Former Korean prime minister Un-Chan Chung GS ’78 defended the legacy of controversial former Korean president Syngman Rhee GS, Class of 1910, in a lecture Wednesday afternoon, hours after the Wilson School dedicated a lecture hall in Rhee’s name. Chung’s speech, the inaugural Syngman Rhee *1910 Lecture, emphasized Rhee’s merits in providing the building blocks for South Korea to develop into the economically prosperous nation it is today.
Prior to the speech, Bowl 016 in Robertson Hall was renamed and dedicated in honor of Rhee, whose South Korean presidential legacy from 1948 to 1960 is complicated by allegations of violent political suppression and electoral fraud. Part of Rhee’s legacy includes the Jeju Massacre in 1948, when his army killed approximately 60,000 South Korean communist sympathizers. Twelve years later, Rhee was ousted from power during the April Revolution following alleged abuses of power.
Despite this, Chung’s speech, titled “Hope, Compassion and the Can-do Spirit: President Syngman Rhee and Korea’s Path Forward,” provided a relatively positive overview of Rhee’s commitment to South Korea while acknowledging the debate surrounding some of Rhee’s decisions.
In an interview directly preceding the lecture, Chung noted the considerable negativity surrounding Rhee’s legacy but said he believed it was misplaced.
“Without him, where would Korea be now? Korea is continuously improving, and Rhee played a part in that,” Chung said. “It is important to look at the positive aspects of Rhee. I think that if someone is 70-percent good, they are a good person. Who can be 100-percent good?” he added.
Chung tied his positive image of Rhee back to Rhee’s time at the University and mentioned how Rhee’s mentor was former University president Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879.
“Wilson invited Rhee to family dinners and told visitors of Princeton that Rhee would one day lead Korea in regaining its independence,” Chung noted.
The Wilson School dedicated the lecture hall after the regional alumni association of South Korea donated $500,000. Plans for the dedication began in 2010 on the 100th anniversary of Rhee’s Ph.D.
Recalling his own time at the University, Chung told the audience the anecdote of how his mentor, economics professor Alan Blinder ’67, supported him “wholeheartedly” and helped him secure a job in academia at Columbia just as he was about to graduate.
“It seems Princeton has a gift for providing generous care and support for graduate students from Korea who need help finding the right future path,” Chung said.
Chung then connected the story of Rhee to the past, present and future of South Korea. He argued the nation must continue to engage the larger global community.
Chung noted that in the 1950s Korea’s economy was the world’s 101st largest, while now it is 13th. Chung said he believes that three main factors helped elevate South Korea in the global economy: great friendship with other nations, a focus on education and an investment in human capital and the spirit of the Korean people to improve their standard of living.
However, Chung was not appeased with South Korea’s achievment, saying Korea can have an even more fruitful future if its society becomes “more open,” “more confident” and “more compassionate.” He noted that today’s world is a global society and Koreans must make sure to avoid the temptation to “fall back to our comfort zones” but instead seize opportunities to move forward.
“Just as in the early 1900s Syngman Rhee boarded a steamboat headed for the United States, I urge all of you to take the leap,” Chung said, referencing Rhee’s decision to come to Princeton and receive an American education, making him the first Korean to receive a doctorate degree from the University.
Chung also inserted lighthearted remarks into his speech, commenting on the internationally recognized culture of South Korea.
“Young Koreans have showcased their talents in the recent London Olympics, and Korean songs are sung by youths around the globe,” Chang said, eliciting laughter from the audience, to which Chung responded back, “Isn’t it true?”
Chung concluded the lecture by engaging in a Q-and-A session, moderated by Evans Revere ’76, former president and chief executive of The Korea Society. Questions ranged from the current state of politics in South Korea — given that it is a presidential election year — to the state of the education system in South Korea. With regards to the political candidates in South Korea’s presidential race, Chung declined to give his opinion but said South Koreans are “not satisfied” with either the ruling or opposition parties.
After leaving the Korean prime minister’s office in 2010 until earlier this year, Chung led the Commission on Shared Growth for Large and Small Companies. The Commission encourages large corporations in Korea to donate voluntarily to small and medium enterprises their fair share of profits.
“In the coming years, I hope to dedicate my efforts in promoting the sense of shared growth in Korea and beyond,” Chung said.