Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea, became president in 1948 after open elections sponsored by the United Nations. The same year the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) was established in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. Rhee was a Princeton Ph.D. and a longtime freedom fighter against Japanese colonial rule. He was the leader of a Korean government-in-exile frm 1919 to 1939. After taking office, he set a precedent for the leaders that followed him: he became a dictator. In 1952, he surrounded Parliament with troops and demanded that they give him a second term.

Rhee (1875-1965) was president of South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53) fought between United Nations (mostly U.S.) and Communist forces. "Anti-Communism" was a common theme of the Rhee government. Large sections of school textbooks were devoted to the subject and government-led anti-Communist rallies were frequently held. Tens of thousands of socialists and communists and perceived communist sympathizers were killed during his rule.

After a rigged election in 1960 and a series of student demonstrations, in which police and military leaders refused to follow orders to open fire on the demonstrators, Rhee was forced to resign in 1960. The democratic government that followed didn't last long. Korean politics was dominated for the next 30 year by dictators. Rhee went into exile in Hawaii. He was never allowed to return to his homeland and died in Hawaii in 1965 at the age of 90.

Even though Syngman Rhee had been handily elected president by the National Assembly in 1948 — with 180 of the 196 votes cast in his favor — he quickly ran into difficulties. South Korean politics during Rhee's regime (1948-60) essentially revolved around Rhee's struggle to remain in power and the opposition's efforts to unseat him. Constitutional provisions concerning the presidency became the focal point. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”:“The Republic of Korea (ROK), headed by President Syngman Rhee (Rhee Syngman), was proclaimed on August 15, 1948 in the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula, which had been under US military administration since September 8, 1945. Like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), established in the north on September 9, 1948 with Soviet backing, the ROK claimed to be the legitimate government of all Korea. The ROK was recognized as the legitimate government by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Syngman Rhee ran the government until 1960, when his authoritarian rule provoked the "April Revolution," the culmination of a series of increasingly violent student demonstrations that finally brought about his ouster. The Second Korean Republic, which followed Rhee, adopted a parliamentary system to replace the previous presidential system. The new government, however, was short-lived.”

Syngman Rhee’s Early Life and Family

Syngman Rhee was born on February 19, 1875 in Daegyeong, a village in Pyeongsan County, Hwanghae Province of Joseon-ruled Korea in what is now North Korea. Rhee was the third but only surviving son out of three brothers and two sisters. His two older brothers both died in infancy. Rhee's family traced its lineage back to King Taejong of Joseon but otherwise was a modest, rural family. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1877, when Syngman was two-years-old, his family moved to Seoul, where he had traditional Confucian education in various seodang in Nakdong and Dodong. When Rhee was nine-years-old he contracted smallpox and nearly went blind and was cured with the help of Horace Newton Allen, an American medical missionary. Rhee was a bright student and seen as a potential candidate for the gwageo, the traditional Korean civil service examination, but in 1894 reforms abolished the gwageo system.

In April 1894, Rhee enrolled in the Pai Chai School, an American Methodist school, where he converted to Christianity. Rhee studied English and sinhakmun (“new subjects”). Near the end of 1895, he joined a Hyeopseong Club created by Seo Jae-pil, who returned from the United States after his exile following the Gapsin Coup. He worked as the head and the main writer of the Hyeopseong-hoe Hoebo (Hyeopseong Club Newsletter) and Maeil Shinmun (Daily Newspaper), the latter being the first daily newspaper in Korea. During this period, Rhee earned money by teaching the Korean language to Americans. In 1895, Rhee graduated from Pai Chai School.

Rhee was married to Seungseon Park from 1890 to 1910. Park divorced Rhee shortly after the death of their son Rhee Bong-su in 1908, supposedly because their marriage had no intimacy due to his political activities. In February 1933, Rhee met Austrian Franziska Donner in Geneva. At the time, Rhee was participating in a League of Nations meeting and Donner was working as an interpreter. In October 1934, they were married in New York City. She also acted as his secretary.

Since his only son died young, Rhee had three adopted children throughout his life. The first adopted son was Rhee Un-soo. Rhee ended the adoption in 1949. The second adopted son was Lee Kang-seok, eldest son of Lee Ki-poong, who were descendants of Prince Hyoryeong and therefore distant cousins of Rhee. Lee committed suicide in 1960. After Rhee exiled, Rhee-In-soo, who is a descendant of Prince Yangnyeong just like Rhee, was adopted by him as his heir.

