Syngman Rhee

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Syngman Rhee

Born1875 March 26
Daegyong, Hwanghae, Joseon dynasty
Died1965 July 19
Honolulu, Hawaii, United States
Cause of deathStroke

Syngman Rhee (1875 March 26 – 1965 July 19) was the first president of south Korea, ruling from 1948 to 1960. Rhee ruled for the entire existence of the first republic of south Korea. The first republic was characterized by Rhee's autocratic rule and corruption, limited economic development, strong anti-communism, the mass killing of civilians, disappearances and torture of his opponents, and by the late 1950s, by growing political instability and public opposition to Rhee, ending with him fleeing to Hawaii, where he lived until his death in 1965. A 2020 letter signed by 252 South Korean NGOs says of Rhee:

Syngman Rhee who was the first president of the Republic of Korea, is responsible for the killing of 30,000 Jeju islanders between 1947 and 1954 (during the Jeju April 3rd Massacre). Secondly, he is responsible for the massacres of one million civilians during the Korean War (1950~1953), and finally, he illegally amended the Constitution in 1954, aiming for long-term seizure of power and initiated fraudulent election in 1960. As a result of his actions, series of national protests were held around April 19, 1960, calling for Mr. Rhee’s resignation and therefore, Syngman Rhee was forced to resign on April 26, 1960. [...] President Rhee Syngman is a Korean politician who acted against democracy and freedom and who was not held responsible for the mass killing of civilians, fraudulent elections, illegal amendment of the Constitution and several cases of enforced disappearance and torture leading to the death of his opponents. As a result, President Rhee was expelled by the people’s power, people who sacrificed their lives for democracy and freedom on April 26, 1960.[1]

A 1948 CIA report wrote regarding Rhee that "there is every prospect that Rhee's accession to power will be followed by intra-party cleavages and by the ruthless suppression of all non-Rhee Rightist, Moderate, and Leftist opposition," characterizing Rhee as an "imported expatriate politician" and "extreme rightist" and demagogue "bent on autocratic rule", who would be an "unpopular" figure who would play into communist propaganda due to his extreme rightist orientation, and stating that the U.S. throwing their full support behind him could potentially be "a source of future embarrassment to US policy in the Far East."[2]

According to journalist and military historian Max Hastings, it appears there was a struggle between the U.S. State Department and the OSS (later CIA) over granting Rhee a passport to Korea, and "all the evidence now suggests" that Rhee was the OSS "nominee for the leadership of a Korean civilian government" and traces a series of meetings between former deputy director of the OSS with Rhee, a person who it seems it is "almost certain" that he "assisted and raised money for Rhee in return for the promise of commercial concessions in Korea" after Rhee would come to power. Rhee flew to Seoul in one of MacArthur's aircraft, and despite the "vigorous denials" of the U.S. Army, Hastings says that "it seems likely that he met secretly with both the Supreme Commander and [General] Hodge during his stopover in Tokyo.[3]

Early life[edit | edit source]

Syngman Rhee was born in 1875 in the village of Daegyong in what is now the DPRK.[4] Rhee’s family came from royal lineage, Rhee being a 16th-generation descendant of Grand Prince Yangnyeong, a fact that Rhee "proudly disclosed during his time in America" according to the Boston Korean Diaspora Project of the Boston University School of Theology. In Seoul, he received a traditional Confucian education and was a potential candidate the Korean civil service examination. In 1894, Rhee enrolled in the Pai Chai Academy, an American Methodist school where he received western education and converted to Christianity, and in 1896, joined the Independence Club, which consisted of a group of young men who organized protests against the Japanese and Russian Empires. In 1897, Rhee was implicated in a plot to remove King Kojong from power, and as a result Rhee was arrested and imprisoned until 1904.[5]

In November 1905, with the help of American missionaries such as Horace Allen, George Herbert Jones, and James Scarth Gale, Rhee immigrated to America.[5] Rhee lived in the United States for over thirty five years. Rhee graduated from George Washington University in Washington D.C. in 1907 with a Bachelor of Arts, and continued to pursue his education at Harvard University, eventually earning an M.A. at Harvard in 1908[6] and later a Ph.D. at Princeton in 1910.[3][5]

Syngman Rhee started publishing the Korean Pacific Magazine (태평양잡지) in September 1913, which was later published by an organization Rhee was closely associated with, Dongji Hoi.[7]

Activism and business in Hawaii[edit | edit source]

In 1921, an organization called Dongji Hoi was established by Koreans in Honolulu, Hawaii. The organization's by-laws stated its purpose was "1) to respectfully support the Korean Provisional Government; and 2) to promote the unification of Koreans (abroad)." In 1924, Syngman Rhee held a Korean Representatives Meeting in Honolulu, and was elected Chairman of Dongji Hoi. In order to fulfill its organizational purposes, Dongji Hoi established the Dongji Investment Company (동지식산회사) and issued a 100-dollar stock in January 1926. Though it was hoped to sell 700 shares, only $30,000 was collected. From the $30,000, Syngman Rhee spent $13,700 to purchase about 960 acres of forest of 'ohi'a trees in Olaa, 18 miles south of Hilo, and called this "Dongji Village" (동지촌).[7]

