Written by Tei Kim
The Korean War was gruesome, with approximately 2.5 million civilian casualties– a higher rate of civilian deaths than that of both World War II and the Vietnam War (History.com). The chaos erupted on June 25th, 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 (Fields, 25).
Within this chaos, there was an individual whom historians have deemed to be egocentric, putting himself ahead instead of his country: former South Korean President Rhee Syngman. When North Korea launched an attack on South Korea, Rhee was not concerned about his citizens’ safety, instead Rhee immediately fled the nation, escaping alongside other absconding members of the government. The impact was significant as North Korea’s invasion made significant progress during this time. With South Korea’s leadership dispersed, in just three days the North Korean army made their way down to the southern end of the Korean Peninsula and captured the capital of Seoul.
Rhee Syngman did not create all of Korea’s political issues, however it is certain he could have done more to help his citizens. A few years before the Korean war, World War II ended in 1945, releasing Korea from the 35 year reign of Japanese control. The Soviet Union had control over North Korea while the United States had control over South Korea. On July 20th, 1948, Rhee Syngman 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 as well as ideologically detested the idea of a communist Korea. His initial rejection to take part in an only-South-Korean government earned him a small percentage of votes.
However, the South Koreans would come to realize the grand mistake they made, as it became evident that Rhee took advantage of his position to become an authoritative dictator. Rhee was influenced from a young age to oppose Communism. Rhee Syngman was born on March 26th, 1875 in Daegyoung into a rural family (Allen,17). When Rhee Syngman was only nine years old, an American doctor, a medical missionary, named Horace Newton Allen cured his smallpox infection.
Rhee Syngman’s Crusade Against Communism
Later on, Syngman decided, at 19 years old, to enroll into an American Methodist School to convert to Christianity (Lew 45). While studying the English language, he would earn his income by teaching the Korean language to Americans. This early history of Rhee Syngman’s involvement with American culture most likely explains his pro-American stance during his presidency. Later in life Syngman spent time in Hawaii garnering foreign support for Korean Independence.
Rhee Syngman strongly supported anti-communism in addition to his pro-American views. There were around 30,000 communists that Rhee suspected who were placed into jail, and he suspected 300,000 more citizens supporting communism (Lew 225). Nefariously Rhee got rid of the National Assembly members who disagreed with him and outlawed the opposition Progressive Party. The leader of the Progressive Party, Cho Bong Am, was executed for treason (Britannica).
Rhee enrolled the suspected people into the National Bodo League, a movement to re-educate Rhee’s political opponents. After approximately forty years, the South Korean government continued to hide any evidence of this movement. Those who managed to survive feared to reveal any information, with the punishments being extreme torture or death.
However, as time went on, the truth surfaced, the dead bodies were found, which brought attention to the public of this long hidden secret. It can be understood how Rhee took advantage of his power to become a dictator, as the focus is 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 Rhee Syngman. The border would not be viewed as permanent however, with North Korea passing the 38th parallel on June 25th, 1950 (Lee, 65).
North Korea Advances and the Cataclysmic Atrocity of the Hangang Bridge
The 75,000 North Korean soldiers alongside military tanks proved too much for the less experienced South Korean Army. On June 26th, the day after the North Koreans began their invasion, Rhee Syngman informed the South Koreans that he and the government would remain vigilant in the capital of Seoul despite the looming dangers of an attack. Despite his moving speech, Rhee and other government officials fled Seoul on June 27th, shattering their pledge to the entire nation. On that same day, the South Korean army planted more than three thousand pounds of TNT on the Hangang Bridge.
The South Korean military thought detonating explosives on one of the only ways across to Seoul, the Hangang Bridge, would at least slow down the imminent North Koreans advance. However, at 2:30 a.m. on June 28th, 1950, the South Korean Army decided to detonate the TNT without warning the residents of Seoul. Nearly 4000 residents were crossing the bridge at that time, causing around 500 to 1000 deaths (Fields 138). 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 for shelter. They would always be afraid of being captured by North Korean soldiers, as the invasion had only taken place in three days. Had the South Korean government taken the time to alert their citizens instead of running to safety, more people would have been saved.
