Syngman Rhee

Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) was a leader in Korean independence movements. He was elected the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948. His government was overthrown in 1960.

Yi Su‧ng-man, who Westernized his name to Syngman Rhee, was born on April 26, 1875, only son of Yi Kyo‧ng-so‧n, a member of the local gentry in the village of Pyo‧ng-san in Hwanghae Province. Rhee's boyhood name was Su‧ng-yong. When he was very young, the family moved to Seoul, the capital city of a dynasty in rapid decline. He studied Chinese readers and classics before enrolling in the Paejae Haktang (academy), a Methodist mission school, in 1894. Upon graduation from Paejae, he was employed by the academy as an English instructor. He became interested in Western enlightenment ideas and joined reform movements which bitterly criticized the anachronistic and impotent Korean government. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1897. His conversion to Methodism came while he was a political prisoner. He was released from prison in 1904.

In the winter of the same year, Rhee traveled to the United States with a hope of appealing to President Theodore Roosevelt for assistance to Korea in its desperate efforts to maintain its independence from Japan. The appeal was futile, as the American-Korean treaty of 1882 had lost meaning and as the U.S. government was eager to cooperate with the Japan that was emerging victorious from the Russo-Japanese War. The Portsmouth Treaty led to the Japanese protectorate over Korea, and the United States promptly withdrew the American legation from Seoul.


Education in the United States

While Syngman Rhee was pursuing his elusive goal of attempting to save Korean independence through hopeless appeals, he also enrolled, in the spring of 1905, as a student in George Washington University. Upon graduation in 1907, he decided to do postgraduate work in the United States and was admitted to Harvard University. He began to read extensively in international relations. When he received his master's degree in the spring of 1908, unstable conditions in his homeland prompted him to continue his education in the United States. He received his doctorate in political science from Princeton University in 1910, the year in which Japan formally annexed its Korean protectorate. The topic of his dissertation was "Neutrality as Influenced by the United States."

Rhee returned to Korea in 1910 as a YMCA organizer, teacher, and evangelist among the youth of Korea. When an international conference of Methodist delegates was held in Minneapolis in 1912, Rhee attended the meeting as the lay delegate of the Korean Methodists. After the conference, Rhee decided to stay in the United States and accepted the head position at the Korean Compound School—later the Korean Institute—in Honolulu in 1913.


President of Provisional Government

On March 1, 1919, a Korea-wide demonstration for the independence of the country took place as 33 leading Koreans signed a declaration of independence which was then read to crowds in the streets. The Japanese reaction to the massive "Mansei Uprising," which was partly inspired by the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination, was swift and cruel. An outcome of the "Samil movement" was that a group of independence leaders, meeting in Seoul in April 1919, formed a Korean provisional government with Syngman Rhee—still in the United States—as the first president. The provisional government was subsequently located in Shanghai, and Rhee continued to lead the independence movement mostly from the United States, where he was best known. When Kim Ku became the president of the "government in exile," Rhee acted as its Washington representative.

In early 1933 Rhee was in Geneva attempting to make an appeal on behalf of Korea to the delegates attending the League of Nations, where Japan's military conquest of Manchuria was under discussion. His mission was once again frustrating, as major powers were then unwilling and unable to check the expansionist Japan. It was in Geneva that Rhee first became acquainted with Miss Francesca Donner, the eldest of three daughters of a well-to-do iron merchant in Vienna. She was in Geneva serving as a secretary to the Austrian delegation to the League. After Rhee's return to the United States via Moscow, Miss Donner entered the United States under the Austrian immigration quota. They were married in October 1933, saying the vows in both Korean and English. He was then almost 58. Francesca shared his life as a devoted wife. (After Rhee's death in 1965, she lived in Vienna.)


Return to Korea

When Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial domination in 1945 by the Allied Powers, Rhee was flown back to the country that he had not seen for some 33 years. He was given a hero's welcome by the American military government that was ruling the southern half of Korea and by the Korean people, who were overjoyed with the prospect of independence. Rhee quickly became the leader of conservative, right-wing political forces in South Korea, thanks to his background as a leader of the "exile government." Rhee's only potential rival in South Korea politics, Kim Ku, who had led the "exile government" in China, was assassinated.

When the first general elections in Korean history, to elect the members of the National Assembly, were held on May 10, 1948, under the supervision of the UN Temporary Commission on Korea, Rhee's Association for the Rapid Realization of Independence won a plurality of seats. When the National Assembly convened for the first time, on May 31, 1948, Rhee was elected as Assembly chairman—a first step to the presidency of the Republic of Korea.


President of the Republic

The National Assembly adopted the 1948 constitution of Korea, providing for an essentially democratic, presidential system of government. As one of its first official acts under the new constitution, the National Assembly elected Rhee as the republic's first president. The Republic of Korea was proclaimed on the third anniversary of VJ-day, thus ending the 3-year administration of South Korea by the U.S. military government.

