Syngman Rhee

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This article is about former president of South Korea. For the Presbyterian minister, see Syngman Rhee (Presbyterian minister).
Syngman Rhee
Rhee Syng-Man in 1956.jpg
1st President of South Korea
In office
July 24, 1948 – April 26, 1960
Vice President Yi Si-yeong
Kim Seong-su
Hahm Tae-Yong
Chang Myon

Yun Bo-seon

Preceded by Office created
Succeeded by Yun Bo-seon
President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Exile
In office
September 11, 1919 – March 21, 1925
Prime Minister Yi Donghwi
Yi Dongnyeong
Sin Gyu-sik
No Baek-rin
Park Eunsik
Preceded by Office created
Succeeded by Park Eunsik
Personal details
Born (1875-04-18)April 18, 1875
Haeju, Hwanghae, Joseon
(now North Korea)
Died July 19, 1965(1965-07-19) (aged 90)
Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.
Resting place Seoul National Cemetery
Nationality South Korean
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Seungseon Park (1890~1910)
Francesca Donner (1934~1965)1
Children Rhee In-soo Yi In-su or 이인수 - (b. September 1, 1931) - adopted
Alma mater George Washington University (B.A.)
Harvard University (M.A.)
Princeton University (Ph.D.)
Religion Methodism1
Syngman Rhee
Hangul 이승만
Hanja 李承晩
Revised Romanization I Seungman
McCune–Reischauer Yi Sŭngman

Syngman Rhee (Korean: 이승만 I Seungman, pronounced [iː sʰɯŋ.man]; April 18, 1875 – July 19, 1965) was a Korean statesman and the first president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea as well as the first president of South Korea. His three-term presidency of South Korea (August 1948 to April 1960) was strongly affected by Cold War tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Rhee was regarded as an anti-Communist and a strongman, and he led South Korea through the Korean War. His presidency ended in resignation following popular protests against a disputed election. He died in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Early life and career

Early life (1875–95)

Syngman Rhee was born on April 18, 1875;2 his birthday is also stated as March 26,3 the lunar date,2 and April 26.45 Rhee was born in the Hwanghae Province3 into a rural family of modest means as the only son.2 Rhee's family traced its lineage back to King Taejong of Joseon.6 He is a 16th-generation descendant of Grand Prince Yangnyeong. In 1877, Rhee (age 2) and his family moved to Seoul.7

In Seoul, he had traditional Confucianism education in seodangs located in Nakdong (낙동; 駱洞) and Dodong (도동; 桃洞).7 He was portrayed as a potential candidate for gwageo, the Korean civil service examination. When he was 9, he was rendered virtually blind through smallpox and was cured by Horace Newton Allen, an American medical missionary.6

In 1894, when reforms abolished the gwageo system, Rhee enrolled in the Pai-Chai School (배제학당;培材學堂),2 an American Methodist school,45 on April. He studied English and Shinhakmoon (신학문; 新學問; literally new subjects). Near the end of 1895, he joined an HyubSeong Club (협성회;協成會) created by Seo Jae-pil, who returned from the United States. He worked as the head and the main writer of the newspapers HyubSeongHye HyeBo (협성회회보; 協成會 會報; literally HyubSeong Club Newsletter) and Maeil Shinmoon (매일신문; literally Daily Newspaper),7 the latter being the first daily newspaper in Korea.8 During this period, he earned money by teaching Americans Korean. He converted to Christianity in school.8 In 1895, he graduated from Pai-Chai School.2

Independence activities (1896–1904)

Rhee was implicated in a plot to take revenge for the assassination of Empress Myeongseong; however, a female American physician helped him avoid the charges. At this point, he converted to Taoism.2 Rhee acted as one of the forerunners of Korea's grassroots movement through organizations such as the HyubSeong Club (협성회;協成會) and the Independence Club (독립협회; 獨立協會). He organized several protests against corruption and the influences of the Empire of Japan and the Russian Empire.8 As a result, on November 1898, he attained the rank of Yeguan (의관; 議官) in the government agency of JungChoWon (중추원; 中樞院).7

