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Dr. Syngman Rhee
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 (1875-03-26)March 26, 1875
Haeju, Hwanghae, Joseon
(in modern North Korea)
Died July 19, 1965(1965-07-19) (aged 90)
Honolulu, Hawaii, United States
Nationality Korean
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Seungseon Park (1890~1910)
Francesca Donner (1931~1965)[1]
Children Rhee In-soo Yi In-su or 이인수 - (b. September 1, 1931) - adopted
Alma mater George Washington University (B.A.)
Harvard University (Master)
Princeton University (Ph.D.)
Religion Methodism[2]

Syngman Rhee (Korean language: 이승만

I Seungman, pronounced [iː sɯŋ.man]; March 26, 1875 – July 19, 1965) was the first president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea as well as the first president of South Korea. When the way for the independence movement in the Japanese colonial period and the comments stood apart, he announced the domestic situation to foreign countries. His latter three-term presidency (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. He is a 16th-generation descendant of Grand Prince Yangnyeong.


Early life

Syngman Rhee was born on March 26, 1875 into a rural family of modest means in Hwanghae Province, Kingdom of Korea. Rhee was the youngest of five siblings, though his elder brothers died prematurely. Rhee's family traced its lineage back to King Taejong of Joseon. When Rhee was two years old, the family moved to Seoul. His early education involved primarily classic Chinese literature; though he attempted civil service examinations, he failed them multiple times. When reforms abolished traditional systems of education, Rhee enrolled in Pai-Chai School, an institution which had been established by a missionary from the United States.[3] Rhee learned English and began a school newspaper, Maeil Sinmun.[4]

Independence work

Rhee joined an Independence Club, a political reform movement, in 1896. In the aftermath of a protest against Japanese dominance of the Korean Peninsula, Rhee was arrested and charged with sedition on January 9, 1899. Rhee unsuccessfully attempted to escape imprisonment, and was tortured and sentenced to life in prison. During this imprisonment, Rhee studied books smuggled to him by friends and diplomats. Rhee later said he converted to Christianity in prison, and began conducting Bible studies in prison with fellow inmates. He also wrote columns for a newspaper and began a library for inmates (which eventually grew to 500 books). He also began to write a political manifesto, The Spirit of Independence.[4]

Activities in exile

Syngman Rhee in 1905

Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, politics shifted in Korea, and Rhee was released from prison in 1904. He then traveled to the United States, possibly at the behest of government officials, to a peace conference to end the war. Rhee arrived in Washington, D.C. in December of that year. Rhee met with Secretary of State John Hay and US President Theodore Roosevelt at peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and attempted to convince the US to intervene and allow Korea sovereign status.[5] This was unsuccessful, and Korea became a protectorate of Japan in November 1905.[4] With assistance from missionaries, Rhee remained in the United States for education. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from George Washington University in 1907, then a Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1910, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University the same year. Rhee's studies included politics, history, international relations, Christian theology and law. He began writing his name in the Western manner, with his given name preceding his family name.[6]

Syngman Rhee in 1910

Rhee returned to Korea in late 1910 to become the chief secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Seoul. However, Japan had recently annexed Korea, and had begun a crackdown on the Christian community in the nation. Rhee left Korea 15 months later for the United States under pretense of attending a Methodist conference. Rhee arrived in Hawaii in March 1912. He began a Christian school for Korean immigrants, and became involved in the local Korean-American community, which had swelled by those displaced by the nation's continued political unrest.[6]

Syngman Rhee and Kim Kyu-sik to 1919

In 1911, he returned to Japanese Korea (which had, by this time, been annexed by Japan) and served as a YMCA coordinator and missionary.[7][8] His political activism attracted unwelcome attention from the occupying army. In 1919, all of the major pro-independence factions formed the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai. Rhee was elected the president, a post he held for six years. In 1925 he was removed from office following his impeachment by the Provisional Assembly for misuse of his authority —an event that would foreshadow his later political career.

Rhee lived in exile in the United States living in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii, where a large Korean community in exile was politically active. In New York there was Korean Methodist Church and Institute which worked as a Korean community and independence movement center. His wife, Franziska Donner, worked in the US as his secretary, particularly in the preparation of the book, "Japan Inside Out" (1940).

After the defeat of Japan in World War II, Rhee was flown to Tokyo aboard a US military aircraft. After a secret meeting with General MacArthur, Rhee was flown in mid-October 1945 to Seoul aboard MacArthur's personal airplane, The Bataan.[9]


Rise to power

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

Following liberation in 1945, Rhee had returned to Seoul before any of the other independence leaders. Backed by the United States, Rhee was appointed head of the Korean government in 1945. Rhee began a campaign to "remove communism"; however, in speeches during the later years of his presidency, Rhee frequently equated any political opponent with communism.[10]

Rhee won a seat at the First Assembly of South Korea on 10 May 1948 by one parliamentary vote after left-wing parties boycotted the election. He was elected as the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly on May 31. Rhee was then elected the first president of South Korea, defeating Kim Gu (who had been the last president of the Provisional Government) by a margin of 82-13, on 20 July. On 15 August, Rhee formally took over power from the US military and de jure sovereignty of Korean people from the Provisional Government.

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.[11] 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 Jeju massacre 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.[12]

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. 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".[13]

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]

File:Dr. Syngman Rhee at Han River Bridge in Seoul.jpg

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.[14]

Resignation and exile

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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.[15] 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.


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.[16]

Legacy and analysis

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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.

See also



  1. "KOREA: The Walnut". TIME. March 9, 1953.,9171,890478-3,00.html. 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. The Walnut
  3. Rhee 2001, p. 1
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Rhee 2001, p. 2
  5. 유영익 (1996). 이승만의 삶과 꿈. Seoul, South Korea: Joong Ang Ilbo Press. pp. 40–44. ISBN 89-461-0345-0. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Rhee 2001, p. 3
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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. 
  10. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>Dillard, James E. "Biographies: Syngman Rhee". Korean War 60th Anniversary: History. US Department of Defense.
  11. 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. 
  12. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>"The National Committee for Investigation of the Truth about the Jeju April 3 Incident". 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-15.
  13. Merrill, John, Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War (University of Delaware Press, 1989), p181.
  14. Buzo, Adrian (2007). The making of modern Korea. Taylor & Francis. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-415-41482-1. 
  15. Cyrus Farivar (2011), "The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World", Rutgers University Press, p 26.
  16. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>"Syngman Rhee". South Korean President. Find a Grave. Feb 20, 2004. Retrieved Aug 19, 2011.

Further reading

Primary sources

  • Rhee, Syngman (2001). "The Spirit of Independence: A Primer for Korean Modernization and Reform (translated with an introduction by Han-Kyo Kim)". Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-2349-8. 
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

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