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Syngman Rhee 1948-60

Syngman Rhee was born in 1875, the son of a genealogical scholar. He failed the civil service exams several times before becoming a student of English. Between 1899 and 1904 he was imprisoned for political activities. On his release, he went to the United States, where he studied for some years, earning an M.A. at Harvard and a Ph.D. at Princeton -- the first Korean to receive an American doctorate. After a brief return to his homeland in 1910, Rhee once more settled in America. He remained there for the next thirty-five years, lobbying relentlessly for American support for Korean independence, financed by the contributions of Korean patriots. If he was despised by some of his fellow countrymen for his egoism, his ceaseless self-promotion, his absence from the armed struggle that engaged other courageous nationalists, his extraordinary determination and patriotism could not be denied.

His iron will was exerted as ruthlessly against rival factions of expatriates as against colonial occupation. He could boast an element of prescience in his own world vision. As early as 1944, when the United States government still cherished all manner of delusions about the postwar prospect of working harmoniously with Stalin, Rhee was telling officials in Washington, "The only possibility of avoiding the ultimate conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is to build up all democratic, non-communistic elements wherever possible."

While the Americans struggled to come to terms with a culture and a society that were alien to them, Rhee was a comfortingly comprehensible figure: fluent in the small talk of democracy, able to converse about America and American institutions with easy familiarity, above all at home in the English language. Rhee was acerbic, prickly, uncompromising.

Before United States forces had landed in Korea in September 1945, the Koreans had established self-governing bodies, or people's committees. Exiles abroad, mainly in China, had organized the "Korean Provisional Government" in Shanghai as early as 1919 and had sustained a skeletal organization in other parts of China until 1945. 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 Kyusik, premier and vice premier, respectively.

The communists in the south boycotted the May 1948 elections, and were discredited when P'yongyang cut off electricity, leaving Rhee a clear field although he lacked grass roots support apart from the Korean Democratic Party.

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.

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, 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. In May and June 1952, when Rhee was involved in a political and constitutional struggle with opponents in the National Assembly, the United States attempted with minimal success to dissuade the Korean President from using extralegal means to achieve his ends and even considered plans for United Nations Command intervention into South Korean affairs. This political crisis was resolved by Rhee’s victory over his opponents in the legislative branch.

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. 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-hiii, 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.

Thereafter, 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. Yi, formerly Rhee's personal secretary, 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.

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.

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Page last modified: 14-01-2018 18:38:23 ZULU