|Birth Day:||March 26, 1875|
|Death Date:||Jul 29, 1965 (age 90)|
|Birth Place:||Pyongyang, North Korea|
As per our current Database, Syngman Rhee died on Jul 29, 1965 (age 90).
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He campaigned for Korean independence from Japanese rule in the relative safety of Hawaii, and was supported in leading South Korea because of his familiarity to international leaders.
Syngman Rhee was born on 19 February 1875 in the Korean lunisolar calendar (also stated as 26 March 1875) in Daegyeong, a village in Pyeongsan County, Hwanghae Province of Joseon-ruled Korea. Rhee was the third but only surviving son out of three brothers and two sisters (his two older brothers both died in infancy) in a rural family of modest means. Rhee's family traced its lineage back to King Taejong of Joseon, and was a 16th-generation descendant of Grand Prince Yangnyeong.
In 1877, at the age of two-years-old, Rhee and his family moved to Seoul, where he had traditional Confucian education in various seodang in Nakdong (낙동; 駱洞) and Dodong (도동; 桃洞). When Rhee was nine-years-old a smallpox infection rendered him virtually blind until he was cured by Horace Newton Allen, an American medical missionary. Rhee was portrayed as a potential candidate for the gwageo, the traditional Korean civil service examination, but in 1894 reforms abolished the gwageo system, and in April he enrolled in the Pai Chai School (배재학당; 培材學堂), an American Methodist school, where he converted to Christianity. Rhee studied English and sinhakmun (신학문; 新學問; lit. new subjects). Near the end of 1895, he joined a Hyeopseong Club (협성회; 協成會) created by Seo Jae-pil, who returned from the United States after his exile following the Gapsin Coup. He worked as the head and the main writer of the newspapers Hyeopseong-hoe Hoebo (협성회 회보; 協成會會報; lit. Hyeopseong Club Newsletter) and Maeil Shinmun (매일신문; 每日新聞; lit. The Daily Newspaper), the latter being the first daily newspaper in Korea. During this period, Rhee earned money by teaching the Korean language to Americans. In 1895, Rhee graduated from Pai Chai School.
Rhee became involved in Anti-Japanese circles after the end of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, which saw Joseon passed from the Chinese sphere of influence to the Japanese. Rhee was implicated in a plot to take revenge for the assassination of Empress Myeongseong, the wife of King Gojong who was assassinated by Japanese agents, however, a female American physician helped him avoid the charges. Rhee acted as one of the forerunners of the Korean independence movement through grassroots organizations such as the Hyeopseong Club and the Independence Club (독립협회; 獨立協會). Rhee organized several protests against corruption and the influences of the Japan and the Russian Empire. As a result, in November 1898, Rhee attained the rank of Uigwan (의관; 議官) in the Imperial Legislature, the Jungchuwon (중추원; 中樞院).
After entering civil service, Rhee was implicated in a plot to remove King Gojong from power through the recruitment of Park Yeong-hyo. As a result, Rhee was imprisoned in the Gyeongmucheong Prison (경무청; 警務廳) in January 1899. Other sources 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 The Sino–Japanese War Record (청일전기; 淸日戰紀), wrote The Spirit of Independence (독립정신; 獨立精神), compiled the New English–Korean Dictionary (신영한사전; 新英韓辭典) and wrote in the Imperial Newspaper (제국신문; 帝國新聞). He was also tortured.
In 1904, Rhee was released from prison at the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War with the help of Min Young-hwan. In November 1904, with the help of Min Yeong-hwan and Han Gyu-seol (한규설; 韓圭卨), Rhee moved to the United States. In August 1905, Rhee and Yun Byeong-gu (윤병구; 尹炳求) met with the Secretary of State John Hay and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt at peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and attempted unsuccessfully to convince the US to help preserve independence for Korea.
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 in 1907, and a Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1908. In 1910, he obtained a PhD from Princeton University with the thesis "Neutrality as influenced by the United States" (미국의 영향하에 발달된 국제법상 중립).
