Like Syngman Rhee, Like Ashraf Ghani - Portraits of Failed Leadership

Like Syngman Rhee, Like Ashraf Ghani: Portraits of Failed Leadership

The Korean War was gruesome and ugly, with approximately 2.5 million civilian casualties – a higher rate of civilian deaths than that of both World War II and the Vietnam War. The chaos erupted on June 25, 1950, and is commonly referred to in South Korea as 625.

Following countless modifications on territory, the involvement of the United Nations (mainly the United States of America) and China, and the death of 5 million people, North Korea and South Korea eventually agreed to an armistice to stop fighting in 1953. 

Syngman Rhee: A Background

Within this chaos, there was an individual whom historians have deemed to be selfish, putting himself ahead instead of the country: the first president of South Korea, Syngman Rhee. When North Korea launched an attack on South Korea, Rhee was not concerned about his citizens’ safety, but instead, Rhee immediately fled the nation and escaped alongside other members of the government. The impact was significant as North Korea’s invasion made significant progress: in just three days, the North Korean Army made its way down to the southern end of the Korean Peninsula and captured the capital of Seoul.

Official Portrait of Syngman Rhee, the 1st–3rd President of the Republic of Korea/Public Domain

After the end of the Second World War II in 1945, Korea was released from Japanese control. The Soviet Union had control over North Korea while America had control over South Korea. On July 20, 1948, Syngman Rhee was elected as president of South Korea in a landslide victory.

In South Korea, a president would be elected if they were to receive two-thirds of the National Assembly’s votes. Rhee received 92% of the votes with Kim Gu, the runner-up, only receiving approximately 7% of the votes. Kim’s view on the establishment of a government was to unify Korea, as he opposed the idea of having separate elections in North and South Korea. His rejection to take part in an only-South-Korean government earned him a small percentage of votes. However, the South Koreans would come to realise the grand mistake they made, as it became evident that Rhee took advantage of his position to become a dictator.

Syngman Rhee was born on March 26, 1875, in Daegyoung into a rural family. When he was only nine years old, an American doctor (medical missionary) named Horace Newton Allen cured his smallpox infection. Later on, he decided, at 19 years old, to enrol into an American Methodist School to convert to Christianity. While studying the English language, he would earn his income by teaching the Korean language to Americans. This early history of Syngman Rhee’s involvement with American culture most likely explains his pro-American stance during his presidency.

Syngman strongly supported anti-communism in addition to his pro-American views. There were around 30,000 communists who were placed in jail, while 300,000 more citizens were suspected of supporting communism. He enrolled the suspected people into the National Bodo League, a movement to re-educate Syngman Rhee’s political opponents. After approximately 40 years, the South Korean government continued to hide any evidence of the movement. Those who managed to survive were not allowed to reveal any information, with the punishments being extreme torture or death. However, the dead bodies were later found, which brought attention to the public.

The Korean War

It can be understood how Syngman Rhee took advantage of his power to become a dictator, as the focus shifted back to the Korean War.

Korea was split by the 38th parallel in 1948, with the communist North ruled by Kim-Il Sung and the capitalist South ruled by Syngman Rhee. The border would not be viewed as permanent, however, with North Korea passing the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950.

FILE – In this July 1950 U.S. Army file photograph once classified “top secret,” prisoners lie on the ground before their execution by South Korean troops in Taejon, South Korea. Shutting down its inquiry into South Korea’s hidden history, a government commission investigating a century of human rights abuses will leave unexplored scores of suspected mass graves believed to hold remains of tens of thousands of South Korean political detainees summarily executed by their government early in the Korean War, sometimes as U.S. officers watched. In a political about-face, the commission, which also investigated the U.S. military’s large-scale killing of Korean War refugees, has ruled the Americans in case after case acted out of military necessity. (AP Photo/National Archives, Major Abbott/U.S. Army, File)

The 75,000 North Korean soldiers alongside military tanks proved too much for the South Korean Army. On June 26, the day after the North Koreans began their invasion, Syngman Rhee informed the South Koreans that he and the government would remain in the capital of Seoul despite the looming dangers of an attack. However, Rhee and other government officials fled Seoul on June 27th, breaking their pledge to an entire nation.

On that same day, the South Korean Army planted more than three thousand pounds of TNT on the Hangang Bridge; the South Koreans thought that they would at least slow down the North Koreans by detonating the bridge.

However, at 2:30 a.m. on June 28, 2020, the South Korean Army decided to explode the TNT without warning the residents of Seoul. Nearly 4000 residents were crossing the bridge at the time, causing around 500 to 1000 deaths. Years later, survivors would recall the terror of the moment.

Ryou Seok, an individual who lived during the Korean War, recalls the frequent bombings outside, and how his family would frantically seek shelter. They would always be afraid of being captured by the North Korean soldiers, as the invasion had only taken place in three days. Had the South Korean government taken the time to alert its citizens instead of selfishly running to safety, more people would have been saved.

The Korean War caused the death of nearly one million South Koreans, and Syngman Rhee and his decisions are to blame. He told his people that he would remain in Seoul, yet he left a day after making that statement. He ordered the South Korean army to plant explosives on the bridge, yet he did not make an effort to execute the bombing carefully, losing thousands of lives.

Like Syngman Rhee, Like Ashraf Gani

A similar situation would occur 71 years later in Afghanistan, involving the sudden takeover by the Taliban. The country’s president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, made his quick escape after the Taliban’s invasion. This led to the collapse of Afghanistan in just several days, inciting fear in Afghans who were desperate to escape the country.

Syngman Rhee on the cover of TIME magazine, 1953/Public Domain.

Therefore, Ghani followed in Rhee’s footsteps by prioritising his own safety instead of the future of his country. Ultimately, Ghani’s escape from the Taliban displayed the same selfishness as Syngman Rhee.

After the Taliban began to invade the country of Afghanistan, Ghani somehow came to the conclusion that leaving the country while millions of citizens are in jeopardy would be the best decision.

When North Korea invaded South Korea, they advanced up to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Despite Syngman Rhee’s terrible decision-making and selfishness, South Korea received help from the United Nations to push back and reclaim their territory.

Unfortunately, under the leadership of Ghani, the country of Afghanistan crumbled in a matter of days to the Taliban after twenty years. How much life would it cost to correct this mistake? If Korea was a lesson, and in many ways, it was an ideal microcosm, at least five million.

Tei Kim is a freshman at Stanford Online High School. Two of his great passions are history and fencing. His favourite historical topics include the impact of war on social and political structures from ancient times to the present day. When he isn’t fencing or studying, you can find him somewhere with a good book.

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Allen, R. (1960). Korea’s Syngman Rhee (An Unauthorized Portrait). Rutland-Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle.

Fields, D. (2019). Foreign Friends: Syngman Rhee, American Exceptionalism, and the Division of Korea (Studies in Conflict Diplomacy Race). University Press of Kentucky.

Lee, C. (2001). Syngman Rhee: The Prison Years of a Young Radical. Korea: Yonsei University Press.

Lew, Y. (2013). The Making of the First Korean President. University of Hawaii Press.

Mills, N. (2007). Karzai: The Failing American Intervention and the Struggle of Afghanistan. Canada: Wiley & Sons

Salim, A. (2006). Loya Jirga: The Afghan Grand Assembly. Pakistan: SMP

Rubin, B. (2020). Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know. Tanter Media Inc.

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