Syngman Rhee - History

Syngman Rhee - History

Korean political leader Syngman Rhee was imprisoned at age 22 for a period of seven years for protesting in favor of reform in Korea. Upon his release, he fled to the US.

In 1910, he returned to Korea to oppose the Japanese, and in 1919, led an unsuccessful revolt against Japanese rule. He fled once again to the US, where he led the Korean opposition until the end of World War II.

After the Japanese surrender, Rhee became President of Korea, and was re-elected four times. Shortly after his 1960 re-election, however, rising oppositon forced him to resign. He retired to Hawaii.


Kim, Q.Y. Fall of Syngman Rhee . 1983. University of California.

Oliver, Robert. Syngman Rhee : The Man Behind the Myth . 1973. Greenwood Pub. Group.

Korean Provisional Government

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Korean Provisional Government, government in exile organized in April 1919 in Shanghai by Korean patriots. The provisional government was formed in reaction to Japanese suppression of the March 1st Movement, the struggle for Korean independence from Japanese rule that had begun with a proclamation of independence issued by 33 prominent Koreans on March 1, 1919, and a number of massive demonstrations that occurred in Korea wherever the proclamation was read. Leading members of the Korean Provisional Government included such national leaders as Syngman Rhee, An Ch’ang-ho, and Kim Ku.

With the establishment of the provisional government, Korea was able to make more concerted efforts toward achieving independence from Japan, and it made immediate contacts with various independence groups both at home and abroad. By 1922 all of the Korean resistance groups in Manchuria were unified under the provisional government’s leadership. To help gain their aims, the leaders published a newspaper, The Independent, which greatly enhanced popular consciousness of political participation. They also sent delegations to the United States and Europe to draw attention to their cause.

Nevertheless, the Korean Provisional Government soon encountered insurmountable problems. Internally, the Japanese suppressed all nationalistic dissension in Korea they even prohibited use of the Korean language in the later 1930s. Externally, the coalition that had formed the provisional government began to grow apart. Although Syngman Rhee was elected the nominal president, he remained in the United States, attempting to solicit Western moral support. The premier, Yi Tong-hwi, began to seek Soviet military aid for revolutionary operations in Manchuria. Kim Ku drew close to the right-wing Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek.

With the liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation at the end of World War II, the Korean Provisional Government came to an end. Its members returned to Korea, where they put together their own political organizations in what came to be South Korea and competed for power.

Why Was Korea Divided?

In August 1945, the two allies “in name only” (as Robinson puts it) divided control over the Korean Peninsula. Over the next three years (1945-48), the Soviet Army and its proxies set up a communist regime in the area north of latitude 38˚ N, or the 38th parallel. South of that line, a military government was formed, supported directly by the United States.

While the Soviet policies were widely popular with the bulk of the North’s laborer and peasant population, most middle-class Koreans fled south of the 38th parallel, where the majority of the Korean population resides today. Meanwhile, the U.S.-supported regime in the South clearly favored anti-communist, rightist elements, according to Robinson.

“The ultimate objective was for the Soviet Union and the United States to leave, and let the Koreans figure it out,” he explains. “The trouble was that the Cold War intervened….And everything that was tried to create a middle ground or to try to reunify the peninsula is thwarted by both the Soviet Union and the United States not wanting to give in to the other.”

In 1948, the United States called for a United Nation-sponsored vote for all Koreans to determine the future of the peninsula. After the North refused to participate, the South formed its own government in Seoul, led by the strongly anti-communist Syngman Rhee.

The North responded in kind, installing the former communist guerrilla Kim Il Sung as the first premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the capital of Pyongyang.

Syngman Rhee, President of Korea, meeting with General Matthew B. Ridgway. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

A nationalist and a Christian, Syngman Rhee formed a Korean exile government during the Japanese occupation. In 1948 Rhee was elected president of South Korea, and he served in the position from 1948-1960.

President, Korean Provisional Government, 1919-1939 President, South Korean republic, 1948-1960

Born on April 26, 1875, in Whanghai Province, Korea, into a family with ties to a long line of dynastic Korean rulers, Rhee completed a traditional, classical Confucian education before entering an American Methodist mission school. He soon became politically active as a nationalist and member of the Independence Club. He was imprisoned in 1897 for leading demonstrations against the Korean monarchy. At this time, Rhee also became a Christian. Upon his release from prison in 1904, Rhee traveled to the United States, where he obtained, among other degrees, a Ph.D. from Princeton. After six years in the United States, he returned to Korea, now under Japanese rule. His political views and activities soon clashed with the Japanese occupiers, and in 1912 he left again.

In 1919 he was elected president of the Korean Provisional Government in exile, a post he held for 20 years. In 1945 he returned to Korea, now divided into Soviet and U.S. zones of occupation. In 1948, Rhee was elected president of the newly founded South Korean republic. He led a feeble state, beset by economic problems, army mutiny, government infighting and, most of all, a bitter rivalry with North Korea. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops, aided by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Thanks to the assembly of a U.S.-led U.N. army, Rhee’s regime survived. Rhee strongly advocated that the U.N. forces unify his country militarily. However, his allies had more limited goals, causing Rhee to undermine cease-fire talks by unilaterally liberating some 8,000 North Korean prisoners of war in 1953. In spite of Rhee’s opposition, a truce went into effect on July 27, 1953.

After the war, Rhee allowed himself to be isolated from events by a small circle of advisers. Because his government was corrupt and intolerant of opponents, particularly from the left, he did not succeed in bringing stability to his country. He was re-elected in 1956 and won another victory in 1960, supposedly with 90 percent of the vote. However, by this time popular resentment of his autocratic regime was giving rise to widespread anti-government demonstrations and civil disorder. In April the unrest culminated in the so-called Student Revolution, which forced his resignation. Rhee went into voluntary exile in Hawaii, where he died in Honolulu on July 19, 1965 at age 90.

