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The Making of the First Korean President

Syngman Rhee's Quest for Independence, 1875-1948

Young Ick Lew

Publication Year: 2013

The only full-scale history of Syngman Rhee’s (1875–1965) early career in English was published nearly six decades ago. Now, in The Making of the First Korean President, Young Ick Lew uncovers little-known aspects of Rhee’s leadership roles prior to 1948, when he became the Republic of Korea’s first president. In this richly illustrated volume, Lew delves into Rhee’s background, investigates his abortive diplomatic missions, and explains how and why he was impeached as the head of the Korean Provisional Government in 1925. He analyzes the numerous personal conflicts between Rhee and other prominent Korean leaders, including some close friends and supporters who eventually denounced him as an autocrat.

Rhee is portrayed as a fallible yet charismatic leader who spent his life fighting in the diplomatic and propaganda arena for the independence of his beleaguered nation—a struggle that would have consumed and defeated lesser men. Based on exhaustive research that incorporates archival records as well as secondary sources in Korean, English, and Japanese, The Making of the First Korean President meticulously lays out the key developments of Rhee’s pre-presidential career, including his early schooling in Korea, involvement in the reform movement against the Taehan (“Great Korean”) Empire, and his six-year incarceration in Seoul Prison for a coup attempt on Emperor Kojong. Rhee’s life in the U.S. is also examined in detail: his education at George Washington, Harvard, and Princeton universities; his evangelical work at the Seoul YMCA; his extensive activities in Hawai‘i and attempts to maintain prestige and power among Koreans in the U.S. Lew concludes that, despite the manifold shortcomings in Rhee’s authoritarian leadership, he was undoubtedly best prepared to assume the presidency of South Korea after the onset of the Cold War in the Korean Peninsula.

Essential reading for anyone with an interest in modern Korean history, this work will serve as a lasting portrait of one of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Korea as it journeyed from colonial suppression to freedom and security.

Young Ick Lew is a former Chair Professor of Korean Studies, Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University in Seoul. Currently, he is T. H. Elema Chair Professor of Korean history at Handong Global University in P’ohang and a senior counselor to the Syngman Rhee Institute, Yonsei University.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Syngman rhee (1875?1965) was the first president of the republic of Korea (rOK) and a key figure in the country?s metamorphosis into a mod-ern nation. a controversial figure, he was both honored and disgraced in life, and the debate over his caliber and achievements continues to this very day. Dr. rhee?s supporters regard him as a world-class statesman of ...

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pp. xv-xviii

...my academic interest in Syngman rhee dates back to may 1994, when the Chungang Daily News funded a project for me to organize rhee?s archi-val materials that were preserved at Ihwa House, his private residence in Seoul. I intensified my study of Syngman rhee as a leader of the Korean independence movement in march 1997, after I established the Institute ...

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Note on Romanization and Photos

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pp. xix-xx

All Korean, Chinese, and Japanese personal names follow the Asian convention of putting the family name first, except for the case of Syngman Rhee. Romanization of Asian languages follow systems commonly used in the Western scholarly community: McCune-Reischauer for Korean, revised Hepburn for Japanese, and Wade-Giles for Chinese. For...


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pp. xxi-xxii

Korean Names

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pp. xxiii-xxvi

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Chapter 1. Birth of a Christian Reformer

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pp. 1-17

Syngman rhee (Yi S?ng-man) was born in 1875 in P?y?ngsan County, Hwanghae Province, in what is now part of North Korea?the year post?meiji restoration Japan first revealed its imperialistic ambition toward the Korean Peninsula by dispatching a naval vessel, the Uny?, to the mouth of the Han river. ?rhee? is a variation of Yi that Syngman rhee adopted ...

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Chapter 2. Diplomacy with a U.S. President and Ivy League Education in America

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pp. 18-40

Syngman rhee spent much of his life living outside of the country of his birth, and while abroad was often embroiled in diplomatic efforts to pro-mote Korea?s independence?ef forts that brought him into direct contact with powerful political leaders and various heads of state in the United States, Europe, asia, and elsewhere for more than five decades. Students ...

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Chapter 3. Christian Education and Evangelism in Korea and Japan

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pp. 41-63

While rhee was busy working on his doctorate in the United States, Korea was in the last stages of being swallowed up by its bigger island neighbor. Japan?s earlier success against russia had further emboldened the gov-ernment?s ambition to extend its power north through Korea and into a significantly weakened China. By the time rhee finally obtained his PhD ...

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Chapter 4. Early Life in Hawai‘i

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pp. 64-88

Syngman rhee arrived in Hawai?i in 1913. the islands served as the base for his nationalist activities for more than a quarter of a century, until 1939, six years before the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule. Hawai?i was where rhee first assumed leadership as an established Chris-tian educator-politician unencumbered by the old personal associations and ...

