Rhee Is Elected President of South Korea

Syngman Rhee was elected as the first president of the Republic of Korea. His actions as president prevented a Soviet-U.S. agreement on a government for a united Korea, resulting in the creation of two Koreas that led to war in 1950. During his twelve years as president, South Korea made little progress toward modernization because he tolerated rampant corruption and incompetence in a bureaucracy that existed only to bolster his authority.

Summary of Event

Syngman Rhee had gained fame as a militant Korean nationalist when he became the first president of the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea, on July 20, 1948. In 1897, he led an anti-Japanese demonstration that resulted in his arrest and a sentence of life in prison. In 1904, a royal amnesty brought his release. Rhee fled to the United States and earned a doctorate at Princeton University in 1911, one year after Korea became part of the Japanese Empire. While Rhee remained in exile, Koreans resisted colonial rule, culminating in Japan’s brutal suppression of the March First Rebellion in 1919. That year, Korean leaders formed the Korean Provisional Government Korean Provisional Government (KPG) and elected Rhee as president. After the KPG impeached him for misusing funds, Rhee established the Korean Commission in Washington, D.C., to lobby for Korean independence. Presidency, South Korean
Presidential elections, South Korean
[kw]Rhee Is Elected President of South Korea (July 20, 1948)
[kw]President of South Korea, Rhee Is Elected (July 20, 1948)
[kw]South Korea, Rhee Is Elected President of (July 20, 1948)
Presidency, South Korean
Presidential elections, South Korean
[g]Asia;July 20, 1948: Rhee Is Elected President of South Korea[02580]
[g]South Korea;July 20, 1948: Rhee Is Elected President of South Korea[02580]
[c]Cold War;July 20, 1948: Rhee Is Elected President of South Korea[02580]
[c]Government and politics;July 20, 1948: Rhee Is Elected President of South Korea[02580]
Rhee, Syngman
Hodge, John R.
Kim Ku
Kim Kyu-sik

During World War II, Rhee delivered Voice of America broadcasts to Korea to incite an uprising against Japan. In February, 1945, he criticized the Yalta Agreement, publicly warning that the Soviet Union would try to repeat its dominance over Eastern Europe in Asia. That August, the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into two zones of military occupation. The U.S. State Department, aware of how Rhee’s intense hostility to communism would threaten cooperation with the Soviets, delayed his return to Korea until October. His popularity caused the Communist-led Korean People’s Republic (KPR), formed just before U.S. forces arrived at Seoul on September 8, to elect him as its president. Conservatives also wanted him to lead their Korean Democratic Party Korean Democratic Party (KDP), but Rhee refused these offers and organized his own party.

Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, the U.S. occupation commander, was unable to achieve stability in southern Korea, confirming the wisdom of a wartime U.S. decision that after liberation, Koreans would require a period of preparation before they could achieve self-government. Hodge used this argument to justify ignoring the KPR, but anticommunism was the real reason. Appointing wealthy conservatives as advisers, he also urged the return of Kim Ku, president of the KPG, to promote internal order. When Rhee arrived, Hodge personally introduced him to a crowd of more than fifty thousand Koreans, appearing to anoint him as his successor. Rhee soon gained the loyalty of the Korean police because many had collaborated with the Japanese and counted on protection from a postwar right-wing government. Rhee’s demand for immediate self-government was central to his strategy for becoming president of postwar Korea.

In December, Washington and Moscow agreed to a formula for reunification under a provisional government and then a five-year trusteeship prior to complete sovereignty. In protest, Rhee, with support from Kim Ku and the KDP, organized street demonstrations and staged work stoppages. The Soviet Union argued that opponents of trusteeship should not participate in a government required to accept this arrangement. Washington refused to exclude the conservatives because then the Communists likely would dominate the postwar government. The United States, however, also opposed Rhee’s rise to power as a barrier to reunification and ordered Hodge to broaden his base of political support. In December, 1946, Rhee traveled to the United States to publicize his demand for immediate elections in southern Korea alone.