Rhee was married to Seungseon Park from 1890 to 1910. Park divorced Rhee shortly after the death of their son Rhee Bong-su in 1908, supposedly because their marriage had no intimacy due to his political activities.
In August 1910, Rhee returned to Japanese occupied Korea. He served as a YMCA coordinator and missionary. In 1912, Rhee was implicated in the 105-Man Incident, and was shortly arrested. However, he fled to the United States in 1912 with M. C. Harris's 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. In February 1913, as a consequence of the meeting, he moved to Honolulu, Hawai'i and took over the Han-in Jung-ang Academy (한인중앙학원; 韓人中央學園). In Hawaii, he began to publish the Pacific Ocean Magazine (태평양잡지; 太平洋雜誌). In 1918, he established the Han-in Christian Church (한인기독교회; 韓人基督敎會). During this period, he opposed Park Yong-man's stance on foreign relations of Korea and brought about a split in the community. In December 1918, he was chosen, along with Dr. Henry Chung DeYoung, as a Korean representative to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 by the Korean National Association (대한인 국민회; 大韓人國民會) but they failed to obtain permission to travel to Paris. After giving up travelling to Paris, Rhee held the First Korean Congress (한인대표자대회) in Philadelphia with Seo Jae-pil to make plans for the declaration and action of independence of Korea.
Following the March 1st Movement in March 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 in Shanghai, and a position equivalent to President for the Hansung 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 25 August, Rhee established the Korean Commission to America and Europe (구미위원부; 歐美委員部) in Washington, D.C. On 6 September, Rhee discovered that he had been appointed acting president for the Provisional Government in Shanghai. From December 1920 to May 1921, he moved to Shanghai and was the acting president for the Provisional Government.
However, Rhee failed to efficiently act in the capacity of Acting President due to conflicts inside the provisional government in Shanghai. In 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. In September 1922, he returned to Hawaii to focus on publication, education, and religion. In November 1924, Rhee was appointed the position of President-for-Life in the Korean Comrade Society (대한인동지회; 大韓人同志會).
In 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 Hansung 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.
In February 1933, Rhee met Austrian Franziska Donner in Geneva. At the time, Rhee was participating in a League of Nations meeting and Donner was working as an interpreter. In October 1934, they were married in New York City. She also acted as his secretary.
In November 1939, Rhee and his wife left Hawaii for Washington, D.C. He focused on writing 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 in December 1941, Rhee used his position as the chairman of the foreign relations department of the provisional government in Chongqing to convince President Franklin 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 U.S. 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.
The Korean nationalist movement had for decades been torn by factionalism and in-fighting, and most of the leaders of the independence movement hated each other as much as they hated the Japanese. Rhee, who had lived for decades in the United States, was a figure known only from afar in Korea, and therefore regarded as a more or less acceptable compromise candidate for the conservative factions. More importantly, Rhee spoke fluent English, whereas none of his rivals did, and therefore he was the Korean politician most trusted and favored by the American occupation government. The British diplomat Roger Makins later recalled, "the American propensity to go for a man rather than a movement — Giraud among the French in 1942, Chiang Kai-shek in China. Americans have always liked the idea of dealing with a foreign leader who can be identified as 'their man'. They are much less comfortable with movements." Makins further added the same was the case with Rhee, as very few Americans were fluent in Korean in the 1940s or knew much about Korea, and it was simply far easier for the American occupation government to deal with Rhee than to try to understand Korea. Rhee was "acerbic, prickly, unpromising" and was regarded by the U.S. State Department, which long had dealings with him as "a dangerous mischief-maker", but the American General John R. Hodge decided that Rhee was the best man for the Americans to back because of his fluent English and his ability to talk with authority to American officers about American subjects. Once it became clear from October 1945 onward that Rhee was the Korean politician most favored by the Americans, other conservative leaders fell in behind him. Hastings wrote, "In an Asian society, where politics are often dominated by an instinctive desire to fall in behind the strongest force, Rhee's backing from the military government was the decisive factor in his rise to power."
