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On June 22, 1920, Harry R. Landis, an immigration inspector in Chicago, sent a letter to several immigration officials across the country, alerting them that “two Koreans [were] traveling through the United States in violation of the Mann Act.” Upon first glance, this letter seems fairly typical for the times: Immigration officials were on the lookout for any criminal activity by immigrants for deportation reasons, and following up these allegations would have been routine.
But the reason this letter is particularly noteworthy today is because of one of the Koreans in question: Syngman Rhee. Rhee is now best known as the first president of the Republic of Korea, and he remains a controversial figure, having been notorious for authoritarian practices during his three-term tenure. However, at the time of Landis’s writing, Rhee was still a young nationalist in exile.
Born on March 26, 1875, in Hwanghae Province (now part of North Korea), Rhee became politically active in his early twenties, protesting against Japanese imperialism and advocating for a constitutional monarchy, the latter of which soon provoked the ire of Emperor Gojong of the Yi dynasty who feared the end of Korean imperial rule. Thus, in 1898, Rhee and his fellow radicals were arrested and thrown in prison, where Rhee was subject to grueling conditions and physical torture. His imprisonment only ended in 1904, when the Yi emperor, fearing further encroachment on the part of the Japanese, selected him to serve on a diplomatic delegation to the United States. Rhee’s fluency in English—the product of his education at an American Methodist school in Korea—was deemed critical as the Yi government hoped to convince then-U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to aid Korea in its struggle against Japan. 
The mission eventually failed, and Rhee stayed in America, opting to study at George Washington University in D.C., where he received a B.A. in 1907. He obtained an M.A. from Harvard the following year and a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1910, becoming the first Korean student to do so in the United States. Then he returned home and worked in Seoul as an educator and a Christian missionary. However, the Japanese annexation of Korea created an unfavorable political climate for Rhee, and in 1912, he left again, this time for Hawaii.
In Hawaii, he continued to stay politically active, establishing a local Korean paper, the Korean Pacific Magazine, while serving as the head of a Korean Methodist School in Honolulu, the Korean Christian Institute. When the Korean Provisional Government was formed in Shanghai in 1919, Rhee was elected president in absentia (as he was still in Hawaii at the time). At that point, he was spending most of his time advocating for Korean independence to American audiences, largely through public speeches and written editorials.
Thus, in 1920, when he was first brought to Landis’s attention, Rhee was a prominent Korean political figure, and Landis made reference to this in his June 22 letter, writing, “Dr. Rhee claims to have been sent to this country as a diplomatic representative of the Korean people to collect funds and in other ways to establish a Korean government independence of Japan.” The other Korean traveling with Rhee, Nodie Dora Kim, was also politically involved in the Korean community in Honolulu (and would later serve in the post-war Korean government under Rhee), although in the letter, she was only described as having “been a student at Oberlin College” and “lecturing before meetings of the Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A., Methodist Church and similar organizations.”
Landis mentioned that Rhee and Kim were spotted in Chicago, en route to Hawaii, and he followed up on this in an August 2 letter to the Commissioner of Immigration in San Francisco, writing that the two Koreans have reached Hawaii and were “expected to return to the continent shortly.” He also said that he had been told that Rhee and Kim were “connected with a Korean organization with or resembling the I.W.W.,” the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union that was thought to be a communist group by the American government during the First Red Scare in the early 1920s. This last detail is interesting because in a short letter sent a few days earlier on June 26, Landis had mentioned that Rhee and his companion (briefly thought to be a man named H.L Song, instead of Kim) were “believed to be in the employ of the Japanese Government, and that they are plotting against the United States.”
These allegations of communist and anti-American activity clearly put Rhee at risk in the United States, as an August 9 letter from the Commissioner of Immigration in San Francisco to the Inspector in Charge in Honolulu, makes clear, if the allegations detailed by Landis were true, Rhee “should not be permitted to leave the Island for the mainland and it is possible you may wish to institute deportation proceedings.”
However, on August 25, Kim was called by the Honolulu immigration office to testify, and her testimony revealed startling inaccuracies in the information that Landis had received and had been relaying. Kim noted that although she and Rhee were traveling on the same train from Chicago, their meeting was “accidental” and that her intended destination was Willows, California, where she visited her brother.
In her testimony, Kim said that “no doubt this talk [referring to the allegations in Landis’s letters] started through the Japanese,” who were aware of the critical remarks she made of Japanese imperialism during her lectures at different Christian organizations. She mentioned that she and Rhee have both “always suspected” that they were each being trailed and that there was even “a Japanese man on the same train coming from Chicago to California.”
The Honolulu Inspector in Charge, Richard L. Halsey, reiterated Kim’s remarks in a letter responding to the San Francisco office, writing, “Until something more tangible is presented to me, I shall feel it my official duty to extend to Dr. Rhee and Miss Kim the ordinary courtesies, as I do not find any trustworthy foundation for the charges laid against them.” He dismissed the allegations of anti-American political activity and connections to the I.W.W. and defended Rhee’s character, stating, “I have known him for years here in Honolulu…his character has never been called into question; and he is a man of exceptional ability.” Halsey concluded his letter with the following: “To deport Dr. Rhee or Miss Kim to Korea would be to send them to imprisonment, possibly torture and death.”
Halsey’s conclusions were communicated back to Landis on September 8, with the San Francisco commissioner rather succinctly stating, “[The Honolulu] office…is strongly of the opinion that the allegations are not well founded.” This September 8 letter effectively closed the U.S. Immigration Service’s case on Rhee, with one brief exception in August 1921, when the Portland, Oregon, office inquired about Rhee and were told that he was of no concern to immigration officials.
Rhee’s story is clearly not an Angel Island one—he first immigrated to the United States as a student in 1904, six years before the immigration station opened. During his subsequent years in the country, he was never a serious target for immigration officials, as a result of his professional status as an educator and a missionary and because of his relative fame as a notable Korean political organizer.
But this particular narrative is still worth noting because of all that could have happened. Rhee was privileged in the sense that he was prominent politically, highly educated, and held multiple degrees from elite educational institutions in the country. He also happened to know the inspector in charge at his local immigration office, who was able to vouch for Rhee when Rhee needed him to. Most immigrants didn’t have access to these advantages—instead, had they been accused of the same offenses as Rhee, they would likely have been found guilty and deported. Even “close calls” such as Rhee’s situation should remind us of the unforgiving nature of American immigration policy and how the Immigration Service often operated on the principle of “guilty until proven innocent,” rather than “innocent until proven guilty,” when it came to Asian immigrants in the United States.
 Michael Breen, “Fall of Korea’s President Syngman Rhee in 1960,” The Korea Times, April 18, 2010, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2011/01/113_64364.html.
 Cha, “Syngman Rhee’s First Love,” 3.
 John De Looper, “Syngman Rhee’s Time at Princeton,” Mudd Library Manuscript Blog, March 1, 2011, https://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/2011/03/syngman-rhees-time-at-princeton/.
 “Syngman Rhee,” New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Syngman_Rhee.
 Jimin Kim, “Representing the Invisible: The American Perceptions of Colonial Korea (1910-1945)” (Paper, Columbia University, 2011).
 Roberta Chang and Wayne Patterson, The Koreans in Hawai’i: A Pictorial History, 1903-2003) (Honolulu, Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, year?), 17.
Esul Burton is a student at Yale University studying Political Science and wrote this as an extern at AIISF in Spring 2017.
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