Syngman Rhee

gigatos | March 2, 2022


Lee Seung Man (also known in English as Syngman Rhee, March 26, 1875, Hwanghae-do, Korea – July 19, 1965, Honolulu, USA) was a South Korean statesman and politician, the first head of the Korean Provisional Government in exile and the first President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). His three presidential terms from August 1948 to April 1960 took place against the backdrop of the division of Korea into a pro-American South and a pro-Soviet North, the Korean War, and subsequent tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Lee Seung-Man was a hardline anti-communist and authoritarian ruler whose rule ended after mass protests caused by rigged election results. In 1949, he was awarded the Order of Merit for the Establishment of the State of Korea and the Grand Order of Mugunhwa.

He was born into a peasant family of modest means in Hwanghae-do Province, Kingdom of Korea. He was the youngest of five siblings, although his older brothers died prematurely. Mana”s family could trace their lineage back to King Taejong. When Seung Manu was two years old, the family moved to Seoul. Having received the traditional Korean education of the time, which consisted primarily of the study of classical Chinese literature, Lee Seung Man tried several times to pass the examination for entry into the civil service, but without success. When the traditional education system was abolished, he enrolled in the Paejae School, opened by an American missionary, where he learned English and contributed to the school newspaper, Maeil Sinmun, among other things.

In 1896 Lee Seung-man joined the political reform movement of the Independence Club. After the Japanese-Chinese War of 1894-1895, Korea fell under the protectorate of Japan. Lee Seung Man participated in the movement against Japanese domination of the Korean Peninsula, for which he was arrested and accused of participating in the January 9, 1899 mutiny. He unsuccessfully tried to escape, for which he was tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment. While imprisoned, Man read books smuggled in by his friends and diplomats. Lee Seung Man later said that he became a Christian while in prison and also initiated other inmates into the Bible. He also wrote newspaper columns and started a prison library (which eventually grew to 500 books). Furthermore, while in prison, Lee Seung Man began to write the political manifesto “Spirit of Independence.

After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Lee Seung-Man was released from prison. He later went to the United States. In December 1904 he was received by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and President Theodore Roosevelt, unsuccessfully asking the United States to guarantee Korea”s “complete independence” from becoming a colony of Japan From 1905 he studied at U.S. universities on missionary grants. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in 1907, became a Master of Arts from Harvard University in 1910, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University the same year. Lee Seung-Man”s research concerned politics, history, international relations, Christian theology, and law. It was then that he began to write his name in the Western manner, putting his first name before his last.

Lee Seung-man returned to Korea in late 1910 and became general secretary of the Young Men”s Christian Association (YMCA) in Seoul. That same year Japan annexed Korea and began to persecute local Christians. Lee Seung Man, after living in Korea for 15 months, left again for the United States under the pretext of attending a Methodist conference. In March 1912, he arrived in Hawaii, where he founded a Christian school for Korean immigrants and became involved in the local Korean-American community, which had greatly increased in number due to political unrest in the country.

On April 13, 1919, the March 1 Movement formed the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai, which was recognized by all major pro-independence forces in Korea. Lee Seung-Man was elected as the first president (head of government). In 1925, he was removed from office by the Provisional Assembly after being impeached for abusing his power.

After his retirement, Lee Seung-Man lived in the United States, in New York, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. In New York, he was involved in the Korean Methodist Church and Institute, an organization that played an important role both in the Korean diaspora in the United States and in the independence movement. He married for the second time in 1934 an Austrian woman, Franziska Donner, who followed him to the United States where she worked as a secretary to her husband, notably helping to prepare the book Japan Inside Out (1940).

After the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule, the United States refused to recognize the legitimacy of both the authorities of the People”s Republic of Korea, established in August 1945 with the consent of the Japanese authorities, and the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in exile. To manage the American zone of influence on the Korean Peninsula, the American Military Government in Korea, headed by Archibald Arnold, commander of the 7th Infantry Division, 24th Corps, was established on September 8. The U.S. administration was faced with a number of serious problems from the outset, with the result that as early as September 15, Merrell Benninghoff (the State Department political advisor to Lieutenant General Hodge, commander of the U.S. Army in Korea) described Korea in his reports to Washington as a powder cellar that could explode with the slightest spark. It became necessary to bring in people who were competent in Korean affairs and who could gain credibility among the population. The bet was placed on Lee Seung-Man.