Only two years after its National Assembly had adopted a constitution, the Republic of (South) Korea (ROK) held its second general election in May 1950. Politically, the unstable situation created by widespread communist activities, and aggravated by partisan bitterness and violence, did not prevent the full and free campaigning that preceded the election, which resulted in an overwhelming victory not for President Syngman Rhee or his political opposition, but for democracy. More than 85 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. The election gave 56 seats in the national assembly to the government party of Rhee, 26 to members of the Democratic Nationalist party and other opposition parties, and 128 to independents. This clearly was an expression of the people’s lack of confidence in the government and the existing political parties. Rhee’s authoritarian hold on Korean politics was being called into serious question.

Rhee, the first president of South Korea, was born in 1875, completed a traditional classical education fitting his noble family heritage, and then entered a Methodist school where he learned English. He became an ardent nationalist and ultimately a Christian in 1896, he joined with other Korean leaders to form the Independence Club, a group dedicated to Korean independence. When pro-Japanese elements destroyed the club in 1898, Rhee was arrested and imprisoned until 1904. Upon his release, he went to the United States, where in 1910, he received a Ph.D. from Princeton — the first Korean to earn a doctorate. He returned home in 1910, the same year Korea was annexed by Japan. He spent the next 30 years as a spokesman for Korean independence, and in 1919 was elected president of the “Korean Provisional Government” in exile in Washington, D.C. Rhee became the best known Korean leader during World War II and campaigned vigorously for a policy of immediate independence and unification of the Korean Peninsula. He soon built up a mass political organization supported by strong-arm squads. With the assassination of major moderate leaders, Rhee’s new party won South Korea’s first elections, and he became president in 1948. But political instability and ominous signals from Kim Il Sung’s regime in North Korea had made the whole Korean Peninsula a tinderbox of the Cold War.

On June 25, 1950, North Korea launched an overwhelming and sudden attack across the 38th parallel. The understrength and poorly equipped ROK 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 (UNC) was established. Troops from 15 countries—including the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia, the Philippines and Turkey—arrived in Korea to fight side by side with the ROK Army under the United Nations flag.

From Taejon, where Rhee’s government had fled in the face of communist infantrymen and tanks, South Koreans were exhorted by their leaders to drive out the invaders, but to no avail. Seoul fell on June 28, and South Korean troops straggled in retreat across the Han River bridges. Those members of Rhee’s government who had reached Taejon soon moved to Pusan, but after a week they relocated to Taegu to stay closer to the front. Rhee initially had vehemently resisted the advice of his aides and the American ambassador to relocate the government to Pusan, preferring to meet death at the hands of the enemy rather than to lead a government in exile. If he was to die, he had declared, it would be on the soil of his native land. Rhee later recanted once he came to realize the grave political implications should he fall into the hands of the North Koreans. One thing was certain: The invasion had brought a respite in Rhee’s political wars politics were put aside, if only for as long as it took to ascertain the South’s ability to retain a toehold on the Korean Peninsula, along the Pusan Perimeter.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, General Douglas MacArthur decided on a bold stroke: an amphibious landing at Inchon, about 18 miles west of Seoul, followed by a two-pronged attack against the communist armies in southern Korea. The success of the Inchon landing on Sept. 15–16, ushered in a new phase of the war. Following the retaking of Seoul by the UNC X Corps on Sept. 28, MacArthur and Rhee made a triumphal entry, driving by motorcade to the gutted capitol building. Rhee sensed victory within his grasp, and he lobbied for an all-out drive to annihilate the North Korean armed forces and liberate the communist North. On Oct. 7, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution permitting punitive action against North Korea and calling for the unification of the Peninsula. With shouts of “On to the Yalu,” ROK troops poured across the 38th parallel. To the aged Rhee, a lifelong objective appeared in sight.

Rhee Seeks to Unify Korea

Rhee moved to capitalize on the U.N. advance across the parallel. As president, he believed it fell to him to appoint provisional governors in the Republic of Korea he now began also to appoint governors to rule in his name over liberated areas of the North. But the United Nations ruled that his government had no authority north of the 38th parallel, and the General Assembly decreed that the government of a united Korea should be determined by U.N.-supervised elections throughout the country. Rhee bitterly opposed this ruling on the grounds that the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea had already been certified by a U.N. commission in 1948. Liberated areas of North Korea were nonetheless kept under military administration in accordance with the U.N. directive.

Early in the war, Rhee effectively gave Truman an ultimatum. Much as he might wish that Truman would accept his views and make American policy coincide with Korean policy, Rhee intended to pursue what he felt the welfare of his country demanded. Rhee declared: “The government and people of the Republic of Korea consider this is the time to unify Korea, and for anything less than unification to come out of these great sacrifices of Koreans and their powerful allies would be unthinkable. The Korean government would consider as without binding effect any future agreement or understanding made regarding Korea by other states without the consent and approval of the government of the Republic of Korea.”

Catastrophe confronted Rhee and his government in November when thousands of communist Chinese troops eviscerated four South Korean divisions near the Chongchon River, and again in November when Chinese forces repulsed a new U.N. offensive. The ominous shadows threatening Seoul on Christmas 1950, finally enveloped the ravaged city as the new year dawned, and on Jan. 4, 1951, communist forces once again occupied the South Korean capital. As both MacArthur and Rhee noted, it was a new war.

As early as January 1951, Rhee was developing long-range plans for establishment of a Korean–American Society—an idea he hoped would produce major results in building friendship and understanding. Looking beyond the war to measures needed to ensure future security, Rhee noted that Korea’s “national existence depends partly on international agreement for common security, and partly on our own military preparations, so that no neighbor can be tempted to make Korea an easy prey.” But his political clashes with Truman gradually became more personal in nature, until a wedge had been firmly driven between the two wartime allies. Enmity as much as cooperation would soon characterize the relationship between the Truman and Rhee administrations, and hopes for warmer U.S.–ROK relations remained pinned to Truman’s perceptions of U.S. security interests in East Asia.

