Syngman Rhee or Yi Seungman (March 26, 1875 – July 19, 1965) was the first president of South Korea. His presidency, from August 1948 to April 1960, remains controversial, affected by Cold War tensions on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere. Rhee was regarded as an anti-Communist and a strongman, and led South Korea through the Korean War. His presidency ended in resignation following popular protests against a disputed election. He died in exile in Hawaii.
Syngman Rhee was born in Hwanghae Province to Yi Gyeong-seon, a royal aristocrat. By birth, Rhee was a member of a royal cadet branch of the House of Yi, the House of Grand Prince Royal Yangnyeong. He attended Pai Chai Hak Dang, but he soon became active in Korea's struggle against Japanese hegemony. He was arrested in 1897 for demonstrating against the Japanese monarchy, being subsequently released in 1904 and going to the United States. He obtained several degrees (including a B.A. from George Washington University, Harvard University, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University) and became so Westernized that he began writing his name in the Western manner, with the personal name preceding the family name.
Read more about Syngman Rhee, free from time.com. In 1910, he returned to Korea, which had by this time been annexed by Japan. His political activism attracted unwelcome attention from the occupying army. In 1919, all of the major pro-independence factions formed the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai. Rhee was elected the president, a post he held for six years. In 1925 he was removed from office following his impeachment by the Provisional Assembly for misuse of his authority— an event that would foreshadow his later political career.
Rise to power
After Japanese rule ended in Korea, Rhee returned to Seoul before the other independence leaders. Since he was backed by the United States, he was appointed head of the Korean government in 1945. With America's tacit consent, Rhee began a campaign to "remove Communism". However it was actually a veiled plan to remove all political opposition.
Rhee won a seat at the First Assembly of South Korea on 10 May 1948 by one parliamentary vote after left-wing parties boycotted the election. He was elected as the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly on May 31. Rhee was then elected the first president of South Korea defeating Kim Gu, the last president of the Provisional Government by a margin of 82-13, on 20 July. On 15 August, Rhee formally took over power from the US military and de jure sovereignty of Korean people from the Provisional Government. A year later, Kim Gu was assassinated by Ahn Doo-hee. Some speculate that Rhee was behind this assassination.
Rhee assumed dictatorial powers even before the Korean War broke out in 1950. He allowed the internal security force (headed by his right-hand man, Kim Chang-ryong) to detain and torture suspected Communists and North Korean agents. His government also oversaw several massacres, the most notable one being on Jeju island in which over 30,000 were killed in response to an uprising by leftist factions.
South Korea's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has estimated that the number of deaths attributed to these killings is at least 100,000 and perhaps upwards of 200,000.
At the outbreak of hostilities in June 1950, all South Korean resistance at the 38th parallel was overwhelmed by the North Korean offensive. By June 26, it was apparent that the KPA would occupy Seoul. Rhee, who was afraid of a mass insurrection in Seoul, forbade the military from revealing the situation, and instead, fled the city on June 27. On June 28, at midnight South Korean military destroyed the Han Bridge, thereby condemning thousands of fleeing citizens. On June 28, North Korean soldiers occupied Seoul.
North Korean rule in Seoul was marked by brutality and atrocity. In the streets, KPA forces arrested hundreds of landlords, police, bankers, and government officials and executed them in public hangings. Work camps were established around the vicinity of Seoul, where South Korean citizens were forced into hard labor.
Rhee and his wife posing with Army Corps of Engineers personnel in 1950 at the Han River Bridge
After being forced back to the Pusan Perimeter, General Douglas MacArthur launched the Incheon landings in September 1950. The UN and South Korean forces then drove the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel towards the Yalu River. But following the intervention by Chinese volunteers, the UN and South Koreans were forced to retreat back to a line along the DMZ.
During this time, Rhee established a temporary government in Busan and created a defensive perimeter along the Naktong Bulge. A series of battles ensued, which later, would be known as the Battle of Naktong Bulge.
Restored as South Korea's leader after the recapture of Seoul, Rhee's relationship with the United States became strained after he refused to agree to a number of ceasefire proposals that might have ended the Korean War. Rhee wanted to become the leader of a unified Korea so he vetoed any plans that failed to destroy Kim Il-Sung. He also wanted stronger methods to be used against the government of Mao Zedong, expressing annoyance that the U.S. was reluctant to bomb China with nuclear weaponry.
With the Korean War still waging, Rhee won the presidency for a second tenure in 1952. When the opposition-dominated National Assembly tried to amend the Constitution to institute a parliamentary system, Rhee countered with a bid of his own to transfer election of the president to the people. The amendment only passed when he jailed several opposition deputies before the vote. Shortly after his party regained control of the legislature in 1954, Rhee was able to pass an amendment exempting the incumbent president—himself—from the two-term limit.
Following the end Korean War and for the remainder of his rule, he kept the Empress Dowager Empress Sunjeong of the Korean Empire imprisoned at Suin Hall, a cottage in Jeongneung, Seoul. Rhee feared that the South Korean population still revered her and opponents would use the Dowager Queen as a figurehead. Nevertheless, he made his own claims that he was related to the Royal family and the House of Yi.
Resignation and exile
Syngman Rhee awarding a medal to U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie during the Korean War in 1952
In 1960, Rhee assured his fourth term in office as President with 90% of the vote. The victory came after the main opposition candidate, Cho Byeong-ok, died shortly before the March 15 elections.
Rhee wanted his protégé Lee Gibung elected as the independent Vice President - a separate office under Korean law at that time. When Lee, who was running against Chang Myon, former ambassador to the United States during the Korean War, won the vote with a wide margin the opposition claimed the election was rigged. This triggered anger among segments of the Korean populace. When police shot demonstrators in Masan, the student-led April 19 Movement forced Rhee to resign on April 26.
On April 28, a DC-4 belonging to the United States Central Intelligence Agency - operated by Civil Air Transport - flew Rhee out of South Korea as protestors converged on the Blue House.
Kim Yong Kap, Deputy Minister of Finance accused Rhee of embezzling more than $20 million in government funds.
The former president, his Austrian-born wife, Franziska Donner, and adopted son then lived in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Rhee died of a stroke on July 19, 1965. A week later his body was returned to Seoul and buried in the Seoul National Cemetery.
Legacy and analysis
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Rhee's former Seoul residence, Ihwajang, is currently used for the presidential memorial museum. The Woo-Nam Presidential Preservation Foundation has been set up to honour his legacy.
Rhee is accused of having a dictatorial and corrupt government. His reaction to any opposition was marked with brutality, for instance allowing the police at Masan and Seoul to open fire at the strikers, killing over 100, and brutally murdering a high school student named Kim Ju-Yyeor. Rhee was extremely authoritarian, arresting any civilians who opposed him, whether a legislator or a vagabond. In one instance, in Gyeongnam on May 27, 1952, forty legislators were arrested by the military police simply because they were heading to the senate. A similar instance occurred in Masan on April 18, 1960 where Rhee secretly ordered the police and bribed criminal organizations to break up the strikers.