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.
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.
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).
Oliver, Robert Tarbell, Syngman Rhee and American involvement in Korea, 1942-1960: a personal narrative, Seoul: Panmun Book Co., 1978. □
"Syngman Rhee." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/syngman-rhee
"Syngman Rhee." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/syngman-rhee
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.
Syngman Rhee (sĬng´mən rē), 1875–1965, Korean statesman, president of the Republic of Korea (1948–60). Early an advocate of Korean independence, he led a demonstration against the Japanese in 1897 and was condemned to life imprisonment but was released (1904) under an amnesty. Rhee went to the United States, where he studied at Harvard and Princeton (Ph.D., 1910), and after returning to Korea went to Hawaii for a time. In 1919 a group of conspirators for Korean independence made him president of a government in exile, and he never ceased working for the cause. After World War II he became a leader in South Korea under the U.S. occupation, and in 1948 he became first president of the Republic of Korea, which claimed the right to rule over all Korea. When, on July 27, 1953, a truce was reached in the Korean War, Rhee maintained that all Korea should be united. Reelected to his fourth term in 1960, Rhee was accused of rigging the election. Student-led demonstrations protesting the election and government corruption soon led to riots and in May, 1960, Rhee was forced out of office and into exile in Hawaii.
See biography by R. C. Allen (1960).
"Rhee, Syngman." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rhee-syngman
"Rhee, Syngman." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rhee-syngman
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
"Rhee, Syngman." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rhee-syngman
"Rhee, Syngman." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rhee-syngman
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Born April 26, 1875
Died July 19, 1965
President of the Republic of Korea
Syngman Rhee had been in exile from his native country for most of thirty-three years when he returned in 1945 at the age of seventy. He became the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948. After spending most of his life in the United States petitioning for help in the cause of Korean independence from Japan, Rhee was single-mindedly devoted to his country. Rhee was called a puppet of the United States by the communists, but the United States in fact had far less control over his actions than they wished. Rhee was tough, cunning, and manipulative, and one of the more skilled politicians in the country. He did not represent the majority of South Koreans, but, backed by wealthy bureaucrats and the national police force, he managed to build a power base in the U.S.-occupied country. For some who lived through the tumultuous times of his rule, Rhee seemed to be the glue that held the war-torn Republic of Korea together. To others, he was an autocrat and zealot who oppressed his country and extinguished chances of reconciliation between North and South Korea.
Yi Sung-man, who later Westernized his name to Syngman Rhee, was born on April 26, 1875, the only son of Yi Kyong-sun, a member of the local gentry in the village of Pyong-san in Hwanghae Province. When he was very young, his family moved to Seoul, the capital city of Korea. Rhee's family was of the yangban class of Korea, the traditional Korean elite who often held bureaucratic positions in the government and came from a long tradition of scholarly pursuits. One of the principle yangban disciplines at the time of Rhee's youth was memorizing volumes of Korean genealogies: the family trees of Koreans. Yi Kyong-sun could sit and recite volumes of his family genealogy, going back seventeen generations to a time when the family was connected to royal blood. Rhee's family, though elite, was fairly poor.
Rhee's father wanted him to follow in the yangban tradition, so he spent his time as a boy studying Confucian classics. Confucianism is a moral and religious system from China that teaches proper human behavior, particularly in terms of relationships between people. Confucianism in many ways serves to preserve the status quo (the way things are at the time), since it advocates that everyone should know their place in society and not overstep their position. By the time Rhee was in his teens, he longed for more modern ideas. He cut off his topknot of hair (traditional for yangban youth) and began to read Western books. In 1894, he enrolled in the Paejae Haktang, a Methodist mission high school, where he was taught Western traditions and the English language. Upon graduation from Paejae, he was employed by the academy as an English instructor.