After entering civil service, he was implicated in a plot to remove King Gojong of the Korean Empire from power through the recruitment of Park Yeong-hyo. As a result, he was imprisoned in the prison KyungMoo Cheong (경무청; 警務廳) on January 1899.7 Other sources also place the year arrested as 1897458 and 1898.2

Rhee attempted to escape on the 20th day of imprisonment, but was caught and was sentenced to life imprisonment through the PyungRi Won (평리원; 平理院). He was imprisoned in the Hanseung Prison (한성감옥서; 漢城監獄署). In prison, Rhee translated and compiled ChungIll JunGye (청일젼긔; 淸日戰紀), wrote The Spirit of Independence (독립정신), compiled the Shin English-Korean Dictionary (신영한사전) and wrote in the DaeGook Newspaper (뎨국신문).7 He was also tortured in prison.8

Political Activities in US (1904–10, 1912–45) and Korea (1910–12)

Syngman Rhee in 1905 dressed to meet Theodore Roosevelt

In 1904, Rhee was released from prison with outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War with the help of Min Yeong-hwan (민영환;閔泳煥).2 On November 1904, with the help of Min and Han GyuSul (한규설;韓圭卨), Rhee moved to the United States. On August 1905, Rhee and Yun BungGu (윤병구; 尹炳求) 7 met with the Secretary of State John Hay and US President Theodore Roosevelt at peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and attempted to convince the US to help preserve independence for Korea,9 but the attempt was unsuccessful.7

Rhee continued to stay in the United States; this move has been described as an 'exile.'8 He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from George Washington University on 1907, and a Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1908.26 In 1910,2 he obtained a Ph.D. from Princeton University45 with the thesis Neutrality as influenced by the United States (미국의 영향하에 발달된 국제법상 중립).7

On August 1910, he returned to Japanese Korea.7note 1 He served as a YMCA coordinator and missionary.1011 In 1912, he was implicated in the 105-Man Incident,7 and was shortly arrested.2 However, he fled to the United States in 19124 with M.C.Harris' rationale that Rhee was going to participate in the general meeting of Methodists in Minneapolis as the Korean representative.7note 2

In the United States, Rhee attempted to convince Woodrow Wilson to help the people involved in the 105-Man Incident, but failed to bring any change. Soon afterwards, he met Park Yong-man, who was in Nebraska at the time. On February 1913, as a consequence of the meeting, he moved to Honolulu and took over the HanIn JongAng School (한인중앙학원).7 In Hawaii, he began to publish the TaePyoungYang Magazine (태평양잡지, literally Pacific Ocean Magazine).2 In 1918, he established the HanIn Church (한인기독교회). During this period, he opposed Park Yong-man's stance on foreign relations of Korea and brought about a split in the community.7 On December 1918, he was chosen as one of the Korean representatives to the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 by the Korean National Association (대한인 국민회; 大韓人 國民會), but failed to obtain permission to travel to Paris. After giving up traveling to Paris, Rhee held The First Korean Congress (한인대표자대회) in Philadelphia along with Seo Jae-pil to make plans for the declaration and action of independence of Korea.7

Syngman Rhee and Kim Kyu-sik to 1919

Following the March 1st Movement in 1919, Rhee discovered that he was appointed to the positions of: Foreign minister in the NoRyoung Provisional Government (노령임시정부; 露領臨時政府), Prime minister for the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea located in Shanghai, and a position equivalent to President for the Hansung Provisional Government (한성임시정부; 漢城臨時政府). In June, in the acting capacity of the President of the Republic of Korea, he notified the prime ministers and the chairmen of peace conferences of Korea's independence. On August 25, Rhee established the Korean Commission to America and Europe (구미위원부; 歐美委員部) in Washington, D.C.. On September 6, Rhee discovered that he has been appointed acting president for the Provisional Government in Shanghai.45 From December 1920 to May 1921, he moved to Shanghai and acted as the acting president for the Provisional Government in Shanghai.7

However, Rhee failed to efficiently act in the capacity of acting president due to conflicts inside the provisional government in Shanghai. On October 1920, he returned to the US to participate in the Washington Naval Conference. During the conference, he attempted to set the problem of Korean independence as part of the agenda and campaigned for independence, but was unsuccessful.27 On September 1922, he returned to Hawaii to focus on publication, education, and religion. On November 1924, Rhee was appointed the position of president for life in the DaeHanIn DongGe Meeting (대한인동지회; 大韓人同志會; literally Korean Comradeship Meeting).7