Syngman Rhee’s Independence activities (1896–1904)

Korean reformers influenced by the West, such as Philip Jaisohn, launched an Independence Club (Tongnip Hyphoe) in 1896 to promote Westernization. They used the vernacular han'gl in their newspaper, the Tongnip simmun (The Independent), publishing alternate pages in English. The club included many Koreans who had studied Western learning in Protestant missionary schools, and for a while it influenced not only young reformers but also elements of the Korean court; one of the reformers was Yi Sng-man, otherwise known as Syngman Rhee.The club was repressed, and it collapsed after two years.

Many reformers, including Syngman Rhee, who was a student leader for a while, were jailed. In 1919 a provisional Korean government, under Syngman Rhee, was established at Shanghai, China. Various nationalist groups also emerged during this period, including the exiled Korean Provisional Government (KPG) in Shanghai, which included Syngman Rhee and another famous nationalist, Kim Ku, among its members.

Rhee became involved in Anti-Japanese circles after the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, in which the Japanese gain control to a large degree over Korea.. Rhee was implicated in a plot to avenge the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, the wife of King Gojong who was killed by Japanese agents. A female American doctor helped him escape imprisonment. Rhee was a figure in early Korean independence movements such as the Hyeopseong Club and the Independence Club. Rhee organized several protests against corruption and the influences of the Japan and the Russian Empire. [Source: Wikipedia]

After entering civil service, Rhee was implicated in a plot to oust King Gojong. As a result, Rhee was imprisoned in 1899. Rhee attempted to escape from prison but was caught and was sentenced to life imprisonment. In prison, Rhee translated and compiled The Sino–Japanese War Record, wrote The Spirit of Independence, compiled the New English–Korean Dictionary and wrote in the Imperial Newspaper. He was also tortured. In 1904, Rhee he was released from prison at the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War.

Rhee moved to the United States. In 1905 he met with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt at peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and attempted unsuccessfully to convince the U.S. to help preserve independence for Korea. Rhee stayed in the United States for some time and described his time there as an "exile."He obtained a B.A. from George Washington University in 1907, and a Masters from Harvard in 1908 and a PhD from Princeton in 1910 with a thesis "Neutrality as influenced by the United States.” After that Rhee went back to Korea, was implicated the 105-Man Incident and escaped to the U.S., where he tried to persuade U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to support Korean independence. He held various educational position often with Christian institutions such as the YMCA. In the 1920 and 30s he became more involved in Korean nationalist politics. He spent most of World War II in the U.S.

Syngman Rhee and the Creation of South Korea After World War II

After World War II, the Allied foreign ministers met in Moscow in December 1945, and decided to establish a trusteeship for a five-year period, during which a Korean provisional government would prepare for full independence; they also agreed to form a joint United States-Soviet commission to assist in organizing a single "provisional Korean democratic government." The trusteeship proposal was immediately opposed by nearly all Koreans, especially the Korean right under Syngman Rhee, who used the issue to consolidate his domestic political base. The Korean communists objected at first, but quickly changed their position under Soviet direction.

The joint commission met intermittently in Seoul from March 1946 until it adjourned indefinitely in October 1947. The Soviet insistence that only those "democratic" parties and social organizations upholding the trusteeship plan be allowed to participate in the formation of an all-Korean government was unacceptable to the United States. The United States argued that the Soviet formula, if accepted, would put the communists in controlling positions throughout Korea.

After World War II, Shelia Miyoshi Jager wrote in “Brothers at War”, Americans relied in “incumbents Japanese officials to carry out the essential functions of governance.” to which the South Koreans reacted with outrage. The United States recognized neither the republic nor the provisional government. The provisional government was headed by Syngman Rhee, its first president, and Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, premier, and vice premier, respectively. The United States would not recognize any group as a government until an agreement was reached among the Western Allies. The exiles were mollified by the favorable treatment they received when they returned to South Korea, but were incensed by the United States Military Government in Korea's order to disband. The United States Army military government that administered the American-occupied zone proceeded to disband the local people's committees and impose direct rule, assigning military personnel who lacked language skills and knowledge of Korea as governors at various levels.

