Friday, September 16, 2005

October 16, 1950 archives

Father of His Country?

After three months as a refugee in his own country, Syngman Rhee, President of the Republic of Korea, had come home to Seoul. He found his official residence littered with the midden of the routed Communist army, including back copies of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia. When the litter had been cleared away, a close inspection of the presidential mansion showed that the Russian civilians billeted there during the Communist occupation had left behind all of Rhee's most valuable and showy possessions. Mrs. Rhee had not fared so well; the Russians, headed north into the winter, had made off with her warmest clothes, including her winter underwear.

Almost as though the war had never been, Syngman Rhee's days last week had returned to their orderly pattern. Up each morning at 6:30, he puttered briefly in his garden before eating a Western-style breakfast—coffee, fruit juice, cereal and eggs. Rhee's guests were offered cigars (Phillies) or Korean cigarettes. Rhee himself seldom smoked, explaining that cigars made him sick; he only smokes them in the privacy of a bathroom. A visitor who had American candy to present was sure of warm thanks. Toward the end of a day, Rhee was visibly weary. The night would not greatly restore him; he has insomnia.

On the tired shoulders of Syngman Rhee rests the hope of a revived and unified Korea. Rhee's strongly anti-Soviet stand had made him a natural propaganda target for the Cominform. Agitation against him had become strong in liberal and labor circles, particularly in France, Australia, Great Britain and India. In the U.S. he had been subjected to the same kind of smear campaign that had turned many an honest but unsuspecting man away from China's Chiang Kaishek. It was true that Syngman Rhee was arbitrary and that he sometimes ran roughshod over the civil rights of his opponents. But he was also

1) a thoroughgoing antiCommunist,

2) Korea's most respected figure, and

3) Korea's fairly elected President and the only man who would stand a chance of being elected to that office again if another vote were taken today. No matter what their opinion of his manners & methods, the U.S. and other U.N. members would have to work with Syngman Rhee.

A Shovel & a Broom.
Last week the citizens of Seoul, like their President, were busy appraising the damage, restoring things to their familiar order. Amid the honking, clattering confusion of U.S. jeeps, tanks and trucks, numberless Korean labor gangs placidly sorted out useful items from the rubble of war, hauled away debris on little sledges fashioned from sandbags abandoned by the retreating Reds. In front of the U.S. Embassy, beggar children pestered G.I.s for candy and adults approached U.S. officers with a hopeful plea: "I speak little English, want job with Americans. Interpreter, please. No broom, no shovel." Most of the would-be interpreters got jobs as "engineers," a title which seemed to remove the sting from the fact that they usually got both a shovel and a broom and instructions to go to work on Seoul's rubble. Busiest of all was the jam-packed black-market district where Koreans with enough won dickered energetically for soap, fur coats, G.I. pork & beans, streptomycin. The Communists had made a successful effort to stamp out the black market, but in so doing had stamped out the white market, too.

Seoul still had a long way to go before its revival was complete. More than 60% of the city had been destroyed and housing was desperately scarce. There was no water in the mains. There was no electric power. Trolleys stood idle on their tracks. In the railroad yards lay hundreds of bombed and burnt-out freight cars.

Most of Korea shared Seoul's troubles. The former Pusan bridgehead, which had a peacetime population of 4,000,000, last week was supporting an additional 2,000,000 refugees, all dependent on the state and the U.S. Army for food, clothing and shelter. In North Korea, as the war rolled toward the Manchurian border, the Republic would be saddled with the unwholesome works of bulky, red-faced General Terenty Shtykov, the U.S.S.R.'s proconsul, and fat, sleepy-eyed Kim Il Sung, the Korean Communist chieftain. The land the Communists had confiscated for "distribution to the peasants" and the industries they had nationalized would raise endless questions of ownership and compensation. The punishment or re-indoctrination of Communist leaders would demand much time and effort, although Rhee had announced a policy of no vengeance against North Korean soldiers.