Involvement with the politics of reform
When Rhee began his studies at the Methodist academy, a large popular uprising, the Tonghak Rebellion, swept across Korea. The rebels, reacting to corruption within the Korean government and the influence of outsiders in their country, sought a return to the traditional cultures and religions of Asia. When the Tonghak rebels got out of control, the Korean government called upon China to help put down the uprising; without being asked, Japan also sent in troops. China and Japan went to war, and the Japanese won in 1895. The Japanese then began what would prove to be a long and forceful presence in Korea.
The Independence Club, a group seeking reform and Korean independence, was founded in 1896 by Philip Jaisohn, an American-educated reformer. The club published a newspaper,The Independent. Rhee, who was the editor of a school paper, was drawn to the club by his journalistic interests and by its Western ideas of reform. He became a member of the Independence Club and was one of its most impassioned speakers, demanding before crowds that the Japanese leave Korea and that Korea's monarchy (inherited rule by royalty) be reformed. He led a group of about eight thousand demonstrators who called for the removal of Russian advisers from Korea. The demand was carried out by the Korean government, but later the pro-Russian sector of the government regained its strength and went after the organization. The Korean king, too, came to believe that the Independence Club was against him and ordered it disbanded.
In 1898, Rhee was arrested, presumably for his involvement in the Independence Club. He was tortured for months, and at the end of the period of torture sentenced to life in prison. In prison, Rhee converted to Christianity. He believed that Christianity was a fitting set of beliefs for political reform, that helping others was the way to mend the world. His conversion to Christianity included a powerful belief that God had a plan for him to save his country. While in prison, Rhee wrote a book, The Spirit of Independence, in the hope of arousing public sentiment against the Japanese in Korea.
In 1904, six years after his arrest, Rhee was released from prison. According to him (and many have questioned this claim) some leaders of the Korean government asked him to go to the United States and plead for help against the Japanese. He arrived in Washington, D.C., on December 31, 1905. It took him another six months to get an appointment to see President Theodore Roosevelt (1887–1944) to ask for U.S. aid to help Korea rid itself of the Japanese. When he finally did get in to see the president, he was too late. The United States had already agreed to recognize Japan's interests in Korea. Soon after Rhee's visit with the president, Japan declared Korea a "protectorate." Within five years, Japan annexed Korea, making the peninsula, which had been an independent country for centuries, part of its expanding empire.
Education in the United States
After his frustrated attempt to save Korean independence, Rhee enrolled as a student in George Washington University, getting financial help from the Methodist Mission Board. Upon graduation in 1907, he was admitted to a master's program at Harvard University. He began to read extensively about international relations. He received his doctorate in political science from Princeton University in 1910, the year in which Japan formally annexed its Korean protectorate. During the last years of his schooling, he became friends with futureU.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), who was president of Princeton at the time.
Rhee returned to Korea in 1910 as a YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) organizer, teacher, and evangelist among the youth of Korea, in effect paying back the Methodists for his education. He wasn't there long. He was disturbed by the strict rule of the Japanese and in danger of arrest. In 1912, while attending a conference in the United States, he decided to stay, accepting the head position at the Korean Compound School— later the Korean Institute—in Honolulu in 1913.
President of provisional government
On March 1, 1919, thirty-three leading Koreans signed a declaration of independence, which was then read to crowds in the streets of Seoul. A huge Korea-wide demonstration, which came to be known as the March First Movement, swept the country. The Japanese reaction to the massive uprising was swift and cruel, resulting in thousands of deaths, injuries, and arrests.
At that time, President Woodrow Wilson was at the Paris Peace Conference, negotiating peace after World War I (1914–18). He announced that he would champion "the right of self-determination of peoples." A group of independence leaders, still stirred by the March First Movement, met in Seoul in April 1919 and formed the Korean Provisional Government, naming Syngman Rhee as the first president, hoping that he could use his ties to Wilson to get help for Korea. Rhee asked for permission as the president in exile to attend the Paris Peace Conference, but Wilson was trying to gain Japanese cooperation and would not allow Rhee to attend.
