first president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
Rhee completed a traditional classical Confucian education and then entered a Methodist school, where he learned English. He became an ardent nationalist and ultimately a Christian and in 1896 joined with other Korean leaders to form the Independence Club, a group dedicated to asserting Korean independence. When right-wing elements destroyed the club in 1898, Rhee was arrested and imprisoned until 1904. On his release he went to the United States, where in 1910 he received a Ph.D. from Princeton, becoming the first Korean to earn a Ph.D. from an American university. He returned home in 1910, the year in which Korea was annexed by Japan. Rhee found it impossible to hide his hostility toward Japanese rule, and, after working briefly in a YMCA and as a high-school principal, he returned to the United States in 1912.
He spent the next 30 years as a spokesman for Korean independence, trying in vain to win international support for his cause. In 1919 he was elected president of the Korean Provisional Government in exile. He held that post for 20 years and then was pushed out of the leadership by younger Korean nationalists centred in China. Rhee, however, remained in Washington, D.C., and spent the war years trying to secure Allied promises of Korean independence. Since Rhee was the only Korean leader well known to Americans, he was returned to Korea ahead of the other members of the Provisional Government after the war. He campaigned for a policy of immediate independence and unification of the country. He soon built up a mass political organization supported by strong-arm squads and a following among the police. With the assassination of the major moderate leaders, Rhee's new party won the elections in South Korea, and in 1948 he became president of the Republic of Korea, a post to which he was reelected in 1952, 1956, and 1960.
As president, Rhee assumed dictatorial powers, tolerating little domestic opposition to his program. Rhee purged the National Assembly and outlawed the opposition Progressive Party, whose leader was executed for treason. He controlled the appointment of mayors, village headmen, and chiefs of police. He even defied the United Nations (UN) during the Korean War. Hoping that UN forces would continue to fight, eventually uniting North and South Korea under one government, Rhee hindered the truce talks by ordering the release of the North Korean anticommunist prisoners he held. (Under the agreed-upon truce settlement, these men were to have gone back to North Korea.) Stunned, the communists broke off the negotiations and renewed their attack, largely ignoring the UN forces and concentrating their fire on Rhee's South Korean troops. Having made their point, the communists then resumed negotiations, and a truce settlement was speedily signed.
In spite of his authoritarian policies, Rhee failed to prevent the election of an opposition vice president in 1956. Government claims that the March 1960 elections gave Rhee more than 90 percent of the popular vote (55 percent in 1956) provoked student-led demonstrations resulting in heavy casualties and demands for his resignation. These demands were supported by the unanimous vote of the National Assembly. Hence, Rhee resigned on April 27, 1960, and went into exile in Hawaii.