A Gentleman & a Scholar. Half a dozen agencies, both U.S. and U.N., were prepared to help Korea. ECA was already taking a survey to determine how its funds could best be used for reconstruction. But in the eyes of Koreans, the first responsibility for solving their problems lay squarely upon slight, white-haired Syngman Rhee (rhymes with bee). Under circumstances that his scholar ancestors could not have imagined, Rhee was following, an old family tradition.

For the Korean aristocracy into which Rhee was born 75 years ago it was an immutable law that a gentleman should be a scholar and that scholars should govern the people. Rhee's father, a descendant of the Yi family* which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, saw to it that his son got a Korean gentleman's education in the Chinese language and Confucian classics. Rhee took to the traditional learning eagerly (he still writes classical Chinese poetry). He placed first in the Korean national examinations where young scholars won admittance to the bureaucracy.

Despite his scholastic success, Rhee did not enter the government immediately. By this time (1895), Korea, though still independent, was under heavy pressure from both the Russian and Japanese empires. Shrewdly concluding that a Western education and knowledge of English would be useful to a future Korean official, Rhee became a student at Pai Chai College, a Methodist mission school in Seoul. At Pai Chai he was exposed not only to English but to Christianity and Western political thought.

Privy Council & Prison.
All three influences took hold. Rhee joined the Independence Club, a nationalist organization which demanded reform of the Korean monarchy and a constitutional government. He also helped found Korea's first daily newspaper, which fought bitterly against the growth of Japanese influence in Korea. Hoping to draw the fangs of the Independence Club, the bedeviled Korean Emperor Kojong appointed Rhee to the Privy Council, clapped 17 more of the club's leaders into prison. (Rhee later got them released.) In 1897 Rhee overstepped the bounds permitted a Privy Councilor by leading a student demonstration against the government. He was promptly clapped into jail himself.

In prison Rhee got the treatment considered fitting for top-rank political offenders. He was subjected to daily torture —finger mashing, beating with three-cornered rods, burning of oil paper around the arms. He wore a 20-lb. weight around his neck, was kept handcuffed and locked in stocks.

After six months he was sentenced to life imprisonment and that improved his lot considerably. The torture stopped. He was transferred to another prison, found that he could smuggle out editorials for his newspaper. In the long prison years he also wrote The Spirit of Independence, a book which seized the imagination of Korean patriots, helped establish Rhee as spiritual leader of the nationalist movement. By this time Rhee had become a Methodist—like China's Chiang Kaishek.

Harvard & Hunting Dogs. In 1904, after Rhee had been behind bars for seven years, the Russo-Japanese War began and in the confusion which gripped Korea a nationalist group temporarily seized control of the Korean government. Rhee was released from prison, headed for the U.S. as a special envoy of the new government. He tried to persuade President Theodore Roosevelt that Korea should not be handed over to Japan in the Russo-Japanese peace conference which Roosevelt had arranged. Roosevelt, Rhee remembers, "received me cordially" at Oyster Bay; but Rhee's request to attend the peace conference was refused. In the Treaty of Portsmouth, victorious Japan won a virtual protectorate over Korea.

After his mission failed, Rhee stayed in the U.S., went on with his Western education. He got an A.B. from George Washington University and an M.A. from Harvard, then went to Princeton to get his Ph.D. When the dean of Princeton's Graduate School questioned his academic qualifications, Rhee stated that he had studied Latin for one year, which seemed to him to be enough, asked to be excused from the usually required study of German and Greek. Wrote Rhee with ill-concealed annoyance, "Beside my own tongue, in which I am known to be a good writer ... I have a knowledge of Chinese literature, classics, history, philosophy and religion . . . Japanese, English and French are also to be counted as my foreign languages." Rhee was admitted, earned his degree with a thesis on "Neutrality as Influenced by the United States."

