Sins of the father, who lost his adopted son

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Sins of the father, who lost his adopted son

Syngman Rhee had no son. He was an only child, the last in his line. This is important in a Confucian society. There would be nobody to tend his grave, his father's grave or his grandfather's grave.

That, in the end, may be what destroyed him. The first president of the Korean Republic, he should have been a hero: father of his country, like George Washington, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lee Kuan Yew. He was also a successful war leader, like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Anwar Sadat.

This man was in many ways a hero. At age 9, he went blind. Yet he was cured and enrolled in a missionary school, Paejae. There he met So Jae Pil (Phillip Jaeson), founder of Korea's Independence Club. He embraced the new teaching, liberal democracy. As a result, he was sentenced to seven years in prison under torture.

Such sentences broke many men. But Mr. Rhee emerged stronger, confirmed in his democratic faith, like Nelson Mandela, William Wallace and Aung San Suu Kyi. Exiled, he earned a master's degree at Harvard. Under Woodrow Wilson, at Princeton, he won Korea's first Ph.D.

In 1919, when Korea's independence movement rose against Japan, he was elected first president of the Korean Provisional Government. In 1945, when the Japanese were expelled, he was elected in absentia as the first chairman of the Korean People's Republic. In 1948, in U.N.-supervised elections, he was chosen as the first president of the Republic of Korea. Nobody could be more clearly the founder of independent, democratic Korea.

True, he suspended democratic rights, using martial law against his opponents. But in war time, other democratic governments do the same. Mr. Rhee was at war. He held together a generally democratic regime under similar strains that doomed the French Third Republic, South Vietnam and czarist Russia. Strains far greater than that led, at the time, to McCarthyism in the United States.

It as a heroic record.

Instead, his regime is mostly remembered as corrupt.

For he rigged the election in 1960.

Why? He had little chance of losing. Even if he had, Rhee was 85. He had been Korea's president for 12 years. It was past his time to retire.

But Mr. Rhee wanted an orderly succession. He fixed the election for his vice-president, Yi Ki-bung, who would then be in a position to replace him as president when he stepped down.

In all the struggles for Korean independence, Mr. Rhee had been forced to make sacrifices. He had no time or money to marry until age 59. There was no chance of having children. Mr. Rhee's own line was dead: his political inheritance may have seemed far more important as a result.

Indeed, he formally adopted Mr. Yi's son.

Mr. Yi's election was not popular. People rose in protest; Mr. Rhee resigned. Two days later, Mr. Yi's son, Mr. Rhee's legal heir, in shame killed himself and all his family.

Mr. Rhee died in exile. His body was returned to Korea for burial in 1965. No descendants survive.

From the grave site, in the National Cemetery, turn and look, past the twin stone tigers, down the hillside and up the Han River below. Four bridges are in plain sight, along with uncountable skyscrapers; the rich capital city of one of the world's great industrial powers.

As a man, Syngman Rhee lost everything. And yet, as a statesman, he built well. His legacy is obvious.

To visit Mr. Rhee's grave, take the light blue subway line No. 4 to Dongjak station, exit 2. Take the overpass, then the underpass to the cemetery gate. Follow the stream up the grounds to plot No. 18. Cross the stream to the left, then take the first right uphill.

Stephen Roney is now at University College of the Cariboo, Canada. Visit on the web at

by Stephen K. Roney

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