(39) Yi Si-young ― independence and founding leader
By Shim Jae-yun
Yi Si-yeong, (penname Sungjae) became an independence leader after the Eulsa Treaty, or Japan-Korea Treaty, signed in 1905, gave Japan power that led to the annexation of Korea under Japanese colonial rule in 1910. Yi was South Korea’s first vice president (1948-1951) and a member of the Yi family from Gyeongju that included six brothers.
The abundantly wealthy noble-class that lived in central Hanseong (now Seoul) gathered together with one purpose in mind — liberating Korea from Japanese control.
They emigrated to Manchuria, and set up a military academy that became the birth place of numerous independence activists. Yi and his brothers became the focus of Japan’s fears, its kingpin enemies. Many of them died overseas, some apparently assassinated by the Japanese imperial military.
They also made strenuous efforts to educate the people, laying the foundation for modern teaching methods. Given this, the Yi family deserves acclaim as a symbol of noblesse oblige on the Korean Peninsula. The legacy of the family is all the more brilliant in light of the current selfish and greedy politicians who focus only on private interests while neglecting the public welfare.
Unless they defected to Manchuria, they might have lived affluent lives on the peninsula as most pro-Japanese families did. But they chose a path of thorny struggle that eventually led to national independence.
Despite the endeavors and sacrifices they made for the sake of national sovereignty and true patriotism, the independence fighters and their descendants have yet to receive the proper acknowledgement and thanks they deserve.
There was a belated ceremony for a statue of Sungjae on Mt. Nam in April, after it was moved from a relatively remote place, enabling greater numbers of ordinary citizens to pay their respects to him.
In fact, Sungjae deserves a great deal of respect from the Korean people for the following reasons. First, as mentioned above, his family history is dramatic enough to draw our attention. Sungjae’s father, Yuseung, served as Minister of Personnel (吏曹判書). His mother was a member of the Dongnae Jeong family (東萊鄭氏). He was the fifth son of six brothers. Our respect for his family is not simply because of the continued riches and honor carried on from his ancestors but by the overall contribution they made to our history.
Examples are Yi Hang-bok, who served as Chief Minister during the reign of King Sunjo; Yi Jong-seong, a minister under King Yeongjo; and Yi Yu-won, Chief Minister under King Gojong. It is rare indeed to have one Korean with such a deeply rooted bloodline.
Second, Sungjae himself was a senior statesman in the Chosun Kingdom who passed the Augmented Civil Service Examination at the age of 23 and was renowned for his writing. After he worked important positions in the court, he was appointed governor of Pyeongan Province at the age of 38. After that, he contributed to retrieving judicial power already violated by Japan and inspired anti-Japanese thoughts in the 27 counties of Pyeongan Province. It was a splendid achievement the whole nation admired when considering the political situation at the time.
Third, Sungjae was an independence activist against Japan. When Japan annexed Korea, six brothers including Sungjae — Geon-yeong, Seok-yeong, Cheol-yeong, Hoe-yeong, and Ho-yeong — discussed moving into exile at the initiative of Hoe-yeong (pen-named Woodang). As a result, they defected to Manchuria together with all their family members, around 50 people in total.
If they stayed in their homeland, they would have enjoyed an abundant life. But instead, they devoted their lives and property to recovering national sovereignty.
Furthermore, in 1919, opinion at a meeting of aristocrats attended by viceroy Terauchi, was that Sungjae and his brothers should return to their homeland so that they could enjoy a life of honor. The aristocrats said that it was regrettable for the brothers of Sungjae to spend time waiting for independence that seemed impossible at the time. Sungjae heard this and said that “If I wanted to return to my homeland for honor, I won’t come here.” He also said, “We were not forced to come here, so if Japan leaves our country, we will return to our homeland ourselves. How moving it is!”
As soon as Sungjae defected to Manchuria in 1910, he founded the Gyeonghaksa academy aimed at agriculture, study, and the anti-Japanese movement to establish a base for the anti-Japan guerrilla force and independence activists in the late Daehan (Korean) Empire who defected to Manchuria. To this, he devoted all the property of the six brothers. Furthermore, he established the Shinheung Military School to continuously encourage the anti-Japan war in Yuhahyun, Manchuria.
And he built the Yariha School and its branch institutions. For 10 years, some 3,500 students graduated from these schools. During a battle at Ching-shan-li and one led by Admiral Hong Beom-do, graduates of Shinheung Military School played an important role.
As this great spirit dedicated to saving the country continued when he returned to his homeland after independence, he founded of Sungjae Academy, formally Shinheung College (presently Kyunghee University) to cultivate talent for the new democratic Korea. The school’s original name was Shinheung Military School. But then, the political and social climate in the country was both brutal and outrageous, and this demanded that he do his best for the newly established college.
Sungjae helped establish the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai after the March 1 Independence Movement. In it, he played vital roles in legal and financial areas.
Among his activities, that draw special attention - he wrote historical essays called Gamseemanuh while he provided shelter for patriot Yun Bong-gil in Hangzhou after planning the Shanghai bombing. The historical essays evoked the spirit of independence. He refused a proposal that he take the position of chairman and president of the Korean Provisional Government. Instead he strongly recommended young blood such as Kim Gu. This shows that he put importance on the aims of the organization before his own honor.
Fourth, although Sungjae was 77 in 1945 when Korea gained independence from Japan, he played a major role in establishing the Republic of Korea’s stance against communism. At the same time, he became the nation’s first vice president at the age of 80 so that he could further strengthen the groundwork for democracy in Korea. Thus, Sungjae is a Korean statesman at the heart of its foundation.
Fifth, Sungjae ultimately contributed to Korean history by demonstrating a thorough understanding of democracy which came from a life of patriotism over 90 years. In 1950, the Korean War took place and the government moved to Busan but then president, Syngman Rhee, made mistakes and corruption prevailed across the country.
The Korean people showed their lack of faith in their government, which damaged the dignity of the nation. Sungjae resigned from his position to awaken the whole nation with the spirit that harmful people are those who don’t fulfill their duty. His statement of resignatio, “announcement to the nation’s people” is an immortal monumental work in Korean constitutional history.
Thus, Sungjae is the only revered person who handed down legitimacy of the Republic of Korea in the tough history from late Joseon to foundation of the Republic of Korea. During this historical period, Sungjae played an important role in the court of Joseon, exiled himself to Manchuria to be part of the independence movement, and contributed to the Korean Provisional Government and ultimately the foundation of the Republic of Korea.
On April 17, 1953, Sungjae passed away, aged 85, at his house in Dongnae where he took refuge during the Korean War. And this year marks the 59th anniversary of his death. Sungjae’s life was full of beliefs that became a model for all generations. Simsan Kim Chang-sook said, “there would be no prosperity without Baeksa (Yi Hang-bok) in King Sunjo, likewise, there would be no independence without Sungjae.” Even though 59 years have passed since Sungjae passed away, his spirit, full of patriotism and democratic ambition that continued throughout his life still deeply moves our hearts.