After the surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945, Rhee was flown to Tokyo aboard a U.S. military aircraft. Over the objections of the Department of State, the U.S. military government allowed Rhee to return to Korea by providing him with a passport in October 1945, despite the refusal of the Department of State to issue Rhee with a passport. The British historian Max Hastings wrote that there was "at least a measure of corruption in the transaction" as the U.S. OSS agent Preston Goodfellow who provided Rhee with the passport that allowed him to return to Korea was apparently promised by Rhee that if he came to power, he would reward Goodfellow with commercial concessions." 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.
When the first U.S.–Soviet Cooperation Committee meeting was concluded without a result, he began to argue in 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 in March 1947, enforced Rhee's anti-communist ideas.
In November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly recognized Korea's independence and established the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea (UNTCOK) through Resolution 112. In May 1948, the South Korean Constitutional Assembly election was held under the oversight of the UNTCOK. He was elected without competition to serve in the South Korean Constitutional Assembly (대한민국 제헌국회; 大韓民國制憲國會) and was consequently selected to be Speaker of the Assembly. 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 17 July 1948.
On 20 July 1948, Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea in the 1948 South Korean presidential election with 92.3% of the vote; the second candidate, Kim Gu, received 6.7% of the vote. On 15 August the Republic of Korea was formally established in South Korea and Rhee was inaugurated as the first President of the Republic of Korea. The next month, on 9 September, the north also proclaimed statehood as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Rhee himself had been an independence activist, and his relations with the chinilpa Korean elites who had collaborated with the Japanese were, in the words of the South Korean historian Kyung Moon Hwang, often "contentious", but in the end an understanding was reached in which, in exchange for their support, Rhee would not purge the elites. In particular, the Koreans who had served in the colonial-era National Police, whom the Americans had retained after August 1945, were promised by Rhee that their jobs would not be threatened by him. Upon independence in 1948, 53% of South Korean police officers were men who had served in the National Police during the Japanese occupation.
Soon after taking office, Rhee enacted laws that severely curtailed political dissent. There was much controversy between Rhee and his leftist opponents. Allegedly, many of the leftist opponents were arrested and in some cases killed. The most controversial issue has been Kim Gu's assassination. On 26 June 1949, Kim Gu was assassinated by Ahn Doo-hee, who confessed that he assassinated Kim Gu by the order of Kim Chang-ryong. The assassin was described by the British historian Max Hastings as one of Rhee's "creatures". It soon became apparent that Rhee would be a dictator. 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 Jeju uprising on Jeju island, of which 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, and the Mungyeong Massacre.
Since his only son died young, Rhee had three adopted children throughout his life. The first adopted son was Rhee Un-soo, yet Rhee ended the adoption in 1949. The second adopted son was Lee Kang-seok, eldest son of Lee Ki-poong, who were descendants of Prince Hyoryeong and therefore distant cousins of Rhee; but Lee committed suicide in 1960. After Rhee exiled, Rhee-In-soo, who is a descendant of Prince Yangnyeong just like Rhee, was adopted by him as his heir.
By early 1950, Rhee had about 30,000 alleged communists in his jails, and had about 300,000 suspected sympathizers enrolled in an official "re-education" movement called the Bodo League. When the Communist army attacked from the North in June, retreating South Korean forces executed the prisoners, along with several tens of thousands of Bodo League members.
