The Syngman Rhee Era, 1946-60

South Korea Table of Contents

Syngman RheeEven 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.

Society under Rhee

The transformation of South Korean society during the Rhee era was of revolutionary proportions because of the convergence of a number of forces. A major impetus for social change was the greatly enhanced opportunity for education. Although Japan had introduced a modern education system to Korea, opportunities for Koreans were purposely limited, particularly at the secondary and university levels. Educational opportunities were greatly expanded immediately after the Japanese defeat, and the trend continued through the Korean War and afterwards. Higher education provided more opportunities for upward mobility to a large number of young people. This opening also meant greater political awakening among the young, particularly in view of the strong emphasis placed on democratic values and ideas by teachers and intellectuals. For the first time, Korean youths were provided open access to democratic ideas both at school and through the mass media. These Western ideas became the norm against which to judge the government in power when the exigencies of the war period were removed.

A land reform law enacted in June 1949 also had a leveling effect on Korean society. Under this law, nearly 1 million sharecroppers, or approximately 40 percent of total farm households, became small landowners. The reform also brought about the decline of the landlord class that had formed the backbone of traditional Korean society for centuries. Because big business and industrial groups did not emerge until the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost everyone in society was placed on an equal footing.

The Korean War had the most significant effect on the social system. The movement of large armies up and down the length of the peninsula was accompanied by civilian refugees. People of diverse backgrounds intermingled for prolonged periods, deeply affecting everyone's way of life. The indiscriminate destruction of property during the war also had the effect of homogenizing Korean society.

The war caused hundreds of thousands of young men from rural areas to enlist in the army, exposing them to modern organization, technologies, and a new world outlook. The war also gave rise to a large officer corps that later developed into an increasingly significant social group.

Better education and the government's postwar economic policies contributed to accelerated urbanization. Reconstruction projects created jobs in the cities, while the government's effort to control the prices of farm products made it unprofitable to till small farm plots. The urban population increased rapidly from 11.6 percent in 1940 to 24.4 percent in 1955 and 28.3 percent in 1960. These changes had a direct impact on politics because the better-educated and urbanized elements became increasingly vocal and more independent in their political judgments.

The Postwar Economy

The war had destroyed most of South Korea's production facilities. The South Korean government began rehabilitation as soon as the battle zone near the thirty-eighth parallel stabilized in 1952. The United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency and members of the UN, principally the United States, also provided badly needed financial assistance. Seoul depended heavily on foreign aid, not only for defense, but also for other expenditures. Foreign aid constituted a third of total budget in 1954, rose to 58.4 percent in 1956, and was approximately 38 percent of the budget in 1960. The first annual United States economic aid bill after the armistice was US$200 million; aid peaked at US$365 million in 1956 and was then maintained at the US$200 million level annually until the mid-1960s.

The scarcity of raw materials and the need to maintain a large army caused a high rate of inflation, but by 1958 prices had stabilized. The government also intensified its effort to increase industrial production, emphasizing power generation and textile and cement production. In order to reduce dependence on imports, such principal items as fertilizer and steel began to be produced domestically.

The average rise in the gross national product (GNP) was 5.5 percent from 1954 through 1958. Industrial production led the advance, growing by nearly 14 percent per year. The tightening of fiscal and monetary policies in 1958, coupled with the phasing out of the United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency program and the reduction in direct aid from the United States in 1957, caused a shortage of raw materials for import-dependent industries and led to an overall economic decline. By 1958 Liberal Party leaders paid more attention to political survival than to economic development. The government adopted a comprehensive Seven-Year Economic Development Plan in January 1960, but before the plan could be implemented, the student revolution brought down the government.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress