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In Memoriam: Reverend Syngman Rhee (1931-2015)

On Wednesday morning, January 14, 2015, the Korea peace movement lost one of its greatest and most courageous visionaries, Reverend Syngman Rhee.  Though he shared the same name—and used the same English transliteration—as the authoritarian and ruthless first president of South Korea, a coincidence he himself often pointed out with a chuckle, Reverend Rhee was a man whose legacy could not have been more different.  A man of enormous compassion who possessed a profound love of justice, Reverend Rhee was central to the transnational movement for peace and reconciliation in his homeland and in the diaspora.  He graced this movement with his kindness, wisdom, and humanity.

Originally from North Korea, Reverend Rhee fought against North Korean and Chinese forces as a marine in the Republic of Korea (ROK) military during the Korean War.  It was in the United States, his third home, that Reverend Rhee came to the pathway of peace and reconciliation with North Korea by way of involvement in the civil rights movement in the American South.  Working at a southern Black church in the 1960s, he was transformed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of reconciliation and justice.  During this turbulent time, a time of military dictatorship in South Korea, Reverend Rhee stood for a vision of peace in Korea that few within the larger Korean immigrant community openly dared to espouse.  In this, he was profoundly a man of conscience.  As Dr. King put it:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of contentment but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.  On some positions, cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?"  Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?"  Vanity asks the question, "Is it popular?"  But conscience asks the question, "Is it right?"  And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.  But he must do it because conscience states that it is right.

Indeed, in his life, Reverend Rhee followed a path that "conscience state[d was] right."

The former president of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States, Reverend Rhee was also the first Asian American to serve as the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.  He played a vital leadership role during the Clinton administration, encouraging U.S. engagement with North Korea.  This period represented a rare juncture in which the United States and North Korea made significant historic strides toward rapprochement.

Reverend Rhee passed away this week, but his light will forever continue to shine.

Syngman Rhee

March 25, 1931-January 14, 2015

Reverend Rhee spoke in 2011 in Washington DC with the National Campaign calling for peace in Korea.