Rhee’s Presidency Threatened

As a war of stalemate dragged on through the spring and summer of 1951, Rhee’s political wars heated up. With his term as president due to expire soon, Rhee’s opponents—who dominated the National Assembly—were determined to overthrow him in the 1952 election, and they found many instances of corruption and malfeasance with which to attack the administration. One such scandal which threatened to undo Rhee involved the National Defense Corps (N.D.C.). The N.D.C. had been an amalgamation of various strong-arm “youth groups” which had been organized as a military unit just before the war. But when the corps actually had to be activated for combat, certain disturbing facts came to light. Those survivors who straggled south in the second evacuation of Seoul were in rags, and many suffered from extreme malnutrition. They brought back stories of nonexistent supplies and leadership. An investigation later revealed that the N.D.C. commander, a son-in-law of Rhee’s defense minister, had embezzled funds allocated for the N.D.C.’s food, clothing and equipment—including rifles and ammunition.

Another scandal which rocked the Rhee administration was the Kochang massacre. In the course of an anti-guerrilla campaign in February 1951, a ROK Army detachment lost contact with a group of guerrillas near the village of Kochang. Furious, the South Korean commander accused the villagers of harboring the fugitives. After herding the inhabitants into a schoolyard, he ordered all 200 of the men of the village shot. Attempts by the National Assembly to investigate stories of the massacre were thwarted by Colonel “Tiger” Kim, a favorite of Rhee’s whom the president later appointed director of the national police.

In his campaign to secure re-election, Rhee had two basic alternatives. One was to operate within the existing constitutional structure under which the president was elected by the Assembly, but to bring such pressure to bear on the legislature that it would be forced to accept him for a second term. Such a course relied heavily on Rhee’s control of the Army and the vulnerability of many opposition legislators to bribes. But it in no way checked the constitutional prerogatives of the assembly. In the end, Rhee determined on a frontal assault against the Assembly, one which would neutralize it as a rival to the executive. In a series of speeches in the spring of 1952, Rhee equated his enemies in the assembly with the enemy in the communist North: both were out to destroy him, and thus to destroy free Korea. Rhee’s cronies organized “spontaneous” demonstrations calling for the re-election of Rhee and for the selection of Lee Bum-suk, the new home minister, as his running mate.

On May 25, Rhee and Lee re-imposed martial law in Pusan, ostensibly as an anti-guerrilla measure. When the Assembly voted 96 to 3 (with numerous abstentions) to lift martial law, Rhee ordered the arrest of 47 assemblymen by ROK Army police and announced that “far-reaching communist connections have been uncovered, and authorities are taking steps to make a thorough investigation.” He continued to wield the powers of his office as though the legislature did not exist. The political war between the president and the Assembly escalated, with more arrests of assemblymen and more charges of a communist conspiracy to depose Rhee and bring about unification negotiations with Kim II Sung’s North Korean regime. While continuing to insist publicly that he was not a candidate for re-election, he flayed the National Assembly for having “betrayed the will of the people” and began to orchestrate his final maneuver against the assembly.

By June 23, 1952, Rhee had broken his opponents in the assembly, many of whom remained in hiding to avoid political arrest. By a vote of 61 to 0, the National Assembly extended Rhee in office “until the dispute is resolved,” which, of course, was past the date of the scheduled election. Rhee’s idea of resolving the crisis was to stage an assassination attempt against himself, whip up anti-communist hysteria, and — making full use of the strong-arm tactics of Lee Bum-suk and martial law commander Won Yong-duk — to browbeat the assembly. Finally, on July 5, with the entire assembly under virtual house arrest, by a vote of 163 to 0 (with 3 abstentions), it amended the constitution to allow for popular election of the president and for an upper house. Once his amendments were passed, Rhee’s re-election was a foregone conclusion.

Rhee Attacks Peace Proceedings

In April 1953, Rhee calculated how best to use his considerable influence to block an armistice which now seemed close. The ROK ambassador in Washington informed the United States that South Korea would withdraw its forces from the U.N. Command if the allies agreed to any armistice which permitted Chinese communist troops to remain on Korean soil. Within a month, the U.S. had countered by offering an attractive package: In return for Rhee’s compliance with an armistice, and retention of the ROK Army within the U.N. Command, the United States would build up the South Korean Army to 20 divisions and provide the equivalent of $1 billion for rehabilitating South Korea. Rhee rejected the offer out of hand, saying: “Your threats have no effect upon me. We want to live. We want to survive. We will decide our own fate.”

Rhee had another trump card to play, and he did, much to the chagrin of the United States and the U.N. Command. Since ROK troops manned two-thirds of the front, a sudden decision to remove them from the U.N. Command would be a nightmare. Rhee hinted he might even ignore an armistice and continue to fight. But, it turned out, Rhee ordered ROK guards to release 27,000 nonrepatriates from their compounds, hoping that his POW release would create such turmoil and recriminations at Panmunjom that the truce talks would be broken off indefinitely. The whole incident was an open gesture of defiance which publicly flouted General Mark W. Clark’s authority and demonstrated that Rhee’s wishes could be ignored only at the peril of his allies. Since the Articles of Armistice had already been finalized, Rhee’s prisoner release was a bombshell. The communists raised questions about the U.N. Command’s ability to control Rhee and the ROK government. But the communists were so eager to have a truce, even with the division of Korea reaffirmed, that they contented themselves with ritual denunciations of Rhee and the U.N. Command. The U.N. was so eager to have a truce that it joined the enemy in denouncing Rhee’s action, and both sides agreed that the armistice talks would continue. The most extreme action Rhee could devise to prevent the continued division of his nation had failed. But neither his own people nor the governments of the world could doubt that he had done his best, short of military adventurism, to avert an armistice. On July 10, 1953, the truce talks resumed. The last act in this tragic drama of war was ready to unfold.

Infuriated by Rhee’s “stab in the back,” as Clark called it, Washington dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Walter Robertson to Seoul to persuade Rhee to accept an armistice. For more than two weeks, Rhee and Robertson held bargaining sessions almost daily. Finally, on July 12, Robertson flew to Tokyo with a letter from Rhee to President Dwight D. Eisenhower agreeing not to obstruct an Armistice. Rhee’s letter to Eisenhower agreeing to a cease-fire was his only substantive concession. In return, Rhee obtained the promise of an ROK-U.S. mutual security treaty, a lump-sum payment of $200 million as the first installment of a long-term economic aid program and expansion of the ROK Army to 20 divisions.