The Korean Provisional Government was then moved to Shanghai, China, and Rhee continued to lead it from the United States, where he was best known. Even there, however, he could not find allies in his struggles against the Japanese. In March 1925, Rhee was dismissed as the provisional government's president after conflicts arose with other members. When Korean leader Kim Ku became the president of the government in exile, Rhee simply ignored his dismissal and continued to claim the title of president.
In early 1933, while Rhee was in Geneva, Switzerland, attempting to make an appeal on behalf of Korea to the League of Nations (an international organization devoted to world peace), he first met Francesca Donner, the eldest daughter of a well-to-do iron merchant in Vienna, who was there as a secretary to the Austrian delegation to the League. They were married in October 1933, saying their vows in both Korean and English. He was then almost fifty-eight.
Rhee moved to Washington in 1940, as World War II (1939–45) was changing the relationship between the United States and Japan. He tried to put pressure on the Department of State to recognize the Korean Provisional Government. During this time he wrote another book, Japan Inside Out, that predicted Japan's aggression toward the United States. He was not very successful in his efforts, and many dismissed him as a nagging old man. By 1943, Rhee began blaming the Soviet Union for the many of the ills in Asia. His anticommunist stand won him some support. (The Soviet Union was the first communist country and was made up of fifteen republics, including Russia. It existed as a unified country from 1922 to 1991. Communism is a set of political beliefs that advances the elimination of private property. It is a system in which goods are owned by the community as a whole rather than by specific individuals and are available to all as needed.) During his years in the United States, Rhee became a very successful fundraiser, earning himself the money to live, travel, and publicize the Korean cause. His base benefactors were Koreans living in the United States and members of the Korean Christian Church in Hawaii, but he also received money from wealthy Americans in Christian church groups.
Return to Korea
When World War II came to an end in 1945, the Korean people were full of joy at their liberation, but their dreams of an independent Korea were short-lived. The United States and the Soviet Union agreed on a joint military occupation of Korea to accept the Japanese surrender, reasoning that the Koreans had been ruled by others for so long, they would not immediately have the resources to rule themselves. Once both powers had set up military governments in their sector of Korea, they found they could not agree to terms of a trusteeship. Neither occupier was willing to let the other take control of all of Korea, and so they remained there for three years, with the Soviets in the north above the 38th parallel helping to establish a communist government and the United States in the south trying to eliminate communist elements and establish a democratic government.
At the time of liberation, Syngman Rhee, sixy-nine years old, pressured the U.S. State Department to be allowed to return to Korea. He was initially ignored, but with help from his friends, Rhee was flown back to the country that he had not seen for some thirty-three years in General Douglas MacArthur's own plane. (Douglas MacArthur [1880–1964; see entry] at the time was the Allied supreme commander of U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific.) He was given a hero's reception 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's name was known in Korea as a nationalist hero from the independence movement, but not much more was known of him. According to historian Joungwon Alexander Kim in Divided Korea, the elderly exile knew he had to prove his right to lead:
Rhee was aware of the importance of proving his legitimacy, and kept in his possession a notebook that contained a tracing of his genealogy back to the Yi dynasty founder, the instructions from the members of the Korean cabinet in 1904 [telling him to seek help from Theodore Roosevelt against the Japanese], newspaper clippings about his activities on Korea's behalf at numerous international conferences, photographs of himself with Woodrow Wilson—indeed, every piece of evidence he could accumulate to demonstrate his claim to be the leader of the Korean people.
