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Yongusil 93: Socialism’s Influence on Syngman Rhee and the Founding of the Republic



A new working paper for the Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project explores and influence and meaning of socialism on Syngman Rhee and the founding of the Republic of Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in caused a stir this spring when he stated that he was opposed to homosexuality in a televised debate while campaigning to replace impeached President Park Geun-hye. Moon’s statements especially drew attention because he was the candidate for the Democratic Party of Korea — Korea’s leading “liberal” party. In response, seasoned Korean observers began explaining both how Korean liberals are both further to the left and further to the right than foreign observers might expect. In fact, both views are correct. The left-right paradigm, popular in the Americas and Europe does not map well onto the Republic of Korea (ROK). The litmus tests that determine a left-right classification in these places — the role of government in society and cultural conservatism — simply are not all that relevant in the ROK. The ROK has a universal, single-payer healthcare system, but abortion is illegal (though widely available). Korean views of homosexuality are fairly conservative, but their views on gun ownership are what Americans would call “liberal” — private gun ownership is basically illegal in Korea.

As I argue in a recent working paper published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars,1) this confusion over the meaning of right and left in Korea has been going on since the 1940s. Even before he was elected as the first president of the ROK, Syngman Rhee was labeled an “extreme rightist” by the American military government, which occupied Korea from 1945-48. They labeled him as such not because he was conservative — he had spent seven years in prison as a young man for his radicalism in the opinion of the Chosun Court — but rather because he was virulently opposed to the American and Soviet policy of trusteeship for Korea. Ironically even as the Americans themselves were coming to question the wisdom of trusteeship, they desperately wanted to avoid the blame for its failure and so tried to marginalize those Korean leaders that opposed it as “extreme rightists.”

Circumstances would eventually force American policymakers to both abandon trusteeship and support Rhee, but the label of “extreme rightist” stuck, and Rhee would be henceforth associated with rightwing politics. In many ways, the label did fit him. His reputation as a violent anti-communist was well earned. He was directly or indirectly responsible for the massacre of countless communists and suspected communists during the Korean War. Rhee repeatedly stated: “Communism is cholera and you cannot compromise with cholera.”

But his anti-communism was more pragmatic than doctrinaire. Judging by his associates and his, admittedly scanty, political writings he had a leftist political orientation by American standards during his long exile in the United States from 1905–1945. In the 1920s, he praised communism’s commitment to a more equal society even as he criticized their attacks on nationalism and religion — two institutions he was deeply devoted to. In 1933 he made an abortive trip to the Soviet Union seeking aid for Korean independence. Rhee had no ideological tests when seeking support for Korea’s liberation.2)

He maintained this pragmatic approach when he returned to Korea in 1945. He told the New York Times shortly after returning that there were two types of communists, those who wanted a communist (read Soviet) government and those who believed in some of the economic principles of communism.3) He claimed that he himself believed in some of the latter and would work to enact them as a Korean leader. As the first president of the ROK he would sign and execute a sweeping land reform law that would end centuries of land tenancy in Korea. He presided over a largely nationalized economy and ruled under a constitution that American experts agreed essentially created South Korea as a socialist state. In many ways Rhee fits just as well on the left side of the political spectrum as on the right.

That is not to say the ROK under Rhee became a worker’s paradise. It did not. Division, inflation, war devastation, maladministration, and Rhee’s own authoritarianism meant that many Koreans did not have access to the rights enshrined in their constitution. But understanding Rhee’s political orientation is critical to understanding post-liberation Korea and the Korean War. For too long historians and pundits have pinned the problems of post-liberation Korea on the American decision to impose an “extreme rightist” leader on a Korean society that was already listing to the left. In fact, the situation was far more complex. Although my paper is titled “Syngman Rhee: Socialist” I do not believe that Rhee was in fact a socialist. Rather, I hope to convince readers of the limitations of viewing Korea’s history—or its present—through a left-right paradigm.

1. David P. Fields, “Syngman Rhee: Socialist,” Wilson Center Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) Working Paper #82, June 2017.
2. More nuanced views of Communism appear in Rhee’s early writing. See, for instance: Syngman Rhee, “공산당의 당부당 (當不當) [Communism: Right and Wrong],” 태평양잡지 [The Pacific Magazine], March 1923.
3. Richard J. H. Johnston, “Korean Red Group Assailed by Rhee,” New York Times, November 22, 1945.

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