On July 27, 1953, one of the 20th century’s most vicious and frustrating wars came to a close with the signing of an Armistice at Panmunjom. The signing on Aug. 8, 1953, of a mutual security treaty between the ROK and the United States was the culmination of a lifelong ambition, an event which allowed a bitter 78-year-old man to recall with some satisfaction how, nearly fifty years before, he had traveled to the United States to plead in vain for American protection against the Japanese. Rhee made the signing the occasion for a discourse on Korean history: “Korea has been considered as a weak, minor country, helplessly situated among powerful nations and yet rich in natural resources, thereby attracting many an aggressive power to covet the land. Throughout history Korea has been regarded as a no-man’s land whose independence, neighboring powers assumed, is unavoidably dependent on one of the big powers…. Following Japan’s failure to conquer the whole world, the Allied nations brought up a decision made by themselves which finally caused the tragic division of Korea, north and south. Nevertheless, the united effort of our people, the patriotism of our youth, and the assistance from friendly nations all contributed to developing our armed forces. Now that a defense treaty has been signed between Korea and the United States, our posterity will enjoy the benefits accruing from the treaty for generations to come.”

Did Koreans prefer to live under Syngman Rhee or Kim-il-Sung?

According to OSS/CIA historian Bill Streifer the Russians were asked by the US Army at the Potsdam conference in 1945 to declare war on Japan & specifically to occupy KOREA down to the 38TH Parallel.
During Japanese occupation, in 1919 the Korean people who were seething with indignation at the suspicious death of their Gojong Emperor, rose in protest with a declaration of Independence, called March 1st movement of 1919. This movement Elected a government in exile which formed itself in Shanghai. From as early as 1897 Syngman Rhee had been sent to assasinate the Gojon Emperor for the US Government in retribution for the torching of a US gunboat USS Sherman. An incident which sparked the US invasion of KOREA in 1871

Syngman Rhee failed in his attempt to kill the Korean Emperor IN 1897. At that time the Korean Gojong Emperor was sheltering under Russian protection, Ree was freed from Russian captivity at Port Arthur in 1804 . By 1925 IT became widely known that Rhee tried to assassinate the Emperor acting as a missionary spy for the Americans, so Rhee was ejected by the Government in Exile. by 1945 the March 1st Independence Movement elected LYUH Woon as Korea's President

After WW2 THE United Nations declared KOREA to be a UN Trusteeship annulling the Korean postwar election. General MacArthur appointed Rhee to lead the commission for organising UN elections. Rhee promptly had Lyuh Woon Hyung placed under house arrest and then had Lyuh Woon Hyung assassinated.
During 1948 the people of what later became South Korea protested against Rhree, rose in spontaneous protest against Rhee & UN elections

Rhee suppressed protests with massacres by death squads

IT is self evident Koreans despised Syngman Rhee whose leadership was imposed upon them by foreigners

This collection features documents from the Syngman Rhee Institute at Yonsei University and features correspondence and documents from the presidential papers of former South Korean president Syngman Rhee. See also Anti-Communist Asia.

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Letter, General James A. Van Fleet to Syngman Rhee

General James A. Van Fleet shows willingness to accept a position such as Ambassador in South Korea if it is offered. He also recommends General Christenberry as a executive director.

Article, Congressman Paul W. Shafer's Resolution

Congressman Shafer introduced a resolution criticizing the current "monopolistic government ownership" Korean economic situation.

Cable, General James A. Van Fleet to Syngman Rhee

Birthday greeting from General James A. Van Fleet to Syngman Rhee

Letter, James C. Cross to Yu Chang Jun, Secretary to the President

Clearance has been arranged for Archbishop Paul Yupin's entry to Korea.

Letter, Chang Jun Yu to Colonel James C. Cross

Chang Jun Yu, Secretary of the President, sends a letter congratulating General E. E. Partridge on his promotion.

Letter, General E. E. Partridge to Syngman Rhee

General E.E.Partridge, Commander of United Stated Air Forces, thanks Syngman Rhee for the telegram on the occasion of his promotion.

Letter, General Maxwell D. Taylor to Francesca Donner Rhee

General Maxwell D. Taylor relays an invitation from General Hull for a dinner in Syngman Rhee's honor.

Letter, Maxwell D. Taylor to Baek Du-jin, Prime Minister of ROK

Taylor acknowledges the Prime Minister's letter concerning Seoul property used by the Eighth Army and UN Forces.

Letter, Lt Col James C. Cross to Gail Rowe

Responding to Sue L. Virgil's letter to Syngman Rhee, James C. Cross informs her that a Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to the 40th US Infantry Division.

Letter, Syngman Rhee to General James A. Van Fleet

Syngman Rhee suggests General James A. Van Fleet come to South Korea as an ambassador or economic coordinator. He also writes concerning defense forces in South Korea.

Letter, General Maxwell D.Taylor to Syngman Rhee

General Maxwell D.Taylor sends a thank you letter to Syngman Rhee.

Letter, General Maxwell D. Taylor to Baek Du-jin, the Prime minister of ROK

General Maxwell D. Taylor responds to the Prime Minister's concerns about continued UN occupation of property needed by the civilian populace of Seoul.

Letter, General Maxwell D. Taylor to Syngman Rhee

General Maxwell D. Taylor reports on repair work to the Han River Hi-level Bridge.

Cable, from John W. Staggers to Representatives and Senators

John W. Staggers cables a number of US congressmen reporting a "dangerous misstatement" about the Korean economic position in a resolution related to the Private Enterprise Plan.

Letter, Yu Chang Jun, the Secretary of the President to Mrs. H. Duehaney

Chang Jun Yu, Secretary of the President, suggests Mrs. Duehaney could contact the office of the Army to ask her son's rank, serial number, and organization. It is needed for awarding the Unit Citation Badge.

Letter, Chang Jun Yu to the Colonel James C. Cross

Clearance request for Charles Burton, a Representative of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Letter, James H. R. Cromwell to Syngman Rhee

James Cromwell responds with concern to Syngman Rhee's radiogram regarding the resolution supporting the Private Enterprise Plan.

Letter, James E. Waddell to James Cromwell

James Cromwell's legal counselor, James E. Waddell assesses Resolution No. 219.