Political struggle in Korea, 1945–1948
At the time of liberation, the Korean people had quickly put together their own government, the Korean People's Republic. It had 145 branches throughout the country called People's Committees that governed locally. Rhee had been named its president before he returned to Korea, but he quickly distanced himself from the reform-oriented Korean People's Republic, which included large communist factions. His anticommunist stand made him very popular among the prosperous: the landholders and businessmen. Because the communists hated the national police, which was made up of a large majority of people who had been trained by the Japanese, the police as a group would also come to support Rhee. Rhee was a firm advocate of independence, and although he enjoyed the appearance of U.S. support, at times he fought to get the military government out of Korea. He made quite a few enemies in the American Military Government. For the first years of his return, his political position was far from secure.
By 1946, order in South Korea had given way. Political factions were dividing and fighting among each other. Violence and economic instability reigned. Political experience was nonexistent among the Koreans, because the Japanese had never allowed them to practice their own politics. At the same time, the American Military Government, with money and power, had surprisingly little knowledge of the Korean people and made many grave errors in policy. The leaders vying for power with Rhee within the Republic of Korea were Kim Koo, the leader of the Korean Provisional Government, a nationalist and anticommunist like himself; Kim Kyu-sik, another exile nationalist with a Ph.D. from Princeton; Yö Un-hyöng (Lyuh Woon Hyung; 1885–1947), the founder of the People's Republic and moderate leftist; and Pak Hön-yöng (1900–1955; see entries), the leader of the sizable group of Korean communists in the south. (Reform-seeking individuals, often communist, are referred to as leftists, or being on the political left wing. Conservatives, politically on the right, seek to maintain traditions and establish strong, authoritative governments. They tend to favor big business and power in the hands of the elite and are always anticommunist, since communists generally are concerned with the plight of the common people.) Among these men and their followers, a tremendous political struggle would take place.
In the meantime, the United States and the Soviet Union worked toward the trusteeship. While the general population was solidly against the trusteeship—the Korean people did not trust the Americans—the Korean Communist Party came out in favor of it. Thus, Yö Un-hyöng and Kim Kyu-sik worked with the Americans to form a coalition government. As the left gradually broke down into factions, Rhee, who had remained opposed to the trusteeship and to any coalition government, began to pick up support.
Rhee elected president
The Americans at first opposed the idea of the establishment of separate governments in Korea's Soviet-occupied north and American-occupied south. But they were also unwilling to agree to the Soviet's proposal that both occupiers withdraw from Korea at the same time and leave the Koreans to choose their government. In early 1948, at the urging of the United States, the United Nations (UN) agreed to sponsor elections in Korea, after which Korea would become independent. (The UN was founded in 1945 to maintain worldwide peace and to develop friendly relations among countries.) The Soviets and northern Koreans, believing that the UN did not have the authority to determine the government of Korea, would not allow its representatives into northern Korea to supervise the elections. So in the end, the United States supported elections in the south alone. Many Korean leaders, including Kim Koo and Kim Kyu-sik, opposed the elections, but Rhee, who had been arguing for elections in the south since 1946, knew that a one-sided election would be in his favor. And it was. In May 1948, Rhee was elected the first president of the new Republic of Korea. The northern Koreans soon held their own elections and established their own new government, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Rhee was a charismatic leader and, by many accounts, a ruthless dictator. An interesting portrait of Rhee comes from a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report, quoted in Joseph C. Goulden's Korea: The Untold Story of the War, written a year and a half after he became president:
Rhee has devoted his life to the cause of an independent Korea with the ultimate objective of personally controlling the country. In pursuing this end he has shown few scruples [guiding principles about what is right and proper] about the elements which he has been willing to utilize for his personal advancement, with the important exception that he has always refused to deal with Communists…. He has also been unscrupulous in his attempts to thrust aside any person or group he felt to be in his way. Rhee's vanity has made him highly susceptible to the contrived flattery of self-seeking interests…. Hisintellect is a shallow one, and his behavior is often irrational and literally childish. Yet Rhee, in the final analysis, has proved himself to be a remarkably astute politician. Although he has created for himself the combination role of Korean Moses and Messiah, he has very rarely permitted himself to forget the hard political realities of his position.