The prospect of perpetuating the division of Korea had catapulted some of the southern political leaders to action, significantly altering the political configuration there. The choice they faced was between immediate independence at the price of indefinite division, or postponement of independence until the deadlock between the United States and the Soviet Union was resolved. Rhee had campaigned actively within Korea and the United States for the first alternative since June 1946. Other major figures in the right-wing camp, including Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik, decided to oppose the "separate elections" in the south, hoping to resolve the international impasse by holding talks with their northern counterparts. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

In April 1948, Kim Ku and Kim Kyu Sik — two of Rhee’s rivals — traveled to North Korea to meet with Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, the future capital of North Korea, with the hope of selling him on idea of a Korea-wide election. The South Koreans were humiliated at a conference run like a Soviet plenum. They returned after having accomplished very little. The United States used their failure as a chance to hold democratic elections only in the south. Rhee used this to his advantage by charging his rivals with ineptitude and arguing that he was the best man to bring reunification.

The two Kims boycotted the May 1948 elections, and were discredited when Pyongyang cut off electricity, leaving Rhee a clear field though he lacked grass roots support apart from the Korean Democratic Party. By this time, the communists in the south had lost much of their political following, particularly after a serious riot in October 1946; most of their leaders congregated in the north. The moderate left-wing camp was in disarray after their leader, Yo Un-hyong, was assassinated in July 1947. Kim Kyu-sik had been the clear choice of the United States military government, but he could not be dissuaded from his fruitless trip to Pyongyang. *

Rhee Government After World War II

The Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), headed by President Syngman Rhee was proclaimed on August 15, 1948 in the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula, which had been under US military administration since September 8, 1945. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) was established in the north on September 9, 1948 with Soviet backing.

The National Assembly elected in May 1948 adopted a constitution setting forth a presidential form of government and specifying a four-year term for the presidency. Syngman Rhee, whose supporters had won the elections, became head of the new assembly. On this basis, when on August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was proclaimed, Rhee assumed the presidency. Four days after the proclamation, communist authorities completed the severing of north-south ties by shutting off power transmission to the south. Within less than a month, a communist regime, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Premier Kim Il Sung, who claimed authority over the entire country by virtue of elections conducted in the north and the underground elections allegedly held in the south. Rhee scarcely had time to put his political house in order before North Korea launched its attack on South Korea in June 1950.

The officer corps of the South Korean army during the Rhee period was dominated by Koreans with experience in the Japanese army. At least in part, the Korean War became a matter of Japanese-trained military officers fighting Japanese-spawned resistance leaders. Initially high-ranking Korean military officials and bureaucrats that collaborated with the Japanese were purged or imprisoned. By 1949 they had been freed and rehabilitated in South Korea by Syngman Rhee. “He couldn’t run the economic otherwise,” Young Jung Suk of the Sejong Institute, told the New York Times. These people, who tend to be strongly anti-North Korea and pro-American, ran the country and their influence remained strong into the late 1980s when South Korea became a democracy. [Source: New York Times, January 2005, Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

In 1946, a year after the U.S. Army occupied southern Korea at World War II's end, a U.S. Embassy poll found that 77 percent of southerners wanted a socialist or communist future. Instead, the U.S. military government kept many of Japan's right-wing Korean collaborators in power, and the U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, vowed to "stamp out" the communists. [Source: Charles J. Hanley, Associated Press, August 17, 2008]

Anti-Communist Violence

When the U.S. occupation army withdrew in 1949, thousands were caught up in Syngman Rhee's roundups of leftists — workers and writers, teachers, peasants and others with suspect politics. "It was witch-hunting," said historian Jung Byung-joon. The Rhee regime, with help from United States military advisers, harshly cracked down on perceived communist sympathizers and severely reduced the guerrilla threat in the winter of 1949-50. Some regard this as the beginning of Korean War not the North Korean invasion of the south.

The Jeju uprising and extreme violence associated with it killed between 14,000 and 30,000 people (10 percent of Jeju's population). Another 40,000 fled to Japan. Atrocities and war crimes were committed by both sides, but historians have noted that the methods used by the South Korean government to suppress protesters and rebels were especially cruel.

