Syngman Rhee

President of South Korea from 1948 to 1960

Syngman Rhee (Korean:이승만) (26 March 187519 July 1965) was a South Korean politician who served as the first president of South Korea from 1948 to 1960. Rhee was also the first and last president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea from 1919 to his impeachment in 1925 and from 1947 to 1948. As President of South Korea, Rhee's government was characterised by authoritarianism, limited economic development, and in the late 1950s growing political instability and public opposition. Authoritarianism continued in South Korea after Rhee's resignation until 1988, except for a few short breaks.

Syngman Rhee


  • The people of North Korea are the same as the people of South Korea. All are loyal to the land of their birth with the very few minor exceptions of foreign trained and foreign directed communists. This war is not a conflict between North and South; it is a conflict between the few who are communists, who by an accident got control of half of our country, and the overwhelming mass of the citizens of Korea, wherever they may live.
  • Daily I pray for the joint success of our arms, for clear skies so that the planes of the United States Airforce may search out and destroy the enemy, and for the earliest possible arrival of sufficient men and material so that we can turn to the offensive, break through the hard crust of enemy forces and start the victorious march north. I have no slightest doubt in the ultimate victory of our cause; I know that both right and might are on our side.
  • They are doing everything possible to create confusion. In acting this way the Communists increase their strength, and expand and deepen their influence. The more they steal the more money they get. With this money the commit murders and other subversive activity. But terrorists cannot be able to count on anyone everywhere. They are forced to use all their capabilities for their own defense and such a situation continues all the time. They cannot continue the struggle. Sooner or later they are forced to surrender. This is just what happened in China and in other places.
  • When possible, children should be comfortable and free when they are playing or studying, and it is the way in a civilized country to make them more comfortable by not being too strict and giving grace and love at the same time.
    • Speech at the first anniversary of the founding of Seoul Board of Education (2 October 1957)
  • Since we are developing a lot of small and medium-sized enterprises, we are trying to make all these industries free by the private sector to increase productivity nationwide to make things for domestic use and export, and at the same time create jobs so that there is no unemployment.
    • Inaugural address (15 August 1956)

Quotes about

  • The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumny. They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this Government.
  • One of the Korean nationalists who was shattered by the failed campaign for Korean nationhood in Paris was Syngman Rhee. Born in 1875, Rhee had spent six years in prison for nationalist activities. He then moved to the United States, where he was the first Korean to get a US PhD (from Princeton in 1910). Rhee was a tireless editor and publisher of nationalist texts during his long exile in the United States. At the core of all of them was the need to get US support for the just Korean cause. Appealing to Woodrow Wilson in 1919, Rhee had called out: “You have already championed the cause of the oppressed and held out your helping hand to the weak of the earth’s races. Your nation is the Hope of Mankind, so we come to you.” Twenty years later Rhee had still not given up hope of US support. Right before Pearl Harbor he published a book predicting that Japan would attack the United States and that the best hope for a US victory would be an alliance with nationalists on the Asian mainland, including (prominently) in Korea. Rhee envisioned Korea as a modern country that embraced its Confucian past. The president of the Republic of Korea in exile, as he now styled himself, wanted a Korea invigorated by US technology and management methods, but within the constraints of traditional virtues. As much as he hated the Japanese, he despised Korean radicals who wanted a socialist country after liberation. They were nothing but stooges of the Russians, Rhee thought. Just like some Koreans had joined up with the Japanese, others had ended up in bed with the Soviets. To Rhee they were defectors who had to return to true Korean nationalism, which—with US assistance—would build a new nation under his leadership.
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