After he gained the office of president of Korea, Rhee went to work consolidating his power. In the six months that followed his inauguration, about 81,000 people were arrested, including a good number of elected members of the National Assembly. Rhee fired many of the officers of the ROK army and used the courts to keep any perceived enemies at bay. The economy was very bad and the public was unhappy. In the 1950 elections for National Assembly, only 47 of the 210 seats were held by Rhee supporters.
The Korean War
Rhee's dream was to reunify Korea under his own rule. He wanted to go to war with North Korea, but he knew he could not hope to win the war without the military backing of the United States. The United States did not want war and made it clear that it would not support South Korea in an unprovoked conflict. Even so, there were several border battles started by the South in 1949.
Then, on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops in huge numbers invaded the South, quickly occupying Seoul. This was the start of the Korean War, initially a civil war, with both sides desiring to reunify Korea under their own very different kinds of government. The civil war was quickly transformed into a superpower conflict, however, as United Nations forces, led by the United States, came to the aid of the South and then, later that year, soldiers from the new People's Republic of China joined on the side of the North. The war continued for three years, devastating both North and South Korea as cities were taken, abandoned, and retaken. A cease-fire was signed in the summer of 1953, but a formal peace treaty was never negotiated. A military demarcation line and demilitarized zone (with hundreds of thousands of troops ranged on either side) still divide the two countries.
Rhee spent the early days of the war fleeing from the invading North Koreans from one position to the next. Then, as the UN troops began to advance up into the North, he reclaimed Seoul and even Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Just as the North Koreans had come into South Korean cities and arrested and executed the people they thought to be part of Rhee's government, so, too, did Rhee have his troops arrest anyone suspected of having communist sympathies. Many civilians were executed by his forces, and new evidence in the 1990s and 2000s indicates that there were more of these political killings than was ever recorded in history books. Although Rhee formally put his troops under UN command at the beginning of the war, he was quick to threaten to pull them out when he disagreed with the Americans. When theU.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (the military advisors to the president and secretary of defense who established the U.S. forces' battle plans) were pondering the wisdom of crossing the 38th parallel into North Korea with the threat of Chinese intervention in the war, Rhee gave orders to the ROK (Republic of Korea) troops to proceed to the border regardless of UN orders.
Rhee had never allowed any opposition to his rule and as the war continued, he was losing support in his country. The end of his first four-year term came in 1952 and it was obvious that he would lose the election if it were carried out as the constitution directed, by a vote of the popularly elected National Assembly. Of course, his opponents on the National Assembly would not accept a constitutional change. Therefore, in May 1952, Rhee placed the area of Pusan, in southern Korea where his government was temporarily stationed, under martial law (a time when civil rights are suspended) and had some of the members of the National Assembly arrested. In July, he had the National Police gather the legislators, some of whom had been in hiding. They were brought to Assembly Hall along with those who had been arrested and were forced to vote on the changes to the constitution. The members of the National Assembly bowed to his will and changed the constitution. Rhee was elected for a second term, but there was little question that he had corrupted the democratic process.
Sabotaging the truce
When U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) decided it was time to negotiate with the communists for an armistice, Rhee let it be known that he would never go along with a truce as long as the Korean nation was divided in two and there were still Chinese troops in the North. While the United Nations and the communists were trying to agree what to do with North Korean prisoners of war, Rhee was making his own plans to sabotage the truce. He gave orders to his troops in the prison camps to release the North Korean prisoners— twenty-five thousand of them—badly damaging relations at the negotiating table. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; see entries), the new president, voiced his frustrations at Rhee in his diary: "It is almost hopeless to write about the Korea-Rhee situation…. It is impossible to attempt here to recite the longlist of items in which Rhee has been completely uncooperative, even recalcitrant [defiant]…. There has been so muchbacking and filling, indecision, doubt, and frustration engendered by both Rhee and the communists that I am doubtful that an armistice even if achieved will have any great meaning. Certainly we must be extremely wary and watchful of both sides. Of course the fact remains that the probable enemy is the communists, but Rhee has been such an unsatisfactory ally that it is difficult indeed to avoid excoriating [severely criticizing] him in the strongest of terms." Rhee did finally go along with the armistice after obtaining promises of millions of dollars in U.S. aid, enough arms and equipment to enlarge the ROK Army from sixteen to twenty divisions, and the prolonged presence of U.S. troops in the Republic of Korea. The promise of massive economic aid he squeezed out of the Eisenhower administration, in fact, may have been one of his greatest accomplishments for his country. In the five weeks that his actions prolonged the fighting, however, there were more than one hundred thousand casualties on both sides.
