South Korea Table of Contents
Even though Syngman Rhee had been handily elected president by the National Assembly in 1948--with 180 of the 196 votes cast in his favor--he quickly ran into difficulties. South Korean politics during Rhee's regime (1948-60) essentially revolved around Rhee's struggle to remain in power and the opposition's efforts to unseat him. Constitutional provisions concerning the presidency became the focal point.
Because Rhee's four-year term of office was to end in August 1952 under the 1948 constitution, and because he had no prospect of being reelected by the National Assembly, he supported a constitutional amendment, introduced in November 1951, to elect the president by popular vote. The proposal was resoundingly defeated by a vote of 143 to 19, prompting Rhee to marshal his supporters into the Liberal Party. Four months later, in April 1952, the opposition introduced another motion calling for a parliamentary form of government. Rhee declared martial law in May, rounded up the assembly members by force, and called for another vote. His constitutional amendment to elect the president by popular vote was railroaded through, passing with 163 votes of the 166 assembly members present. In the subsequent popular election in August, Rhee was reelected by 72 percent of the voters.
The constitution, however, limited the president to only two terms. Hence, when the end of Rhee's second term of office approached, the constitution again was amended (in November 1954) by the use of fraudulent tactics that allowed Rhee to succeed himself indefinitely.
In the meantime, South Korea's citizens, particularly the urban masses, had become more politically conscious. The press frequently exposed government ineptitude and corruption and attacked Rhee's authoritarian rule. The Democratic Party capitalized on these particulars; in the May 1956 presidential election, Rhee won only 55 percent of the votes, even though his principal opponent, Sin Ik-hui, had died of a heart attack ten days before the election. Rhee's running mate, Yi Ki-bung, fared much worse, losing to the Democratic Party candidate, Chang Myon (John M. Chang). Since Rhee was already eighty-one years old in 1956, Chang's victory caused a major tremor among Rhee's supporters.
Thereafter, the issue of Rhee's age and the goal of electing Yi Ki-bung became an obsession. The administration became increasingly repressive as Liberal Party leaders came to dominate the political arena, including government operations, around 1958. Formerly Rhee's personal secretary, Yi and his wife (Mrs. Rhee's confidant, and a power-behind-the-scenes) had convinced the childless Rhee to adopt their son as his legal heir. For fear that Rhee's health might be impaired, he was carefully shielded from all information that might upset him. Thus, the aged and secluded president became a captive of the system he had built, rather than its master.
In March 1960, the Liberal Party managed to reelect Rhee and to elect Yi Ki-bung vice president by the blatant use of force. Rhee was reelected by default because his principal opponent had died while receiving medical treatment in the United States just before the election. As for Yi, he was largely confined to his sickbed--a cause of public anger--but "won" 8.3 million votes as against 1.8 million votes for Chang Myon. The fraudulent election touched off civil disorders, known and celebrated as the April 19 Student Revolution, during which 142 students were killed by the police. As a result, Rhee resigned on April 26, 1960. The next day all four members of the Yi family died in a suicide pact. This account has been challenged by some who believed Yi's family was killed by his bodyguards in hopes of enabling Rhee to stay on.
Rhee, a self-righteous man convinced of his indispensability to Korea, loathed his critics and opponents and equated criticism with treason. Although his record as a national hero and his skill in handling United States-Korean relations won him admiration during the immediate years after the Korean War, Rhee became a captive of the people surrounding him. In the late 1950s, his policies were largely without results as rapid changes in the economy and society deeply affected South Korea's system.
Data as of June 1990
South Korea Table of Contents