As printed in A HANDBOOK OF KOREA, 9th, 1993;
Published by the Korean Overseas Information Service


Korea: After the end of WW-2

Establishment of the Republic of Korea

For Koreans, who had long been denied independent development in all walks of life, the Japanese surrender in 1945 brought another confrontation-that of ideological conflicts such as many postwar colonial peoples have experienced, and the difficulty of overcoming and liquidating colonial conditions accumulated during the four decades of Japanese domination. Liberation did not bring independence for which the Koreans had fought so hard, but the inception of ideological conflict in a partitioned country.

The occupation of a divided Korea by the United States and Soviet Union frustrated the efforts of Koreans to establish an independent government. The transplantation of two conflicting political ideologies south and north of the 38th Parallel further intensified the national split. Among the Allies, the foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain met in Moscow on December 15, 1945, and decided to put Korea under the trusteeship of the four powers-the U.S., the USSR, Britain, and China-as a provisional step to unite the divided country. Korea protested against the international decision, imposed only four months after liberation from colonial rule, since it cast a shadow over Korean hopes for establishment of an independent government. The determination to resist and defy foreign domination, no matter what form it might take, is shared by all formerly colonized peoples.

Although the Communists changed their initial opposition to support, probably due to instructions from Moscow, the vast majority of the people determinedly opposed trusteeship as another form of colonial rule. This problem, together with conflict of ideologies, further accelerated the national division. In the Soviet-occupied area, the opposition to the trusteeship was suppressed, and Cho Man-sik, the prominent national leader, was put under arrest by the Soviet authorities.

Thus the partitioned occupation of Korea by the United States and the Soviet Union, together with internal conflicts, frustrated efforts for independence and unity. The series of post war international decisions made without regard for the Korean people left them far from their goal of national independence.

After the Soviet Union and the United States occupied Korea, each imposing its own system on the area under its jurisdiction, political conflict and social disorder became rampant. The internal disorder south of the 38th parallel worsened in proportion to the rigid regimentation of society under the communist system in the North until 1948, when two ideologically opposed governments were established.

On the basis of the realities of the Korean Peninsula, the Government of the Republic of Korea was proclaimed on August 15, 1948, inheriting the legitimacy of the Provisional Government in Shanghai. Without being able to eliminate the vestiges of colonial rule, the new Government of Korea faced the pressing task of reconstructing the bankrupt economy left by the Japanese, and the chaos of the three years of the post-liberation period. These, together with various other problems, were too demanding a task for a new and inexperienced government.

The ideological confrontation between the North and the South inevitably gave rise to a tense military confrontation, another major burden placed on the government. In 1948, the U.S.. Military Government handed over to the ROK Government its administrative authority. This was followed by the conclusion between the Republic of Korea and the United States of a provisional military pact and the establishment of the Economic Cooperation Administration.

In 1948, the United States withdrew its occupation forces from Korea, leaving only a small group of military advisers. The Soviet Union had already done the same in the northern half of Korea, where the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established. A number of agreements were concluded for the Soviet Union to provide North Korea with military, economic, technological, and cultural assistance. China also established diplomatic relations with North Korea. In 1949, the Communist army in North Korea provoked sporadic skirmishes along the 38th parallel.

The Korean War

Under such circumstances early on the Sunday morning of June 25, 1950, without any warning or declaration of war, North Korean troops invaded the unprepared South across 38th parallel. It was a well-prepared, all-out attack. South Korea’s troops fought bravely, but proved no match for the heavily armed Communists and the Russian T-3 tanks, who were not checked until they reached the Naktonggang River near Taegu.

The Republic of Korea appealed to the United Nations. In response, the Security Council passed a resolution ordering the Communists to withdraw to the 38th parallel and encouraged all member countries to give military support to the Republic. U.S. troops soon began to arrive, and were subsequently joined by those from 15 other nations: Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, Canada, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, Greece, Netherlands, Ethiopia, Columbia, the Philippines, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The three Scandinavian countries sent hospitals along with medical personnel.

Under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArther, the allied forces began to take the initiative, and after a surprise landing at Inch’on, pushed the Communists out of South Korea and advanced into the North.

