Syngman Rhee, first president of South Korea and uncompromising leader during the Korean War, was in fact born in the North. Born 26 March 1875, his family were of modest means and economic hardship forced their relocation to Seoul in 1877, when Rhee was only 2. He had four siblings and, following an early Confucian upbringing, was primarily educated by Christian missionaries. Exactly when Rhee became a Christian is unclear, though he was later to claim it was when he was in prison as a young man.
Certainly Syngman Rhee was forthright in his opinions. In 1896 he was among a group of radical young men who formed the ‘Independence Club’ – a nationalist organization critical of the role of Japan in Korea’s affairs. Two years later he was arrested and imprisoned for sedition. He spent six years incarcerated, during which he wrote copiously. When a more liberal government took power in 1904 he was released and fled in exile to the USA.
Once there he continued his studies in earnest, focusing on history and politics and securing a PhD from Princeton. By now a prominent Korean Nationalist, his advice was sought by Theodore Roosevelt’s negotiating team on the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russio-Japanese War. Yet he was unable to secure anything like Korean independence on the back of this.
In 1910 he returned to Korea for just over a year, in a management role with the YMCA. It quickly became clear that the Japanese authorities would not tolerate his political activism and so he again went into exile. This time he moved to Hawaii, which would be his base for thirty years.
In 1919 he was elected in absentia as Head of the Korean Provisional Government. In fact, this was nothing more than a pressure group, largely based in China. Although he moved to Shanghai for a few years in 1920, his relations with others in the group waned. He was ousted in 1925 – accused of abuse of power – and returned to Hawaii.
Back in the USA he continued to play a prominent part in the ex-patriate Korean community, both in Washington and Hawaii. In 1934 he married an Austrian woman, Franziska Donner. Reputedly Rhee had also been briefly married during his youth but little is known of this earlier relationship. Donner was to become a loyal companion for the rest of his life, and a prominent figure in Korea in her own right.
After the Second World War, Rhee saw his chance to have a serious impact on Korea’s future. He returned to the peninsula and set up his own political party in the American-occupied South. Implacably opposed to communism, Rhee lobbied hard for the unification of Korea under a Western system. During this period he was often at odds with the American administration in Korea, stirring up strikes and demonstrations. He was not averse to strong-arm tactics and this ruthlessness largely secured his position as the leading candidate during the presidential election in the South in 1950.
Following his elevation to the presidency, Syngman Rhee did not hesitate to suppress any opposition he found. With the attack by the North later that year, matters only worsened, and the elections which were held in the South during 1952 were little more than a sham. By now his American allies were thoroughly disenchanted with him, and he came close to sabotaging the final stages of the armistice talks with China and North Korea. Rhee was never reconciled to the uneasy settlement that was achieved in July 1953. (Pictured Syngman Rhee with Douglas MacArthur).
South Korea emerged from the Korean War a crippled and backward economy, almost totally reliant on US aid. Rhee, now 78 years old, lacked any political vision beyond his anti-communism. Notwithstanding this he sought and won the presidency for a third time in 1956, though not entirely on his own terms. In the separate vice-presidential election his main rival Chang Myon won comfortably, at the expense of Rhee’s candidate.
Back to Hawaii
The end came in 1960. Attempting to circumvent the constitution and seek a fourth term, Rhee claimed over 90 per cent support in another disputed election. The riots that followed led to a coup and his exile from Korea – facilitated by the CIA. He went back to Hawaii, where he died of a stroke five years later on 19 July 1965.
Syngman Rhee’s body was returned and interred in South Korea. Franziska also moved back to Seoul, where she lived until her death in 1992.