Syngman Rhee wanted to clear the ohia forest and allow farming and ranching by Koreans. He envisioned that Koreans would prosper by farming their own pieces of land and eventually be able to support Dongji Hoi’s activities. Despite Rhee’s efforts to operate a charcoal kiln and lumber mill in the Dongji Village, the lack of capital prohibited him from reaching his goal. The Dongji Investment Company went bankrupt in April 1931 and the land was auctioned off in July 1933. The Dongji Hoi organization ran a program for covering funeral expenses as well as publishing magazines and newspapers which Syngman Rhee contributed to publishing.[7]

First Republic[edit | edit source]

General Douglas MacArthur greeting Syngman Rhee.

Rhee became the first president of South Korea in 1948. In 1949, he crushed an uprising on Jeju Island, killing an estimated 14,000–100,000 people.[8] While his forces retreated at the beginning of the Korean War, they killed an additional 60,000 supposed communists.[9] He was overthrown in 1960 after massive student protests[10] and fled to Hawaii with the CIA's help.[11]

Jeju uprising and massacre[edit | edit source]

See main article: Jeju uprising

From 1947 to 1954, around 30,000 people (10% of Jeju Island’s population at the time) were massacred. The massacre was a result of severe crack-down against Jeju islanders who protested against the division of the country and police oppression by Syngman Rhee’s administration and the US military who held an operational control over the South Korean military and police. In 2000, the “Special Act on Discovering the Truth of the Jeju 4·3 Incident and the Restoration of Honor of Victims” was enacted and the National Committee for the Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3rd Incident under the office of the Prime Minister was established. The report published by the National Committee in 2003 clearly mentioned that Syngman Rhee is responsible for the Jeju April 3rd Massacre.[1]

Korean War[edit | edit source]

See also: Korean War

During the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, President Rhee Syngman’s government indiscriminately and arbitrarily killed civilians without any legal evidence only because they may have cooperated with the North Korean People's Army. During this process, around 1 million people were massacred including people who were against the Rhee administration. In 2009, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was established by the Framework Act for Truth and Reconciliation confirmed that innocent civilians were massacred by the state forces, followed by a number of testimonies that President Rhee ordered “executing members of the South Korean Labor Party and the Bodo League members”.[1]

Postwar[edit | edit source]

While the first Constitution of South Korea stipulated that the President could be reelected only once, President Rhee Syngman and the then ruling party retrogressively amended the Constitution in 1954, in a way to allow the first president to be reelected multiple times. At that time, the draft amendment was rejected as it failed to meet the quorum, but President Rhee Syngman and the then ruling party arbitrarily calculated the quorum and forced to amend the Constitution illegally. This allowed President Rhee Syngman’s long-term seizure of power.[1]

Mass protests opposing Rhee were started by student and labor groups in the southeastern port city of Masan on April 11. The protests were triggered by the discovery of the body of a local high school student who had been killed by police during demonstrations against rigged elections in March. Popular discontent had arisen due to Rhee's autocratic rule, corruption, use of violence against political opposition, and uneven development of South Korea. The Masan discovery led to large student protests in Seoul, which were violently suppressed; a total of 186 people were killed during the two weeks of protest.[12] In April 27, 1960, Rhee's presidency terminated in resignation, and he fled to Honolulu, Hawaii and spent the rest of his life living in exile there until his death in 1965.[5]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 The Association for Bereaved Families of the Jeju 4.3 Victims, Bereaved Family Association of Korean War and 252 South Korean NGOs (2020-01-20). "Letter from 252 South Korean NGOs against Syngman Rhee Day" Jeju Dark Tours. Archived from the original on 2022-08-19.
  2. "March 18, 1948 Central Intelligence Agency, ORE 15/48, 'The Current Situation in Korea'". Wilson Center Digital Archive. Archived from the original. Retrieved 2022-07-29.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Max Hastings (1988). The Korean War: 'Origins of a Tragedy' (pp. 32, 33-34).
  4. Syngman Rhee (2021). Encyclopedia Britannica.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "Rhee Syngman, First President of the Republic of Korea" Boston Korean Diaspora Project. Boston University School of Theology. Archived 2022-08-19.
  6. "이승만[李承晩,1875.3.26(음력)~1965.7.19"]. Doopedia. Retrieved 2022-01-12.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 “DongjiHoi – Center for Korean Studies| University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.” Archived 2022-08-19.
  8. Ghosts of Cheju (2000-06-18). Newsweek. Archived from the original. Retrieved 2021-21-30.
  9. Kim Dong-Choon (2004). Forgotten war, forgotten massacres--the Korean War (1950-1953) as licensed mass killings. [PDF] Journal of Genocide Research.
  10. Cause of the 4.19 Revolution.
  11. Cyrus Farivar (2011). The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World (p. 26). Rutgers University Press.
  12. “Remembering the April 19 Revolution.” April 17 2010. The Dong-a Ilbo. Archived 2022-08-19.