In 1910, the year that Japan deposed the Korean Emperor and openly annexed his kingdom, Syngman Rhee returned to Korea as a Y.M.C.A. worker, doing a bit of political agitation on the side. The Japanese, who distrusted all Christians, were doubly distrustful of Syngman Rhee. They assigned as his permanent shadow a police agent named Yoon Piung-hi, one of the most notorious of the "hunting dogs," i.e., Koreans in the Japanese secret service. A specialist in a kind of primitive psychological warfare, Yoon Piung-hi assiduously spread rumors about Rhee. On one occasion Rhee spent the night away from home, sleeping in a small room he had rented at the Y.M.C.A. "The next . morning," Rhee relates, "my father came to the [Y.M.C.A.] building with tears in his eyes and asked everybody he met, 'Do you know what happened to my son? They have tortured him and broken his legs. Yoon Piung-hi told me.' "

Yoon Piung-hi's activities made it clear that it was only a matter of time before the Japanese would decide to imprison Rhee, perhaps to dispose of him permanently. In 1912, with the help of missionary friends, Rhee got permission to leave Korea for six months. He sailed for Hawaii, settled down as a leader of the territory's small Korean colony.

Confucianism & a Coffin.
Though gone from Korea, Rhee was not forgotten. Many years later he wrote, "Raised in a Confucian family, I was naturally a man of peace." With the coming of World War I, Rhee's Confucian pacifism, reinforced by Christianity, led him to subscribe wholeheartedly to Woodrow Wilson's idealistic visions of a world without violence. Rhee became convinced that a passive uprising in Korea would win his people recognition both from America and from the League of Nations. In 1919 resistance leaders who had remained in Korea met secretly in Seoul to plot a revolt. Swayed by secondhand reports of Rhee's views, the conspirators distributed to every village in Korea a copy of a Korean Declaration of Independence and a set of orders:

"Whatever you do

"Do not insult the Japanese

"Do not throw stones

"Do not hit with your fists

"For these are the acts of barbarians."

On March 1, 1919, people gathered throughout Korea to hear the Declaration of Independence read, to wave their forbidden Korean flags and to shout "Mansei." Then they were supposed to disperse quietly and go home. In many places they never got a chance to disperse quietly. Japanese troops charged into crowds, shooting, swinging swords and mutilating their victims with firemen's hooks. In the bloody week of Japanese "mopping up" operations, it was estimated that 200,000 Koreans had been arrested, 7,000 killed.

The "Passive Revolution" earned Koreans little foreign sympathy; but it strengthened the determination of Korean patriots. Late in 1919 independence leaders from Korea and from Korean communities in exile gathered in Shanghai. Rhee, who feared that Chinese police might collar him to earn the $300,000 price placed by the Japanese on his head, was smuggled into Shanghai's International Settlement in a coffin. There he helped establish the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, became its first President.

Conferences & Croquet.
In the next 20 years Syngman Rhee's life fell into the dreary, frustrating round of most exiled politicians. He attended international conferences vainly trying to win recognition for Korea. (The U.S. Government blocked his attendance at Versailles Treaty meetings and at later disarmament conferences, because his presence might have embarrassed the Japanese.) He quarreled with other exiled Korean politicians. (Rhee was for continued passive resistance; other leaders favored violent action.) By World War II, the Provisional Government was almost defunct and Rhee turned over the Korean central agency in China to Kim Koo, Korea's master political assassin.*

In 1934 Rhee married Franziska Donner, an Austrian whom he had met while attending a League of Nations meeting in Geneva. Twenty years younger than Rhee, Franziska was attractive and chirrupy. She managed efficiently her impractical husband's finances. Said Rhee in 1941, "When I married a foreign lady, my family was very displeased, but they found out it was a perfect marriage." At parties, however, Rhee has been heard to tell Mrs. Rhee, "Now hush. You have talked enough."

In 1939 Rhee and Franziska moved to Washington, where Rhee acted as U.S. representative of the Provisional Government and arbiter of all Korean activities in the U.S. They lived simply, bought a twelve-room stucco house on 16th Street only after advisers suggested that it would be a good idea to have a reasonably impressive establishment. Rhee, who drank no Western liquors and smoked only an occasional cigarette, avoided Washington's cocktail party set. Most of his time was spent in attempts to interest the State Department in the Provisional Government and Korean independence. Even after World War II began, the U.S. remained stonily indifferent. When Rhee mailed his credentials to the State Department shortly after Pearl Harbor, he was asked to come and take them away again.