The Jeju uprising occurred on Jeju — a South Korean island 85 kilometers south of the Korean — from April 1948 to May 1949. Residents of the island had opposed to the division of South Korea and North Korea had held protests and a general strike since 1947 against United-Nations-sponsored elections and U.S. control over South Korea. The Workers' Party of South Korea — which had ties with the ruling communist party by the same name in North Korea — and its supporters launched an insurgency in April 1948, attacking police and militias tasked with violently suppressing the protests. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The conflict escalated after South Korean President Syngman Rhee declared martial law in November 1948. An "eradication campaign" against rebel forces in the rural areas of Jeju in began in March 1949 and defeated the rebels within two months. Many rebel veterans and suspected sympathizers were later killed at the beginning upon the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. +

According to Newsweek: “Above the de facto border, communists loyal to Kim Il Sung persecuted Christians, rightists and Japanese collaborators. Below, conservative leader Syngman Rhee courted the same groups to consolidate power against the South Korean Labor Party, or SKLP. Rhee's machinations triggering several localized uprisings — the largest on Cheju. By late 1947, an estimated 80 percent of Cheju islanders were SKLP members or loyalists. As the American occupation commander, Gen. John R. Hodge, put it, Cheju was "a truly communal area peacefully controlled by the [local] people's committee." [Source: Newsweek, June 18, 2000]

“It didn't last. To bolster his influence, Rhee sent police, soldiers and gangsters from the mainland. The most-feared newcomers were refugees from North Korea who constituted a paramilitary gang called the Northwest Youth. They were "hoodlums, criminals and thugs" recalls Lee Woon Bang, a former labor-party organizer. When Washington abandoned its commitment to organize all-Korea elections and instead announced a plan to hold balloting for a separate regime in the south, Cheju erupted.”

“People say President Rhee planned to flee to Cheju just like Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan," says Yang Shin Ha, a 63-year-old resident of the town of Mosulpo, whose brother was killed after the order was given. "Rhee needed to clear the place out." Local historians estimate that about 2,500 islanders were executed in subsequent weeks.

See Separate Article JEJU UPRISING:

Syngman Rhee at the Beginning of the Korean War

On the first day of Korean War when North Korea invaded the south, two North Korean YAK fighters strafe Rhee's residence at around the same time U.S. Far East commander Douglas MacArthur states "This is probably only a reconnaissance in force. If those asses back in Washington only will not hobble me, I can handle it with one arm tied behind my back." Rhee is set to flee for his life. US CIC people monitoring Rhee's phone notify John Muccio, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Muccio warns Rhee that the entire ROK Army will quit fighting if Rhee fled Seoul now. Rhee agrees to stay in Seoul with Muccio. Muccio makes arrangements for evacuation of American civilians. [Source: Young Sik Kim,]

On the second day of the Korean War, Young Sik Kim wrote: June 26: 6:00am,Syngman Rhee phones MacArthur at his house. An aid tells Rhee that the general is not to be disturbed and tells Rhee to call back later in the morning. This drives Rhee into a rage: "American citizens will die one by one while you keep the general asleep in peace." Rhee demands to talk to the general now. Finally, MacArthur takes the phone and hears an enraged Rhee: "Had your country been a little more concerned about us, we would not have come to this! We've warned you many times. Now you must save Korea." MacArthur assures Rhee that he will take care of Korea.

Later into the night, Rhee Syngman decides to flee Seoul without asking Muccio's permission. A special train is requisitioned to carry Rhee and his close associates (and their relatives). The train leaves in the dark of the night. Somehow, the American CIC fails to inform Muccio of Rhee's flight.

On the third day of the Korean: June 27: Muccio flees Seoul. He drives his jeep south looking for the South Korean Government and Rhee. For the first time, MacArthur realizes the gravity of the Korean situation. He tells Foster Dulles "The only thing we can do is get our people safely out of the country." A courier delivers an urgent message from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. MacArthur tells the courier: "Tell them I'm engaged in seeing Ambassador Dulles off.. If I don't get back in time, have the chief of staff talk to the secretary."

US Ambassador Muccio at last finds the missing South Korean government in Taejun. Rhee is holed up in a house virtually isolated from the world around him. Muccio is angry at Rhee for fleeing Seoul without his approval and Rhee is mad at Muccio for not providing US troops.

