“The Hundred Years’ War in Korea,” a documentary film made by the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities
|Prof. Lee Wan-bom of the Academy of Korean Studies|
Today we undergoing something similar to the “Hundred Years’ War.” Historically this was ongoing conflict between England and France. But the war I am referring to refers to one in Korea. And it isn't the war between the North and the South but within the Republic of Korea; it’s the ideological war between leftists and rightists.
“The Hundred Years’ War,” is a documentary film that portrays the successes and failures of former Korean Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee made by the Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities in Korea. This film has been viewed by over 3 million people on YouTube. It is the most viewed Korean documentary. This is not only because people can gain access to the film for free but also that Korean people have a passion for history.
The filmmaker interpreted Korean contemporary history as a war between pro-Japanese collaborators and anti-Japanese resistance. From 1910, pro-Japanese collaborators dominated in the Korean government. But collaborators have long been moving against anti-Japanese activists from their established society. They made a long concerted effort, taking advantage of victory in Japanese colonial period from 1910-1945. After the liberation of Korea in 1945, pro-Japanese had to be purged and ruled out from the new Korean government. In the film, Syngman Rhee saved the life of collaborators and recruited them. This was so that they could be converted to a pro-American point of view because of the dominant U.S. influence on South Korea.
In the film, Park Chung-hee also saved and helped his pro-Japanese colleagues. Park was a very good student of the Japanese military education system and worshiped the Manchurian economic development model. The film showed that he was a puppet of the United States for pushing ahead with American style export-oriented industrialization.
Are all these arguments true or false? Almost all documentaries are based on facts. But all documentaries are not true but about-half-fiction created with a producer's imagination and storytelling. A documentary film seems to be somewhat more objective than an ordinary fiction film. But all documentaries are not objective but subjective. The popularly viewed documentary film such as “The Hundred Years' War” may be verified with facts and sources from within academic circles. This verification is one of the missions of Korean Studies.
Needless to say, Syngman Rhee is not pro-Japanese just like Yi Wan-yong. But from the point of view of the supporter of absolute independence just like Shin Chae-ho, Dr. Rhee is a helper of pro-Japanese people. In particular, the young Rhee during late 19th century was anti-Russian and he was relatively friendly to Japan. He thought Japan would help Joseon and could control Russian colonial ambition in favor of our country. If Russia had beaten Japan in 1904, Joseon would have become a part of the USSR. Japan was the savior of Korea at that time so he had a somewhat friendly feeling toward Japan.
But while Japan fought against the U.S., Rhee was a pioneer of anti-Japanese sentiment. It is true that Rhee was an ingrained pro-American after living and being educated in the U.S. And he regarded himself as a diplomat and the president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Exile. Rhee was a defender of diplomacy-first policy. He thought engaging in armed struggle would be but a drop in the ocean and hated it. Many leaders of the independence movement criticized Rhee's diplomacy-first style and finally impeached him from the president of the Interim Republic of Korea. From the view of armed-struggle-first strategy, Rhee was not a genuine leader of the independence movement and regarded as a helper of Japanese colonialism. At that time, there were many conflicting strategies and antagonisms between groups. Very severe conflict between the Rhee group and the Park Yong-man group in Hawaii was one of Korean's main rivalries.
Right after liberation in 1945, many Korean people including the top leader of the communists Park Hun-young regarded Rhee as a symbol of our independence movement and a high ranking leader.
If many Koreans had regarded Rhee as pro-Japanese, he could have not become the 1st president of the Unified Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai of 1919, and moreover the president of People's Republic of Korea of 1945.
Rhee became a winner of the power game in 1948 and established the Republic of Korea. But that was all. He did not govern well on the basis of Western style liberal democracy. Rhee became a dictator and was finally ousted from presidency because of the combination of people's power and the U.S. influence of intentional abandonment in 1960. Although Rhee saved Korea from communist aggression in 1948 and 1950, he is not regarded as a founding father of the Republic of Korea by its people.
This documentary represents their view. And they want to regard him as a partial supporter of Japanese imperialism, and furthermore, a pro-Japanese. But it is a fact that Rhee was one of leaders of Korean independence movements within lots of contending groups and strategies.
Historically speaking, is Rhee a good man or not? That depends on your ideology and your subjective interpretation. It is very difficult and complicated to estimate any historical person. It is definitely impossible to judge Rhee with objective facts and balanced viewpoint. That's Park Chung Hee too. There are not real, genuine and objective facts at all. We, scholars only try to go near truth as possible, but we can't get truth itself. We can only walk around truth with a heap of subjective materials and sources. So it is a reader's free discretion and privilege to pretend to grasp truth.
The writer is a professor of the Academy of Korean Studies.