Letter, James E. Waddell to James H. R. Cromwell

James Cromwell's law counselor, James Waddel, regarding the effects of the proposed Private Enterprise Plan.

Memorandum Addressed to Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Forces Regarding General Van Fleet's Visit

For the survey of military assistance programs in the Far East, General Van Fleet will visit Korea. It is requested that an officer from each department designated by the respective secretary be appointed to accompany this mission to serve as an advisor.

Rhee Syngman, First President of the Republic of Korea

Rhee Syngman (Yi Seung Man) was born into a rural family on March 26 (Lunar calendar), 1875 in Hwanghae Province. Rhee’s family came from the lineage of King Taejong of Joseon—he was a 16th-generation descendant of Grand Prince Yangnyeong—a fact that Rhee proudly disclosed during his time in America. In Seoul, he received a traditional Confucian education and was a potential candidate for gwageo, the notoriously difficult Korean civil service examination. In 1894, Rhee enrolled in the Pai Chai Academy, an American Methodist school where he received western education and converted to Christianity. During his time at Pai Chai, he became a zealous nationalist and in 1896, joined the Independence Club, which consisted of a group of dedicated young men who organized protests against the Japanese and Russian Empires.

In 1897, Rhee was implicated in a plot to remove King Kojong from power, and as a result Rhee was arrested and imprisoned until 1904. [1] During his time in prison, he complied the Sino-Japanese War Record and the New English-Korean Dictionary. [2] At the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904, Rhee was released from prison. He sought refuge in the home of Henry Gerhard Appenzeller, a Methodist missionary and the founder of Pai Chai Academy where Rhee studied as a child. [3]

Rhee had a positive reputation among North American missionaries due to his academic ability and strong character. In particular, James Scarth Gale, Canadian Presbyterian missionary, recommended that Rhee study abroad in order to become a prominent political leader. In November 1905, with the help of American missionaries such as Horace Allen, George Herbert Jones, and James Scarth Gale, Rhee immigrated to America.

The ship landed on Honolulu port, with majority of the people on the ship recruited as laborers for pineapple and sugar plantations. Rhee was part of the first wave of immigrants and international students who had come to Hawaii to escape the turbulent political atmosphere of Korea. [4] Some of the notable political figures who escaped Korea with Rhee included An Chang Ho and Pak Yong Man. [5]

Rhee graduated from George Washington University in Washington D.C. in 1907 with a Bachelor of Arts and continued to pursue his education at Harvard University. On July 1907, Rhee wrote a bold letter to the dean of Harvard University asking to accept him as a doctorate student. He wrote, “The reason I am applying to Harvard University is because I believe it would be the springboard on which I can build my political career. George Washington University offered that they could give me a doctorate in two years. Please consider my precarious condition as a political refugee and grant me a doctorate degree in two years.” Although the answer from Harvard was negative, Rhee was able to successfully complete his Masters degree at Harvard in one year. [6]

Soon after his graduation in 1908, he was elected as the chairman of the International Korean Conference, where a group of Korean nationalists gathered to share their political perspectives. He obtained a doctorate from Princeton University in 1910, becoming the first Korean to receive a doctorate from an American university. [7] Rhee returned to Korea in 1910, the year Korea was annexed by Japan. However, his time in the motherland was short-lived. After briefly serving as the president of Korean YMCA, he went back to Hawaii and spent the next thirty-two years traveling globally as a mouthpiece for Korean independence. [8] He served as the president of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG), and played a crucial role during the 1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress, mobilizing American support for the Korean independence movement. Rhee’s old friend from Harvard, Yang Yuchan, helped establish the Boston chapter of the League of Friends of Korea on January 11, 1920.

After World War II, Rhee finally returned to Korea and actively campaigned for the immediate independence and unification of the country. In 1948, he became the first president of the Republic of Korea, a post that lasted until 1960. During his presidency, he purged the National Assembly members who opposed his dictatorship and executed the leader Cho Bong Am for treason. In April 27, 1960, His presidency terminated in resignation, and after the April 19th Revolt, he was exiled to Honolulu, Hawaii and spent the rest of his life there until his death in 1965.

[1] Breen, Michael (April 18, 2010). “Fall of Korea’s First President Syngman Rhee in 1960”. The Korea Times.

[2] Lee, Chong-Sik. Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical. Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 2001.

[3] The New England Centennial Committee of Korean Immigration to the United States. History of Koreans in New England. Seoul, Korea: Seon-Hak Publishing, 2004.

[4] Patterson, Wayne. The Korean Frontiers in America: Immigration to Hawaii, 1896-1910. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

[5] History of Koreans in New England, 31.

[7] [Rhee Syngman]. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture. Academy of Korean Studies.

[8] Rhee, Syngman. The Spirit of Independence: A Primer of Korean Modernization and Reform. Translated by Han-Kyo Kim. Honolulu : Seoul, Korea: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Left, Right, and Rhee

The political views of South Korea's first president betrayed the left-right spectrum. According to David Fields, this means that the Korean War's origins are even more complicated than commonly thought.

The complicated political views of South Korea’s first president reveal the tangled origins of the Korean War

In the pantheon of authoritarian strongmen the United States supported during the Cold War, it is tempting to think of Syngman Rhee as the one we know the best. Prior to his return to Korea in 1945—courtesy of a War Department transport plane—Rhee spent nearly forty years in the United States. He earned degrees from Harvard and Princeton, spoke English fluently, and was a dedicated Christian to boot. He seemed tailor-made for the task of “righting” a newly liberated Korea that was lurching to the left.

But beneath the weathered façade of one of the Cold War’s more virulent anti-communists was a man whose political views and policies cannot simply be labeled as right-wing. Many of Rhee’s writings and policies reveal a pragmatic, non-ideological man, who could just as easily be placed on the left of the political spectrum as on the right, especially in the realm of economic policy.

More than a few Americans would discover that underneath Rhee’s hard anti-communist shell lay a pink core. American experts examining the first constitution of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1948 commented on how it essentially created a socialist state. A United Nations report compiled pre-Korean War (but published in 1951) on foreign investment in the ROK made grim reading for international capitalists. Nationalizations were rife and the remittance of profits was at the discretion of the finance minister.