After the war
As Rhee aged, he seemed to become less able to compromise and work with others, skills which had never been his particular strengths. He was determined to keep his hold on power, however, even if it meant intimidating opponents and rigging elections. In April 1960, following his fourth successful bid for the presidency, massive student protests and violence in several South Korean cities forced Rhee to resign the presidency and once again flee Korea. South Koreans had finally had enough: corruption in government, election rigging, police violence, and Rhee's emphasis on foreign affairs at the expense of economic development all combined to create a popular outrage against which even the stubborn but aging Rhee could no longer fight. Rhee quickly left the country for exile in Hawaii.
Rhee lived out the remainder of his life in Hawaii, where he died in 1965 at the age of ninety. His body was returned to South Korea and buried in the National Cemetery.
Where to Learn More
Allen, Richard C. Korea's Syngman Rhee: An Unauthorized Portrait. New York: Charles E. Tuttle, 1960.
Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. The Eisenhower Diaries. Edited by Robert H. Ferrell. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.
Gibney, Frank. "Syngman Rhee: The Free Man's Burden." In Harper's, February 1954, pp. 27–34.
Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story. New York: Times Books, 1982.
Kim, Joungwon Alexander. Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945–1972. Cambridge, MA: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1975.
Kim, Quee-Young. The Fall of Syngman Rhee. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1983.
Oliver, Robert T. Syngman Rhee: The Man Behind the Myth. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1960.
Oliver, Robert T. Syngman Rhee and American Involvement in Korea, 1942–1960: A Personal Narrative. Seoul, South Korea: Panmun Book Company, 1978.
Simmons, Robert R. "The Korean Civil War." In Without Parallel: The American-Korean Relationship since 1945, edited by Frank Baldwin. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.
Words to Know
annex: to take over a nation that was independent, making it a dependent part of another nation.
armistice: talks between opposing forces in which they agree to a truce or suspension of hostilities.
autocrat: a person who rules with unlimited authority.
bureaucrat: a person working in the administration of a government or organization in a nonelective function.
coalition government: a temporary government formed by combining all the different parties and interests in order to take a joint action.
Communism: a system of government in which one party (usually the Communist Party) controls all property and goods and the means to produce and distribute them.
exile: forced or voluntary absence from one's home country.
multinational trusteeship: government by the joint rule of several countries that have committed to act in what they deem to be the country's best interest.
protectorate: a dependent nation subject to the control of a more powerful nation, but not officially a part of the more powerful nation.
Provisional Korean Government: a government in exile, formed in Shanghai during Japanese rule of Korea (1910–45), that elected leaders and fought for the cause of an independent Korea, but had no actual power within occupied Korea.
puppet: someone who seems to be acting on his or her own, but is in fact controlled by someone or something else.
reunification: the process of bringing back together the separate parts of something that was once a single unit; in Korea, this usually refers to the dream of a single Korea ruled under one government, no longer divided into two nations at the demarcation line.
zealot: fanatic; someone who pursues his or her objectives with extreme passion and eagerness.
"Syngman Rhee." Korean War Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/syngman-rhee-0
"Syngman Rhee." Korean War Reference Library. . Retrieved July 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/syngman-rhee-0