On March 1925, Rhee was impeached as the president of the Provisional Government in Shanghai over allegations of misuse of power12 and was removed from office. Nevertheless, he continued to claim the position of president by referring to the Hansung Provisional Government and continued independence activities through the Korean Commission to America and Europe. In the beginning of 1933, he participated in the League of Nations conference in Geneva to bring up the question of Korean independence.7

On November 1939, Rhee and his wife left Hawaii for Washington. He focused on the book Japan Inside Out and published it during the summer of 1941. With the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the consequent Pacific War which began on December 1941, Rhee used his position as the chairman of the foreign relations department of the provisional government in Chongqing to convince President D. Roosevelt and the United States Department of State to approve the existence of the Korean provisional government. As part of this plan, he cooperated with anti-Japan strategies conducted by the Office of Strategic Services. In 1945, he participated in the United Nations Conference on International Organization as the leader of the Korean representatives to request the participation of the Korean provisional government.7


Ceremony inaugurating the government of the Republic of Korea (August 15, 1948)

Return to Korea and rise to power (1945–48)

After the Surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945,13 Rhee was flown to Tokyo aboard a US military aircraft.14 Following the independence of Korea and a secret meeting with Douglas MacArthur, Rhee was flown in mid-October 1945 to Seoul aboard MacArthur's personal airplane, The Bataan.14 After the return to Korea, he assumed the posts of: president of the Independence Promotion Central Committee (독립촉성중앙위원회), chairman of the Korean People's Representative Democratic Legislature (대한국민대표민주의원; 大韓國民代表民主議院), and president of the Headquarters for Unification (민족통일총본부; 民族統一總本部). At this point, he was strongly anti-communist and opposed foreign intervention; he opposed Soviet Union and United States' proposal in the Moscow Conference (1945) to divide Korea into four bodies and the cooperation between the left (communist) and the right (nationalist) parties. He also refused to join the US-Soviet Cooperation Committee (미소공동위원회; 美蘇共同委員會) as well as the negotiations with the north.7

When the first US-Soviet Cooperation Committee meeting was concluded without a result, he began to argue on June 1946 that the government of Korea must be established as an independent entity.7 In the same month, he created a plan based on this idea2 and moved to Washington D.C. from December 1946 to April 1947 to lobby support for the plan. During the visit, Harry S. Truman's policies of Containment and the Truman Doctrine which was announced on March 1947 enforced Rhee's anti-communist ideas.7

On November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly recognized Korea's independence and established the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea through Resolution 112.1516 On May 1948, the South Korean Constitutional Assembly election, 1948 was held under the oversight of the UNTCOK.7 He was elected without competition to serve in the DaehanMinguk Jahun National Assembly (대한민국 제헌국회; 大韓民國 制憲國會; literally Republic of Korea Constitution-making National Assembly) and was consequently selected as the speaker of the house. Rhee was highly influential in creating the policy stating that the president of South Korea had to be elected by the National Assembly.2 The 1948 Constitution of the Republic of Korea was adopted on July 17, 1948.17

On July 20, 1948, Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea4517 in the South Korean presidential election, 1948 with 92.3% of the votes; the second candidate, Kim Gu, received 6.7% of the votes.18 On August 15, the Republic of Korea was formally established on South Korea17 and Rhee was inaugurated as the first president of the Republic of Korea.27

Political repression

Soon after taking office, Rhee enacted laws that severely curtailed political dissent. Many leftist opponents were arrested, and in some cases killed. It soon became apparent that Rhee's governing style was going to be authoritarian.19 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, including the suppression of the Jeju Uprising on Jeju island, where South Korea's Truth Commission reported 14,373 victims, 86% at the hands of the security forces and 13.9% at the hands of communist rebels.20

Korean War

Syngman Rhee awarding a medal to U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ralph A. Ofstie during the Korean War in 1952

