By Haeyoung Kim | Originally published November 5, 2009
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] I was caught up in the tragic drama of the Korean people, which included war, hostility, and the separation of families. I was born in North Korea. In December of 1950, however, when the troops began withdrawing to the original 38th parallel, my younger brother and I fled to South Korea. I was 19, my younger brother was 17, and we left our family — my mother and 4 sisters — behind. My father was imprisoned in North Korea for being a Christian minister and died in prison. Once in the South, I had no way of knowing about my family I left behind. Those were very difficult times for my family and I, and the memories are still very painful.
When I was in South Korea, I served as a South Korean Marine after having lived through very difficult times in North Korea as a Christian. While in South Korea, as a member of the military, I was a very strong anti-communist, especially in light of the fate of my father and my family.
Then, in 1956, I came to the US to study. When I first arrived to the US I said, “Forget it. I’m going to be a resident of the US and not deal with the complicated issues of division, hatred, and family separation.” However, after arriving to the US, I experienced the realities of racism and the fight for justice, which awakened me to new ways of looking at history and eventually led me to focus on reconciliation work between North and South Korea.
The Civil Rights Movement of that time had increased the conversation around peace and prompted my shift from a place of hostility and enmity to a stance for peace and reconciliation. As a campus minister and teacher at the University of Louisville, Kentucky during that time, I became deeply involved in the activity around campus. Although I did not fully understand all the implications of racism and prejudice, I was convinced that racial discrimination was unjust and that it went against the teachings of the church and the will of God. That was enough conviction for me to take part in the Civil Rights Movement.
Along with the black students on our campus, ministers, and campus administrators, I became very strongly involved in demonstrations. We demonstrated every evening, particularly in the summer of 1963, even though we were often jeered by crowds that shouted racial terms. It was a common struggle, fighting for racial justice, and I will never forget that influential era.
What resonates with me most from that era is the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about the oppressed and oppressors. He asserted that the Civil Rights Movement was not only for the liberation of the oppressed black people but also a movement to liberate the oppressors — the white people — who had a history of oppressing. By liberating both oppressed and oppressors together, it is possible to create a force that could establish a new society. He also stressed that the key to a new society was held by the oppressed. The oppressed had a choice: either seek revenge out of anger or forgive in an effort to create a new society. His vision — a very clear vision — impressed me and I became a follower and admirer of King.
I reflected upon my identity as a Korean. I have always thought of myself and the Korean people as having been oppressed, for instance under Japanese rule, which was an oppression my family and I experienced first hand until Korea became liberated in 1945. Then, as a Christian trying to practice my religion under the communist regime in North Korea, I experienced the confrontation between Christians and the communist party. The Christians were severely oppressed and underwent significant suffering. There was also South Korea’s military regime, which then became the oppressive force.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings — that oppressed people have a responsibility to create new possibilities — made me realize that I too have some responsibility to shift social standards. Given the relations between the two Koreas, and the hostility between North and South even after half a century since the division of the peninsula, I felt like I had to take a stance and assume responsibility as an oppressed person by getting involved in reconciliation work. So, my experience and commitment to the Civil Rights Movement in the US transferred and connected directly to reconciliation work around Korea.
[Haeyoung Kim] Based on your personal history, some may think that it makes more sense for you to be involved solely in reunification work rather than focusing on younger Korean Americans who were born in the US. Why have you chosen to focus on young Korean Americans and why do you feel young Korean Americans should care about reunification?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] After I finished college in the US, and after graduating from the seminary, I became a campus minister and teacher at the University of Louisville, Kentucky in 1960. As a university campus minister, I worked closely with university students and aimed to cultivate a sense of peacemaking.
Second generation Korean Americans would justifiably ask why they should be involved in peace and reconciliation work. They often said that Korean Americans are far removed from the history of their homeland and the happenings on the ground in Korea. The Korean War, Japanese occupation and colonization of Korea, however, certainly have an impact on the Korean American narrative.
Current events also directly affect and reflect upon Koreans in the US. While Korean Americans may not think so, saying they were born or have lived in the US for several years, the public sees Koreans as Koreans even though we may say we are Korean Americans. Also, a divided Korea inevitably affects who we are as a people and who we can become. But, it’s very hard to convince Korean Americans of that link and, further, difficult to establish commitment because the task of living in the US as an immigrant can be overwhelming, complete with its own concerns.
Korean Americans in the US involved in the movement for peace and reconciliation some 20 years were undoubtedly connected to issues related to Korea because it is our home country. But, we also felt we had a responsibility as citizens and residents of the US to take part in the political system and ensure that US policy was peaceful in nature.
