Syngman Rhee Biography

Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea and South Korea, played a significant role in shaping the country’s history. His presidency, spanning three terms, was marked by the intense Cold War tensions on the Korean Peninsula. While he strongly opposed communism, Rhee’s authoritarian tendencies and belief in his own indispensability to the nation often drew criticism. He aligned himself with the United States and actively protested against the influence of Russia and Japan on Korea, advocating for its independence. Rhee’s leadership brought about important and progressive changes, but his tactics to maintain power were often controversial. He frequently sought to amend the constitution in order to extend his presidency, leading to accusations of corruption and repression. As public awareness of his government’s fraudulent practices grew, Rhee was eventually compelled to resign.

Quick Facts

  • South Korean Celebrities Born In March Died At Age: 90
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Franziska Donner
  • Presidents
  • Political Leaders
  • Political ideology: Political party – Liberal
  • Died on: July 19, 1965
  • Place of death: Honolulu
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Liberal Party
  • Education: Princeton University, George Washington University, Harvard University

Childhood and Early Life

Syngman Rhee was born on April 18, 1875 in P’yongsan, North Korea. He was the only son of an ordinary rural family. In his childhood, he was known as Su-ng-yong. He moved to Seoul with his family and began his primary education there. He initially attended local schools that taught Chinese classics, but later transitioned to a Methodist mission school called ‘Paejae Haktang’. After graduating from high school in 1894, he started teaching English at the school and became interested in western ideas of enlightenment and reform. He actively participated in movements against the ineffective government of the Korean regime.

Independence Movement and Education

In 1896, Syngman Rhee and other young Korean leaders formed the Independence Club with the aim of fighting for Korean independence from Japan. However, he was arrested during one of his early political protests and was held in prison from 1899 to 1904. It was during this period that he converted to Methodism. After his release from prison, he moved to the United States to pursue higher education. He completed his Bachelor of Arts from George Washington University in 1907, Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1908, and Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1910. He returned to Korea in 1910 and joined the movement against Japanese occupation.

Career and Leadership

Syngman Rhee’s strong nationalist instinct and determination for an independent Korea led him to pursue his objectives through various means. He was chosen to lead the Korean Provisional Government in exile in Washington DC in 1919, as his efforts at home led to his persecution by the existing government in Korea. His strong leadership during World War II earned him a stellar reputation and enabled him to gather resources and form a massive political organization to oust the moderate leaders of Korea. After the assassination of major leaders, his party won the elections in South Korea and he became the first president in 1948.

Korean War and Aftermath

During the early years of Rhee’s presidency, the Korean Peninsula experienced an uneasy calm. However, this calm was soon disrupted by the invasion of North Korea’s Communist forces in 1950. South Korea was forced to retreat and sought assistance from the United Nations, which was provided by 15 nations. The war lasted three years and resulted in approximately 5 million lives lost. After the war, Rhee was determined to unify Korea and opposed the United Nations’ ruling that South Korea had no power over the 38th parallel. He appointed governors in the liberated areas of North Korea and resisted the UN directive for elections to be held under their supervision.

Resignation and Legacy

Syngman Rhee continued his dictatorial grip on power through authoritarian control and manipulation of supporters. However, he was forced to resign on April 27, 1960, following violent civil disorders sparked by charges of election fraud, corruption, and the death of students during a revolution. After his resignation, he went into exile in Hawaii. Rhee introduced significant social reforms during his presidency, including expanded education opportunities and the implementation of the Land Reform Act. He died on July 19, 1965, at the age of 90 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Personal Life and Trivia

Syngman Rhee met his wife, Francesca Donner, at a League of Nations conference in Geneva. They married in October 1933. Their wedding vows were conducted in both Korean and German.

Leave a Comment