He gained office through a popular election in 1948, led South Korea through the Korean War, and was reelected twice, although not without controversy, before being forced from office in the wake of the fraudulent 1960 election.
Born in Hwanghae Province on March 26, 1875, Rhee—also known as Yi Sung-man—labored passionately to create a modern, independent Korea. Having studied the Chinese classics and repeatedly failed the civil service examinations, Rhee enrolled in and eventually taught at a Western-style school run by U.S. Methodists.
In 1896 he helped found the Independence Club, a Western-leaning nationalist organization hoping to fend off the growing interventions by Japan, Russia, and China in Korean affairs.
Weary of his proposed reforms, the conservative Korean government imprisoned Rhee for seven years, during which time he was tortured and also converted to Christianity, which he considered "the religion of liberty".
Freed in 1904, Rhee traveled to the United States to petition U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt to help Koreans oppose expanded Japanese influence. This effort failed, and Japan increased its control and formally annexed Korea in 1910. Rhee stayed on in the United States, where he earned a B.A. from George Washington University in 1907, an M.A. from Harvard in 1908, and a Ph.D. in theology from Princeton in 1910.
He returned to Korea in 1910 as chief Korean secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Seoul. A year later he was forced into exile because of his organizing against Japanese rule.
He would spend the next 33 years in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., where he would continue working on behalf of a modern, independent Korea. In 1920 he became the first president of the exiled Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea. His main strategy was to build support for Korea in the international community, particularly the United States.
After defeating the Japanese in World War II, the United States occupied the southern half of Korea. Rhee, by now back in the country, helped found the National Society for the Rapid Realization of Korean Independence.
In 1948 he handily won United Nations (UN)–sponsored elections for president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). He was known for his desire to reunite the Korean Peninsula, his commitment to democracy, and his strong opposition to communism.
In the two years after his election, Rhee intensified cold war tensions in East Asia by calling for a "march north" to destroy Kim Il Sung’s communist regime. But it was Kim’s Communist forces that invaded South Korea in June 1950.
After the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Rhee proved a steady, but difficult, ally of the United States. In 1951 he reorganized the military in order to root out corruption and inefficiency. But he also routinely undermined U.S. efforts by rejecting any peace deal that stopped short of reunifying Korea. He also called on the United States to counter Chinese intervention more aggressively, including bombing China.
By August 1953, however, the prospect of intensified hostilities with the north and worsening relations with the United States forced Rhee to accept a divided Korea. The United States deployed troops along the demilitarization zone both to protect the south from invasion from the north and to thwart Rhee’s aggressive tendencies.
For most of the 1950s, Rhee repeatedly worked to consolidate his hold on power. In 1951 he founded the Liberal Party. In 1952 he engineered changes in the constitution to guarantee his victory in the election. When these changes were rejected in favor of a parliamentary system, he declared martial law. In the ensuing general election, Rhee won 72 percent of the vote.
As the 1956 election approached, Rhee once again forced changes into the constitution to eliminate the provisions limiting presidents to two terms. He then won the election with 55 percent of the vote, a low number considering that his rival, Sin Ik-hui, had suffered a heart attack and died 10 days earlier.
South Korea made significant economic and social progress under Rhee. The expansion of the school system after independence and the modernization of the military contributed greatly to the changes that transformed Korea. Massive U.S. aid combined with the government’s import-substitution policies yielded strong growth.
In 1960 Rhee and the Liberal Party once again rigged the presidential election. This time, however, a protest movement led by students became widespread, and governmental security forces killed 142 protesters. These events forced Rhee’s resignation. He fled to the United States and died five years later in 1965 in Hawaii.