There is also an inherited history. One of my former teachers in North Korea left the North around the same time my brothers and I left — December 1950. He left behind his family, including his wife and four children, and became a refugee in South Korea. While in the South, he lived alone while continually dedicated to and longing for his family, looking forward to the day he would be reunited with his wife and children. He left when he was 34 and died last month at 93. He died without having had another chance to see his family he left behind in North Korea.
Although Korean Americans may not be directly connected to his story, or the hundreds and hundreds of other stories that mirror my former teacher’s [story], Koreans in the US are inheritors of this shared history. I hope more second generation Korean Americans become involved in work around peace and justice, which would shape the Korean American narrative in the future.
[Haeyoung Kim] Why should progressives in the U.S. care about reunification of the Korean peninsula?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] Korea is in a unique situation since the country is still divided even though 64 years have passed since the 38th parallel — the line dividing the North and South — was drawn. Further, it is the only country divided not by internal causes, but because of external forces. The Korean War was not the Korean people’s war. Yes, Koreans fought in the war and the battle took place on Korean soil, but it was a war between two distinctive Cold War ideologies and political forces — the US and the Soviet Union. Eventually, the US and the former Soviet Union found ways to live with one another and cooperate. So, why should the Korean people still be divided as they are?
Global citizens, I think, have a moral obligation to at least recognize the sad reality found in Korea’s division, which has led to the separation of families and hostility on the peninsula. Rather than ignoring, or inadvertently perpetuating, the long history and many years of propagandizing and demonizing, those that may not be directly related to Korea’s history ought to understand the humanitarian elements to the situation.
The broader community will, I hope, look at the situation regarding the Korean peninsula and consider ways to not only bring peace in Korea, but to also contribute to world peace. Divided Korea is a Cold War relic that needs to evolve.
[Haeyoung Kim] Were there any events or other movements that inspired or motivated you to become involved with the peace and reconciliation movement?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] North and South Korea used to both sponsor and host joint events that recognized a common history. The two Koreas would alternate in hosting these celebrations, such as the common celebration of Korea’s Independence Day on August 15th. There were several such events over the last ten years — during the Kim Dae-Jung and Noh Moo-Hyun administrations — and I have had the privilege of traveling to North Korea when they hosted them. There was a great deal of hope and inspiration in those events, and they played a role in my intention to continually lift up that spirit of peace and reconciliation. The current President Lee Myung-Bak has, unfortunately, put an end to those joint celebrations.
My faith has also played a significant role in motivating my work regarding peace and reconciliation. Before being a political struggle, reconciliation work at its core has parallels with the message found in Christianity — God reconciling through Christ those that are divided and in conflict with one other. For me, that’s why reconciliation work is a faith based struggle. While a political solution may not be evidently clear, it’s necessary to be continually convicted that families and Korean people cannot be separated as they are.
[Haeyoung Kim] As a Korean in the U.S., what was your strategy when working for peace and reunification?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] For now, I am not particularly interested in advocating for unification, because I know the unification of the North and South Korean people will not be possible without the reconciliation of hearts and minds first. Before the wall dividing the North and South at the 38th parallel can come down, we need to work towards tearing down the walls within our hearts and minds, and eliminating the hostility that is often harbored.
As a religious leader, I have advocated for reconciliation, particularly focusing on the seemingly understandable and even justifiable enmity that so many people in North Korea, South Korea, and the US are still filled with. It’s vital that those involved in the work around reconciliation present a more open and honest picture, moving away from demonizing an enemy.
Untrue or half-true images and messages about North Korea are often presented and continually reinforced by the media. For instance, North Korea is often demonized, portrayed as warmongers that are committed to bringing war against South Korea, Japan, or the US. That’s not true and only serves to drive a deeper wedge between the North and the US.
From my experience and travels — my first trip back to North Korea since fleeing was in 1978 and I have now traveled there roughly 30 times — North Koreans are committed to bringing a peaceful restoration of relations with South Korea and with the US. In 1994, through the Agreed Framework, North Korea committed to cease nuclear activities in exchange for light water reactors and electricity production support from South Korea, Japan, and the US. Unfortunately, after the Bush administration, the agreement became obsolete. We do, however, need to continue pursuing those types of efforts and not give up hope for peace and reconciliation.
I think it is also incredibly necessary to have unwavering conviction. When I first became involved in peace and reconciliation work, it was extremely dangerous and risky. Anyone that even mentioned reconciliation between the two Koreas was branded as being pro-communist, a North Korean sympathizer, or anti-South Korean. I have been labeled a bbalgangi moksa — a communist minister — despite the fact that I lost my father in a North Korean prison, that I myself have been imprisoned, and that I fought with South Korea for 5 years during the Korean War. Those of us involved in reconciliation work, however, have seen these opinions as a form of cross-bearing.
