This is the 16th in a 60-part series featuring 60 major events in Korea's modern history from 1884 till now. The project is part of the 60th anniversary of The Korea Times, which falls on Nov. 1.
Riot police try to disperse demonstrators protesting election rigging during the April 19 Students’ Uprising of 1960 in this file photo. After citizens and professors joined the demonstrations, Syngman Rhee, the nation’s first president, stepped down. / Korea Times File
By Michael Breen
Korea Times Columnist
The first president of the newly-formed Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, had an impressive background from the perspective of both the Americans, who had ruled the southern half of the peninsula for three years before its establishment, and the Korean citizenry.
``Few heads in international politics have been battered longer or harder than his,'' an advisor, Robert Oliver, wrote in a biography, ``The Truth about Korea,'' which came out in 1951. "During a political career that began in 1894, Dr. Rhee has spent seven years in prison, seven months under daily torture, and forty-one 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 ― only to see his nation torn asunder by a communist invasion.''
But, he is not remembered fondly by Koreans today. That is in part because, historically, the separation of Korea into two rival halves is something of an aberration. (The future ``father'' of a unified Korea, if there is one, is more likely to be much better remembered). It is also in part because his administration presided with a heavy hand over a poor and corrupt society which changed little under his watch.
Given this, his departure from office was fitting. Rhee was effectively run out of town by student protestors after a rigged election, a humiliating end followed nine months later by a military coup.
Rhee was born in 1875, and educated at a missionary-run school where he converted to Christianity. He founded the first daily newspaper in Korea and organized protests against corruption and against Japanese and Russian designs on Korea. He was jailed in 1897. For seven months, 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. ``His fingers were so horribly mashed that even today, in times of stress, he blows upon them,'' Oliver wrote.
After his release and the Japanese take-over of Korea, Rhee went into exile in the United States. He earned his doctorate at Princeton, where he studied under the future U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson. He was one of the main leaders in exile and lobbied for decades for Korean independence. He married an Austrian woman, and by the time he returned to Korea after four decades, he came across as more of a foreigner than a Korean.
He saw himself as the leader of a country that was half-held by communist rebels. The rebels attacked in 1950 and Rhee's republic was rescued from destruction by the intervention of foreign power. 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 made the citizenry and the US allies nervous and mistrustful of the old man.
Rhee's South Korea was a poor, agricultural country. Most Koreans were preoccupied with where their next meal was coming from. Rhee had no economic vision and the country lived off American handouts. When presented with the first long-term economic plan, developed by officials looking to get the country on its own feet, Rhee dismissed it with a comment that Five-Year Plans were a communist idea.
Rhee acted imperially, above the fray of politics, but in 1952, during the Korean War, when he saw that he was not going to be re-elected, he became more involved, threatening to dissolve the National Assembly if it did not approve a constitutional change that would replace its power to choose the president with a popular vote. Four years later, with another constitutional amendment, Rhee ran for a third term and won.
In 1960, he ran a fourth time and won 88.7 percent of the vote. Rhee's vice presidential candidate, Lee Ki-poong, defeated the Democratic Party candidate and former ambassador to the US, Chang Myon, by such a suspiciously large margin that protestors took to the streets alleging fraud.
In the early evening of March 15, 1960, 1,000 residents gathered in front of the opposition Democratic Party building in the southern city of Masan. The police started shooting and protestors responded by throwing rocks. One month later, the body of a young man, Kim Ju-yul, a student at Masan Commercial High School who had disappeared during the protests, was found on the beach.
The government announced that he had drowned. Protesters forced their way into the hospital and found Kim had been killed by a tear gas canister which was lodged in his skull. This revelation sparked nationwide outrage. Students at Korea University in Seoul, one of whom was the current president, Lee Myung-bak, took to the streets and were set upon by police and thugs. On April 19, when they tried to march on Gyeong Mu Dae the presidential residence (later renamed Cheong Wa Dae), calling on Rhee to resign, police opened fire. One hundred and twenty-five were killed.
Later, as citizens and professors joined the demonstrations, the police withdrew. With the intervention of the US, Rhee stepped down. Seen as old and out-of-touch, Rhee was not resented. When he left the presidential residence, the crowd applauded him. Vice-President elect Lee Ki-Poong, however, committed suicide with his whole family.
It was a sad end to the career of an old independence activist. The best we can say about Rhee's 12 years in power was that his republic survived. Despite the war and despite the poverty of the day, Rhee could have done so much more, had he brought the experience of 40 years of exile in democratic countries to bear. He 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 and accepted defeat graciously in 1952 or 1956, or retired and let another candidate run, he may be remembered today with more affection.