Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Giving South Korea's Syngman Rhee a Second Look

A new documentary on the nation’s maligned founding father has drawn praise from the conservative Yoon government.

Nixon Meets Syngman Rhee In Capital

There’s a scene early in The Birth of Korea, Kim Deog-young’s new film defending the legacy of South Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee, that may go underappreciated. In it, the 85-year-old Rhee visits one of the injured victims of the April Revolution—the landmark 1960 uprising that ultimately toppled Rhee’s government—in the hospital. After exchanging some greetings, the camera zooms in on Rhee’s face as it twitches with grief. Then the film pauses, seemingly moments before tears begin to flow. 

It’s a powerful scene, although perhaps not for the reasons the filmmaker intended. Given the overall tenor of the film, it was almost certainly included to demonstrate Rhee’s compassion, to show that, far from the indifferent, self-interested despot Rhee has been portrayed as by North Korean sympathizers and other leftists, Rhee earnestly loved his people and his country and felt deep grief over the violence of the revolution, which killed 180 and injured many more. While the movie does much to rehabilitate specific aspects of Rhee’s leadership and career, it seemingly acknowledges that figures within his administration had, through corruption, mismanagement, and hardline tactics designed to cling to power, provoked the people’s rage. 


The film absolves Rhee of direct involvement in the mismanagement that led to the revolution but sends the message, at least to those familiar with Rhee’s story, of regret. Rhee was a patriot whose role was essential in shepherding the Republic of Korea from its foundation through the tumultuous postwar period. But Rhee’s role has largely been forgotten because Rhee, for all his virtues, ultimately hurt his own cause. 

The man known to the English-speaking world as Syngman Rhee was born Lee Seung-man in 1875, in the final decades of the Joseon Dynasty that had ruled the Korean Peninsula since 1392. Born to a family of noble lineage but modest finances, Rhee received an education in the Confucian virtues and philosophy expected of noble families and civil servants. In 1894, he enrolled at a school run by American Methodist missionaries, where he would learn English, establish a deep connection to the United States, and convert to the missionaries’ religion, remaining Methodist the rest of his life. 

Much was changing in Korea at this time. Rhee entered an American-run school because a series of reforms that year had abolished the traditional civil service exams. The bureaucracy was reforming, and the small kingdom began reevaluating its relations with its giant neighbors. Industrialized Japan would soon defeat the previous regional hegemon, China, in the Sino–Japanese War of 1894–95. The Korean Peninsula was now surrounded by Russia, a faltering but still massive China, and an ascendant Japan. While not the global power it is now, with its military bases and dollar-denominated commodities, the United States also left its mark on East Asia through missionaries, who spread ideas about governance as well as religion.

This changing status of Japan and the U.S. would put Rhee on the course that eventually made him the first president of the Republic of Korea. Rhee, now educated in both Confucian norms and Western ideas, became involved in newspaper publishing and pro-independence organizations seeking to curb the influence of Japan and Russia. This ultimately put him at odds with the monarchy. He was implicated in a plot against the king, arrested, and, after a failed escape attempt, sentenced to life imprisonment and torture. While in prison, he authored his first book, The Spirit of Independence, a collection of manifestos on his nationalist thought. 

Then came the Russo–Japanese War, in which Japan defeated the tsarist forces in a contest over influence on the Korean Peninsula. The monarchy that had imprisoned Rhee suddenly found itself in need of his services. Thanks to his English abilities and familiarity with Americans, Rhee was sent to negotiations at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to represent Koreans’ perspective. Rhee, despite his distaste for the monarchy, accepted—with an ulterior motive. With 19 recommendation letters from American missionaries in hand, Rhee planned to pursue an education in the United States. He ultimately earned a PhD from Princeton in 1910. 


Korea would not fare so well in the coming years. Rhee had correctly ascertained that the modernized Japanese would impress the Americans with their plans to “help” the Korean Peninsula develop and that the recent reforms of the Joseon monarchy would be viewed as too little, too late. Japan placed Korea under a “protectorate” in 1905, forced the king to abdicate in 1907, and finally annexed the peninsula outright in 1910. Over the next 35 years, Koreans would have their language and culture suppressed, see much of their land fall into Japanese hands, and, with the coming of World War II, their people conscripted into forced labor and, for many young women, much worse (more on that later). 

Rhee would spend most of his post-PhD life abroad as a teacher, school administrator, temporarily as president of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, and mostly as a kind of missionary, seeking to win international converts to the cause of Korean independence. 