In the first few months of the Rhee administration, what may be called a "personalism" of the strong-willed president, as opposed to "institutionalism," was established in the republic. The crisis conditions under which the Rhee government had to function in the southern half of the divided peninsula tended to accelerate the process. Communist-inspired mutinies in the Yo‧su-Suncho‧n areas, for instance, made normal operations of the government difficult already in October—barely 2 months after the inauguration of the government. When the Communist army of North Korea invaded the Republic of Korea on June 25, 1950, the Rhee administration quickly adjusted to the wartime situation, and Rhee became increasingly autocratic.

While UN action led by the United States was being resolutely taken to repulse the armed aggression, and while numerous South Korean troops were engaged in fierce combat against Communist troops, the Rhee administration initiated a "political crisis" in and around the wartime capital of Pusan, which was placed under martial law.

The executive thoroughly intimidated the legislature in the early summer of 1952 to adopt a series of constitutional amendments that Rhee desired. By now, Rhee was unlikely to be reelected as president by the National Assembly according to the Constitution of 1948. The 1952 amendments provided, among other things, for a direct popular election of the president and vice president. Rhee and his running mate, Ham T'ae-yo‧ng, were elected by an overwhelming majority of south Korean voters in the Aug. 5, 1952, elections. By the time the Korean truce agreement was signed in a wooden hut in P'anmunjo‧m in July 1953, the political position of President Rhee and his Liberal party was supreme.

After the victory of the Liberal party in the May 20, 1954, Assembly election, the Rhee administration again proposed on September 6 a long series of constitutional amendments. The more important provisions of these amendments, which were adopted on November 27, eliminated the two-term restriction on presidential tenure and abolished the office of the prime minister. Rhee won his third presidential term in the May 15, 1956, election. Rhee had won this election with only 56 percent of the vote, however, compared to 72 percent in the wartime election of 1952. Furthermore, Korean voters had elected Chang Myo‧n (John M. Chang) of the opposition party as the vice president. Many commentators observed that the 1956 election was a partial repudiation by the people of Rhee's administration and his Liberal party, which were becoming increasingly more oppressive.

Aware of the mounting discontent of the people, the administration and the Liberal party extensively "rigged" the March 15, 1960, presidential election, although the opposition candidate, Cho Pyo‧ng-ok, had died of complications resulting from an operation at the Walter Reed Hospital. When all the votes were "counted" after March 15, it was announced that there were, astoundingly, no recorded "posthumous" votes for Cho; it was claimed by the government that Rhee had "won" 92 percent of the vote; the remaining votes were simply termed "invalid." The opposition groups in the National Assembly, the only public gathering where a semblance of free speech still remained under the Rhee government, protested the elections vigorously. They charged that a number of votes, equal to 40 percent of the total electorate, had been fabricated and used to pad the Liberal party vote.


Student Uprising

Pent-up frustrations of the Korean people at these political manipulations exploded in the April 19, 1960, "Student Uprising." The Rhee administration attempted to blame "devilish hands of the Communists" for disturbances throughout South Korea. President Rhee himself asserted that the Masan riot, which had touched off the uprising, was the work of communist agents. President Rhee declared martial law and made it retroactive to the moment when the police guarding his mansion fired against the demonstrators.

Heavily armed soldiers were moved into the capital. When bloody showdowns seemed imminent, the soldiers, under the martial law commander, Lt. Gen. Song Yo-ch'an, showed no intention of shooting at demonstrating students. In fact, the army seemed to maintain strict "neutrality" between the Rhee administration and the demonstrators. While the very life of the Rhee administration trembled in the balance, the coercive powers of the regime thus evaporated. President Rhee resigned on April 26, 1960. He flew to Hawaii in May to live out his life in exile. He died of illness on July 19, 1965.

Rhee's presidency for about 12 years was marked principally by his stern anti-communism, anti-Japanese policies, awesome "personalism," and paternalistic leadership. It was partly due to his prestige and leadership, however, that South Korea could maintain war efforts during the Korean conflict of 1950-1953. The first presidency of the Republic of Korea would have been an extremely difficult task for anyone; Rhee's evident obsession to prolong his regime turned it into a tragic one—for himself and for the country that he served so long.

Further Reading on Syngman Rhee

An exceptionally thorough, well-researched biography that is extremely favorable to Rhee is Robert T. Oliver, Syngman Rhee: The Man behind the Myth (1954), although it is now dated. A fairly objective and sometimes critical biography is Richard C. Allen, Korea's Syngman Rhee: An Unauthorized Portrait (1960). For an analysis of Rhee as president of the Republic of Korea see John Kie-chiang Oh, Korea: Democracy on Trial (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Oliver, Robert Tarbell, Syngman Rhee and American involvement in Korea, 1942-1960: a personal narrative, Seoul: Panmun Book Co., 1978.