But in October the Communist Chinese intervened, throwing such large numbers of troops into battle that the U.N. forces were forced to retreat. Seoul once again fell into Communist hands on January 4, 1951. The U.N. Forces regrouped and mounted a counterattack, retaking Seoul on March 12. A stalemate was reached roughly in the area along the 38th parallel, where the conflict had begun.

At this point the Russians called for truce negotiations, which finally began at Kaesöng in Julyof 1951,and were transferred to P’anmunjom in November that year. The talks dragged on for two years before an armistice agreement was reached on July 27, 1953.

Democratic Revolution

In the aftermath of the war, the country was beset with many problems-economic, social and political. The old patriot, Syngman Rhee, unable to see that he had outlived his useful-ness, clung tenaciously to power. This refusal on the part of Rhee and his associates to let democratic processes take their normal course was at least partly responsible for the social and political unrest that followed the war.

Social disorder and hostility to the government complicated the already staggering problems created by the war. There were many thousands of war-widows, more than 100,000 orphans, and thousands of unemployed, whose ranks were swelled by farmers leaving their land to seek work in the cities. Exact statistics are not available, but in 1961 it was estimated that there were about 279,000 unemployed, of whom 72,000 were university graduates, and 51,000 discharged soldiers and laid-off workers. This provided a powderkeg of anger and resentment that waited only for a spark to set it off.

The spark was provided by President Rhee and the Liberal Party in the course of the elections of 1960. Realizing its own unpopularity, the ruling regime used every means, legal and illegal, to rig the elections in its favor. Demonstrations broke out almost at once, especially among students. The first occurred in Taegu on February 28, 1960, protesting political interference in schools. On March 15, election day, there were student demonstrations against the election, and police fired into the crowds. In early April a riot followed the discovery at Masan of the body of a student who had been killed by police.

The most serious demonstrations were in Seoul. Responding to the Masan affair, practically all of the students in the capital poured into the streets. Again police fired on them as they near the presidential residence and there was bloodshed. Martial law was imposed and troops dispersed the crowds.

Rhee had no choice but to step down. His desire for power had overcome his patriotism in the end. The students had led the people into the first successful democratic revolution in Korea’s history, showing that Korean democracy was alive and healthy.

On July 15, 1960, an amendment to the Constitution was adopted by the incumbent assembly providing for a cabinet system of government with a bicameral legislature. At the same time, the two houses of the newly elected assembly in a joint session elected Yun Po-sun President of the Second Republic, and he was sworn in on August 15. President Yun nominated Dr. Chang Myon (John M. Chang) as prime minister, whose nomination was promptly confirmed by the House of Representatives. At this time the Liberal Party was replaced by the Democratic Party as the majority party, and it immediately split into the New Democrats and the (Old) Democrats. The Prime Minister belonged to the former while the President belonged to the latter. Neither was strong enough constitutionally or personally to fill the gap created by the sudden ouster of the 12-year-old autocratic rule of President Syngman Rhee.

The new Government was unable to cope with the situation in which it found itself. For one thing, most members of the new cabinet, while without question honest people, had little experience in government. The leaders, tasting the long-denied fruits of political power, began to wallow in its corrupting effect. The national economy had been brought to the brink of bankruptcy due to unfair tax collection practices coupled with waste and mismanagement of foreign aid and domestic resources under the Rhee Administration. Prime Minister Chang’s cabinet not only failed to muster the united support of the populace to cope with such problems, but helplessly stood by and watched daily demonstrations by students who thought they could sway national affairs by parading in the streets.

The North Korean Communists, having recovered from their disastrous adventure of 1950-1953, seized the opportunity of internal disorder in the South to subvert whatever effort the Chang Administration could put forth. Elements of doubtful allegiance began urging “peaceful unification” a familiar line of propaganda emanating from Radio P’yongyang daily at that time.

The Military Revolution and the Third and Fourth Republics

Before daybreak on May 16, 1961, the sound of sporadic rifle fire announced an uprising of military men. Battalions of soldiers, marines, and paratroopers marched into Seoul, occupying the capital city in a lightning coup led by Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee.