Most of the world had little interest in Korea’s wellbeing, and this did not change until tensions between Japan and the U.S. began to mount in the 1930s. Rhee wrote another book, Japan Inside Out: The Challenge of Today, in 1941, in which he positioned the Japanese Empire as a threat not only to Korea but to believers in freedom everywhere. Months later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the ranks of his supporters, particularly among American Christians, swelled. He continued to voice his people’s interests throughout the war, including decrying the declaration at the Cairo Conference of 1943 that Korea would be free and independent “in due course,” seemingly implying trusteeship.  

By the time of Japan’s surrender, interest in Korean affairs had not penetrated the upper ranks of the U.S. military, who were not yet convinced of the peninsula’s strategic value. It has often been asserted that the U.S. chose to divide the Korean Peninsula in 1945 out of realpolitik, drawing an arbitrary line at the 38th parallel to halt the Soviets’ advance and protect Japan. David Fields, a historian at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, argues in Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea that the division was actually forced on the Truman administration by an outpouring of messages from American Christians who, through Rhee’s efforts, had become determined that all of Korea not be abandoned to communism. Hence the Americans, as the Soviets invaded the northern half of the peninsula, asserted their claim to administer the southern half of Korea in July 1945, a month before Japan’s surrender. 

For reasons still unknown today, the Soviets accepted, even though at the time they occupied Manchuria and it would have been difficult to stop them had they chosen to seize all of Korea. Ironically, though Rhee would decry national division for years to come and ask for Americans’ assistance in ending it, he may have helped ensure conditions that made division possible. 

For the next three years, efforts to foster unified elections on the Korean Peninsula, supervised by the UN, faltered. In 1948, both Koreas chose separate leaders, solidifying the division. Rhee was a known commodity to Americans and had enough support among Koreans to ensure election. He presided over the Republic of Korea for twelve years, through the devastation of the Korean War and post-war reconstruction. His relations with American officials fluctuated. Some admired him and his utter disdain for communism, while others saw Rhee as a loose cannon who was willing to restart the Korean War to achieve unification. Until the end of his rule, Rhee would declare that use of nuclear weapons was a small price to pay to reunite the country. 

Under him, the country’s economy grew slowly, to the extent that U.S. officials wondered if Korea might require American aid in perpetuity. In 1960, frustration with the economy, compounded by corruption and blatant vote-rigging, led to the student-led April Revolution. When a police crackdown resulted in widespread deaths and injuries, the ROK military declared neutrality and the Eisenhower administration condemned the government’s repression, sealing Rhee’s fate. He left the government at the end of April, departed for exile in Hawaii the following month, and lived out his remaining days there. Rhee died in 1965 at age 90, and only then was his body allowed to return to Korea. 

In Korea, the post-Rhee months brought little change in the conditions that had led to the April Revolution. In 1961, a faction of the ROK military, led by Lt. Gen. Park Chung-hee, seized power. Park declared sympathy for the goals of the April Revolution, condemned the Rhee years for their corruption and launched a modernization program that carried on past his 1979 assassination until democratization in 1987. In that time, Korea transformed from a small republic, bullied and impoverished, to a wealthy exporter of both technology and popular culture.

Park, rather than Rhee, has since emerged as the paragon of Korean conservatism. With the country’s left also viewing Rhee with derision, he had become the forgotten man, with few supporters and even fewer monuments. 

The Birth of Korea seeks to change that. 

It is not the first effort. Experts who have tracked the development of conservative thought since the country’s democratization say there has been an effort to rehabilitate Rhee’s legacy for some time, essentially since the days of nascent democratization in the early 1990s. Conservative scholars and activists have made efforts to frame Rhee, as well as Park, as necessary for the country’s development and even its democracy. This paid off in the case of Park, thanks to some early stumbles by democratically elected presidents, including the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, in which Korea was forced to restructure its economy in return for a foreign aid package from the International Monetary Fund to prevent bankruptcy. After this, polling revealed nostalgia for Park’s competence, if not his sternness. 

“The Park movement emerged in 1997,” said Kieran Macrae, a lecturer at Seoul National University. “That got more traction. But [these conservative scholars] have been just as passionate about Rhee.”  

A few things have changed in Korea’s political culture in recent years, seemingly setting the stage for a reassessment of Rhee’s legacy. Park has been, as noted, long beloved on the right for his modernization program, to such an extent that his daughter, Park Geun-hye, was elected president in 2012, during which she declared that her father’s coup had been “unavoidable.” Her rule reached a scandalous and frankly bizarre end when she was impeached in 2016 and arrested in 2017 on accusations of abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking government secrets, all stemming from her close relationship with the daughter of a cult leader, allegedly given access to classified documents. This led to five years in the wilderness for conservatives, only returning to the presidency in 2022 under former prosecutor general Yoon Suk Yeol, whose highest-profile case had been Park Geun-hye herself.

