Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Rhee, Syngman (1875–1965)

Title: Syngman Rhee with Douglas MacArthur
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Ardent anti-communist Korean nationalist and first president of the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) during 1948–1960. Syngman Rhee was born in Pyongsan, Hwanghae Province, now in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea), on 26 March 1875. After studying Chinese classics at home, he enrolled in an American Methodist school in Seoul in 1894. When Seo Jai Pil, a reformer and independence fighter, established the Independence Association in 1896, Rhee joined it. In 1898 he was arrested on charges of subversion and imprisoned until 1904, during which time he converted to Christianity.

Upon his release Rhee went to study in the United States, and after attending both George Washington University and Harvard University, he received a PhD from Princeton University in 1910. His return home that year coincided with Japan's annexation of Korea. In 1912, he returned to the United States and remained in exile there until 1945. He established the Korean Commission in Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of Korean independence. By the time of Korea's liberation in August 1945, he had become Korea's best-known political figure overseas.

Because of his reputation among Koreans, the Korean People's Republic, a self-proclaimed leftist government, elected Rhee its president in the fall of 1945. Korean conservatives also wanted him to lead the country. But he refused these offers and began organizing his own party. In December 1945, he mobilized opposition to the Moscow Agreement on Korea that stipulated a Korean trusteeship. Beginning in 1946, he called for the creation of a separate government in southern Korea. Washington, for its own reasons, finally agreed and in the fall of 1947 persuaded the United Nations (UN) to arrange and observe a general election in May 1948.

The South Korean government was established on 15 August 1948, and Rhee was elected president by a wide margin. Soon thereafter, he adopted the March North policy to reunify Korea, then divided at the 38th Parallel, and asked the United States for military aid. Washington demurred for fear of igniting a civil war.

On 25 June 1950, North Korea launched a full-scale invasion of South Korea. Throughout the war, Rhee demanded the unification of all Korea under his leadership and attempted to sabotage any measure that might have undercut this goal. His aim of a unified Korea was increasingly at odds with U.S. policy, which by 1951 was ready to negotiate a settlement that would effectively restore the status quo antebellum. In particular, Rhee's release of some 27,000 North Korean POWs in June 1953 nearly derailed the armistice talks.

After the Korean War, Rhee became increasingly dictatorial and corrupt. He was finally forced out of office in April 1960 by a studentled revolt. The following month, he left Korea for exile in Hawaii, where he died in Honolulu on 19 July 1965.

Jinwung Kim


Further Reading
Hong, Yong-pyo. State Security and Regime Security: President Syngman Rhee and the Insecurity Dilemma in Korea, 1953–1960. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.; Kim, Queeyong. The Fall of Syngman Rhee. Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, Institute of East Asian Studies, Center for Korean Studies, 1983.; Kim, Stephen Jin-woo. Master of Manipulation: Syngman Rhee and the Seoul-Washington Alliance, 1953–1960. Seoul, Republic of Korea: Yonsei University Press, 2001.; Oliver, Robert T. Syngman Rhee: The Man behind the Myth. Cornwall, NY: Cornwall Press, 1955.; Oliver, Robert T. Syngman Rhee and American Involvement in Korea, 1942–1960: A Personal Narrative. Seoul: Panmun Books, 1978.
 

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