GW Hosts Conference in Honor of the Republic of Korea’s Founding

The conference examined the legacy of the ROK’s first president, a GW alumnus, and the modern relationship between the U.S. and South Korea.

August 28, 2023

Seth Bailey, director of the Office of Korean and Mongolian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Seth Bailey, director of the Office of Korean and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department, was keynote speaker at the all-day event. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies (GWIKS) held a conference to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the 70th anniversary of the longstanding alliance between Korea and the United States.

The conference was held on Friday at the Lindner Family Commons, located at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

Speakers at the event examined the legacy of Syngman Rhee, the first president of the ROK. Rhee received his bachelor’s degree from GW in 1907, a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award in 1949 and an honorary degree (LL.D.) in 1954. The all-day event included several panels that examined Rhee’s role in the establishment of the U.S. and ROK mutual defense treaty, which has played a key role in the security and development of the ROK. The panels also analyzed the lasting impact of the defense treaty and its role in modern U.S. and ROK relations. The other sessions focused on the state of education, gender equality and cultural development under Rhee’s rule.

Jisoo M. Kim, director of the Institute of Korean Studies at GW, began the discussion by explaining the connection between Rhee and GW and introducing Alyssa Ayres, dean of the Elliott School.

“Syngman Rhee and his legacy have been the subject of much controversy in South Korea recently,” Ayres said. “As all of you likely know, he was the first president of South Korea, and how he is evaluated by educators and historians is taking on a new importance, especially this year, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Korea. This historical milestone has also given rise to a greater reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of his leadership.”

Ayres also highlighted GW’s connection to the ROK by naming other notable alumni like Nakyun Shin and Jung-Sook Kim who went on to be members of the ROK National Assembly. Ayres added that GW boasts one of the largest networks of alumni in South Korea of any United States university.

She explained the importance of analyzing Rhee’s legacy, saying the Elliott School gathered a diverse group of scholars in the hopes of making important contributions to the discussion surrounding the ROK’s past. 

“Debating these kinds of historical complexities and their relevance to the contemporary world is part of our mission as one of the leading international affairs schools in the country,” Ayres said.

For many years, the debate over Rhee’s legacy has raged on as some want to honor him as a leader who fostered stability while others argue he was a ruthless dictator.

After spending time in the United States, pursuing higher education and traveling globally as a mouthpiece for Korean independence, Rhee returned to Korea after World War II.

He actively campaigned for independence and unification of the country and in 1948, became the first president of the Republic of Korea. During his presidency, he purged the National Assembly members who opposed his rule. In 1960, following the April 19 Revolution, Rhee was exiled to Hawaii.

The conference consisted of three sessions featuring a panel of speakers examining the Syngman Rhee period focusing on the historical perspectives of foreign policy, domestic politics and cultural development.

The keynote speaker at the event was Seth Bailey, director of the Office of Korean and Mongolian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

“I first traveled to Korea more than 34 years ago in the summer of 1989, as Korea was emerging from the triumph of the Seoul Olympics,” Bailey said. “For more than three decades, I have lived in Korea for many years. It's an understatement to say that the transformation that I've seen over the last 34 years has been rapid. This transformation is a result of the hard work, unity and perseverance of the Korean people. But it is also a testament in part to the enduring value of partnership and the alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America.”

Bailey said it is undeniable the ROK will continue to grow as a regional and global powerhouse, partly due to difficult decisions made more than 70 years ago.

“This story begins with Syngman Rhee, a statesman with a complicated legacy,” Bailey said. “Rhee’s efforts to secure the sovereignty of this nation laid the groundwork for an enduring partnership with the United States, beginning with the darkest days marred by war and extreme poverty.”

Following the many lives lost and the devastation caused to the country following years of war, by the time the Mutual Defense Treaty was signed in 1953, Bailey said, there were certainly questions about the enormous cost paid by many people’s sacrifices to secure the armistice.

In the aftermath of the war, Bailey said the ROK emerged as a formidable player on the global economic stage and boasts the world's 10th largest economy and the United States sixth largest trading partner.

Bailey said the ROK has propelled itself into the forefront of innovation and serves as an inspiration to other nations around the world.

He concluded his remarks by establishing the continued friendship the ROK shares with the U.S., a bond Bailey said was forged in the spirit of progress, sacrifice and shared aspirations.