Washington became increasingly impatient as negotiations with Moscow failed to resolve the impasse over Korea. During the summer of 1947, Washington applied the containment policy in Korea, instructing Hodge to cease his efforts to build a moderate political coalition. Conservative extremists, in response to the lifting of the ban on public demonstrations against trusteeship, staged a violent campaign to silence moderate and leftist politicians that left Rhee as the dominant politician in southern Korea. Creating a South Korea capable of defending itself was now a higher U.S. priority than democracy in a united Korea. To this end, Washington secured approval in November, 1947, of a U.N. resolution calling for elections in Korea in 1948. When the Soviets denied access to the north, the United Nations authorized a temporary commission to supervise elections in the south alone.

Some Korean leaders opposed elections only in southern Korea because this would make Korea’s division permanent. Refusing to accept this outcome, Kim Kyu-sik, who briefly received U.S. support during 1946, and Kim Ku, traveled to Pyongyang to attend a conference on reunification. Leftist leaders, however, instigated work stoppages and acts of sabotage to protest separate elections. Within four months, political unrest produced almost three hundred deaths and more than ten thousand imprisonments. U.S. occupation officials allowed the right to inaugurate a campaign of intimidation and terror against moderate and leftist politicians. Assassination of the leader of the KDP occurred amid the violence. Nevertheless, five of eight members of the United Nations temporary commission voted to proceed with supervision of the elections.

Koreans living south of the 38th parallel voted on May 10 for two hundred representatives in a National Assembly. Roughly 90 percent of registered voters cast ballots, but the two Kims joined leftist politicians in boycotting the election. A new franchise law mandated universal suffrage for those at least twenty-one years old. Most Koreans, however, were apolitical rural residents who voted as a matter of duty and to express their desire for independence.

Just as important, extreme conservatives dominated the list of candidates, and twelve ran unopposed, including Rhee after his challenger was disqualified. The KDP won between seventy and eighty seats, though most members ran as independents. Rhee’s party finished second with fifty-five representatives. On May 31, the new legislature convened in its opening session. Six weeks later, it passed and promulgated a constitution. On July 20, the National Assembly, by a vote of 182-15, elected Rhee as president. Kim Ku, unaware of his nomination, received thirteen votes. Kim Ku was assassinated in 1949.


One year after his election, Rhee was implicated in his rival’s assassination, but that did not stop him from wielding his power. Martial law was the answer for Rhee in 1952, and the arrest and imprisonment of Rhee’s critics in the assembly placed his reelection in doubt. To gain a second term, Rhee forced the assembly to pass a constitutional amendment providing for popular election of the president. In 1955, an amendment ended the two-term limit after the speaker “rounded off” the final two-thirds of a vote necessary for passage. Rhee was reelected easily in 1956, but Chang Myon, his most vocal critic, won as vice president, indicating rising public opposition.

Rhee’s dilapidated government was near collapse after revelations of his diversion of U.S. economic aid to private use. In April, 1960, he relied on police interference and blatant fraud to engineer his victory and the defeat of Chang Myon. Thousands of students joined in demonstrations that converged on the presidential mansion, where police fired on protesters and killed two hundred people. Rhee declared martial law, but the army refused this time to defend him. Under U.S. pressure, Rhee resigned and fled to Hawaii. Presidency, South Korean
Presidential elections, South Korean

Further Reading

  • Hong, Yong-pyo. State Security and Regime Security: President Syngman Rhee and the Security Dilemma in South Korea, 1953-1960. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Argues that Rhee sought a separate government in South Korea not only because of his ambition to be Korea’s first president but also to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating his nation.
  • Kil, Soong Hoom. “American Occupation and the First and Second Republics, 1945-1960.” In Understanding Korean Politics: An Introduction, edited by Soong Hoom Kil and Chung-in Moon. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Describes how extreme conservatives dominated South Korea’s first assembly because of the anticommunist policy of the U.S. military government, resulting in Rhee’s election as president and the consolidation of his power in the Korean War.
  • Kim, Joungwon. Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945-1972. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Considers the elections in South Korea on May 10, 1948, as free and open, attributing the success of the conservative parties to better financing and publicity for their candidates.
  • Matray, James I. The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941-1950. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985. Demonstrates how U.S. adoption of the containment policy led to U.S. support for a separate government in South Korea and acceptance of Rhee as its president.
  • Oliver, Robert T. Syngman Rhee: The Man Behind the Myth. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955. Criticizes the U.S. state department for delaying the formation of a separate government in South Korea and working against Rhee, for whom the author worked as a lobbyist and political adviser.

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