In addition to seemingly turning the page on the Park family’s political career, the Yoon administration has also honored Rhee’s memory. The Veterans Ministry honored his independence advocacy this January, a month after Yoon made a personal donation to a memorial for the first president. 

The South Korean left has also changed. Led since the 1990s by veterans of pro-democracy, anti-military-rule activists such as Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (who served back-to-back terms as president from 1998 to 2008), the left has over time shown greater preoccupation with the politics of division, in the sense of seeking friendlier relations with North Korea, and becoming more and more vociferous in their condemnations of the legacy of Japanese colonization and its Korean “collaborators.” Under the progressive Moon Jae-in government, this led to the severing of a U.S.-brokered agreement to compensate the “comfort women”—Korean survivors of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery—and the near-end of a pact on bilateral intelligence sharing.

Ben Engel, research professor at the Institute of International Affairs, told me that Moon’s calls for “root[ing] out this evil,” meaning collaborationism, “recatalyzed this effort to reevaluate” the legacy of Rhee and Park. 

“Pro-Japan collaborator” (chinilpa) is an extremely loaded and frequently partisan charge in the Korean context. Park Chung-hee received his initial military training under Japanese rule in the late 1930s until liberation, when he joined the ROK military. In 1965, Park normalized relations with Japan over popular protest, and it was his admiration for Japan’s modernization campaign that inspired his plans for his own country, down to the slight rewording of specific Japanese phrases designed to promote development. For instance, Japan’s “Let’s catch up to the West!” became under Park “Let’s catch up to Japan!” Allegations of being too friendly with Japan have dogged Korean conservatives ever since, particularly during Park Geun-hye’s tenure. 

Allegations of pro-Japan sympathies have even been extended to Syngman Rhee, and here anti-Japan activists overplay their hand. Allegations of Rhee’s supposed pro-Japan sympathies downplay his advocacy on behalf of independence, his rejection of U.S. pleas to establish relations with Japan (unlike Park), and his militant assertion of Korea’s maritime claims, with repeated seizures of Japanese vessels that crossed them. They focus on the high degree of continuity between colonial-era administration and Rhee’s government, claiming North Korea did a better job of purging “collaborators.” This gross overreach sets the stage for a film like Birth of Korea.  

In the film, Rhee’s life is presented out of chronological order. Much of it, especially his youth and opposition to the monarchy, is skimmed. The film instead focuses on a number of slights to Rhee’s legacy. This includes Rhee’s alleged Japan sympathies, the accusation that Rhee “abandoned” Seoul when North Korea invaded in 1950, and the relative absence of memorials to Rhee, whom the film compares to other national founders like Gandhi and George Washington. Some of these arguments have more merit than others. 

As noted, the allegation that Rhee was “pro-Japan” is spurious: To the degree that there were colonial-era officials maintained under Rhee, they were there to provide some degree of competent administration for the new republic. Rhee and the U.S. oversaw the land reform of 1945–50 that took land out of the hands of the Japanese colonial government, as well as companies and individuals, and turned it over to tenant farmers, making them into the owners of small, independent farms of their own. His government, from the outset, largely consisted of fellow independence activists familiar to him, rather than colonial-era leaders. 

Fields calls Rhee’s handling of “collaborators” pragmatic, in that only the very worst were to be punished and those “with skills and capital should be welcomed back into the fold,” though not given political power. “He can be criticized for this, but it’s not pro-Japan,” Fields says. 

The idea that Rhee abandoned Seoul during the war is also absurd, as a then-70-year-old Rhee had little to contribute on the frontlines. Instead, after the fall of Seoul Rhee presided over ROK forces at the southern tip of the peninsula until Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s dramatic Incheon landing broke North Korea’s line and turned the tide. In the darkest days of the war, when a foreign ambassador asked Rhee if North Korea’s advance would prompt him to flee to Jeju Island, 50 miles from the southern tip of the peninsula, Rhee reportedly revealed the pistol he carried in his pocket, saying he would use it on himself rather than flee any further. 

As for the lack of memorials in Rhee’s honor, Fields (who is featured in the film but said he has yet to see it) notes that many memorials to Rhee were erected when he was president. After his departure, they were largely torn down, and they have not been rebuilt. The film does not touch on the Park regime and its opposition to Rhee, which is understandable given that Park and Rhee’s support bases overlap.  

