Syngman Rhee, Korea's George Washington

Monday, April 8, 2013

Today, we read and hear a great deal about North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un (Dennis Rodman's buddy), pontificating, and brandishing nuclear bomb threats against the West, while the North Korean people struggle to find enough to eat.

Electricity is on in the cities for just a few hours each day -- in rural areas perhaps not at all -- and there are stories of forced labor camps. It is difficult for us in the United States to understand a fellow like this.

However, all this posturing and bellicose behavior by Kim Jong Un, reminds one of the 1950s. I was a soldier in Korea in 1952, when Kim Jong Un's grandfather, North Korean president, Kim Il Sung, who very much like his grandson, engaged in behavior that was difficult to understand.

Across the 38th parallel was his hated rival, South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, who, himself, could be extremely difficult for western leaders to understand. Today's story is about Syngman Rhee.

At the end of World War II, in 1945, the Korean Peninsula was divided, at the 38th Parallel, into two parts, South Korea, under American supervision and North Korea, under Soviet supervision (the USSR's reward for entering the Pacific War just a few days before the Japanese surrender.)

Syngman Rhee, an exiled leader of the "Independence from Japan" movement, was one of the first of the opposition leaders to return to Korea after the War, in 1945.

He rose rapidly in the Korean legislature, and in 1948 was chosen to be president of South Korea, Korea's first president. He is often referred to as "Korea's George Washington."

He was a strong, even dictatorial leader. One of his first acts, as president, was to bully the Korean legislature into amending the Korean constitution, (which at that time limited the president to three consecutive terms in office), to allowing the incumbent President (Rhee himself) to run for an unlimited number of terms. Rhee held his position as president throughout the war, and had won his fourth term of office in 1960, with a 90 percent share of the vote.

However, he was forced to resign soon after, amid widespread protests against a "rigged" election on the part of President Rhee.

Syngman Rhee was born in 1875 in Hwanghae Province of Korea -- now a part of North Korea. Family fortunes were modest, so Mr. Rhee received a traditional Confucian (Chinese) education.

As a middle school student, he switched to a Methodist Missionary School and eventually became a Christian.

At that time, the entire Korean Peninsula was ruled by the Japanese. Syngman Rhee quite naturally gravitated to an Independence Club, whose members were opposed to Japanese rule. The "Club" was not effective and Mr. Rhee got himself arrested as a revolutionary, and spent eight years, from 1896-1904 languishing in a Japanese prison.

Released from prison Mr. Rhee wrangled a passage to the United States, where he received a doctorate from Princeton in 1910, the first Korean to receive a PhD in America. That year, the Japanese annexed Korea to be part of the Japanese Empire.

Still, Rhee chose to return to Korea to accept a job as principal of a YMCA high school, but the autocratic Japanese rule was too much for him. After one year he returned to Hawaii, then a U.S. territory. He would spend the next 30-plus years as a very vocal spokesman for Korean Independence.

During these years, Mr. Rhee was elected president of the Provisional Korean Government (in absentia). This office took him to Shanghai for some years, and then to Washington, D.C., during World War II, where he lobbied for a United, Independent Korea at war's end.

By the end of World War II, Rhee had become the best known of the Korean leaders to the Americans, and with the Japanese surrender, American Army officials flew Rhee to Japan for talks with General MacArthur.

Rhee was then flown, aboard MacArthur's personal aircraft, "The Bataan," to South Korea's Capital, Seoul. Rhee arrived in Korea ahead of the other Independence leaders of the Provisional Korean Government.

He used this time to gain a huge political advantage over his rivals, who were also seeking ways to help their country rebuild after decades of Japanese rule.

With United States backing, Rhee was chosen to head the Provisional Korean Government in 1945. He used this office to build a strong political base, which included "strong-arm gangs" and special ties to the police. Rhee's message to the people was a promise to "remove communism from Korea."

He was strong in his effort to remove communism. The trouble was that Rhee increasingly equated any opposition to himself, as communism, and was quick to bring down his political rivals, even by sometimes questionable means. He frequently found himself at odds with the American and United Nations officials.

After two "moderate" South Korean rivals, Song Jin Woo and Chong Duk Woo, were assassinated, Rhee was the most influential leader left standing, and in 1948 he was elected to be President of South Korea. He was re-elected again in 1952, 1956, and 1960, defying the Korean Constitution on term limits for the office.

Rhee assumed almost dictatorial powers after he was elected to the presidency. He tolerated very little domestic opposition to his programs. He outlawed his main opposition party, the Progressives, and had its leader executed for treason. He soon controlled appointments of city mayors, village headmen, and chiefs of police. He continually clashed with Gen. Mac Arthur, and MacArthur's successors. The United Nations was officially the agency which was conducting the war, with the United States and the other allied nations as a part of the United Nations forces.

It didn't matter. Rhee was at odds with United Nations directives as well. On one hand, he adamantly opposed any truce with the North Koreans (and Chinese and Soviets) His contention was that the war should be pursued until Korea could be again one country. But on the other hand, he resented any interference by the US or UN regarding the ROK forces.

Rhee inaugurated a "Truth Commission" in South Korea, which uncovered communist agents and North Korean sympathizers. The work of this commission turned into something of a witch hunt, and led to mass killings -- some say as many as 14,000 victims, communists and not.

Of course, the average GI in Korea during the war did not see all of this happening. But we heard rumors of Rhee's strong-arm tactics, and we saw first-hand, when Rhee's lieutenants clashed with the American and United Nation's officers. Rhee was fiercely loyal to his ROK -- Republic of Korea -- forces, and gave them unrealistic credit for waging the war.

American and United Nations officers had to absorb verbal barbs from the Korean leaders, who spouted the official Syngman Rhee directive about giving full credit to the ROK forces. Only then could the planned directive proceed.

It was general knowledge that without American and United Nations leadership and manpower, the North Koreans and later, the Chinese, would have swept through Korea without trouble, against the poorly equipped, and undermanned ROK forces. The bravery of the ROK soldier was not questioned, but brave fighting by ROK forces alone, was not enough.

Soon after the 1960 elections in Korea -- in spite of the fact that Syngman Rhee received 90 percent of the vote, he was forced to resign his presidency, amid widespread (and ugly) popular uprisings (The April Revolution) against what was widely believed to be "voter fraud" on behalf of the Rhee administration.

When angry mobs defied Armed Police (who shot some of the demonstrators) and converged on the President's residence (The Blue House), Syngman Rhee bowed to American orders and was evacuated by a CIA plane to Hawaii, with his wife and son, leaving a questionable record behind, some good, some not so good regarding the Korean people. Whether he helped or hindered his people is still debated today.

Syngman Rhee died in Hawaii of a stroke, in July, 1966. A week later his body was returned to his native Korea, where he was laid to rest in the Seoul National Cemetery.

Source: Syngman Rhee bio; Britannica, New World, Wilson Center Research

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