While he lived in Washington, Rhee spent most of his leisure time outdoors. He took great pleasure in mowing his lawn, spent many a Sunday afternoon in a rented rowboat fishing the Potomac. Aside from an occasional game of tennis with his wife, his only active sport was croquet, also a favorite game of former Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who had so stubbornly ignored the claims of Rhee's government. One afternoon in 1943 Rhee interrupted a croquet game with some friends to tune in a broadcast of the Cairo Conference communique. He listened quietly to the communique, in which a promise that "Korea shall become free" was marred, he felt, by the weasel words "in due course." Said Rhee to his host when the broadcast was over: "What a pity I have not been playing croquet with Cordell Hull."

U.S. indifference changed Rhee's character, left him bitter and disillusioned. Convinced that most of the world was hostile to his cause, he fell back upon a small circle of friends and advisers. Chief among them was Washington Lawyer John W. Staggers, who had for many years acted as an agent of the Korean government. Staggers handled Rhee's income, which consisted largely of contributions from Koreans in the U.S. When the contributions were small, many Washingtonians believe, Staggers added to them from his own pocket.

Bitterness & the Boy Scouts.
By the end of World War II, Syngman Rhee had little left of the pacifist idealism which had motivated him in 1919, had acquired a bitter and intimate understanding of the Korean proverb "When whales fight, the shrimp are eaten." Bypassing the Secretary of State, he persuaded the War Department to return him to liberated Korea simply "as a private person." General John Hodge, who commanded U.S. occupation forces, saw in Rhee a possible rallying point, a focus which might bring order out of South Korea's chaos. When Hodge led Rhee onto a platform in Seoul, 50,000 Koreans burst into tears and cheers at the sight of their legendary leader.

In the next few months Rhee proved far more of a catalyst than Hodge had bargained for, and not at all what the general had wanted. At the time of Rhee's return, 205 Korean political parties were registered with U.S. Military Government. Among them were the Forlorn Hope Society, the Supporters' Union for All Korean Political Actors, the Getting Ready Committee for the Return of the Provisional Korean Government and the Korean National Youth Movement, which called itself "the new Boy Scouts." ("The new Boy Scouts" soon had to be curbed as a menace to law & order.)

Because most Koreans despise political parties, Rhee refused to become affiliated with any group, although the National Party follows his guidance and supports his policies. But he stubbornly insisted on two points: 1) Korea must be independent, i.e., free of both Russian and U.S. interference; 2) Korea must be united, i.e., the North Korean Communists must be thrown out and the whole country united behind Syngman Rhee. Rhee's obdurate stand in effect divided South Koreans into two parties, one made up of people who agreed with Syngman Rhee, the other of people who, along with General Hodge and the U.S. State Department, hoped that Korea could be united by a compromise with the Communists.

It soon became clear that no compromise was possible. With Rhee's agreement, both the U.S. and U.N. urged that North Korea take part in a nationwide general election. North Korea's Communist leaders refused. Fearing the results of a free election, they turned the 38th parallel into an impassable frontier, thereby economically crippling both halves of Korea.

In 1948 South Korea finally went ahead without the north, held an honest, carefully supervised election under U.N. sponsorship. (On the basis of the relative populations of North and South Korea, it was decided to leave 100 of the 310 seats in the National Assembly vacant—to be filled by North Korean representatives if Korea should be unified.) In the elections a majority of South Koreans voted their support of Syngman Rhee. The Republic of Korea was established and Rhee became its first President.

Woodpiles & War.
Almost at once the new President ran into trouble. There were murmurs carefully heated up by the Communists that his 35-year exile had made him a foreigner. Some of his opponents said that he thought in English, not Korean. Others seized on the fact that he wore Korean clothes only for public appearances, preferred to wear Western clothes at home. Audiences at public affairs were irritated by the invariable presence of Rhee's Austrian wife, who speaks only halting Korean. Said one left-winger: "He may be the father of our country, but she can never be its mother."