On the fourth day of the Korean War, Young Sik Kim wrote: June 29: 8:00am: Muccio picks up Rhee Syngman to meet MacArthur at Suwon. MacArthur's plane (Bataan) is attacked by a North Korean YAK fighter, but no damage is done. Rhee meets with MacArthur in private for two and half hours. No one knows what they have discussed. Big Mac states — "Give me two American divisions and I can hold Korea." Upon completion of the secret meeting, Rhee and Muccio head back to Taejun. Their plane narrowly escapes from another YAK fighter. [Source: Young Sik Kim,]

Syngman Rhee During the Korean War

On September 29, two weeks after the landing at Inchon, MacArthur restored the government of the Republic of Korea under Syngman Rhee. On September 27, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent to General MacArthur a comprehensive directive to govern his future actions that stated the that the primary goal was the destruction of the KPA, followed by the unification of the Korean Peninsula under Rhee "if possible". The Joint Chiefs added that these goals were dependent on whether or not the Chinese and Soviets would intervene, and was subject to changing conditions. [Source: Wikipedia]

Because Rhee's four-year term of office was to end in August 1952 under the 1948 constitution, and because he had no prospect of being reelected by the National Assembly, he supported a constitutional amendment, introduced in November 1951, to elect the president by popular vote. The proposal was resoundingly defeated by a vote of 143 to 19, prompting Rhee to marshal his supporters into the Liberal Party.

Four months later, in April 1952, two months before the end of the way, the opposition introduced another motion calling for a parliamentary form of government. Rhee declared martial law in May, rounded up the assembly members by force, and called for another vote. His constitutional amendment to elect the president by popular vote was railroaded through, passing with 163 votes of the 166 assembly members present. In the subsequent popular election in August, Rhee was reelected by 72 percent of the voters. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Rhee at the End of the Korean War

Syngman Rhee was something of an obstacle in forging a peace plan at the end of the Korean War. Cameron Forbes wrote in The Australian: Syngman Rhee “clung still to the dream of a Korea united under his rule. On June 10, the Chinese launched a big offensive against South Korean defenders, pushing them back 5km over a 12km front. It was a compelling demonstration to Rhee that he would not be able to fight on alone. Rhee, however, still tried to block the armistice. Rather than turn over 25,000 anti-communist North Korean prisoners to the Repatriation Commission, the South Koreans allowed them to escape. They "broke out" of prison camps; guards had cut the wire and turned out the lights. The communists swallowed this.” [Source: Cameron Forbes, The Australian, December 24, 2010]

At one point the Communist and U.N. delegates had reached a tentative ceasefire agreement, but Rhee balked at the settlement. Many South Koreans were shocked when the armistice was announced. They hoped that war would continue so that Korea could be reunified. President Rhee opposed a truce. He so antagonized American leaders that a plan called ''Ever Ready'' was drawn up to arrest him if he started trouble. But the problems were ironed out.

Forbes wrote: “At this time, South Korean president Syngman Rhee was advocating another drive to the Yalu River, outlining to Australia's visiting navy and air minister, William McMahon, his plan for amphibious landings on the east and west coasts of North Korea as a prelude.”

Syngman Rhee After the Korean War

Because Rhee's four-year term of office was to end in August 1952 under the 1948 constitution, and 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. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rhee supported a constitutional amendment, introduced in November 1951, to elect the president by popular vote. The proposal was resoundingly defeated by a vote of 143 to 19, prompting Rhee to marshal his supporters into the Liberal Party. Four months later, in April 1952, the opposition introduced another motion calling for a parliamentary form of government. Rhee declared martial law in May, rounded up the assembly members by force, and called for another vote. His constitutional amendment to elect the president by popular vote was railroaded through, passing with 163 votes of the 166 assembly members present. In the subsequent popular election in August, Rhee was reelected by 72 percent of the voters. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The constitution, however, limited the president to only two terms. Hence, when the end of Rhee's second term of office approached, the constitution again was amended (in November 1954) by the use of fraudulent tactics that allowed Rhee to succeed himself indefinitely.*

In the meantime, South Korea's citizens, particularly the urban masses, had become more politically conscious. The press frequently exposed government ineptitude and corruption and attacked Rhee's authoritarian rule. The Democratic Party capitalized on these particulars; in the May 1956 presidential election, Rhee won only 55 percent of the votes, even though his principal opponent, Sin Ik-hui, had died of a heart attack ten days before the election. Rhee's running mate, Yi Ki-bung, fared much worse, losing to the Democratic Party candidate, Chang Myon (John M. Chang). Since Rhee was already eighty-one years old in 1956, Chang's victory caused a major tremor among Rhee's supporters.*