[Haeyoung Kim] Former UN Ambassador John Bolton recently stated that former President Bill Clinton’s trip to North Korea to secure the release of the two detained American reporters was unwise, harming U.S. interests and encouraging bad behavior. What are your thoughts on former President Bill Clinton’s recent trip to North Korea? Particularly, what are your thoughts on the Obama administrations’ insistence that the diplomatic mission pursued by former President Clinton be kept separate from other political and security issues?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] Even within the Republican Party, John Bolton is far to the right and I don’t think the world would allow those kinds of comments and opinions to become the mainstream. That is my hope, at least.
Former President Bill Clinton did not go with a political agenda or approval to discuss political issues, and nobody really knows what conspired as he met with Kim Jong-Il, talking for several hours. However, knowing how Clinton was when he was president, I suspect there was talk about something much deeper than just bringing the two journalists home.
During Clinton’s presidency, he himself planned to go to North Korea, but sent then Secretary of State Madeline Albright in his stead. Clinton did have the interest in developing a relationship and pursuing the possibility of normalized relations. While that has been delayed, Clinton’s former interest, concern, and commitment leads me to believe that something will come out of his visit.
I have seen the leader of North Korea many times on television and other media outlets, but I have never seen him look so satisfied — almost joyful — as he did when he met with Clinton. There are many signs suggesting that North Korea would be interested in discussing their desire to reengage and open themselves up to have relations with the rest of the world, particularly the United States. Overall, I think the Clinton trip has the potential to help initiate that kind of conversation between the US and North Korea and it will prove to open up opportunities for renewed relations.
[Haeyoung Kim] While there has been a considerable amount of press coverage on Clinton’s recent trip, it is rarely noted that this is not the first time a former president traveled to the DPRK. Former President Jimmy Carter went in 1994, and his visit set the stage for a diplomatic relationship that nearly led to the end of the Korean War. Can you tell us about Carter’s trip?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] At the time of former President Carter’s trip, the US was very intent on pursing military action in response to the nuclear activities taking place in North Korea. Ambassador James Laney, the US ambassador to South Korea from 1993-1996, told me that a first strike was a serious possibility. Individuals like Laney and Carter, however, ultimately prevented military action and advocated for alternative forms of foreign policy.
Carter had once said publicly that he presented several items of contention and concern, and offered conditions to President Kim Il-Sung who then agreed to accept the terms. Shortly thereafter, the Agreement Framework materialized which engendered a great deal of hope. Robert Gallucci, the chief US negotiator for the US, and the Vice Chair of the People’s Assembly signed the 1994 Agreed Framework, stipulating that North Korea would dismantle their nuclear activities in exchange for two light water reactors and, until those reactors were built, 500 tons of oil.
Unfortunately, neither the oil nor the light water reactors were delivered, leading North Korea to say they cannot trust the US. Subsequent administrations have also done nothing to show good faith regarding the promises and terms of the agreement. North Korea now feels that the US must begin taking concrete steps towards regaining their trust. They hope the US will act to demonstrate a sincere intention and are eager to reciprocate.
The US, however, has blindly said they are only willing to talk to Pyongyang under the precondition they agree to dismantle their nuclear program, which North Korea is not willing to do. The message that comes out of North Korea now is that they want to talk based on the understanding that they are a country with nuclear capabilities. North Korea has expressed all along — even to this day — that their nuclear capability is a deterrent force against the possibility of being attacked and not for the purpose of attacking.
[Haeyoung Kim] As you mentioned, the U.S. was very close to a first strike when Carter went to North Korea. Although the circumstances were different, do you feel there are any similarities between Clinton and Carter’s trips?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] At the time of former President Carter’s trip to North Korea, there was much more government involvement because there was a crisis situation, making the purpose of the trips inherently different. The logistics were also different in that Carter met with Kim Il-Sung and Clinton met with Kim Jong-Il. Kim Il-Sung was much more powerful leader than his son, although Kim Jong-Il appears to have as much political control as his father had.
Carter’s visit also intended to ease tension between Washington and Pyongyang and open up new possibilities, which led to concrete results. The Clinton trip was much murkier, particularly in regards to the impetus. It may, however, prove to be as significant as Carter’s visit.