More serious were Rhee's troubles with the National Assembly. When the Assembly refused to appropriate funds for some of Rhee's government projects, the President lambasted them with a vigor that outdid Truman's gibes at the 80th Congress. Then Rhee unconstitutionally appropriated the funds by executive order. "Why should there be anything between a President and his people," he trumpeted. Occasionally during a conference with rebellious assemblymen, rising anger would drive Rhee out of the presidential mansion to a handy woodpile. Only after he had chopped the woodpile down to size would Rhee come back to the conference, his equanimity temporarily restored.

Some observers believe that the prestige of Rhee's government sank in the months before the North Korean invasion. They cite the result of last May's U.N.-observed election, which had filled the National Assembly with an assortment of independents, many of whom were hostile to Rhee. Both in Korea and abroad, Rhee's opponents called him a lame-duck President, declared that his government was discredited. Other observers believe that Rhee's government was just beginning to hit its stride last June and that the Reds attacked when they did because they could not afford to tolerate the example of an effective, popular anti-Communist government in Asia.

Under the test of war, the Rhee government showed surprising strength. Many of Rhee's cabinet members displayed administrative talent of a high order. Outstanding among them was Defense Minister Shin Sung Mo, who likes to be called "Captain," a rank he held in the British merchant marine during World War II. ("It's the title I worked hardest to earn.") It was Shin Sung Mo who masterminded the rapid reorganization of the R.O.K. army after its staggering initial defeats. Outstanding, too, was another Shin. Though not a Rhee supporter, able, eloquent Shin Ikhui, Speaker of the National Assembly, worked closely with the cabinet, helped make the Assembly a wartime asset.

The wartime conduct of the South Korean people as well as of their leaders reflected favorably on Rhee's government. The R.O.K. army, which suffered few desertions, proved itself the most determined and effective of Asia's anti-Communist armies. And, contrary to all expectations, there was little true guerrilla activity in South Korea. There were innumerable attacks by North Korean irregular troops, but few proved instances of South Korean peasants or workers attacking U.N. forces.

To Syngman Rhee the North Korean invasion was both a vindication and an opportunity. In his eyes the war justified the uncompromising anti-Communist stand which had earned him so many enemies. And the war offered a chance to unify Korea. Rhee was determined that when the war was won, North Korea would be absorbed by the Republic. "We have not despaired," Rhee said recently. "We must not be disappointed."

For 55 years, Rhee had been running for the job of "father of his country." Last week, old, tired, crabbed, but still determined and still a symbol of Korean independence, he was closer to it than ever before.

Rhee's Korean name is Yi Sung-man. Transliterated into English, the Chinese character for Rhee's family name is commonly written "Yi" by Chinese and Koreans, "Ri" by Japanese. Like many Koreans, Rhee Westernized his name for convenience in dealing with Westerners.

* Kim Koo first won the favorable attention of the Korean public in 1899, when he strangled a Japanese captain. Beside the captain's body Kim left a note setting forth his name, address and the reason for the murder. (The captain had engineered the murder of a Korean queen.) The authorities threw Kim into jail, but in 1901 he escaped, disguised as a Buddhist priest. In 1917 Kim decided that periodic prison stretches were interfering with his efficiency as an assassin, transferred his base of operations to Shanghai. There he organized a bombing which killed a Japanese general, mutilated a Japanese admiral and blew a leg off Mamoru Shigemitsu, who later signed Japan's World War II surrender aboard the Missouri. This made Kim a topflight Korean hero, a position which he reinforced by marrying the daughter of An Chung-kuen, another Korean hero who had assassinated Prince Ito, Japan's first constitutional Premier. In 1949 a young Korean army officer, who suspected that Kim had ordered the murder of one of his relatives, assassinated Korea's master terrorist.


  1. Some of these archive pieces are really long, but I am fascinated by them. I wish Blogspot had a function where I could have the first paragraph available, and then people click it if they wanted to go further.

  2. I personally don't mind the length. Thank you for providing an interesting read.

  3. Kushibo, thanks for these articles. I really want to go through them and read them carefully—this one in particular—although I'm off to work right now and don't have the time....


Share your thoughts, but please be kind and respectful. My mom reads this blog.