Society Changes in South Korea under Rhee

The transformation of South Korean society during the Rhee era was of revolutionary proportions because of the convergence of a number of forces. A major impetus for social change was the greatly enhanced opportunity for education. Although Japan had introduced a modern education system to Korea, opportunities for Koreans were purposely limited, particularly at the secondary and university levels. Educational opportunities were greatly expanded immediately after the Japanese defeat, and the trend continued through the Korean War and afterwards. Higher education provided more opportunities for upward mobility to a large number of young people. This opening also meant greater political awakening among the young, particularly in view of the strong emphasis placed on democratic values and ideas by teachers and intellectuals. For the first time, Korean youths were provided open access to democratic ideas both at school and through the mass media. These Western ideas became the norm against which to judge the government in power when the exigencies of the war period were removed. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

A land reform law enacted in June 1949 also had a leveling effect on Korean society. Under this law, nearly 1 million sharecroppers, or approximately 40 percent of total farm households, became small landowners. The reform also brought about the decline of the landlord class that had formed the backbone of traditional Korean society for centuries. Because big business and industrial groups did not emerge until the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost everyone in society was placed on an equal footing.*

The Korean War had the most significant effect on the social system. The movement of large armies up and down the length of the peninsula was accompanied by civilian refugees. People of diverse backgrounds intermingled for prolonged periods, deeply affecting everyone's way of life. The indiscriminate destruction of property during the war also had the effect of homogenizing Korean society.*

The war caused hundreds of thousands of young men from rural areas to enlist in the army, exposing them to modern organization, technologies, and a new world outlook. The war also gave rise to a large officer corps that later developed into an increasingly significant social group.*

Better education and the government's postwar economic policies contributed to accelerated urbanization. Reconstruction projects created jobs in the cities, while the government's effort to control the prices of farm products made it unprofitable to till small farm plots. The urban population increased rapidly from 11.6 percent in 1940 to 24.4 percent in 1955 and 28.3 percent in 1960. These changes had a direct impact on politics because the better-educated and urbanized elements became increasingly vocal and more independent in their political judgments.*

Mass Killings Under Syngman Rhee During and After the Korean War

There were mass killings of prisoners and communist sympathizers before the Korean War as mentioned before, which have been investigated, but they were also mass killings during war and after it, often with at least the acquiescence of the U.S. military, that have largely not been investigated, even by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that operated between 2005 and 2010 and was set up in South Korea to investigate such matters.

Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim of Associated Press wrote:“It's more difficult to assess the U.S. role in an even greater wave of killings, the mass political executions of mid-1950 carried out by President Syngman Rhee's government. Family survivors hold the U.S. partly responsible, since the South Korean military executioners were under overall U.S. command, and U.S. officers were sometimes present, even photographing the grisly events. Witnesses say that in the weeks after North Korea invaded in mid-1950, southern authorities emptied the prisons of suspected leftists, lined them up and shot them in the head, dumping the bodies into hastily dug trenches, abandoned mines or the sea. Few had ever faced trial. Last November, after investigating petitions from surviving relatives, the commission announced it had verified and identified 4,934 execution victims. [Source: Charles J. Hanley and Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press, July 10, 2010]

“But historian Kim Dong-choon, the former commissioner who led that investigation, estimates at least 60,000 to 110,000 died, and similar numbers were summarily executed when northern troops were driven from South Korea later in 1950 and alleged southern collaborators were rounded up. "I am estimating conservatively," he said. Korean War historian Park Myung-lim, methodically reviewing prison records, said he believes perhaps 200,000 were slaughtered in mid-1950 alone.

“Survivors have never reconciled themselves to what happened to their loved ones a half-century ago. Many survivors, fatherless or orphaned, were reared in poverty and, because of "leftist" family links, denied good educations and jobs by the authoritarian regimes that ruled South Korea into the late 1980s. "I stayed away from my hometown. I've lived in hiding for a long time," said the elderly Yang.

“When she was a teenager, Chung Hae-yeol's father and mother were executed separately, months apart, as alleged collaborators. "The remains of my parents have never been found," she said. Her face stricken, her hands nervously fingering a paper cup, Chung went on: "I am 77, and I've lived to this age crying. I dream of my parents and I wake up crying. I miss them so. But I want to emphasize: This is not just a personal matter for me, but a matter of our national history."

