The Making of the First Korean President: Syngman Rhee's Quest for Independence
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472pp. November 2013
The Making of the First Korean President: Syngman Rhee's Quest for Independence
Author: Lew, Young Ick;
The only full-scale history of Syngman Rhee’s (1875–1965) early career in English was published nearly six decades ago. Now, in The Making of the First Korean President, Young Ick Lew uncovers little-known aspects of Rhee’s leadership roles prior to 1948, when he became the Republic of Korea’s first president. In this richly illustrated volume, Lew delves into Rhee’s background, investigates his abortive diplomatic missions, and explains how and why he was impeached as the head of the Korean Provisional Government in 1925. He analyzes the numerous personal conflicts between Rhee and other prominent Korean leaders, including some close friends and supporters who eventually denounced him as an autocrat.

Rhee is portrayed as a fallible yet charismatic leader who spent his life fighting in the diplomatic and propaganda arena for the independence of his beleaguered nation—a struggle that would have consumed and defeated lesser men. Based on exhaustive research that incorporates archival records as well as secondary sources in Korean, English, and Japanese, The Making of the First Korean President meticulously lays out the key developments of Rhee’s pre-presidential career, including his early schooling in Korea, involvement in the reform movement against the Taehan (“Great Korean”) Empire, and his six-year incarceration in Seoul Prison for a coup attempt on Emperor Kojong. Rhee’s life in the U.S. is also examined in detail: his education at George Washington, Harvard, and Princeton universities; his evangelical work at the Seoul YMCA; his extensive activities in Hawai‘i and attempts to maintain prestige and power among Koreans in the U.S. Lew concludes that, despite the manifold shortcomings in Rhee’s authoritarian leadership, he was undoubtedly best prepared to assume the presidency of South Korea after the onset of the Cold War in the Korean Peninsula.

Essential reading for anyone with an interest in modern Korean history, this work will serve as a lasting portrait of one of the pivotal figures in the evolution of Korea as it journeyed from colonial suppression to freedom and security.

158 illus.
"The debate over Syngman Rhee’s legacy is far from over. As this richly detailed biography demonstrates, the historical record should recognize Rhee’s tireless efforts to achieve Korea’s independence before he became president of the Republic of Korea. If many today remember Rhee as a repressive dictator, The Making of the First Korean President describes him as a “freedom fighter” (p. 281). Rhee’s autocratic tendencies before and after 1948 render that assertion debatable, but this work still makes a significant contribution to the historiography because it heightens our understanding of one of the most controversial figures in modern Korean history." —Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Volume 22 (2015)
Author: Lew, Young Ick;
Young Ick Lew is a former Chair Professor of Korean Studies, Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University in Seoul. Currently, he is T. H. Elema Chair Professor of Korean history at Handong Global University in P’ohang and a senior counselor to the Syngman Rhee Institute, Yonsei University.



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