Finally, as noted, the film places the blame for the corruption of the day on officials under Rhee, preserving Rhee’s reputation for personal integrity and genuine patriotism. However, it does not wrestle with what Rhee’s reliance on corrupt, self-interested underlings says about his rule. In truth, from early in his presidency Rhee had demonstrated a tendency to rely on old friends and confidants loyal to him to staff his government, marginalizing other anti-Japanese, anti-communist figures of a more independent bent. Many of his future political opponents would come from this camp, making elections not a contest of competing worldviews but referendums on Rhee himself. Furthermore, Rhee’s stacking of the cabinet with loyalists, combined with his advancing age, left him with a dangerous lack of insight into how the country’s governance was carried out. 

It did not have to be that way. In 1956, then 81-year-old Rhee had announced plans not to seek reelection after his second term ended. An outcry from pro-Rhee politicians and media seemingly convinced him to change his mind. Had he departed then, not with his 1960 exile, he would likely have the reputation his supporters think he deserves today. 

The release of The Birth of Korea in theaters comes sandwiched between a pair of potentially seismic developments. One is the late November release of 12.12: The Day (Seoul Spring in Korean), a film that dramatizes the December 1979 coup following Park Chung-hee’s death, which brought Chun Doo-hwan to power. It became a sensation in Korea, with the biggest box-office receipts of 2023 and, most tellingly, very positive assessment of young moviegoers. 

The Birth of Korea looks unlikely to match that film’s results. Nevertheless, it has come out ahead of another event on April 10: National Assembly elections, which will serve as a referendum on Yoon’s term so far. Macrae notes that figures in the Yoon administration have endorsed the film and called it a good tool for learning history. 

If the objective is an honest and fair assessment of the first ROK president’s legacy, we could start with the following: Syngman Rhee was a lifelong advocate for his country, one whose devotion to its independence crossed borders, leading him to suffer imprisonment, hardship, and personal deprivation for years on end. He also guided his country out of liberation and war, and there’s an argument that neither would have happened had Rhee not been so successful at building a following among American people of faith. 

But the ROK did not emerge as a democratic republic because of Rhee, rather despite him. His administration was characterized not only by corruption but an absence of checks on his power and a strong cult of personality around him as the nation’s founding father. This may have provided a degree of stability for a time, but ultimately fostered resentment. 

Perhaps Rhee’s greatest legacy is the one for which he was most disdained at the height of his influence: his hardnosed style in dealing with his U.S. counterparts. Rhee, much like Charles de Gaulle at around the same time, infuriated American allies with his independence, refusing to make peace with Japan or become a destination for its goods, which he said would make Korea an economic, if not political, colony of Japan yet again. It has since been argued that this belligerence in favor of Korean autonomy, but also against communism, led the U.S. to support him with generous aid packages for fear of the conflicts he might otherwise provoke. 

Unfortunately, even this tendency was ultimately to his detriment. While in 1956 he contemplated stepping down, by 1960 he had become convinced of his indispensability, refusing to stand aside in that year’s presidential election because he believed the contenders lining up to replace him lacked the stomach to disagree with the Americans. He thus stood for election a fourth time, in a contest where vote-rigging was so blatant that opponents of his regime concluded that public protest, in the form of the April Revolution, was their only recourse. 

But was Rhee wrong about aid? The short successor government that followed him was led by Chang Myon, an opposition politician with strong democratic and anti-communist credentials who had a less tempestuous relationship with Washington. As Rhee predicted, aid declined and was only restored after Park’s coup established confidence in the Korean government’s ability to maintain order and stick to a development plan. 

Rhee has other accomplishments, such as the rapid growth of education and literacy rates under his presidency and a more professional civil service that some experts say would later play an underappreciated role in Park’s modernization campaign. But ultimately, the most important takeaway is not that Rhee’s legacy should be saved or discarded; both its positives and negatives should be seen for what they truly were. Rhee was a great independence activist and, yes, leader who guided the country out of its colonization and near-oblivion. He was also overly convinced of his own value, and this led to the destruction of his reputation for more than a half-century. 

Fields says there is too much of a temptation to make Rhee into “a demagogue or a demigod,” when in reality “he was a human being who made some very wise and very poor decisions at the same time.” The Birth of Korea may lead to a properly nuanced assessment of his record. But it is only a step in that direction, and people of all countries concerned about their historical record should learn from where it succeeds and where work remains to be done.