Conservatives Push Pro-Syngman Rhee Propaganda

The Birth of Korea is a surprise hit, in part because conservative groups are paying people to watch it.

Conservatives Push Pro-Syngman Rhee Propaganda

Image: Poster for The Birth of Korea. Credit: Truth Forum.

A surprise hit movie over the Lunar New Year holidays was The Birth of Korea 건국전쟁, a film for which the term “documentary” would be unsuitably generous. Funded by the far-right Christian group Truth Forum 트루스포럼, the movie presents what it claims is the untold story of South Korea’s first president and dictator Syngman Rhee 이승만, with little regard for well-established historical truths.

History has already rendered its verdict on Rhee. Whatever distinction he may have earned as an independence movement leader against Imperial Japan, as president Rhee was a mass murderer and tinpot dictator who initially passed himself off as a Jeffersonian democrat before gradually anointing himself president for life. In his rabid hunt for supposed communists, Rhee massacred more than a million South Koreans - more South Koreans than died at the hands of North Korean and Chinese military in the Korean War. (See previous coverage, “Syngman Rhee, Mass Murderer.”)

The Birth of Korea spends its 101-minutes runtime disputing the facts it can and writing off those it cannot. The blatant fixing of the 1960 election, audiences are told, was the work of unscrupulous underlings; supposedly Rhee’s ambitions were limited to long-term rule, not dictatorship. The victims of the April 3 Jeju Massacre 4.3 사건, in which more than half of Jeju’s villages were razed and as many as 30k people were killed, had it coming, the movie claims, for being communists. And the April Revolution 4.19 혁명 that finally drove Rhee from office? It turns out you can thank Rhee for that too: after all, we learn, it was Rhee who promoted education and instilled the desire for democracy.

Even so, more than 700k Koreans went to watch The Birth of Korea over the Lunar New Year holiday, enough for the movie to take second place behind Wonka for the holiday period, although far fewer than the 13m viewers drawn by the recent 12.12: The Day 서울의 봄, a historical drama depicting dictator Chun Doo-hwan 전두환’s coup. The viewership has been juiced by Evangelical Christian churches sending busloads of churchgoers for church-sponsored viewings; Truth Forum, for its part, is also paying to refund 100% of ticket prices for all viewers between the ages of 10 and 40.

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