The State Department and American businessmen waited in vain for Rhee’s administration to pass legislation creating legal protections for foreign direct investment in the ROK. Such legislation would not be passed until two years after Rhee’s forced resignation. Dismayed US Congressmen tried twice in 1954 to pass legislation that would have prevented aid to Korea from being used to “continue the present socialized status” of the Korean economy.

Knowing that Rhee’s politics cannot be mapped easily on a left-right spectrum is crucial to understanding the tangled origins of the Korean War. For too long, the dominate narrative of the origins of the Korean War has been that the United States foisted a reactionary regime of collaborators on a newly liberated population looking for radical change. The notion that Rhee was “installed” by the United States appears regularly in literature on Korea written by scholars who are not specialists in this period.

Far from being installed by the Americans, Rhee began alienating the American military government in Korea almost as soon as he arrived. He attacked the policy of trusteeship for Korea and demanded nothing less than immediate independence. This infuriated American General John R. Hodge, but endeared him to the majority of Koreans who viewed trusteeship as a continuation of colonialism under a different guise.

Although Rhee had no qualms about accepting money from wealthy and landed Koreans, some of whom were collaborators, he was never beholden to them. Such individuals were key supporters of Rhee during the American occupation, but he refused to include even one of them in his first cabinet and then executed a sweeping land reform over their objections and the objections of their party, the Korea Democratic Party.

Rhee’s land reform, which began in 1950, but was not completed for many years because of the Korean War, is probably the most important legacy of his administration, and also the one that is least remembered. In 1945, two-thirds of arable land in Korea was owned by just 3 percent of the population and 80 percent of rural Koreans owned no land at all. By 1957, war and land reform had nearly reversed that statistic: 88 percent of rural Koreans owned land.

By providing rural Koreans with a modicum of social security, Rhee earned a broad base of support that no external power could have given him. Land reform was Rhee’s proof that he was not a reactionary, even as he carried out a campaign of extermination against communists.

My purpose in arguing that Rhee’s political ideas were left-of-center is not to rehabilitate him or absolve the United States of responsibility for its many mistakes in Korea. It is important to be critical, but to be critical for the right reasons. Rhee was a deeply flawed leader for many reasons being a reactionary was not one of them.

Likewise, American policy in Korea lurched from disaster to catastrophe, but not because it was committed to imposing a right-wing, capitalist ideology on Korea. Most of the mistakes of the American military government in Korea—starting from initial announcement that Japanese colonial officials would be retained—spawned from the hasty decision to embark on a major occupation without much of a plan.

Unware of why they were in Korea in the first place, American policymakers were eager to leave, and reluctant to give any assurances to the Koreans that they would return, even in the event of communist aggression. Rhee spent his first two years as president begging for reassurance that the United States would defend the ROK from external aggression. Had he received it, the whole history of the Cold War might be different. Stalin was only willing to approve Kim Il Sung’s invasion once he was convinced that the United States did not intend to intervene.

These and many other flaws become apparent when we acknowledge the limits of imposing a left-right paradigm on post-liberation Korea. As those on the ground in the CIA and the State Department observed, and as historians such as Allan Millett have argued, virtually all Koreans in post-liberation period where leftist. They all supported sweeping land reform, the nationalization of industries, a large centralized state, and a robust social safety net. While Korean society was certainly leaning to the left, it was also deeply divided. Setting aside the left-right paradigm allows other, more fundamental, divisions to come into relief.

The more scholars acknowledge the shortcomings of the left-right paradigm in Korea and find their own paths through the various archives of post-liberation Korea and the Korean War, the richer our understanding will become. An under-utilized resource for this period are the Papers of Syngman Rhee housed at Yonsei University, in Seoul, South Korea. Despite being over 100,000 pages and mostly in English, this collection has seen shockingly little use. It was while working in this collection and editing Rhee’s diary that I became aware of Rhee’s left-of-center associates, policies, and writings. Surely many more discoveries await researchers there.

V. The war’s costs, hidden dirty secrets, and legacies

The Korean War was replete with atrocities undertaken in violation of the Geneva Convention and international laws of war, which the U.S. ironically had been instrumental in establishing (four Geneva conventions of 1949). Because of the climate of the Cold War and continued North-South division, a proper accounting and reckoning never took place, and many Koreans never were able to obtain justice for unlawful killings of their loved ones. With the opening of new archival records, new scholarship, and establishment of South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we can begin to discern the full truth about the human horrors that occurred and also examine some of the war’s most controversial aspects such as the treatment of POWs and allegations about chemical and biological warfare.

South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and atrocities in the war

Cover of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, 2010

In the early 2000s, however, following the country’s democratic revolution, Prime Minister Kim Dae-Jung, a leader of the Kwangju uprising in 1980, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to investigate incidents regarding human rights abuses, violence, and massacres” that occurred from the era of Japanese colonization through the end of authoritarian rule, focusing especially on the years of the Korean War. Staffed by 240 people with an annual budget of $19 million, the commission conducted its investigations from December 2005 to December 2010. The investigators literally unearthed suppressed details of massacres, digging up unmarked graves. Of the thousands of petitions it received for investigation of wartime massacres, 82% identified the perpetrators as South Korean government agents “the police, the armed forces, or groups associated with the state,” as compared to 18 percent focusing on “enemies of the state,” meaning North Korean soldiers and communist agents.

