[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]A king’s Kentucky aide; Rhee cheats at mathNov. 23, 1890
On this date, Clarence Ridgley Greathouse, an American, became one of the first foreigners to serve King Gojong of the Joseon Dynasty, Asia’s “hermit kingdom.” Given the Korean name Gurye ― taken from two Chinese characters that sounded something like the beginning of his surname ― Mr. Greathouse, then 44, was appointed to a post that was the equivalent of today’s vice-minister of state affairs.
Born in Kentucky in 1846, Mr. Greathouse was a lawyer who hoped to one day serve on the Supreme Court. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland sent him to Japan as a consul general; in 1890 he was moved to Seoul, which became his second home.
King Gojong was interested in modernizing some state functions after the American fashion, to which end Mr. Greathouse was very useful; he dealt with matters ranging from the postal service to royal guard duty. In his first year of service he resolved a fisheries conflict between Korea and Japan. The king seemed to hold him in high esteem, especially as Korea’s situation between the major powers grew increasingly perilous.
After Japanese assassins killed Queen Myeongseong in 1895, King Gojong told Mr. Greathouse to recruit a foreign royal guard ―a mission that could not be called a success. He went to Shanghai, advertised in a newspaper and recruited 25 men who, once in Korea, turned out to be undependable. They spent their first night in Seoul drinking and fighting, and were sent back.
After almost a decade spent living in a foreign land in turmoil, Mr. Greathouse died in 1899. He lies in Seoul Foreigners’ Cemetery in Hapjeong-dong, northwestern Seoul.
Nov. 27, 1954
Syngman Rhee, the first President of the Republic of Korea, was a respected fighter in the resistance movement against Japanese rule until liberation in 1945. But he rose to power, and a less auspicious legacy, with the division of Korea into north and south after World War II under the trusteeships of the Soviet Union and the United States. The division led to the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948. Despite the calls by others, including his rival Kim Gu, another highly respected independence fighter, for a united government, the pro-American Mr. Rhee won the day with the founding of the Republic of Korea, of which he became the first president.
The new nation’s constitution specified that a president could not be re-elected, but President Rhee had other ideas. His administration and the ruling Jayu (“Freedom”) Party came up with the idea of amending the constitution to say that the nation’s first president ―Syngman Rhee, as it happened ―could be re-elected, but that none of his successors could be.
Naked a power-grab though this was, President Rhee at least had the courtesy to submit the amendment to the National Assembly for approval, as the constitution required. The vote took place on this date; the result was a surprise to the confident president and his Jayu Party majority.
To pass the amendment, approval of two-thirds of the National Assembly’s 203 members was needed ― that is, 136 votes. When the results came in, however, there were only 135 votes in favor. With that, the chairman of the assembly announced that the bill had been rejected.
Accepting that result, however, was not an option as far as President Rhee was concerned. What followed was perhaps the most original manipulation of mathematics in Korean political history. The administration asserted that because two-thirds of 203 is 135.333, the 135 votes that the amendment had received was actually enough ―because you could round off the .333 to get 135.
The National Assembly accepted this interesting theory, and President Rhee signed the amendment to the Constitution, which to this day is remembered with the derisive nickname of “Round-off Constitution.” President Rhee went on to be re-elected, but couldn’t hold onto his dictatorship forever; when the public rose up in 1960 in what’s now known as the April 19 Revolution, he gave up his beloved presidency and fled to Hawaii, where he died in 1965.
by Chun Su-jin