[Haeyoung Kim] Official U.S. history suggests that Koreans “owe” the US for defending it from North Korea. However, scholars, including Bruce Cumings, have argued that it is the U.S. that is primarily responsible for the countries division and protracted war. Academics and researchers have also shown that the U.S. backed the South Korean civilian and military dictatorships from 1948 to 1987. Given this evidence, what do you feel would be responsible action of the U.S. today? What should be the Obama administrations priorities?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] There needs to be a new starting point between North Korea and the US — one that is not influenced by past precedent. Ideally, I hope the current administration considers engaging in serious bilateral talks with North Korea, a sentiment President Obama has recently expressed. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, have both taken the exact line the Bush administration had pushed, which proved to be unsuccessful. They have said that the US is not willing to talk with North Korea unless they completely abandon their nuclear activities.
I was hoping for a change with the new administration, but it has not been forthcoming. One of the reasons may be that Obama felt the need to exhibit his own toughness and show that he could be strong on foreign policy issues. He has been severely criticized by persons like Bolton for being soft on Iran and North Korea. So, with North Korea’s test launching, Obama may have felt the need to demonstrate that he can be tough on foreign policy.
Bush’s approach incited tension, whereas a policy of peaceful engagement pursued by the Clinton administration showed more promise. The new administration had mentioned their intention to talk with those that are willing to explore peaceful resolutions. This has the potential to improve relations between North Korea and the US, but I think the issue of denuclearization first should be tabled. Of course the US and UN are concerned about nuclear proliferation, but their nuclear ambitions are deterrent in nature.
I believe North Korea’s recent testing and launching of missiles was to display to the international community what they had, putting to rest the question of whether North Korea has nuclear capabilities. By showing all of their cards, they may have been looking to be recognized as a nuclear nation like Pakistan, India, Israel, and the others. Now, I feel they are urging the international community to accept them as they are and will likely reject the US’ insistence to dismantle their nuclear program before entering into talks.
It’s important for the current administration to understand that availability and capability does not mean they will use their weapons nor does it mean they are evil people. Nuclear arms, as North Korea has repeatedly said, are for deterrence purposes. North Korea is not interested in starting a war – the Korean War was nearly 60 years ago and was only made possible because the Soviet Union and China were behind North Korea, and the US was behind the South. No such conditions exist in the global environment today.
While open dialogue with North Korea is needed, engagement with South Korea is also necessary to create a renewed framework. South Korea may be an easier nut to crack. Historically speaking, South Korea has aligned with the US more easily because they are so integrally tied and even dependent — politically, economically, and militarily — to Washington.
But, when Lee Myung-Bak came to the US and spoke with Obama, the big news in South Korea when he returned was that South Koreans are now safe because of the US’ nuclear umbrella. The possibility of war is so far fetched and the supposed threat posed by the North is unfounded. I do hope South Korea is receptive to a new strategy initiated by Washington, and do hope the tension and enmity on the Korean peninsula and between the US and North Korea disappears for the sake of the Korean people.
[Haeyoung Kim] It’s been 64 years since the US drew the line that divided Korea and 56 years since the shooting stopped. The peninsula is still divided, and many of your allies who were working for reunification have not lived to see their hopes and dreams realized. Do you believe that you will see reunification in your lifetime?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] I may not see Korea reunited as one nation in my lifetime, but I do hope to at least see North and South Korea become peaceful neighbors. I think that’s the wish and desire of those, like myself, who directly experienced the war and with family in North Korea.
Several years ago, I saw the North Korea and South Korea Olympic teams walk together and carry one flag. Seeing that gave me great hope that peace and reconciliation was a possibility. Reconciliation has progressively become more of a possibility in spite of ups and downs. I think events have definitely been moving toward a more positive direction and I’m hopeful for the future.
[Haeyoung Kim] What could the Korean American community do to get involved in peace and reunification efforts? What strategies will be effective in influencing U.S. policies on Korea?
[Reverend Syngman Rhee] What’s needed is political influence to bring about the right US policies towards the Korean peninsula — policies that move towards reconciliation and not the continual perpetuation of conflict and division.
Influence in politics hinges on two things – votes and money. Either you bring votes to the ballot box or give money for campaigns, which translates to organizing. Mobilizing people, both Korean Americans and others in the US interested in peace, and creating some political power in the US would be the best way to influence US policy.
That’s why second generation Korean Americans are so crucial to the movement. First generation Korean Americans often still see themselves as sojourners – guests of the US – passing through, and not a part of America’s political process. Second generation Korean Americans better understand the importance of voting and recognize where change can come from.
Ultimately, I hope more Korean Americans become engaged with issues regarding Korea and support efforts to rid of the residue left by the Korean War. The division of the Korean peninsula is a division of my identity — our shared identity. I am hopeful, however, for the future and have faith that there will eventually be peace in Korea.
*Haeyoung Kim, KPI Board Member, was a KPI Fellow in 2009 and interviewed Reverend Rhee on August 16, 2009.