Lee enrolled in the Manchurian Imperial Army Academy with the late President Park Chung-hee in 1940 and entered the Japanese Military Academy with him in 1942.
He played a pivotal role in the creation of the country’s first modernized armed forces following the end of Japan’s 36 years of colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula on Aug. 15, 1944.
He received the Taegeuk Medal, the highest honor for Korean soldiers, and a Silver Star from the United States, for successfully repelling Chinese troops as the 9th Division commander, during the 1950 to 53 Korea War.
The general earned respect for maintaining his political neutrality.
He rejected the demand of the top military and government authorities to force his troops to cast ballots for designated presidential and vice presidential candidates in elections on March 15, 1954.
Consequently, Lee was stripped of his post as commander of the 6th Army Corp and had to undergo the humiliation of being sent to a military graduate school as a student.
Due to his upright character, he clashed with Gen. Park, one of his best friends and military colleagues. He initially tried to deter the military coup by Park, but gave up on fears that his move could lead to a civil war and invite invasion by the communist North.
He was arrested by the coup forces and discharged from the military in 1961.
Lee was briefly exiled to the United States and had to serve a prison term on his return to his home country, largely due to his refusal to participate in Park’s military regime.
Nevertheless, after repeated requests and persuasion from Park, Lee became the head of the state-run Korea Water Resources Corporation in 1963. He also served as head of Chinhae Chemical in 1968 and construction minister in 1969.
He became head of the National Tourism Organization in 1972 and served as ambassador to Turkey and Australia between 1974 and 1980.