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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


By Kim Hakjoon

Curriculum Vitae

IN THE THREE DECADES after his death, Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, has been subject to a number of contrasting assessments: the founding father, a die-hard anti-Communist, a defender of liberal democracy, a Machiavellian dictator, and so on. Despite these differing views, no one denies that he was a prominent leader who played a pivotal role in the founding of South Korea, and that he did so by taking an anti-Communist position in the face of growing rivalry between world powers over the Korean peninsula.

Rhee was born into an impoverished aristocratic family in 1875, a year before Japan forced the "hermit kingdom" to open its ports. In 1894, he entered a school founded by an American missionary, which gave his life its definitive pro-American, anti-Communist orientation. After graduation, Rhee started his career as a political activist by joining a group of pro-Western nationalist intellectuals, whose activities landed him in prison.

After five years in jail, Rhee went to the U.S. in 1904. Attributing Korea's loss of sovereignty to its ignorance of international relations and its diplomatic failure, he decided to study world affairs, obtaining a doctoral degree in government from Princeton University in 1910.

Believing that Korea's independence would be made possible by appealing to the League of Nations and the U.S., Rhee concentrated his efforts on publicity campaigns and diplomatic activity aimed at denouncing Japanese colonial rule over Korea. He published Japan Inside Out in 1941, in which he warned that imperialist Japan would wage war against the U.S. sooner or later. Only a few months later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

When World War II was coming to a close, Rhee, still in the U.S., turned his attention to the Soviet Union. Predicting that Russia would apply the same expansionist policy to East Asia as it did to Eastern Europe, he called on America never to compromise with the Soviets. Considering Rhee a hindrance to its basic policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union, the U.S. at first did not endorse his return to Korea. Upon occupying South Korea, however, it found that left-wing forces held sway in the South, while Russia was sovietizing the North. Recognizing the need for a strong anti-Communist leader, the U.S. quickly switched its position and helped with Rhee's repatriation.

When Rhee returned to Korea on Oct. 16, 1945, almost all social forces, both left and right, wished to have him as their leader. Rhee was expected to provide a center of gravity for national integration with his charismatic leadership. But from the start he openly declared his anti-Communist position, alienating leftists and, later, most nationalists.

At that time, Koreans were split over the Moscow Agreement of 1945 [in which the divided peninsula was to be placed under the trusteeship of the U.S., the Soviet Union, Britain and China]. Rhee took up the right wing's anti-trusteeship cause in confrontation with the left, which supported the agreement. He attacked U.S. policy-makers, who he believed were ignorant of the Soviets' true nature and were leading U.S. policy in the direction of the sovietization of South Korea. He argued for the immediate establishment of a separate government in the South.

The tide turned Rhee's way in 1947 with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, in which the U.S. proclaimed it would resolutely confront Soviet expansionism. What this meant to Korea was no less than an advance notice that the U.S. would give up the Moscow Agreement in favor of a separate government in the South. The U.S.-dominated U.N. decided that a general election would be held in South Korea on May 10, 1948, under its supervision. The election, in which only right-wing parties participated, resulted in the formation of the Constitutional Assembly, which elected Rhee as the country's first president.

Rhee's stubbornly anti-Communist stance was to have many negative ramifications. In embracing whoever opposed Communism, he failed to liquidate pro-Japanese factions and other vestiges of Japan's colonial rule. In addition, Korea was prevented from responding flexibly to the changing international environment, especially in relation to non-alliance countries of the Third World.

Another legacy was Rhee's dictatorship. Using anti-Communism as a major political and ideological weapon, he extended his presidential term several times by amending the Constitution and suppressing the opposition. After winning his fourth term, he was finally ousted by the April Revolution of 1960; he died in exile five years later. His ignoble end notwithstanding, there is no doubting his role in Korea's recent history. His position as one of the country's nationalist giants is assured.

Professor Kim Hakjoon, president of the University of Inchon, has written extensively on Syngman Rhee.


•Born April 26, 1875

•Spent 40 years in the U.S., where he campaigned for Korean independence

•Became the first president of the Republic of Korea in 1948

•Student-led demonstrations toppled his authoritarian government in 1960

•Died in exile in Hawaii, 1965

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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