Establishing Modern, Free Government in Korea

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for brokering the peace treaty between Japan and Russia. Like many progressive Americans, TR saw modernizing Japan as a role model for what was viewed a backward Korea, and Japan was given a free hand in colonizing its neighbor, a trade-off as the United States had colonized the Philippines. In 1904, future South Korean president Syngman Rhee was in the United States where he remained until returning to Korea in 1945, hailed by the US as a “resistance hero,” and installed as proconsul. He infuriated Koreans in his new role by relying upon Korean collaborators with the Japanese and using similar repressive policies as the previous occupiers. Despite US support for his roundly corrupt regime, he was deposed in 1961 and exiled to Hawaii.

Bernhard Thuersam,


Establishing Modern, Free Government in Korea

“Syngman Rhee, returning from the United States a resistance hero, was elected president of the First Republic and in 1948, following three-year tutelage under the US military government on the finer points of democratic governance, formed the first modern government in Korea by Koreans.

[With his American-manufactured] heroic status as the “father of the nation,” Rhee was actually a politician without a political ideology and a governor without a governing program. Hence, whenever he encountered opposition to his policies he was habitually inclined to rely on physical violence and political manipulation rather than persuasion or competition on ideological grounds . . . the Rhee administration from start to finish a one-man regime with enormous power concentrated in his hands alone.

He carried on with politics surrounded by those who were personally loyal to him rather than those chosen for objective qualifications. Elevate by his sycophants to a virtual deity, Rhee was essentially isolated from the ongoing affairs of his subordinates. Charitably, “at best he was a traditional “monarch.”

Under Rhee, Korea remained a repressive society, aided by a 300,000-man police apparatus. Corruption and incompetence characterized the regime’s national bureaucracy [and] the police force was at the center of continuing social and political oppression. Elections during his regime continued to be scandalized with rigging, violence and bribery – the final one of which resulted in the 1960 student uprising that toppled his government.

The press was harassed and often closed down for anti-Rhee tendencies. A few of his political opponents were assassinated or executed, or died rather inexplicably.

Rhee’s ability to stay in power rested to some extent on his effective control of the military . . . [and] the military served Rhee well as a source of electoral votes and political funds. High-ranking officers were pressured into “delivering” their units to Rhee and his Liberal party. Since the military was spending roughly $400 million in aid from the United States, Rhee’s political machine relied heavily on the loyalty of the military to shore up his sagging political fortunes.

In its determination to win [reelection] at any cost [in 1960], however, the Liberal party supporting Rhee . . . apparently went overboard. Two weeks or so before the election a fantastic array of election rigging plans devised by the Liberal party was exposed by the press. The secret plans included producing ghost votes, stuffing ballot boxes, bribing voters with money and merchandise, using physical violence on opponents, openly casting ballots under supervision, and so on.

The opposition Democratic party . . . appealed to the Central Election Committee for safeguarding [voting] mechanisms. Predictably, this appeal fell on deaf ears.”

(Marching Orders, the Role of the Military in South Korea’s “Economic Miracle,” 1961-1971, Jon Huer, Greenwood Press, 1989, excerpts pp. 11-14)


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