Hawai'i ties with S. Korea run deep
By Jeff Chung
By Jeff Chung
There are many ties that bind South Korea and Hawai'i. Did you know that our state flower, the hibiscus, is also the national flower of Korea? Hawai'i was the entry port for Koreans immigrating to the United States in 1903. And the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, aka Seungmang Lee, called Hawai'i home for 15 years.
He arrived on Feb. 3, 1913, and lived in a small cottage in Pu'unui. He left in 1920, when he was elected president of the Korean provisional government based in Shanghai.
He went on to become the first elected president of South Korea on July 20, 1948, and served for three terms until 1960. That year, he returned to Hawai'i, where he remained in exile until his death in 1965.
Rhee traveled around the world seeking support for the independence of Korea. While in Hawai'i, he empowered the Korean immigrants through education and Christianity, instilling Korean national pride while maintaining the Korean cultural heritage.
His political base was in Hawai'i, where Korean plantation laborers contributed a large portion of their average monthly income of $18 to the independence movement. Rhee played many roles here. In 1913, he launched Korean Pacific Magazine, which was renamed Korean Pacific Weekly in 1930.
He then became the headmaster for The Korean Compound School, which he later renamed The Korean Central Institute. Rhee was known for his interest in setting up Christian schools to educate Korean students in Hawai'i. He raised money to buy properties in Kaimuki and other areas. A statue of Rhee is at the Korean Christian Church in Liliha.
There is still a local Syngman Rhee Society, which has nearly 50 members, and honorary members in South Korea.
Aug. 15, 1945, marks Korea's liberation from Japan. Syngman Rhee established the Republic of Korea in 1948 as the first elected president. Controversies surround Rhee in Hawai'i and South Korea. Naturally, he had supporters and detractors. His anti-communist position made Rhee a close ally of the U.S.
KBS' series "Seoul 1945" airs on KBFD at 9:30 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays. In the drama, Rhee is portrayed as the cause of much protest in Korea and Hawai'i. Rhee supporters and others are questioning the show's historical accuracies.
Dr. Choong Nam Kim, a Korean expert at the East-West Center and member of the Syngman Rhee Society, says that "Seoul 1945" is biased and historically inaccurate, taking the present government's historical revisionist stance.
Network executives told me that the "Seoul 1945" writers have slightly altered the portrayal of Syngman Rhee after pressure from the protests in South Korea.
Kim, who served as political assistant to three Korean presidents (Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae Woo and Kim Young Sam), says that the series oversimplifies the situation and portrays Rhee as a bad character responsible for the division of Korea into the communist North and republican South.
To Kim, "Seoul 1945" is a drama aimed at promoting pro-unification sentiment among Koreans. Kim points out that South Korea, a dynamic democracy, has achieved phenomenal economic growth, whereas North Korea struggles to feed its people as it becomes ever more isolated.
Kim's latest book, "Leadership for Nation Building: From Syngman Rhee to Kim Dae Jung," will be available in stores soon.
Jeff Chung is general manager of KBFD, which televises Korean dramas. If you have a K-drama question or comment, call KBFD at 521-8066 or write to jeff firstname.lastname@example.org.
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