The Korean War caused the death of nearly one million South Koreans, and Rhee Syngman and his poor authoritative decisions are to blame. He told his people that he would remain in Seoul, yet he left a day after making that statement. Rhee ordered the South Korean army to plant explosives on the bridge, withholding any effort to carry out the bombing carefully, recklessly losing thousands of innocent lives. The Korean War was a stressful time that demanded strong leadership and reassurance to the Korean people and surrounding nations, which unfortunately was missing when Syngman deserted his post.
History Repeats Itself: From South Korea to Afghanistan
A similar situation occurred seventy-one 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 of Kabul. Although claiming he did so for the good of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan do not see it that way. This vacuum of leadership led to the collapse of Afghanistan in just several days, inciting fear in Afghans who were desperate to escape the country (Rubin, 259).
Therefore, Ghani parallels Rhee’s footsteps by prioritizing his own safety instead of the future of the country. 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 for his and their safety according to Ghani. “Leaving Kabul was the most difficult decision of my life, but I believed it was the only way to keep the guns silent and save Kabul and her 6 million citizens,” Ghani wrote in a statement posted to Twitter (Bostock).
Ashraf Ghani’s absence left it impossible for the Taliban to meet with him to discuss a peaceful solution. The US and NATO forces had announced their planned departure ahead of time, which would have left time after that announcement for President Ghani to discuss options with Afghan government officials and allies. “On 17 November 2020, acting US Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller announced further withdrawals of troops by 15 January 2021, leaving 2,500 troops across both Afghanistan and Iraq, down from the previous amount of 4,500 and 3,000, respectively” (Brown, Cohen, Starr). The US and NATO had always made clear their support for Afghanistan would not be endless and President Ashraf Ghani should have prepared.
The Taliban, although known for their strict views on laws and society, are still Afghan people who in their own view also wish the best for their homeland. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and government officials could have met with Taliban leaders, potentially saving lives and avoiding the interim confusion. Much like Rhee Synman’s refusal to listen to NATO peace talk mediation, Afghanistan’s governmental power dissolved, and was torn into chaos. Without a leader the whole system crumbles.
Differences and Similarities between Rhee Syngman and Mohammad Ashraf Ghani
When North Korea invaded South Korea, they advanced up to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. Despite Rhee Syngman’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 Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the US and allies had already announced their departure so there was no back up plan. No deus ex machina coming to save them.
The country of Afghanistan crumbled in a matter of days to the Taliban after fighting against them for twenty years. Mohammad Ashraf Ghani used to be considered one of the smartest people of our time, winning second place in an online poll for World Thinkers (World Thinkers 2013 – Prospect Magazine) but fear and lack of tenacity left Afghanistan in a more precarious situation that could have been imagined. This left Afghans with a morbid deja vu of Ghani’s predecessors, another leader failing to secure the safety of the nation. How much life would it cost to correct this mistake? If Korea is a lesson, and in many ways it is an ideal microcosm, many people will suffer.
Today the Taliban have been in power in Afghanistan for a little less than a year. Although there has been less destructive violence since the Taliban have come to power, there is still a looming air of potential violence. A lack of economic upward mobility for Afghan citizens as well as a strict adherence to specific Islam interperations decreases personal freedom, which combined, causes people to flee, seeking better futures in foreign nations. North and South Korea remain separate states, but there is still talks of one day reuniting them.
Afghanistan remains in a precarious situation, but one that many are cautiously hopeful of. Seeing how relatively peaceful the Taliban are presenting themselves, allowing some women and girls to return to work and school, even with limitations, (The Associated Press) shows there is evidence that there could have been a calm well thought out transfer of power between the former President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the government of Afghanistan, and the Taliban.
Deciding the future of a nation is no easy feat, but with strong communication, well thought out plans and calculated timelines leaders could potentially have saved South Korea and Afghanistan from having to undergo these world changing events. There is no way to know for sure what could have been, but reviewing history can tell people a lot about the future. Rhee Syngman’s desertion had a clear negative impact on the history of South Korea that continues today. Afghanistan’s present day predicament is uncharted, still too new to hypothesize any clear theory. Although the Taliban has had control of Afghanistan before, this time it is under new Taliban leaders with different political views than before, who claim they want to treat their people fairly and contribute to the international political theater (The Associated Press).
Leadership is something often discussed, not always shown through example. Reading through the poignant history of South Korea’s War and more recently the collapse of Afghanistan’s former government shows that solitary actions can have reverberating effects. Through reviewing the past people can reach their own conclusions and connect what transpired in the past to what current day issues arise.
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