Syngman Rhee or Yi Seungman (March 26, 1875 – July 19, 1965) was the first president of South Korea. His presidency, from August 1948 to April 1960, remains controversial, affected by Cold War tensions on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere. Rhee was regarded as an anti-Communist and a strongman, and led South Korea through the Korean War. His presidency ended in resignation following popular protests against a disputed election. He died in exile in Hawaii.
In 1910, he returned to Korea, which had by this time been annexed by Japan. His political activism attracted unwelcome attention from the occupying army, and he left for China in 1912. In 1919, all of the major pro-independence factions formed the Provisional Government in Shanghai. Rhee was elected the president, a post he held for six years, until 1925 when he was impeached by the Provisional Assembly for the misuse of his authority.
Rhee won a seat at the First Assembly of South Korea on 10 May 1948 by a parliamentary vote after left-wing parties boycotted the election. After being elected as the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly on May 31, Rhee was elected the first president of South Korea defeating Kim Koo, the last president of the Provisional Government by a count of 182-13 on 20 July 1948. It should be noted that Kim Koo was not aware of his nomination for presidency; the nomination was likely an attempt to discredit him as a nationalist. On 15 August 1948, he formally took over power from the US military and de jure sovereignty of Korean people from the Provisional Government.
As president, Rhee assumed dictatorial powers even before the Korean War broke out in 1950. He allowed the internal security force (headed by his right-hand man, Kim Chang-ryong) to detain and torture suspected Communists and North Korean agents. His government also oversaw several massacres, the most notable one being on the island of Jeju island in response to an uprising by leftist factions.
Rhee further damaged his reputation by encouraging the citizens of Seoul, the nation's capital, to remain in the city while he himself was already on his way to refuge as war broke out. His decision to cut the bridges on the Han River prevented thousands of citizens from escaping Communist rule. When UN and South Korean forces fought back and drove the North Koreans north towards the Yalu River (only to retreat to a line around the current DMZ because of Chinese counterattack), Rhee became unpopular with his allies for refusing to agree to a number of ceasefire proposals that would have left Korea divided. Hoping to become the leader of a united Korea, with U.N. assistance, he tried to veto any peace plan that failed to eliminate the northern government completely. He also argued for stronger methods to be used against China and often expressed annoyance at the reluctance of the U.S. to bomb it.
Following the Korean War and for the remainder of his rule, he kept imprisoned the Dowager Queen Yun Empress Sunjeong of the Korean Empire in Suin Hall, a narrow and unsuitable cottage in Jeongneung, Seoul for fear of the respect the people held for her, and he attempted to claim he was related to the royal Yi family.
Nevertheless Rhee was determined to see his protégé Lee Gibung elected as the independent Vice President - a separate office under Korean law at that time. But when Lee, who was running against Chang Myon, former ambassador to the United States during the Korean War, won the vote with an abnormally wide margin the opposition claimed the election was rigged. This triggered anger among segments of the Korean populace. When police shot demonstrators in Masan, the student-led April 19 Movement forced Rhee to resign on April 26.
The same day, Lee Gibung and his family committed mass suicide when vice president Yi Ki-bung's second son (also the adopted son of Syngman Rhee) shot his whole family and then himself.
It was later revealed by Kim Yong Kap, Deputy Minister of Finance, that Rhee had embezzled more than $20 million in government funds.
Rhee's legacy has been in considerable dispute. In general, some conservative circles regard Rhee as the patriarch of the nation, while liberals tend to be critical of him.
Rhee's former residence in Seoul, Ihwajang, is currently used for the presidential memorial museum, and Woo-Nam Presidential Preservation Foundation has been set up to honour his legacy.