Thursday, September 4, 2008

United we live, divided we dine

That's a paraphrase of former South Korean president Syngman Rhee's [yi sŭng•man, 이승만] famous (if you're Korean) proclamation about a divided Korean peninsula. And that's appropriate given the topic of this post, a Koreatown restaurant (courtesy the Los Angeles Times) that's as heavy on the nostalgia as it is on the bean paste. 

Some people go to Olive Garden for a Tuscan atmosphere; others will go to E-Hwa Jang [i•hwa•jang, 이화장; Good God, people, learn to Romanize!] for a bit of kitsch from South Korea's not-too-distant past. 

But in SoCal a lot of people (kyopo included) will be blissfully unaware of how controversial this sort of nostalgia is. For while Rhee is the guy who may have single-handedly forged a pro-American Korean island out of a Communist morass, he did so at the expense of tens of thousands of lives lost in wartime and peacetime crackdowns on leftists, spies, and North sympathizers (which in his mind was small compared to the millions more that would have been lost had Pyongyang prevailed in the south). 

The owner of the restaurant, Hi Duk Lee [yi tŏ•k'i, 이덕희] is a cousin of Rhee (Yi, Lee, and Rhee, same same), so it's likely he cuts his hyŏng a bit of slack. So did my favorite Yonsei University professor, who was a college student during the heady days of protest against Rhee in 1960 which led to his overthrow and exile in Hawaii: he now says if he had known then what he knows now about how instrumental Rhee was in preserving South Korea as a (relatively) free, capitalist, and pro-American entity, he wouldn't have protested.

While a lot of people are reasonably divided on Park Chunghee's [pak chŏng•hi] legacy — was he the brilliant architect of South Korea's economic rise or was he an authoritarian figure who crushed Korea's democratic dreams — I'm not so sure South Koreans are yet ready to do the same with President Rhee.

While in Hawaii, one thing I've been able to do that was interesting to me (as a Korean Studies academic) was to see the modest home where Rhee spent the last years of his life in exile. I'll post pictures sometime, but it's a regular house on a quiet street, not far from where Senator Barack Hussein Obama would later be educated at the prestigious Punahou School. In many ways, it reminded me of Ihwajang, the equally modest home in central Seoul's Hyehwa-dong where the First Couple lived. 

By the way, one thing I've always found interesting in the whole Korea-is-xenophobic discussion is how widely Francesca Rhee, his Austria-born wife, was accepted. It certainly underscores the notion I've long championed that the worst xenophobic (and let's face it, usually racist) instincts of those Koreans who opposed "international marriage" are only one part of the entire spectrum.

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