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first President of South Korea
Syngman Rhee was born in Hwanghae (now in North Korea) on April 26, 1875. His family moved to Seoul when he was two years old, and it was there that he received a traditional Confucian education, after which he entered a Methodist school and learned English.
In 1896, Rhee joined with other Korean leaders to form the Independence Club, a group dedicated to Korean independence from Japan. When pro-Japanese elements destroyed the club in 1898, Rhee was arrested and imprisoned. Spirit of Independence, written during his imprisonment, was published soon after his release in 1904. Upon his release, Rhee studied at George Washington, Harvard, and Princeton universities. In 1910 he became the first Korean to earn a doctorate, from Princeton. He returned to Korea that same year, but emigrated to Hawaii in 1912 because he was unwilling to live under Japanese rule.
In 1919, Rhee was elected president of the "Korean Provisional Government" in exile in Shanghai. He relocated to Shanghai soon after, but returned to Hawaii in 1925. For the next twenty years Rhee was the most prominent spokesman for Korean independence, which was finally achieved with the surrender of Japan in 1945.
Rhee returned to Korea aboard a U.S. military plane after Japan's surrender, and immediately began campaigning for complete independence and unification of the country. He was unable to prevent the partition of the Korean Peninsula, but was a major part of South Korea achieving independence. The Republic of Korea was formally established upon adoption of a constitution on July 17, 1948, and the National Assembly elected Rhee as the first President on July 20; he was inaugurated on August 15. Soon after taking office, Rhee enacted laws that severely curtailed political dissent. Many leftist opponents were arrested, and in some cases killed, and anyone suspected of supporting the Communists of North Korea was subject to torture.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an overwhelming and sudden attack across the 38th parallel. The understrength and poorly equipped South Korean Army, trained primarily for anti-guerrilla operations, was forced to retreat. The United Nations quickly resolved to give military support to the Republic of Korea, and a United Nations Command was established. Rhee spent most of the next three years trying to convince the United States (and, by extension, the United Nations) to carry the Korean War into North Korea with a goal of re-uniting the peninsula. Unfortunately for him, the armistice that was signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953 kept the peninsula divided at the 38th parallel.
In addition to pressing for re-unification, Rhee also continued his suppression of dissent, and by 1952 few believed that the National Assembly would re-elect him. To circumvent that possibility, 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 subsequent popular election, he received 74% of the vote. Despite his continuing suppression of dissent and South Korea's struggling economy after the war, Rhee was overwhelmingly relected to a third term in 1956. Soon after his third inauguration, he had the constitution amended to allow the incumbent President to run for an unlimited number of terms (it originally limited the President to three consecutive terms). Not surprisingly, he was overwhelmingly elected for a fourth term in 1960. By then, however, popular dissent had grown to such an extent that even his supporters suggested he step down, which he did on April 27, 1960.
After leaving office, Rhee, along with his wife and adopted son, went into exile in Hawaii, where he died on July 19, 1965.
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This page was last updated on 04/25/2017.