President Syngman Rhee poses with first lady Francesca Donner in this photo taken in the 1950s. With his foreign wife and rare ease in English, Rhee cut a different figure from other political leaders. / Korea Times file
By Michael Breen
If recent presidents have found Park Chung-hee’s nation-transforming period in office a hard act to follow, then he was also a hard act to precede. Put another way, the 12-year rule of Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president, is widely viewed as a failure simply because nothing got better until he went.
Rhee’s singular achievement seems to have been for the country to have survived the Korean War. As for economic development, Rhee seems to have made his lifelong habit of never working and living off handouts from friends a core policy of his government. Although by all accounts a charming and sophisticated man in person, on the rights front his rule was harsh.
To be fair, it is easy in hindsight to blame a single leader for everything that happens on his watch and hard to appreciate the context. Rhee’s rule began during a nasty period of left-right violence, and endured a war and the reconstruction that followed. But the simple record is not a good one.
Syngman Rhee was one of the most prominent political exiles during the period of Japanese control of Korea in the first half of the last century.
“Few heads in international politics have been battered longer or harder than his,” his biographer, Robert Oliver, wrote in 1951. “During a political career that began in 1894, Dr. Rhee has spent seven years in prison, seven months under daily torture, and 41 years in exile with a price on his head. He has directed a revolution, served as president of the world’s longest-lived government-in-exile, has knocked vainly at the portals of international conferences, and finally shepherded his cause to success.”
Rhee was born in 1875 in Gaeseong and educated at a school run by American missionaries in Seoul where he converted to Christianity. He founded a daily newspaper and organized protests against corruption and against Japanese and Russian designs on Korea. For this, he was jailed in 1897. For seven months of this seven-year sentence, his head was locked in a wooden weight, his feet were in stocks and his hands cuffed. He was beaten with rods and had oiled paper wrapped around his arms and set on fire. Throughout his life, when he felt stressed, he would blow on his fingers.
He was released in 1904 and went to study in the United States. He received an undergraduate degree at George Washington University where the 1907 yearbook had this entry by his name:
There is a young fellow named Rhee,
From the realm of Korea is hee.
Lest perchance you should stray,
He is careful to say,
“I am neither a Jap nor Chinee.”
Rhee also took classes at Harvard and earned a PhD in history at Princeton where he studied under the future American president, Woodrow Wilson.
Rhee’s intention appears to have been to become a Methodist minister, but his political activism charted a different course: He lived in self-imposed exile in the United States until the end of World War II. During that time, he lobbied for Korean independence. He was president of the Provisional Government in Shanghai before being impeached for alleged misuse of power in 1925. He never had a real job and was always in financial need, borrowing off friends and not repaying his debts.
In his late 50s, on a visit to Geneva, he met an Austrian woman, Francesca Donner, who was 25 years his junior and who worked as an interpreter at the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. They married in New York in 1934. The Rhees had one adopted son, Rhee In-soo.
When he returned to Korea, Rhee struck people as being more of a foreigner than a Korean. With his foreign wife and rare ease in English — the Rhees spoke English at home — and with his inverted name (He is Rhee Seung-man in Korean), Rhee cut a different figure from other political leaders.
With the backing of the occupying U.S. forces in the southern half of the peninsula, Rhee was appointed head of the Korean government in 1945. A committed anti-communist, Rhee condoned the no-holds-barred treatment of suspected leftists.The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up under President Roh Moo-hyun has estimated that the number of people murdered by the government in the tens of thousands.
Rhee was preoccupied with the big picture of national division, but was not able to reunify Korea during his 12-year rule. He was incensed that the United States had not repelled the Chinese during the Korean War and he refused to sign the 1953 Armistice. He threatened to “March North” and, although this was never backed up with military action, it was years before people stopped taking it seriously.
Rhee’s Korea was a poor, agricultural country. Most Koreans, including underpaid government officials, were preoccupied with where their next meal was coming from. Rhee had no economic vision and the country lived off American aid. In 1957, when bureaucrats presented a draft Five-Year Economic Plan to him, Rhee killed it with a one-liner: “Five-Year Plan? Isn’t that one of Stalin’s ideas?” (The plan was later dusted off by Park Chung-hee).
During Rhee’s 1948-60 rule, labor unions functioned as a political arm of government. Teachers were pressured into joining his Liberal Party and required to investigate the political leanings of their students’ parents. High school and college students had to join the Korean Student Corps for National Defense and receive military training and anti-communist indoctrination.
The press was relatively free, although the Dong-A Ilbo was closed down for a while because the Chinese character for “puppet” was once used instead of “president” in reference to Rhee, apparently by mistake.
Rhee considered himself above the fray of politics, but when he saw that he was not going to be re-elected in 1952, he descended into it. At the time, the president was elected by the National Assembly. Rhee threatened to dissolve it if it did not approve a constitutional change to allow for presidential election by popular vote.
He treated opponents as if they were enemies of the state. When assemblymen voted to have martial law lifted in Busan, Rhee had half of them arrested. After a staged assassination attempt, police began to investigate alleged links to the opposition. Police claimed that an assemblyman called Chang Myon (who would later succeed Rhee as the country’s leader) was working with assassins paid by North Korea to depose Rhee. Under this type of pressure, the Assembly voted 160 to zero for Rhee’s constitutional amendments.
Rhee’s vice-presidential running mate, Lee Pom-sok, who as home minister controlled the police, was behind much of the maneuvering against the Assembly. Lee was a nationalist who had graduated from the Chinese Military Academy and fought the Japanese in China. He had held a general’s rank and served on the staff of the nationalist Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek.
In 1946, Lee had formed the Korea National Youth Association, which had the support of the U.S. Department of Defense, and which he saw as the foundation of a future Korean army. This group soon claimed 1.3 million members. Pro-Western and anti-communist, its members supplemented police units and fought against leftists. On the day before the election, Rhee, who was feeling threatened by his running mate and his large youth group, suddenly ordered his supporters to vote for a different vice-presidential candidate, who won.
Another constitutional amendment allowed Rhee to run for a third term in 1956. He won again. One opposition candidate died of a heart attack just before the election, but still received about 20 percent of the vote.
Another, Cho Bong-am, won 22 percent. Cho was a former communist who had split with his former associates before the war over their subservience to the Soviet Union, and had earlier become Rhee’s agriculture minister. He argued that the way to defeat communism was to strengthen democracy and that it would be eventually possible to win peacefully in an all-Korea election. Leaders of his Progressive Party were arrested in 1958 for allegedly contacting North Korea. Cho was charged with spying and was sentenced to five years for contacting a North Korean agent. An appellate court sentenced him to death. He was executed in 1959.
Now in his 80s, Rhee became more isolated and his administration more inefficient. In 1960, he ran a fourth time and won 88.7 percent of the vote. Twenty people were killed in election violence and many injured in protests against the widespread vote-rigging. These protests erupted into full-scale demonstrations. After several protesting students were shot and killed in the streets of Seoul, Rhee resigned in disgrace. He lived the rest of his life in exile in Hawaii.
How to assess Rhee’s contribution as the first president? He was no George Washington or Nelson Mandela. His republic had elections. It survived. That was about it.
Despite the war and the poverty, Rhee could have done so much more. He had vast experience in democratic countries. He also had a mandate for vigorous action, particularly as he had had to deal with leftist guerrilla subversion, left-right violence, and a civil war. However, he failed to institute the basic traditions of democracy — reasonably fair elections and a tradition of peaceful democratic succession. Had he lost to Cho Bong-am in 1952 or 1956 and stepped down in a dignified manner, or retired and let another candidate run, he may be remembered today with more affection.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.