Syngman Rhee is most famously known in Korea as being the first President of the fledgling Republic of Korea and lead his nation through the disastrous Korean War. Despite being the first president of the ROK Syngman Rhee actually led a life with many other notable achievements as well as plenty of controversy.
Syngman Rhee was born the son of a not to wealthy Yangban family in North Korea in 1875. Rhee was a smart and dedicated student in his youth and developed a keen interest in the west when blindness in his eyes due to a small pox infection that was cured by prominent protestant missionary Horace Allen. Rhee would later go on and become part of a coup attempt to dethrone a pro-Japanese installed government in Korea. His part in the coup attempt would land him a six year jail term in 1897 that included horrible living conditions and many beatings. It would be in prison that Rhee would convert to Christianity and his religion would be something that would follow him the rest of his life. When released from jail he would move to the United States to study.
He would later be recruited by the Korean government in 1905 to lobby American President Theodore Roosevelt to advocate for Korean independence from the Japanese under the guise of the 1883 Jemulpo Agreement that stated that the United States would show “good offices” in regards to aiding Korea. Rhee tried to exert that “good offices” was a defensive pact which it clearly was not. Roosevelt politely dismissed Rhee and even commented that “he could not do for the Koreans what they were utterly unable to do for themselves”. Later that year the Treaty of Portsmouth would be signed and Korea would officially become part of the Imperial Japanese Empire.
Rhee would stay in the United States during the Japanese colonization of Korea and attend college and graduate with a bachelor’s degree from George Washington, a master’s degree from Harvard, and finally a doctorate’s degree in Political Science from Princeton. It is quite possible that Rhee was the most highly educate Korean of his time. The President of Princeton at the time of Rhee’s attendance was a man by the name of Woodrow Wilson who took a liking to Rhee and would often invite him to dinner parties. Through connections through both Wilson and the American Christian community Rhee had the ear of many important American political leaders as well as other influential leaders in the Chinese Nationalist movement. .
32 year old Rhee after graduating from Princeton.
In 1910 Rhee would return to Korea but would eventually leave a little over a year later due to a crackdown on dissent by the occupying Japanese. He left Korea and immigrated to Hawaii where he worked as the head of a Methodist school. In 1912 Rhee would have high hopes that help for Korean independence would come when his old mentor Woodrow Wilson was elected as the President of the United States. However, with the responsibilities that comes with being the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson did not want to be complicated with any hostilities with the Japanese over Korea, especially with the outbreak of World War I.
With the end of World War I and the scheduling of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that would establish the League of Nations, Rhee saw his chance to advance the cause of Korean independence. So before the conference Rhee would help form the Korean Provisional Government in Exile and was elected as the body’s first President. Since the Japanese had chosen to ally with the allies during the war during the conference they were allowed to keep their colonial possessions just like the rest of the allied powers. Rhee on the other hand could not even attend the conference because the US State Department would not authorize Rhee to receive a passport. Rhee would go on later to be impeached for corruption and abuses of power by the Provisional Government in 1925, which like his religion was a trait that would follow him around the rest of his life.
After being impeached Rhee was widely discarded by all his prior political friends and lived a much quieter life in Hawaii. In 1934 at the age of 60 he would go on to marry the Austrian born 34 year old Francisca Donner and they would adopt a son:
Rhee with his wife Francisca Donner seated next to him.
Rhee would continue to live in Hawaii and probably would have never been heard from again if it wasn’t for the over reach of the Imperial Japanese military by declaring war against the United States. After the Japanese defeat in World War II General Douglas MacArthur asked Chinese strongman Chiang Kai-shek who could best lead Korea and he recommended Syngman Rhee. Rhee at the age of 71 returned to Korea aboard General MacArthur’s personal plane and became the temporary President of Korea until being formerly elected the President of the Republic of Korea in 1948.
Rhee taking his 1948 oath of office.
In his early years as President of the ROK Rhee worked hard to suppress any political challengers to his rule in the guise of clamping down on communist sympathizers. At the same time Rhee continued to advocate for the reunification of the nation by force if necessary. Rhee had waited all this years and suffered many hardships to be the President of all of Korea not just half of it. Realizing Rhee’s ambitions to reunite the peninsula by force if necessary caused the US military to not field the Korean military with weapons that would give them a military edge over the North Koreans because of the fear Rhee would launch a offensive campaign against the North. The US had just come out a bloody World War II battle and was not about to fight a major war in Asia to reunite Korea.
Rhee re-establishes the Korean government after Seoul is recaptured by the Americans from the North Koreans during the Korean War.
Ironically The US military’s policies would actually help lead to the war they tried to prevent because not fielding the South Korean military with better weapons actually caused the North Koreans to have too much of a military edge over the South that they quickly took advantage of and invaded the South in 1950. During the Korean War Rhee would become an annoyance to the UN forces because of his rhetoric advocating for renewed offensive operations to reclaim North Korean lands after the entry of the Chinese into the Korean War. After the entry of the Chinese into the war the US was no longer interested in fighting a war to reunite the peninsula because it could lead to a wider war that could include the Russian entry into the war. The US fought to keep strategic terrain and began cease fire negotiations with the Chinese. Rhee would continuously work against any cease fire agreements that the United States was trying to sign with the Chinese to end the war.
In July 1953 the cease fire agreement was signed officially ending the Korean War but Syngman Rhee refused to sign it leaving the United States to sign it in the name of the United Nations forces instead. In the post-war years Rhee would continue to build his power base and ended winning his 1956 re-election campaign solely because of the mysterious death of his main rival Shin Ik-hee. Rhee autocratic style would begin to wear thin with the Korean public during his last years in office that featured much political upheaval and massive student demonstrations. Rhee’s final undoing was in 1960 when he tried to tamper with the election results that led to such large demonstrations that he was forced to resign at the age of 86.
Crowds celebrate on a army tank the 1960 resignation of Syngman Rhee.
After resigning Rhee would go into self imposed exile in Hawaii where he would die there five years later at the age of 91. He was later buried in the National Cemetery in Seoul. Rhee was a true Korean nationalist that did much for the cause of Korean independence, but was constantly hampered by his own autocratic tendencies and corruption failures that would follow him around his entire life. His corruption and autocratic nature would cause Rhee to be the wrong man to lead the nation in the post-Korean War years that needed someone of great leadership abilities to unite the nation. Rhee’s post-Korean War rule saw much turmoil in Korea that ultimately led to the 1961 military coup by Army General Park Chung-hee, which opened a whole another chapter in Korean history.
It is because of Rhee’s flaws that he never was able to live up to his promise of being the father of an independent Korean nation, but he should still be respected for his long service to the cause of Korean independence.