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Chapter 5. President of the Korean Provisional Governments

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pp. 89-130

...the march First movement of 1919 was a historic event that helped define a nation in a time of need. the mass demonstrations not only forced Korea?s Japanese rulers to rethink their colonial policies on the peninsula, but it also proved to be a catalyst in bringing about a significant increase in organized resistance by Koreans within the country as well as abroad. ...

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Chapter 6. Fall from Power in Shanghai and Hawai‘i

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pp. 131-177

Syngman rhee decided to hold firm as president of the Korean Provi-sional Government (KPG) rather than give in to calls for his resignation, a decision that preserved much-needed constancy in the government?s lead-ership, but only at the cost of continued challenges to rhee?s authority. For the most part, these challenges originated from four political adversaries, ...

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Chapter 7. Solo Drive for Korean Independence in Europe and Marriage to Francesca Donner

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pp. 178-202

On march 9, 1932, Japanese military officials proclaimed the establish-ment of manchukuo, with Henry Pu-yi (1906?1967), the ?last emperor of China [Emperor Xuan-tong],? as its nominal head of state. this promulga-tion of a new political entity was little more than a diplomatic follow-up to the successful invasion and occupation of manchuria by Japan?s Guandong ...

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Chapter 8. In Pursuit of Diplomatic Recognition during the Pacific War

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pp. 203-234

Syngman rhee was a devoted observer of East asian geopolitical devel-opments in the 1930s, and he was also quite confident in his ability to interpret the myriad Japanese diplomatic and military activities unfolding in the region. to rhee, as to a great many others, the tumultuous final years of the decade seemed particularly foreboding. July 1937 saw Japan?s ...

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Chapter 9. New Rivals and Detractors

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pp. 235-266

During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Koreans in the United States saw the outbreaks of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and the Pacific War between Japan and the United States in 1941 as opportunities to end Japanese imperialism in their own native land. a fever of independence arose among them in tandem with the resurgent Korean independence ...

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Chapter 10. Becoming the President of the Republic of Korea

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pp. 267-280

Syngman rhee heard the news of Japan?s surrender on the radio at his home in Washington, D.C., at 11:00 p.m. on august 14, 1945. He report-edly told his friends who gathered there the following day that he was worried about ?what the Soviets would do.? Presciently, he warned that ?unless the United States acts wisely and quickly, there could be bloodshed ...

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pp. 281-294

Syngman rhee was a freedom fighter. He was, however, unlike other Korean freedom fighters of his day. rhee had a low estimate of the effi-cacy of military or terroristic resistance against an aggressive Japanese colonial agenda. tactics such as bombings and assassination attempts did not appeal to him, not just because of their inability to yield the necessary ...

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Chronology of Syngman Rhee’s Career to 1948

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pp. 295-304

...1881 april: Begins the study of the Chinese classics at traditional 1898?1899 Plays a prominent role in the reform movement launched by 1915 JuNe 5: Seizes control of the KNa-Hawaii after ousting the 1943 February 16: Warns Secretary of State Cordell Hull against october 16: arrives in Seoul after thirty-three years of exile ...

Appendix A. An English Summary of Syngman Rhee’s The Spirit of Independence

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pp. 305-308

Appendix B. Petition from the Koreans of Hawaii to President Theodore Roosevelt, July 12, 1905

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pp. 309-310

Appendix C. James S. Gale’s Letter of Recommendation on Behalf of Syngman Rhee, November 2, 1904

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pp. 311-312

Appendix D. Petition of Syngman Rhee and Henry Chung to President Woodrow Wilson, February 25, 1919

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pp. 313-315

Appendix E. A Petition to the President of the United States and the Peace Conference in Paris

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p. 316-316

Appendix F. Letter from President Syngman Rhee to the Emperor of Japan, June 18, 1919

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pp. 317-318

Appendix G. President Syngman Rhee’s “Executive Order Creating the Korean Commission” and “Rules Governing the Commission,” September 1919

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pp. 319-320

Appendix H. The Revenue of the Korean Commission, September 1919–April 1922 (Unit: U.S. dollars)

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p. 321-321

Appendix I. The Expenditures of the Korean Commission, December 1919–August 1921 (Unit: U.S. dollars)

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p. 322-322

Appendix J. Korea’s Appeal to the Conference on the Limitation of Armament, December 1, 1921

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pp. 323-328

Appendix K. Syngman Rhee, “Statement of the Koreans in Manchuria,” February 18, 1933

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pp. 329-331

Appendix L. Translation of a Korean Speech by Dr. Syngman Rhee

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pp. 332-334


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pp. 335-394


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pp. 395-402


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pp. 403-436


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pp. 437-444

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About the Author, Production Notes, Back Cover

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pp. 472-474

Young Ick Lew is a former Chair Professor of Korean Studies at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University in Seoul, and teaches Korean history at Handong Global University in P’ohang as a T. H. Elema Chair Professor. He graduated from Seoul National University with a BA in political science and received a PhD in history and East Asian...

E-ISBN-13: 9780824839147
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824831684

Publication Year: 2013