Thanks to U.S. support, Lee Seung-man returned to Seoul before other Korean political émigrés. He and Kim Gyusik took part in the formation of an interim legislative body and an interim government in the south. From the very outset, Man and his supporters were committed to establishing an independent Korean state in the U.S. zone, free from the influence of the Communists and the Soviet Union, which he announced at a speech on June 3, 1946, in Jeonip County. In December 1946, Lee Seung-Man went to the United States to convince the American government that he was right. Thanks to the U.S. turn toward the Cold War, Man gains support for his idea and returns to Seoul in April 1947.

In 1948, the Parliament of the Republic of Korea nominated Kim Gu, President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, as the first president of the young state, but this election was won by a wide margin by Lee Seung-Man, the first president of the Provisional Government. Kim Gu also lost the election for vice president to Lee Si-young.

Both Lee Seung-Man and North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung made no secret of their intentions: both regimes sought to unify the peninsula under their rule. The constitutions of both Korean states, adopted in 1948, unambiguously declared that the goal of each of the two governments was to extend their authority over the entire country. By 1949, both Soviet and U.S. troops had withdrawn from Korean territory. The U.S. refused to provide heavy weapons to South Korea, while the USSR and the PRC continued to provide massive military assistance to North Korea, enabling the DPRK to rapidly build up its military strength. Thus, by early 1950, the Korean People”s Army outnumbered the armed forces of the Republic of Korea in all key components. Tensions between the two Koreas escalated, leading to massive riots and armed hostilities in South Korea and border clashes at the thirty-eighth parallel, in which some 100,000 people were killed.

On September 15, 1950, UN and South Korean troops began their offensive. Already on September 23, Seoul was repulsed. In October, the attackers reached the 38th parallel, after a series of battles crossed it and in the same month captured Pyongyang. Realizing that the defeat and elimination of the DPRK was imminent, the USSR and the PRC decided to enter the war. While the Soviet leadership limited itself to supplying weapons and sending its pilots and advisers to the front, Beijing decided to take a direct part in the fighting. On October 25, 1950, an offensive by the 270,000-strong “Chinese People”s Volunteer Force” under General Peng Dehui began, resulting in another turning point in the war. On December 5, the North Koreans, with the help of the Chinese, retook Pyongyang, and on January 4, 1951, they retook Seoul. The Americans eventually succeeded in stopping the Sino-North Korean offensive and then launched a counteroffensive. In mid-March, Seoul was returned to the control of the southern coalition.

In May 1951 the front finally stabilized. As a result, in the summer of 1951 the warring sides found themselves in almost the same positions as they had occupied before the outbreak of the war. The fighting was at a stalemate, with neither side having a decisive advantage. On July 8, 1951, peace talks began in Kaesong. Both sides were ready to restore the status quo, agreeing to partition of Korea on prewar terms, but, despite this, the negotiations dragged on for almost two years and were accompanied by bloody fighting. The final period of the war was characterized by relatively few changes in the front lines and protracted discussions about a possible end to the conflict. On July 27, 1953, a peace treaty was signed, but South Koreans refused to sign it. In spite of this, the treaty is still in force today. It fixed the front line at the 38th parallel and declared a demilitarized zone around it, running slightly north of the 38th parallel in its eastern part and slightly south of it in the west.

In June 1954, Lee Seung-Man initiated the creation of the Anti-Communist League of the Peoples of Asia.

Already on the day of the election, there were spontaneous riots in Masan due to electoral irregularities. The police, using weapons, were able to stop the protests. However, on April 11, a student of the Masan High School of Commerce who had disappeared during the riots was found dead. When it became known that he had not drowned, as officially announced, but had been killed by a tear gas grenade that penetrated his skull, mass protests for a review of the presidential election results began on April 19 in Seoul. As a result of clashes between protesters and police and the army, 125 people were killed. However, the protests continued under the slogan of Lee Seung-Man”s immediate resignation. After the troops refused to shoot, all of Seoul was under the control of the protesters. The country”s parliament promptly passed a resolution resigning the president and calling for new presidential elections. On April 26, Lee Seung-man signed a letter of voluntary resignation. On April 28, as protesters seized the Blue House, the official presidential residence, Lee Seung Man left the country in a Douglas DC-4 aircraft belonging to the CIA and went into exile. The former president settled in Honolulu, Hawaii, with his wife, Francisca Donner, and adopted son.

Lee Seung-man died of a stroke on July 19, 1965, at the age of 90. A week after his death, his body was taken to Seoul and buried in the Seoul National Cemetery.

From September 21, 1957, following the death of King Haakon VII of Norway until April 26, 1960 (before his resignation as president of South Korea), he was the oldest serving head of state on the planet.


  1. Ли Сын Ман
  2. Syngman Rhee
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