The Republic of Korea is experiencing another surge of hype. The reason for such a hype is the donation made by actress Lee Young-ae, who donated 50 million won ($37,000) in September 2023 to the Syngman Rhee Memorial Foundation, which is currently conducting a fundraising campaign to build a memorial building for the former president.
In response to growing criticism over her act, the actress said weeks later that history should remember the presidents’ shortcomings, but it should also recognize their achievements. This will make the country more united and make Korea a better place for the next generation.
She states that Syngman Rhee “helped build the foundations for democracy in South Korea,” and in general, “if the South fell to the communist North, my children would be among the poorest and the most oppressed children in the world.”
The actress said she believes unity, rather than ideological conflicts, will make Korea a mature democratic nation, adding that she has been making donations to organizations commemorating other former presidents.
This news is interesting because the course towards “whitewashing” Syngman Rhee can be observed in the conservative environment since approximately 2016, when, even during the reign of Park Geun-hye, the authors of a single history textbook, led by Kim Moo-sung and the company, sought to portray his reign as a time of free markets and democracy so that the economic miracle would be the result of his legacy.
Such a positive shift in attitudes towards Syngman Rhee can partly be attributed to attempts to rename the August 15 holiday, which they are trying to connect not so much with the “rebirth” of the Republic of Korea, whose provisional government was established in 1919, but more with the activities of “founding president Rhee”, since by this time his paths with the leadership of the Provisional Government, which was headed by Kim Goo in 1945, diverged so much that a supporter of the “united front” and a united Korean state, Kim, together with his supporters, boycotted the 1948 elections, and in 1949 he was killed by Syngman Rhee’s men. Therefore, the Republic of 1948 is perceived as Rhee’s project, which had no relation to the former Republic of Korea, which was Kim Goo’s project.
Meanwhile, today, a very interesting discussion is unfolding in academic science regarding the extent to which the epithet “fascist” is applicable to Syngman Rhee’s regime. Let’s discuss it.
Let’s clarify the terminology at the outset, since the term “fascism” in Russian literature is usually used in three versions:
- Fascism, as Benito Mussolini understood it.
- A definition that covers a whole series of dictatorial regimes, including not only Nazi Germany, but also Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Croatia, etc. Note that these dictatorships existed not only in the interwar period, and therefore, in addition to the European regimes described above, Latin American dictatorships, from Chile to Paraguay, were also added to the fascist dictatorships. However, no attempt is usually made to analyze the applicability of this term to Asian regimes, and even militaristic Japan is not always declared “fascist”.
- “Political taunt.” The brand “fascist” is attached without proper terminological definition.
There are many definitions of fascism, and quite often they arise from the desire to form a list of “fascists” so that it includes some regimes, but not others. Therefore, we will use the definition given by the famous modern researcher of fascism, Michael Mann, according to whom fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism.
Another important feature of a fascist regime is anti-communist ideology, since fascist regimes were either nurtured to counter the “Red Menace” or justified authoritarianism by the need to combat it.
Let’s look at the Syngman regime in this context as defined by Mann.
Anti-communism. This was the core ideology of South Korea, along with nationalism. South Korea positioned itself as the “forefront” of opposition to communism in Asia even before the start of the Korean War. Both the North and the South made plans for a forceful scenario of uniting the country, however, unlike Pyongyang, Seoul planned more than just the liquidation of the DPRK. A military campaign was planned involving the United States, Kuomintang China and even Japan. As a result, it was planned to destroy not only North Korea, but also Red China, the northern territories of which (Manchuria, Liaodong Peninsula and Russian Primorye) were supposed to pass to the Republic of Korea as “historically belonging to it.” Recall that the Syngman Rhee regime sabotaged the conclusion of a peace agreement and eventually refused to sign it, as a result of which the South Korean army was resubordinated by the United States to the so-called “UN command” under a “mutual defense treaty” in order to exclude the option in which Syngman Rhee would want to “do it again,” and the United States would have to get into a war “at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and with the wrong rival.”
Transcendent State. Although Mussolini’s slogan “nothing but the state” was difficult to implement due to the excessive corruption and discord in the state system, the basis of Syngman Rhee’s ideology was the “one nation principle” (Korean: “Ilminjuui”), which was developed by Prime Minister Lee Beom-seok and Education Minister Ahn Ho-sang, who studied in Germany and experienced significant ideological influence of the Third Reich. Rhee and Ahn planned to create a theory that would be competitive with communism. That is why the concept of “Ilminjuui” also included theses aimed at criticizing the capitalist form of the socio-political system where “personal freedom and the power of money” was opposed to the Korean tradition, which rejected any form of individualism, idealized the country’s historical past, and emphasized the need to unite the nation.
For this purpose, Syngman Rhee actively used historical mythology, including the Myth of Tangun, the legendary progenitor of the Korean people, the son of a bear and a celestial deity. Nevertheless, Tangun was declared a historical figure and the country started to measure time from the year of his birth. It was considered more official than the Gregorian calendar.
The one nation principle was based on both Confucian traditionalism and “Tangun nationalism”, proclaiming “the unity of the nation, the unity of the territory, the unity of the spirit, and the unity of life.” However, the ideologists of the one nation principle singled out power and bureaucratic structures, ranking them higher than ordinary citizens.
However, after Syngman Rhee began to perceive Lee Beom-seok as his political rival and removed him from power, this ideology began to wane, giving way to anti-communism. However, no one has formally canceled it, and it reflects the “third way”, elitism, etc., characteristic of fascist ideas.
The Constitution of the Republic of Korea, which was created in 1948 by analogy with the constitutions of European states, gradually evolved towards the total autocracy of Syngman Rhee. However, when one vote was needed to pass another bill to amend the constitution, which required 2/3 of the vote, the result was rounded up with the words “in such an important manner, fractions are not important.”
