The Presidency of Syngman Rhee (1954–1960)
Syngman Rhee, whom the United States had supported as an anti-communist Democrat, seems to have had few democratic instincts; 73 years old at the time he officially took power, he was a product of the previous century, a liberal and modernizer by the standards of the late years of the Choson dynasty.
In 1898 he had gone to prison for his share in the Independence Club’s demand for a national assembly, which would have been an advisory body that left ultimate power in the hands of the king.
Virtually all his actions as head of state tended to concentrate decision-making power into his own hands, and he seemed to hang on to it by any means necessary. In a true democracy, he could not have held on to power, because his base of support was too narrow.
Rhee commanded the loyalty of a small group of highly conservative large landowners and businessmen, former collaborators with the Japanese, former Korean members of the Japanese colonial bureaucracy (which continued to exist and served the new Korean state), the police, para-military youth groups, the army, and the United States.
The threat of communist subversion served Rhee’s purposes from the start. The Republic of Korea’s 1948 constitution prohibited any restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, or association, with an important loophole, “except as specified by law” (Eckert 1990, 349). The exception was not long in coming.
In 1948, following allegedly communist-led insurrections in Yosu and Sunchon, the National Assembly passed a vaguely worded National Security Law (NSL) that gave Rhee broad powers to round up those he considered dangerous to the state.
Under the NSL Rhee purged his potential opponents in the army, the press, and educational institutions in the name of anticommunism. By the spring of 1950, South Korea’s prisons held more than 60,000 people, the majority of them charged with violation of the NSL.
Rhee also used the NSL to beat the National Assembly into obedience. In early 1949 the National Assembly began to investigate, arrest, and try Japanese collaborators, a series of actions that threatened Rhee’s power base but that he could not at first openly oppose.
The National Assembly continued to assert itself, promoting land reform and demanding the resignation of Rhee’s entire cabinet. Rhee struck back using the NSL to put 16 assemblymen in jail. As a result the trials of the collaborators and the land reformers and the attack on the cabinet essentially went nowhere.
In 1951 Rhee established the Liberal Party, which Carter J. Eckert describes as “a motley assortment of opportunists held together by a desire for power and loyalty to Rhee” that had at its core Koreans who had served in the colonial bureaucracy during the Japanese period (Eckert 1990, 350). Liberal Party victories at the polls were assured by a combination of electoral fraud, police surveillance, strong-arm tac-tics by paramilitary groups, and the NSL.
In 1952, during the Korean War, when it appeared that he would lose the election in the National Assembly, which under the Korean constitution elected the president, he changed the constitution, to provide for direct election by the populace. In 1953 he instituted a midnight to 6:00 A.M. curfew in the cities.
In 1956 he changed the constitution again, this time removing the provision limiting him to two terms, and ran for a third term as president. Though the 1956 balloting saw numerous charges of election fraud and ballot stuffing, Rhee still won his third term. The Rhee administration unraveled as a result of the 1960 elections, however. Oddly, the election for president was not the issue; the vice-presidential ballots were the center of the controversy.