Diplomats’ wives honor Francesca Rhee

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Diplomats’ wives honor Francesca Rhee

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‘Francesca is a human element between Austria and Korea, Europe and Asia.” Yan Donko, the wife of the Austrian ambassador to Korea, ended her opening remarks with this statement addressed to the ambassadors’ wives and fellow guests present at Ihwajang, the former residence of Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee and his wife, the Austria-born Francesca.
Around 80 people, including the wives of 45 ambassadors in Korea, gathered at Ihwajang on May 11. The excursion was organized by Mrs. Donko, the wife of the Austrian Ambassador to Korea, and Cho Hye-ja, daughter-in-law of the former president. Also present was Soonae Lee-Fink, author of the biography titled “The Francesca Rhee Story,” published last year, and Rhee In-soo, the adopted son of the former president.
Wearing rose of Sharon corsages, the guests toured the main living quarters, where articles such as Mr. Rhee’s prison notes, clothing and diaries are preserved and viewed the bedroom and study, which are in their original states.
The guests snacked on Austrian desserts and Korean rice cakes while they listened to yodeling by Kim Seung-hwan and a vocal performance by Lee Suk-kyung, who sang “Arirang” and other traditional Korean songs.
“I wanted to share the inspiring love story between Francesca Rhee and the former president with the spouses of ambassadors in Seoul. I was surprised that many of the wives were unaware of the story of Francesca,” explained Mrs. Donko of her intentions for the event.
The story of Korea’s first president and his wife has the dramatic content of a Hollywood movie and the author of Mrs. Rhee’s biography has been offered movie contracts for her book. It began when the former president Syngman Rhee met an Austrian named Francesca Donner in 1933 at a hotel restaurant in Geneva. Mr. Rhee was a Korean independence movement leader in exile at the time. Soon afterwards, the two married and in 1948, Mr. Rhee became the first president of the Republic of Korea.
In Korea, the former president lived in what is known as Ihwajang, a typical Korean mansion built in the 1930s. The Rhees moved there in 1947 and then moved to Gyeongmudae (the current Blue House) in 1948. After he retired from the presidency in 1960 in the wake of the April 19th students’ revolution, he and his wife returned to Ihwajang and spent the rest of their lives there.
The images of Ihwajang and Francesca Rhee are inseparable as she spent most of her life there. After the death of her husband in Honolulu, she returned to Austria for a while but settled back in Ihwajang with her adopted son, Rhee In-soo, and his family.
“She was a very brave lady. Nowadays it might be a different story, but back then, it would have been very difficult to have chosen a life like hers,” commented Nina Braastad, the wife of the Norwegian ambassador to Korea.
The event ended with all the guests singing “Edelweiss” together along with Mr. Kim playing the guitar.


by Cho Jae-eun
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