Both Rhee and Kim Il Sung wanted to unite the Korean peninsula under their respective governments, but the United States refused to give South Korea any heavy weapons in order to ensure that its military could only be used for preserving internal order and self-defense.citation needed By contrast, Pyongyang was well-equipped with Soviet aircraft and tanks. According to John Merrill, "the war was preceded by a major insurgency in the South and serious clashes along the thirty-eighth parallel," and 100,000 people died in "political disturbances, guerrilla warfare, and border clashes".21

At the outbreak of hostilities on June 25, 1950, all South Korean resistance at the 38th parallel was overwhelmed by the North Korean offensive within a few hours. 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 left the city with most of his government on June 27. At midnight on June 28, the South Korean military destroyed the Han Bridge, thereby preventing thousands of citizens from fleeing. On June 28, North Korean soldiers occupied Seoul.citation needed

Rhee and his wife posing with Army Corps of Engineers personnel in 1950 at the Han River Bridge

During the North Korean occupation of Seoul, Rhee established a temporary government in Busan and created a defensive perimeter along the Naktong Bulge. A series of battles ensued, which would later be known collectively as the Battle of Naktong Bulge.


Because of widespread discontent with Rhee's corruption and political repression, it was considered unlikely that Rhee would be re-elected by the National Assembly. To circumvent this, Rhee attempted to amend the constitution to allow him to hold elections for the presidency by direct popular vote. When the Assembly rejected this amendment, Rhee ordered a mass arrest of opposition politicians and then passed the desired amendment in July 1952. During the following presidential election, he received 74% of the vote.22

Resignation and exile

After the war, South Korea struggled to rebuild. The country remained at a Third World level of development and reliant on US aid. Rhee was easily reelected for what should have been the final time in 1956 since the 1948 constitution limited the president to three consecutive terms. However, soon after being sworn in, he had the legislature amend the constitution to allow the incumbent president —himself— to run for an unlimited number of terms.

In 1960, the 84-year old Rhee won his fourth term in office as President with 90% of the vote. His victory was assured after the main opposition candidate, Cho Byeong-ok, died shortly before the March 15 elections.

Rhee wanted his protégé, Lee Gibung, elected as Vice President—a separate office under Korean law at that time. When Lee, who was running against Chang Myon (the 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 Revolution forced Rhee to resign on April 26.

On April 28, a DC-4 belonging to the United States Central Intelligence Agency, piloted by Capt. Harry B. Cockrell, Jr and operated by Civil Air Transport, covertly flew Rhee out of South Korea as protestors converged on the Blue House.23 During the journey, both Rhee and his Austrian wife came up to the cockpit to thank the pilot and crew. Rhee's wife offered the pilot a substantial diamond ring in thanks, which was courteously declined. The former president, Franziska Donner (his Austrian-born wife), and adopted son then lived in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Personal life

In February 1933, Rhee met Austrian Franziska Donner in Geneva.24 At the time, Rhee was participating in a League of Nations meeting24 and Donner was working as an interpreter.12 In October 1934, they were married24 in New York.12 She also acted as his secretary.24


Rhee on a 1959 issued 100 hwan coin

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.25

Legacy and analysis

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 honor his legacy.

Popular culture

Rhee is mentioned once in the movie MASH. After a power failure ends, one which disrupted surgery, an anesthetist dryly remarks, "Syngman Rhee paid the light bill."

Rhee is mentioned in the TV show M*A*S*H in episode 23 of season 4 (in the OR, B.J. remarks that the South Korean soldiers are getting younger, and Col. Potter says to 'complain to Syngman Rhee), and episode 17 of season 7 (a ROK army recruiting team enters the camp, and the PA voice says that 'Uncle Syngman wants you').

