Title: Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical
Author: Chong-Sik Lee
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Yonsei University Press (May 2001)
This pleasantly surprising text about the early life of Korea's first president is everything it claims to be and much more. Instantly readable for a wide audience, Professor Lee beautifully weaves Rhee's story into world happenings of the time with brilliance. In addition to providing a personal look at Syngman Rhee's budding career in journalism, the book delves into the lives of prominent figures around young Rhee including King Kojong, Yun Ch'i-ho and Seo Jae-pil. The author fills in some blanks left by other notable biographers on the fascinating backstory on one of the most complex politicians in modern history.
In essence, the book follows Rhee's early childhood education and finishes on his trip across the Pacific Ocean to start his formal education in America. As the book's title suggests, though, the bulk of the content surrounds his five year, seven month-long life in prison dating from January 9th 1899 to August 7th 1904. However, we also get to see sufficient progress he made as a student of the English language as well as a writer for progressive-orientated publications. Considering his yangban upbringing and remarkably impressive strides made as a boy studying classical Chinese, Rhee's time in prison, including his conversion to Christianity and numerous self-imposed writing projects like an English-Korean dictionary, was productive. His undeniable fame in his mid-twenties was enough to grant him plenty notoriety. Such a man of this caliber simply did not exist in Korea elsewhere at the time save for the aforementioned Yun Ch'i-ho or Seo Jae-pil. Rhee's story is done justice here.
Quite refreshing is the author's tendency to provide meaty footnotes for nearly every page. Also noteworthy is Professor Lee's candid admission of Rhee's hot-headed nature and his painfully naive early viewpoint of Japan and her intentions with Korea as well as Lymon Abbott-inspired Christian doctrine. Despite Rhee's final legacy being that of disgrace and shame preceding nation-wide protests, his early career is objectively covered.
What does stick out as possible faults to this otherwise unblemished book is its obvious short length and a predictably negative interpretation of King Kojong's legacy. Suitable examples of Kojong-bashing include a comment on the space of time between the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War: "Through his diabolical ignorance and stupidity, Korea's ruler had idled away the precious decade reducing it to no more than a prize to be plucked by the victor" (p.82). However, when considering that the book's subject was a staunch independent activist bitterly angered by a corrupt, rotting government that not only squandered a centuries-old dynasty by financial mismanagement and domestic complacency but also fell victim to foreign dependence and eventual forced colonization. Of course, this is also the same government that was responsible for his extended incarceration. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the author supports Rhee's own disdainful thoughts on Korea's king: "Rhee regarded Kojong to be 'one of the weakest and most cowardly emperors of a 4,200-year old succession of sovereigns.' The record of his reign speaks for itself" (p.115).
Overall the book is one to pick up for anyone with an interest in either the beginnings of the Korean presidency or Korea's early modern time period. For the story it has to tell, it's certainly worth picking up regardless of Rhee's debatable legacy. What's most important to note is how closely Rhee's life story follows Korea and her struggle for independence from foreign powers. For that, it's a no-brainer. If you can find it, buy it.
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* For one reason or another, this book's ISBN gets confused with the 1983 reprint of Underwood of Korea. Not sure what's going on with it but even Amazon's got a mess of a listing for the book. Perhaps the problem lies with the publisher.
Having only a relatively minimal knowledge of the Korean presidency I can say that this book answered a lot of questions I had about 이승만 as an activist. Moreso, it has has piqued more interest about his life. I suppose it's the stark contrast from his upbringing, education and goal only to have to dishonorably step down from a dream position for gross unethical conduct and all around political tyranny. I was also intrigued to read that Seo Jae-pil served as a kind of role model for young Rhee. Must follow up on this one.
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