No less indicative is the history of the 1956 elections, in which three candidates were allowed to run for president: Syngman Rhee, the former communist Cho Bong-am, who was later repressed and the classical nationalist, Shin Ik-hee. He was no less a traditionalist and anti-communist than Rhee, and once the structures associated with him tried to assassinate Kim Il Sung, which was prevented by Yakov Novichenko. However, compared to Syngman Rhee, he was considered a democrat and died a week before the elections. The Central Election Commission forbade changing the candidate and, according to the ballot papers, Syngman Rhee competed with the deceased, who took second place, and even defeated the incumbent president with a gap of 50,000 votes in Seoul.
Paramilitarism and cleansing. As liberal historians calculated in the early 2000s, the number of victims of the “White Terror” in South Korea in 1948-1953 was approximately twice as high as the victims of the “Red Terror.” Moreover, a significant role in this cleansing was played not by the de jure state, but by various “parmilitary organizations,” collectively known as “youth corps.” Actually, the change in the statistics of repressions was largely due to the fact that the results of the activities of such groups (which, of course, did not keep any records) were added to state repressions, and therefore, until a certain time, several mass graves holding civilian bodies with signs of torture were attributed to the actions of the “Reds”. One of these burials for 5,000+ people in the Daejon area even received the nickname “Korean Khatyn.” Representatives of the so-called “Northwest Youth Society” also showed themselves in the suppression of the uprising on Jeju, in which every fifth (or according to other calculation methods – every third) resident of the island died.
In addition, the two leading ideologists of the “one nation principle” noted that they were creating youth corps by analogy with the SA shock troops.
However, the official regime also fully practiced repressions that fit into the concept of “stratocide”. This is the so-called “podo yongmen”. This group consisted of repentant leftists who had withdrawn from political activity or were under suspicion. There were approximately 100,000 members in this group. At the outbreak of the Korean War, they were all repressed as “potential red agents”.
The regime also practiced extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances of political opponents, and this was largely due to the political experience of Syngman Rhee, who began his career in the Independence Society as the leader of a similar group that “collected funds” and terrorized political opponents. For such activity, Rhee was imprisoned even before the official crackdown on this group, and that is why the youth corps were formally associations that did not have any government funding and existed due to the sale of national flags and portraits of Syngman Rhee (sometimes in the form of an intrusive offer or extortion).
Speaking of portraits, although the cult of personality in itself is not a mandatory sign of the fascist regime, it is worth noting its individual elements such as statues, portraits, imagery on currency and the corresponding titles. All this was observed in South Korea 10–15 years before it appeared in the North. It is believed that the Syngman Rhee statue erected on Namsan was the tallest structure in Korea at that time and had almost cult significance, but it was thrown down during the April 1960 revolution. Rhee considered himself the messiah of the Korean people and, according to American intelligence reports, the mind of the 80+ year old dictator “began to fade” in the late 1950s.
Let’s ask ourselves the growing question, “What about America?” On the one hand, the United States fed the democratic opposition, which was more focused on the American values of democracy and human rights. On the other hand, the Cold War climate required that the leader of a state such as the Republic of Korea be as pro-American and anti-communist as possible and ready to go to extremes in an emergency. At the same time, he had to have a certain charisma and reputation. Among the political leaders of South Korea in the second half of the 1940s, only Syngman Rhee, who arrived on an American plane and left in the same way, met such criteria. Rhee spent the last five years of his life in Hawaii.
The extent to which South Korean fascism corresponds to the canonical Soviet Union’s definition “according to G. Dimitrov” is a matter of discussion, however, we observe both a high level of repression and outright revanchism. As for “power in the interests of financial capital,” the situation here can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, the financial and industrial groups, from which the notorious “chaebol” then evolved, were formed under Rhee due to the transfer of liquidated Japanese property to the “right people”. At the same time, enjoying the favorable attitude of the state, they supported it not only and not so much in the form of taxes, but rather the ruling regime and the ruling party in the form of corrupt relations. On the other hand, there was no talk of dictating one’s will to the state. Any entrepreneur who did not show any patriotic zeal could face “people’s outrage” in the person of representatives of youth corps.
Actually, even in modern South Korea, the attitude towards fascism is ambivalent. The Holocaust and other crimes of the European Theater of World War II are on the mental map of the average South Korean, and while militaristic Japan clearly occupies the position of the worst enemy, Nazi Germany stands aside, occupying the niche of “strange people in cool uniforms.” That is why the Republic of Korea is vulnerable to scandals involving, for example, the “Gestapo” bar, decorated in the appropriate aesthetics, or chewing gum, which is advertised by a hypothetical Hitler with the appropriate speech style and gestures.
In this context, attempts to once again exalt the role of Syngman Rhee are of deep concern to the author and partly fit into the concept of “rehabilitation of fascism”, despite the fact that Rhee’s regime had nothing to do with the development of democracy or the economy. At the end of the regime, the country’s per capita income was $60 (the level of Nigeria at that time), and American aid accounted for almost half of the national budget. The economic miracle began under the rule of Park Chung Hee. It was also a tough authoritarian regime, but it demonstrated significantly fewer criteria for compliance with a fascist regime.
And now let’s sum up the above. In the author’s opinion, this should be enough for every reasonable person. At least according to Michael Mann’s definition, the regime that ruled South Korea from 1948 to 1960 can and should be considered fascist. And this is a very important fact in terms of emphasis. As for the actresses who are touched by the noble image of the “founding president,” they should more seriously study the history of their country.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia, Russian Academy of Sciences. This article was written specifically for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.