Rhee is mentioned in the song by Billy Joel "We Didn't start the Fire"

See also


  1. ^ In 1910, Korea was officially annexed by Japan
  2. ^ He did participate in the meeting as the Korean representative


  1. ^ a b "KOREA: The Walnut". TIME. March 9, 1953. Retrieved 2010-03-20. In 1932, while attempting to put Korea's case before an indifferent League of Nations in Geneva, Rhee met Francesca Maria Barbara Donner, 34, the daughter of a family of Viennese iron merchants. Two years later they were married in a Methodist ceremony in New York. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p 이승만 [李承晩] [Rhee Syngman]. Doopedia (in Korean). Doosan Corporation. Retrieved March 12, 2014. 
  3. ^ a b "Syngman Rhee". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved March 13, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Syngman Rhee: First president of South Korea". CNN Student News. CNN. Retrieved March 13, 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Syngman Rhee". The Cold War Files. Cold War International History Project. Retrieved March 13, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c Cha, Marn J. (September 19, 2012) [1996], "SYNGMAN RHEE'S FIRST LOVE", The Information Exchange for Korean-American Scholars (IEKAS) (12-19): 2, ISSN 1092-6232, retrieved March 14, 2014 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y 이승만 [Rhee Syngman]. Encyclopedia of Korean culture (in Korean). Academy of Korean Studies. Retrieved March 13, 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Breen, Michael (April 18, 2010). "Fall of Korea's First President Syngman Rhee in 1960". The Korea Times ( Retrieved March 14, 2014. 
  9. ^ Yu (유), YungEek (영익) (1996). 이승만의 삶과 꿈 Rhee Syngman's Life and Dream (in Korean). Seoul: Joong Ang Ilbo Press. pp. 40–44. ISBN 89-461-0345-0. 
  10. ^ Coppa, Frank J., ed. (2006). "Rhee, Syngman". Encyclopedia of modern dictators: from Napoleon to the present. Peter Lang. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-8204-5010-0. 
  11. ^ Jessup, John E. (1998). "Rhee, Syngman". An encyclopedic dictionary of conflict and conflict resolution, 1945–1996. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 626. ISBN 978-0-313-28112-9. 
  12. ^ a b c Breen, Michael (November 2, 2011). "(13) Syngman Rhee: president who could have done more". The Korea Times ( Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  13. ^ "Japan surrenders". History. A+E Networks. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  14. ^ a b Cummings, Bruce (2010). "38 degrees of separation: a forgotten occupation". The Korean War: a History. Modern Library. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-8129-7896-4. 
  15. ^ Wikisource link to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 112. Wikisource. 
  16. ^ "Details/Information for Canadian Forces (CF) Operation United Nations Commission on Korea". Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces. November 28, 2008. Retrieved April 8, 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c "South Korea (1948-present)". Dynamic Analysis of Dispute Management Project. University of Central Arkansas. Retrieved April 8, 2014. 
  18. ^ Croissant, Aurel (2002), "Electoral Politics in South Korea", Electoral politics in Southeast & East Asia, 370 VI, Singapore: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, pp. 234–237, ISBN 978-981-04-6020-4, retrieved April 8, 2014 
  19. ^ Tirman, John (2011). The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America's Wars. Oxford University Press. pp. 93–95. ISBN 978-0-19-538121-4. 
  20. ^ "The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident". 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-15. 
  21. ^ Merrill, John, Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War (University of Delaware Press, 1989), p181.
  22. ^ Buzo, Adrian (2007). The making of modern Korea. Taylor & Francis. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-415-41482-1. 
  23. ^ Cyrus Farivar (2011), "The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World", Rutgers University Press, p 26.
  24. ^ a b c d 프란체스카 [Francesca]. Encyclopedia of Korean culture (in Korean). Academy of Korean studies. Retrieved April 7, 2014. 
  25. ^ "Syngman Rhee". South Korean President. Find a Grave. Feb 20, 2004. Retrieved Aug 19, 2011. 


Further reading

External links

Political offices
Establishment of the Republic
President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea
Succeeded by
Park Eunsik
Preceded by
Kim Kyu-sik
Chairmen of the Interim Legislative Assembly
Succeeded by
as Speaker of the Constituent Assembly
Preceded by
as Chairmen of the Interim Legislative Assembly
Speaker of the National Constituent Assembly
Succeeded by
Shin Ik-hee
Preceded by
Kim Gu
President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea
Succeeded by
Syngman Rhee
(President of South Korea)
Preceded by
Syngman Rhee
as President of the Provisional Government
1~3rd President of South Korea
Succeeded by
Heo Jeong