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Rhee, Syngman

Born: 1875  Died: 1965
Occupation: president of South Korea
From: Dictators & Tyrants: Absolute Rulers and Would-Be Rulers in World History.

First president of the Republic of Korea—and re-elected to that office three times—Rhee assumed dictatorial powers over South Korea until forced to resign in 1960.

Born in Whanghae, Korea, on March 26, 1875, Syngman Rhee was educated in the classical Confucian manner, then enrolled in a Methodist school. He became both a Christian and an ardent nationalist, helping to found the Independence Club in 1896, an organization that agitated for Korean independence. In 1898, right-wing forces destroyed the club, and Rhee was arrested and imprisoned until 1904. On his release, he traveled to the United States, earning a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1910. That year he returned to Korea, which had just been annexed to Japan. Unable to disguise his hostility toward Japanese rule, he returned to the United States in 1912 and spent the next 30 years trying to win international support for Korean independence.

In 1919, following the independence uprising of March 1, Rhee was elected president of the Korean Provisional Government in Exile at Shanghai. Disagreements with other independence leaders led to his impeachment in 1925. Although he was officially replaced by Kim Ku, Rhee refused to recognize his authority and continued to work toward the goal of Korean independence. In 1940, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he spent the war years lobbying for U.S. recognition of an independent Korea. This was largely an uphill battle until Rhee convinced many in Washington that the Soviet Union opposed the provisional government. Seeing an anti-Communist ally, much of official Washington began to rally behind Rhee, so that, by the end of World War II, he had backing from conservative American politicians and the American occupation authorities.

Returning to Korea on October 16, 1945, he amassed great political influence and the muscle to enforce it. His strongarm squads—largely members of the police—intimidated or assassinated all opposition. When negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union over the reunification of the north and south occupied zones failed, Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in 1948. He was reelected in 1952, 1956, and 1960.

Rhee was president during the bitter and inconclusive war between North and South Korea, but even in the uneasy peace that preceded and followed the war, he tolerated no opposition to his programs. He outlawed the Progressive Party, which opposed him, and executed its leader. He assumed control of nearly every aspect of government, even on the local level, through his control over the appointment of village mayors and chiefs of police. He even attempted to wreck the United Nations peace talks during the Korean War by releasing prisoners of war in South Korea rather than returning them to North Korea as had been stipulated during the negotiations.

By 1960, South Koreans could no longer tolerate a leader who had sacrificed their freedom in a long campaign that was supposed to secure freedom and unification. Rhee's popular support rapidly decayed and, amid charges of election fraud, uprisings by students, and protests by the National Assembly, he resigned as president on April 27, 1960, and fled to Honolulu, where he lived in exile until his death on July 19, 1965.


Suggested Reading: Richard C. Allen. Korea's Syngman Rhee: An Unauthorized Portrait (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1960); Robert T. Oliver. Syngman Rhee: The Man Behind the Myth (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1954).

Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Axelrod, Alan, and Charles Phillips. "Rhee, Syngman." Dictators & Tyrants: Absolute Rulers and Would-Be Rulers in World History. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1995. Modern World History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE53&iPin=ffdict0434&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 1, 2016).

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