Funding for the lecture hall, named in honor of Syngman Rhee GS, Class of 1910, and the creation of a research fund for the study of East Asian affairs were made possible by donations from the regional alumni association of South Korea, totaling almost $500,000.
The dedication of a campus space to Rhee, who led the nation from 1948 to 1960, was first proposed in 2010 by members of the Princeton Club of Korea — the official University alumni association in South Korea — to honor the former president’s role in founding the now-prosperous and democratic Asian nation on the 100th anniversary of Rhee’s PhD.
According to Princeton Club of Korea president Jong-Seok Kim ’88, many Koreans recognize Rhee for setting South Korea on the path to democracy and industrialization after World War II. Rhee’s education at the University, Kim said, prepared him well to lead South Korea and protect the fledgling country from North Korean aggression.
“Without him, I’m not sure South Korea would have been like this today,” he said. “So he laid the foundation for the prosperity and liberty of Korean people. And his leadership and vision was cultivated and trained, I think, when he was at Princeton, studying international relations under the great teachers like Woodrow Wilson.”
But despite Rhee’s support from the alumni association, Rhee’s record as president was marred by alleged abuses of power that led to his ouster during the “April Revolution” of 1960 and his subsequent exile to Hawaii. Rhee’s government strongly curtailed political dissent and oversaw the Jeju Massacre in 1948, during which approximately 60,000 South Koreans partial to communism were killed by the South Korean army.
Wilson School Associate Dean Elisabeth Donahue said the University does not typically take a stance when outside groups honor controversial alumni.
“The University doesn’t attempt to adjudicate controversies because many people who have achieved power have controversies around them,” Donahue said. “If something is very, very, very egregious — really an outlier — then I think maybe you know that would go into consideration. But I think the University feels that President Rhee doesn’t fall into that category.”
University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said decisions about whether to accept donations intended to honor Princeton alumni are made “on a case-by-case basis” and that each case “is considered on its own merit.”
The Princeton Club of Korea worked with the Office of Development to bring the proposal to fruition, Kim said. Though the alumni association did not have a specific location in mind to name after Rhee when it approached the University, Kim said, it was eventually decided that Bowl 16 in Robertson Hall would be the venue.
“It’s fitting and appropriate that this lecture hall is located in the Woodrow Wilson School because Woodrow Wilson was Syngman Rhee’s mentor. We, the Korean alums, are very happy with this result,” he said.
Rhee came to Princeton to pursue a doctoral degree in the fall of 1908, after having graduated with a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University and begun coursework toward a master’s at Harvard. Taking on an unusually heavy course load, Rhee graduated with a PhD in politics in 1910 and became the first Korean to earn a doctorate from an American university.
According to the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said during a 2009 talk on multilateralism that Rhee was powerfully inspired by then-University president Woodrow Wilson’s political philosophy of self-determination, a belief that influenced Rhee’s later activism for Korean independence from Japanese imperial rule.
After graduating from Princeton, Rhee moved to Hawaii and spent the next three decades as an activist promoting Korean independence. In 1919, he was elected president of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai but remained in Hawaii until he returned to Korea following the end of Japanese occupation and World War II.
In 1948, he was sworn in as the first president of the Republic of Korea and was reelected in 1952, 1956 and 1960 before being forced to step down by student demonstrations against election-rigging in the 1960 election. While in office, Rhee guided the country through the Korean War and ensured that the new democracy retained its independence. South Korea also carried out major reconstruction projects and land reform under his leadership that provided jobs and gave farmland to more citizens.
But while in office, Rhee also cracked down on political dissent, amended the constitution to allow presidential elections to be determined by popular vote and to extend the number of terms that one could be president, and was implicated in an election fraud scandal during the 1960 elections that sparked widespread student demonstrations calling for him to step down.
After the 1960 April Revolution that removed him from power, Rhee returned to Hawaii to live in exile. General Park Chung-hee seized control of the country in a coup d’etat the next year. Rhee died in Hawaii in 1965.
Despite the controversies surrounding Rhee’s legacy, many Koreans, like the members of the Princeton Club of Korea, view the former president and his education at Princeton positively.
“I think it’s a general feeling among Koreans that Syngman Rhee’s Princeton education was very important for him to lead Korea and to defend Korea from North Korean aggression as president,” Kim explained. “Many Koreans are very grateful to Princeton for that, and that’s why the alumni of Princeton in Korea did this kind of effort.”
Stephanie Park ’13, president of the Korean American Student Association, declined to comment on the dedication, explaining that the club does not take stands on political issues.
The renaming of Bowl 16 will take place in Robertson Hall on Oct. 3. After the naming, former South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan GS ’78 will deliver a public address at 4:30 p.m. in Dodds Auditorium.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/14/31108/