Slaughter of South Korean prisoners at Taejon by North Koreans

North Korean soldiers subsequently massacred rightist prisoners in the same city (Taejon), in retribution, committing “bestial atrocities” according to a U.S. investigative report.[216] The North Koreans committed some of their worst atrocities while fleeing north following the Inchon landing and U.S.-UN “liberation” of Seoul. On September 26, according to a U.S. Army investigation, KPA soldiers drove South Korean sympathizers into the horizontal shaft of a gold mine in the Haegu area and dropped them down a vertical shaft where they were left to die. Hundreds of others were buried alive at the airport or lined up in a railroad train station and shot. U.S. POWs were taken on a two week “horror hike” up to Pyongyang where prisoners who could not keep up were summarily executed.[217]

No Gun Ri Peace Park Memorial

American soldiers in both the North and South took body parts as trophies and, in at least one documented case, affixed Chinese skulls to spikes on the forward sponsors of their tanks, as T.R. Ferhrenbach reported in his book This Kind of War. Ambassador John Muccio, via Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk, gave the order to use lethal force against refugees who blocked U.S. tanks or had the potential of fomenting insurrections in UN controlled zones. This resulted in numerous killings, including a massacre at No Gun Ri in late July 1950, where up to three hundred refugees, including women and children, were strafed and killed by U.S. planes and shot by members of the Seventh Cavalry, George Custer’s old outfit, after being forced into an eighty foot long underpass. Norm Tinkler, a nineteen year old machine gunner who participated in the massacre, said, “we just annihilated them, it was like an Indian raid back in the old days.”[224]

Dirty little secrets: Mistreatment of prisoners of war

North Korean prisoners of war

Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who reviewed interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques were designed to “extort false confessions.” And that the methods used were similar to that that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They did nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.” The CIA helped fuel the flames of public passion on the issue by subsidizing the publication of Edward Hunter’s Brainwashing in Red China (1951). The agency also began mind-control experiments of its own. As former CIA director Richard Helms explained to journalist David Frost 25 years after the war, “We felt that it was our responsibility not to lag behind the Russians or the Chinese in this field, and the only way to find out what the risks were was to test things such as L.S.D. and other drugs that could be used to control human behavior. These experiments went on for many years.”

To relieve stress, some American POWs smoked marijuana and even cultivated marijuana gardens while in captivity. With time, conditions may have eased in some camps and recreational sport was allowed. Robert Olaf Erricker, a British POW who had served with the Royal Irish Hussars, recalled playing sports and having camp Olympics and smoking marijuana that was found up in the hills. Edward George Beckerley, a World War II veteran and socialist found some of the lectures interesting and said that he and his comrades did not feel much animosity towards the Chinese or the same hate as towards the Germans. His feeling was that “this was a war we shouldn’t have been in.” Twenty one Americans and one Briton remained in North Korea or China after the war. They included Clarence Adams, an African American from Tennessee who went on to make propaganda broadcasts for Radio Hanoi and was subpoenaed by the House of un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) upon his return, and James Veneris, who took the communist name “Lao Wen” worked in a steel mill and participated in the Great Leap Forward. The Briton, Andrew Condon, proclaimed later that he had “made [his] gesture because he was “against war. I have spent my years in China learning a lot.”

Chinese and North Korean POWs at a UN Command prison

As horribly as American POWs were treated in captivity, General Matthew Ridgeway’s office acknowledged that more prisoners died in U.S.-UN camps than in the North Korean-Chinese camps. An estimated 6,600 enemy prisoners died in U.S.-UN camps by the end of 1951. Britain’s chief of the defense staff, Lord Carver, stated that “the UN prisoners in Chinese hands … were certainly much better off in every way than any held by the Americans.” Kim Sung Tae, a KPA fighter captured by the United States after the Inchon landing, told a reporter that “our life [in captivity] was nothing but misery and torture from the first days of our capture. We were beaten, starved, tortured and made to work like slaves [with many killed for acts of defiance]. We were treated worse than beasts.”[235]

Allegations of biological warfare

“The Horror, The Horror”: Korea’s Lieutenant Kurtz

In many ways, Nichols was a real-life version of Lieutenant Kurtz, a character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now, who had formed his own private army which engaged in wide-scale torture and eschewed all civilized norms. Harden writes in his book, King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea, that much like Kurtz, “Nichols was an uncontrollable commander in a faraway shadow land. He was a highly decorated U.S. Air Force Intelligence officer who ran his own secret war for more than a decade [in which he] lost touch with propriety, with morality, with legality – even with sanity if military psychiatrists are to be believed.”[245]

Nichols subsequently won a spot in the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) and became a police adviser in South Korea during the period of U.S. occupation. He began developing teams of secret agents who would infiltrate the South Korean Labor Party and identify threats of sabotage and “commy cells.” Through his work, Nichols developed a close friendship with South Korean leader Syngman Rhee and became one of his closest advisers.

Blaine Harden writes that, “in Nichols, Rhee discovered a back door for delivering intelligence that could influence American policy towards Korea. He referred to the young American as ‘my son Nichols.’” According to Air Force historian Michael Haas, the personal ties that Nichols maintained for more than a decade with a foreign head of state had no parallel in the history of U.S. military operations. Incredibly, one had to ask “what the hell is a twenty three year old air force sergeant doing in the role of private confidante to a head of state.”[246]

Nichols met weekly and supplied arms to Kim “Snake” Chang-ryong, a former Japanese military officer who served as Rhee’s right-hand man for anticommunist score-settling and vengeance. The “snake” was believed to have masterminded the execution of thousands of South Koreans, according to the findings of a later government inquiry. Nichols sat in on police torture sessions where the water torture method was employed and suspects were burned with lit cigarettes and wired to a wooden-cross and subjected to electroshocks. The capture and execution of senior communist leaders was often confirmed by cutting off their heads and sending them in gasoline cans to army headquarters in Seoul. A photo of Nichols shows him and several other army officers inspecting the heads in another, the head of a guerrilla leader was being pulled out of its box by the hair.

