Syngman Rhee or Lee Seungman in Korean Revised Romanization (Hangul/Hanja: 이승만/李承晩; Born: April 18th 1875 in Neungdae-dong, Daegyeong-ri, Masan-myeon, Pyeongsan County, Northern Hwanghae Province, DPRK – Died: July 19th 1965 in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA) 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 (July 24th 1948 – April 26th 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.
Rhee was born in the Hwanghae Province into a rural family of modest means as the only son. Rhee's family traced its lineage back to King Taejong Yi Bang-won of the Royal House of Jeonju Yi, the third monarch of Joseon Dynasty (Reigned: 1400-1418). He is a 16th-generation descendant of Grand Prince Yangnyeong. In 1877, Rhee (age 2) and his family moved to Seoul.
In Seoul, he had traditional Confucianism education in seodangs located in Nakdong (낙동/駱洞) and Dodong (도동/桃洞). 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.
In 1894, when reforms abolished the gwageo system, Rhee enrolled in the Pai Chai Academy (배제학당/培材學堂; present-day Pai Chai University), an American Methodist school, on April. He studied English and Shinhakmoon (신학문/新學問; literally new subjects). Near the end of 1895, he joined an Hyeopseong Club (협성회/協成會) created by Seo Jae-pil a.k.a Philip Jaisohn, who returned from the United States. He worked as the head and the main writer of the newspapers Hyeopseonghoe HyeBo (협성회회보/協成會會報; literally HyubSeong Club Newsletter) and Maeil Sinmun (매일신문; literally Daily Newspaper), the latter being the first daily newspaper in Korea. During this period, he earned money by teaching Americans Korean. He converted to Methodism in school. In 1895, he graduated from Pai Chai Academy.
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. Rhee acted as one of the forerunners of Korea's grassroots movement through organizations such as the HyeopSeong Club 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. As a result, on November 1898, he attained the rank of Uigwan (의관/議官) in the government agency of JungChoWon (중추원/中樞院).
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 Gyeongmucheong (경무청/警務廳) on January 1899. Other sources also place the year arrested as 1897 and 1898.
Rhee attempted to escape on the 20th day of imprisonment, but was caught and was sentenced to life imprisonment through the Pyeongniwon (평리원/平理院). He was imprisoned in the Hanseong Prison (한성감옥서/漢城監獄署). In prison, Rhee translated and compiled Cheong-il Jeon-gi (청일전기/淸日戰紀), wrote The Spirit of Independence (독립정신), compiled the New English-Korean Dictionary (신영한사전) and wrote in the DaeGook Newspaper (뎨국신문). He was also tortured in prison.
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). On November 1904, with the help of Min and Han Gyu-seol (한규설/韓圭卨), Rhee moved to the United States. On August 1905, Rhee and Yoon Byeong-koo (윤병구/尹炳求) 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, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
Rhee continued to stay in the United States; this move has been described as an 'exile.' He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from George Washington University on 1907, and a Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1908. In 1910, he obtained a Ph.D. from Princeton University with the thesis Neutrality as influenced by the United States (미국의 영향하에 발달된 국제법상 중립).
On August 1910, he returned to Japanese Korea. He served as a YMCA coordinator and missionary. In 1912, he was implicated in the 105-Man Incident, and was shortly arrested. However, he fled to the United States in 1912 with M.C.Harris' rationale that Rhee was going to participate in the general meeting of Methodists in Minneapolis as the Korean representative.
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 Jungang School (한인중앙학원). In Hawaii, he began to publish the Taepyeongyang Magazine (태평양잡지, literally Pacific Ocean Magazine). 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. 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.
Following the March 1st Movement in 1919, Rhee discovered that he was appointed to the positions of: Foreign minister in the Noryeong 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 Hanseong 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. From December 1920 to May 1921, he moved to Shanghai and acted as the acting president for the Provisional Government in Shanghai.
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. 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 Korean Comradeship Meeting (대한인동지회/大韓人同志會).
On March 1925, Rhee was impeached as the president of the Provisional Government in Shanghai over allegations of misuse of power and was removed from office. Nevertheless, he continued to claim the position of president by referring to the Hanseong 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.
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.
After the Surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945, Rhee was flown to Tokyo aboard a US military aircraft. 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. 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.
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. In the same month, he created a plan based on this idea 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.
On November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly recognized Korea's independence and established the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea through Resolution 112. On May 1948, the South Korean Constitutional Assembly election, 1948 was held under the oversight of the UNTCOK. He was elected without competition to serve in the Korean Republic Constitution-making National Assembly (대한민국 제헌국회/大韓民國制憲國會) 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. The 1948 Constitution of the Republic of Korea was adopted on July 17, 1948.
On July 20, 1948, Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea in the South Korean presidential election, 1948 with 92.3% of the votes; the second candidate, Kim Gu, received 6.7% of the votes. On August 15, the Republic of Korea was formally established on South Korea and Rhee was inaugurated as the first president of the Republic of Korea.
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. 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 4.3 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.
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".
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.
During the North Korean occupation of Seoul, Rhee established a temporary government in Busan and created a defensive perimeter along the Nakdong Bulge. A series of battles ensued, which would later be known collectively as the Battle of Nakdong 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.
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. 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 died of a stroke on July 19, 1965. A week later, his body was returned to Seoul and buried in the Seoul National Cemetery.
About the Ihwajang Mansion
After Korea gained independence from Japan in 1945, the former president Syngman Rhee and his wife, Franziska Donner-Rhee lived in their house called Ihwajang. Even though he moved out of the house after he was elected the first president of Korea, he used to return and visit for walks in the garden. After he relinquished his appointment as president, he stayed here for a while before coming to America as an exile.
Ihwajang Mansion (Hanja: 梨花莊) which is located at 32 Ihwajang 1st Street/Ihwajang 1-gil, Ihwa-dong 1-beonji, Seoul Jongno-gu - consisted of the bonchae, or the main building, which was where Lee Seungman and his wife’s living quarters were, jogakdang(president’s office area) and other buildings. Jogakdang, the president’s office area, is a small and narrow building but it is an important historical place where he had a conference to form the first Korean ministry. Ihwajang house shows the change of Korean traditional house under Japanese control.