At the outbreak of war on 25 June 1950, North Korean troops launched a full-scale invasion of South Korea. All South Korean resistance at the 38th parallel was overwhelmed by the North Korean offensive within a few hours. By 26 June, it was apparent that the Korean People's Army (KPA) would occupy Seoul. Rhee stated, "Every Cabinet member, including myself, will protect the government, and parliament has decided to remain in Seoul. Citizens should not worry and remain in their workplaces." However, Rhee had already left the city with most of his government on 27 June. At midnight on 28 June, the South Korean military destroyed the Han Bridge, thereby preventing thousands of citizens from fleeing. On 28 June, 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 Naktong Bulge. A series of battles ensued, which would later be known collectively as the Battle of Naktong Bulge. After the Battle of Inchon in September 1950, the North Korean military was routed, and the United Nations (UN)—of whom the largest contingents were the Americans and South Koreans—not only liberated all of South Korea, but overran much of North Korea. In the areas of North Korea taken by the UN forces, elections were supposed to be administered by the United Nations but instead were taken over and administered by the South Koreans. Rhee insisted on Bukjin Tongil – ending war by conquering North Korea, but after the Chinese entered the war in November 1950, the UN forces were thrown into retreat. During this period of crisis, Rhee ordered the December massacres of 1950. Rhee was absolutely committed to reunifying Korea under his leadership and strongly supported MacArthur's call for going all-out against China, even at the risk of provoking a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Hastings notes that, during the war, Rhee's official salary was equal to $37.50 (U.S. dollars) per month. Both at the time and since, there has been much speculation about precisely how Rhee managed to live on a salary equivalent to $37.50 per month. The entire Rhee regime was notorious for its corruption, with everyone in the government from the President downwards stealing as much they possibly could from both the public purse and aid from the United States. The Rhee regime engaged in the "worst excesses of corruption," with the soldiers in the Army of the Republic of Korea (ROK) going unpaid for months as their officers embezzled their pay, equipment provided by the United States being sold on the black market, and the size of the ROK army being bloated by hundreds of thousands of "ghost soldiers" who only existed on paper, allowing their officers to steal pay that would have been due had these soldiers actually existed. The problems with low morale experienced by the ROK army were largely due to the corruption of the Rhee regime. The worst scandal during the war—indeed of the entire Rhee government—was the National Defense Corps Incident. Rhee created the National Defense Corps in December 1950, intended to be a paramilitary militia, comprising men not in the military or police who be drafted into the corps for internal security duties. In the months that followed, thousands of National Defense Corps men either starved or froze to death in their unheated barracks, as the men lacked winter uniforms. Even Rhee could not ignore the deaths of so many of the National Defense Corps and ordered an investigation. It was revealed that commander of the National Defense Corps, General Kim Yun Gun, had stolen millions of American dollars that were intended to heat the barracks and feed and clothe the men. General Kim and five other officers were publicly shot at Daegu on 12 August 1951, following their convictions for corruption.
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.
Rhee was strongly against the armistice negotiations the U.S. entered into in 1953. Accordingly, in April of the same year, he demanded of President Eisenhower a total withdrawal of his troops from the peninsula if an armistice were to be signed, declaring that the ROK would rather fight on its own than negotiate a cease-fire. He also deliberately carried out some actions that would deter the armistice and reignite conflicts in the region, the most provocative one being his unilateral release of 25,000 prisoners of war in June 1953. Such actions, which hindered the progress of armistice talks, upset China and the North. Moreover, for such unpredictability in his authoritarian leadership, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations considered him one of the "rogue allies" in East Asia and engaged in "powerplay", or the construction of asymmetric alliances, which helped the U.S. maximize economic and political influence over the ROK and increase ROK's dependency on the United States.
On 27 July 1953, at last, "one of the 20th century's most vicious and frustrating wars" came to an end with no apparent victor. Ultimately, the armistice agreement was signed by military commanders from China, North Korea and the United Nations Command, led by the U.S. Its signatories did not include the ROK, however, as Rhee refused to agree to the armistice, and neither was it supposed to be a permanent cease-fire, as a peace treaty was never signed.
After the war ended in July 1953, South Korea struggled to rebuild following nationwide devastation. The country remained at a Third World level of development and was heavily reliant on U.S. aid. Rhee was easily re-elected for what should have been the final time in 1956, since the 1948 constitution limited the president to two consecutive terms. However, soon after being sworn in, he had the legislature amend the constitution to allow the incumbent president to run for an unlimited number of terms, despite protests from the opposition.
In March 1960, the 84-year-old Rhee won his fourth term in office as President. His victory was assured with 100% of the vote after the main opposition candidate, Cho Byeong-ok, died shortly before the 15 March elections.
Rhee died of a stroke on 19 July 1965. A week later, his body was returned to Seoul and buried in the Seoul National Cemetery.
Currently, Syngman Rhee is 146 years, 6 months and 27 days old. Syngman Rhee will celebrate 147th birthday on a Saturday 26th of March 2022.
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