. The film is timely because it is about time that we should know the truth. It is encouraging that not only older people but younger people, too, are watching the film and realizing that our left-wing radicals have deliberately changed historical facts for ideological propaganda.

The left-wing propaganda has long manipulated our academia, too. In the past, for example, anyone who dared to defend Syngman Rhee would immediately find themselves under fire on university campuses. Conscientious historians who did not participate in the condemnation of Rhee were labeled “pro-Japan historians.” Regrettably, our academic atmosphere has always heavily leaned to the left.

Our left-wing scholars and literary critics also criticized Yi Kwangsu, the first modern novelist in Korea, as a pro-Japan writer, thereby denouncing modern Korean literature as a whole. Our academic journals, too, rejected research papers on Yi Kwangsu that defended him. It was embarrassing because, in academia, anything should be on the open table for discussion, whether pro or con.

In George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Big Brother runs the Ministry of Truth, the primary job of which is to manipulate historical truth to generate propaganda to manipulate the people. Appropriately, the slogans of the Ministry are “Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery, and War is Peace.” We, too, have lived in an Orwellian society where our left-wing radicals have brainwashed us by deliberately changing the facts and distorting history to fit their political ideology.

In that sense, “The Birth of Korea” deserves applause as a monumental historical document. Director Kim’s courage to excavate the truth may go under fire by left-wing politicians and historians. Nevertheless, we should admire and value his effort to do justice to our first president whose accomplishments have long been unjustly disparaged.

Why “the Birth of Korea” now? Because it is high time that we put an end to distorted history and restore long-lost historical facts and truth.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.