Syngman Rhee’s Last Year as President

Rhee was an uncompromising patriarch. After 1956, when he turned 81, the issue of Rhee's age and the goal of electing Yi Ki-bung became an obsession. The administration became increasingly repressive as Liberal Party leaders came to dominate the political arena, including government operations, around 1958. Formerly Rhee's personal secretary, Yi and his wife (Mrs. Rhee's confidant, and a power-behind-the-scenes) had convinced the childless Rhee to adopt their son as his legal heir. For fear that Rhee's health might be impaired, he was carefully shielded from all information that might upset him. Thus, the aged and secluded president became a captive of the system he had built, rather than its master. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

In March 1960, the Liberal Party managed to reelect Rhee and to elect Yi Ki-bung vice president by the blatant use of force. Rhee was reelected by default because his principal opponent had died while receiving medical treatment in the United States just before the election. As for Yi, he was largely confined to his sickbed — a cause of public anger — but "won" 8.3 million votes as against 1.8 million votes for Chang Myon. The fraudulent election touched off civil disorders, known and celebrated as the April 19 Student Revolution, during which 142 students were killed by the police. As a result, Rhee resigned on April 26, 1960. The next day all four members of the Yi family died in a suicide pact. This account has been challenged by some who believed Yi's family was killed by his bodyguards in hopes of enabling Rhee to stay on.*

Rhee, a self-righteous man convinced of his indispensability to Korea, loathed his critics and opponents and equated criticism with treason. Although his record as a national hero and his skill in handling United States-Korean relations won him admiration during the immediate years after the Korean War, Rhee became a captive of the people surrounding him. In the late 1950s, his policies were largely without results as rapid changes in the economy and society deeply affected South Korea's system.*

Syngman Rhee’s Resignation and Exile

Rhee was easily re-elected for what should have been the final time in 1956, since the 1948 constitution limited the president to two consecutive terms. However, soon after being sworn in, he had the legislature amend the constitution to allow the incumbent president to run for an unlimited number of terms, despite protests from the opposition. In March 1960, the 84-year-old Rhee won his fourth term in office as President. His victory was assured with 100 percent of the vote after the main opposition candidate, Cho Byeong-ok, died shortly before the March 15 elections. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rhee wanted his protégé, Lee Ki-poong, 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, a member from the opposition Democratic Party) won the vote with a wide margin, the opposition Democratic Party 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, 1960.

On April 28, a DC-4 belonging to the CIA covertly flew Rhee out of South Korea as protesters converged on the Blue House. During the flight, Rhee and Francesca Donner, his Austrian wife, came up to the cockpit to thank the pilot and crew. Rhee's wife offered the pilot a valuable diamond ring in thanks, which was courteously declined. The former president, his wife, and their adopted son subsequently 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. 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. There is also a memorial museum located in Hwajinpo in North Korea near Kim Il Sung's cottage.

Democratic Interlude After Syngman Rhee

Rhee's resignation left a political void subsequently filled by Ho Chong, whom Rhee had appointed foreign minister the day before he resigned. Although Ho was a lifelong friend of Rhee, he had maintained amicable relations with Democratic Party leaders and thus was acceptable to all concerned. Between April and July 1960, Ho's transitional government maintained order, exiled Rhee and his wife to Hawaii, and prepared for a new general election of the National Assembly in July. That body revised the constitution on June 15, instituting a parliamentary form of government with a bicameral legislature. In the July election, the Democratic Party won 175 of the 233 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. The second largest group, the independents, won forty-nine seats. The Liberal Party won only two seats. In the upper house, the Democratic Party won thirty-one of the fifty-eight seats. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The Democratic Party had been a coalition of two divergent elements that had merged in 1955 to oppose Rhee. When the common enemy — Rhee and his Liberal Party — had been removed from the scene and opportunities for power were presented, each group sought to obtain the spoils for itself.*

The Democratic Party candidate for the presidency in the March 1960 election, Cho Pyong-ok, died of illness shortly before the election, just as his predecessor, Sin Ik-hui, had in 1956. The two groups openly struggled against each other during the July elections for the National Assembly. Although they agreed on Yun Po-son as presidential candidate and Chang Myon as their choice for premier, neither had strong leadership qualities nor commanded the respect of the majority of the party elite. Yun and Chang could not agree on the composition of the cabinet. Chang attempted to hold the coalition together by reshuffling cabinet positions three times within a five-month period. In November 1960, the group led by Yun left the Democratic Party and formed the New Democratic Party (Simmindang).*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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