After the North Korean invasion of the South, Nichols witnessed the massacre of hundreds of South Koreans by the ROKA at Taejon. In his memoirs, he misstated where the massacre took place in order to uphold the official army narrative that blamed the killings on the communists an allegation reported uncritically in Roy Appleman’s official army history of the Korean War.[247]

Nichols earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest medal of honor, for helping to reverse the North Korean advance at Pusan and assisting in the Inchon landing by breaking North Korean communications code. He began running agents into North Korea who provided valuable information on Soviet aircraft jets (MIGs) and information that was used for the massive bombing and napalm attacks. Most of the South Korean agents, however, were being set up to be killed as their cover was easily blown. The CIA concluded that clandestine operations into the North were not only ineffective but also “morally reprehensible in that the number of lives lost and the amount of time and treasure expended was enormously disproportionate to attainments there from.”[248]

Some of the agents were POW defectors who had been tattooed with anticommunist slogans and had gone mad from the prolonged torture and agony of life in Koje-do prison camp. This combined with their ideological indoctrination resulted in a level of “fanaticism in combat,” according to historian Michael Haas, “seldom found in any army.” They were known to torture captured Communists sometimes in gruesome fashion and formed specialized suicide squads.[249]

A sexual predator later arrested for fondling young boys, Nichols is alleged to have been supplied with South Korean officers for his sexual pleasure. He killed three of his own agents who tried to assassinate him after they burst into his quarters in an apparent mutiny. Lee Kun Soon, who was shot by Nichols but survived, said Nichols was “headstrong and had a reputation that terrified many Koreans. He didn’t care for human rights.” In his autobiography, Nichols included a description of the methods he used to eliminate dangerous or untrustworthy agents which included throwing them out of an aircraft in a paper-packed parachute and dumping them off the back of a boat, in the nude, at high speed.” Better yet, he said, “give [them] false information plants – and let the enemy do it for you.”[250]

Nichols’ nephew stated that after he returned home from Korea, he had a huge amount of cash which he kept in his freezer. The money may have derived from currency manipulation schemes that were widely prevalent among army officers in Korea and the illicit selling of military equipment, though Nichols handled a lot of cash in running secret agents. In 1957, he was relieved of his command for undisclosed abuse of authority, and put in a straitjacket and admitted for psychiatric treatment. His nephew states that Donald told him “the government wanted to erase his brain – because he knew too much.”[251]

Nichols’ career embodies the immorality of the Korean War which gave men like him a “legal license to murder.” An Air Force historian concluded that “Nichols had a dark side. In wartime, he was the guy you want on your team. In peacetime, you lock him up.”[252] These comments epitomize why war should almost always be avoided, as it rewards those with psychopathic proclivities and brings out the darkest side of human nature.

Racism and class stratification in the U.S. Army

Clarence Adams, in a posthumously published memoir edited by his daughter, details how his black regiment was sacrificed by the army command to save white troops fleeing ambush by the Chinese. His all-black unit was ordered to turn their guns around and lay down cover fire, leaving them without protection. In another example of discrimination, Lt. Leon Gilbert of the 24 th Infantry regiment, who had won a combat infantry badge in Italy in World War II, was given the death penalty by an army court for failure to obey a command, a grossly unjust sentence unprecedented in army history. The offense occurred in the Kunchow-Taegu area when Lt. Gilbert had not slept for six days and was suffering from dysentery. He had been ordered to go beyond a roadblock on a suicide mission of no strategic utility, which he rationally refused to do.[254] The Gilbert case is another example that reflects on the persecution of black American soldiers at this time.

Canada’s and Great Britain’s Korean War

Legacies of the war

US-UN delegate Lt. Gen. William K. Harrison (seated left) and North Korean-Chinese delegate Gen. Nam Il (seated right) sign the armistice agreement on July 27, 1953

In the 1952 election cycle, public dissatisfaction with the war fell on the Democratic Truman administration, enabling Republicans to win 38 more seats in the House and 36 Senatorial contests as well as the presidency. After two years of war Americans had grown tired and frustrated, though their feelings did not translate into support for peace or anti-imperialist movements, and they failed to reckon with the wide-scale atrocities committed. Right-wing generals promoted an early variant of the “stab in the back” myth. General James Van Fleet wrote in Reader’s Digest in July 1953 that the military could have achieved total victory against the North Koreans and Chinese but was prevented from doing so by civilian policy-makers.[263] Remembered in this way, the generals used even greater levels of firepower in the next conflict fought under similar circumstances in Vietnam.

In February 1972, President Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong established a new detente, breaking down Cold War stereotypes

Across the Third World, China’s prestige was heightened by the Korean War because of its role in saving the Northern regime and standing up the United States. North Korea recovered its prewar levels of agricultural and industrial output by 1957 through the “superhuman efforts” of its population along with $1.6 billion in aid and technical assistance from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern bloc countries. Though warped by rigid authoritarianism, including a purging of rivals to the Kim dynasty, the northern economy was more advanced than that of the South until the late 1960s. Presenting itself as the vanguard of world revolution striving for a fair international economic order, the DPRK provided free schooling and medical services, welfare for war invalids and families of the fallen, and sanctioned women’s rights. Over the long term, however, North Korea developed into a militarized garrison state, in part because the Korean War never officially ended. [266] North Korea was in turn used by the United States to broadcast the failings of state socialism, with most media depictions failing to provide any commentary on how its political evolution was impacted by the war.[267]

In remarks given in Seoul on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, Obama waxed nostalgic about the gallantry of U.S. soldiers without mentioning the vast suffering of the civilian population including from intensive U.S. bombardment. Echoing George H.W. Bush a generation before, he said: “We can say with confidence that war was no tie. Korea was a victory. When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom – a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North – that’s a victory.” He went on: “For generations to come, history will recall how free nations banded together in a long Cold War, and how we won that war, let it be said that Korea was the first battle.”[276] If Korea was the first battle in the Cold War, it did not herald any great victories, however, since it actually ended in stalemate and divided and skewed the political-economic development of both Koreas. And most of the free nations were not actually free, including South Korea which was ruled by a dictatorship until a revolution from below in 1987.

Korea overall is a case study for showing the futility of war, as the war perpetuated rather than solved the countries’ problems and divisions. The horrendous violence and suffering directed against the Korean people was unconscionable, furthermore, and one can hope will never be repeated.

8. No permanent peace treaty has ever been signed.

The July 1953 armistice may have ended the war, but it has not led to a peace treaty between North and South Korea. The two sides are still separated by a heavily fortified 2.5-mile-wide demilitarized zone, and tensions remain high, particularly over the North’s fledgling nuclear weapons program. North Korea has also occasionally resorted to assassination attempts and border incursions, including a 2010 artillery attack against a South Korean island that left four dead. Though North Korea has pronounced the armistice nullified on several occasions, most recently this March, the United Nations holds that such action cannot be taken unilaterally.