Later that morning, the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Army Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Chang Do-yong, announced over the radio that it had taken over all three branches of the government and proclaimed a six-point pledge: strong anti-communism, respect for the U.N. Charter, closer relations with the United States and other free nations, eradication of corruption, establishment of a self-supporting economy, and efforts for national reunification. He also pledged transfer of the government to civilian rule as soon as the revolutionary missions were accomplished.

The Revolutionary Committee, later renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, set out to implement its aims. A new constitution was approved in a national referendum and promulgated in December 1963, thus inaugurating the Third Republic. In the presidential election held in October the following year, Park Chung Hee, who had resigned from the army, ran for office, despite his original promise of retiring from politics, and was elected President. In the National Assembly elections held in November, candidates from Park’s Democratic Republican party won an impressive victory, forming a stable majority force. With the stage thus set, Park formally took office in December.

In the 1967 presidential election, President Park, with 51.4 percent of the total votes, was re-elected to a second four-year term over his chief opponent Yun Po-sun. In 1971, he won a third term by defeating Kim Dae-jung.

Under President Park’s leadership, the human and natural resources of the nation were effectively organized for the first time in modern history. The economy began to grow at an annual rate of 9.2 percent. Per capita GNP zoomed from a mere $87 in 1962 to $1,503 in 1980, and exports rose by 32.8 percent a year from $56.7 million in 1962 to $17.5 billion in 1980.

In the diplomatic area, relations were normalized with Japan in June 1965, putting an end to the hiatus of formal bilateral relations due largely to antagonism stemming from Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. It was also at the initiative of President Park that the first formal intra-Korean dialogue was begun. The Red Cross societies of the two parts of Korea began meetings in September 1971, to discuss the question of locating and exchanging information about relatives separated by the South-North division. Political contacts were started in May 1972, culminating in the historic South-North Joint Communique of July 4,1972, in which South and North Korea agreed to work for peaceful reunification.

Perceiving grave implications for Korea in the rapidly changing domestic and international situation, the Park Administration decided that to compete more effectively with North Korea and meet other challenges, all national strength should be consolidated into one cohesive force. Constitutional amendments were proposed in October 1972 and approved in a subsequent national referendum. With the promulgation of the revised Constitution in December, a new political order, referred to as the Yushin (Revitalizing Reforms) system was established and the Fourth Republic inaugurated.

In the ensuing years, Korea successfully weathered the oil crisis and continued to develop economically. The Saemaül (New Community) Movement brought increasing prosperity to rural and urban areas and provided experience in problem solving. Diplomatic relations continued to expand. Only the South-North dialogue floundered and then came to a standstill.

Successful as he was in developing a backward economy and in modernizing certain aspects of society, President Park relied on autocratic means in implementing his policies. The Yushin constitution made it possible for him to remain in office indefinitely through well-controlled electoral procedures and also ensured him a kind of built-in majority in the legislature.

People began criticizing the harshly repressive measures of the Government. There was also criticism of the injustices perpetuated in the wake of policies geared to rapid economic growth, particularly to the underprivileged. Trade union movements were severely restricted. The combination of pent-up dissatisfaction with the high-handed methods of the government and frustration in popular desire for political participation and economic redistribution led to Park’s demise .

On October 26, 1979, President Park was assassinated by the chief of the Korean CIA, and Prime Minister Choi Kyu-hah became acting president under the Constitution. Shortly thereafter he was elected President by the National Conference for Unification, an electoral college set up as part of the Yushin system.

During the next several months, Korea went through a difficult period characterized by political, social and economic instability. Hanging in balance was Korea’s development toward a fuller democracy or reversion to the autocratic past. Under such circumstances, another military leader, Chun Doo Hwan, emerged. It also was in the midst of this political upheaval that the tragic Kwangju incident took place. In May 1980, civilian uprisings in that southern city protesting the new military autocracy were harshly put down by troops, causing a large number of casualities and providing an anti-government issue that was to linger for years.

Chun was subsequently elected President in the electoral college set up under the Yushin Constitution on August 27, and in October, he promulgated a new revised constitution, which limited the presidency to a single seven-year term.

The Fifth Republic

Following the establishment of the Fifth Republic, events moved quickly. Political parties began to organize again in December 1980, and all political activities were resumed in January 1981; martial law was lifted at the same time. A presidential election was held in February along with National Assembly elections. On April 11, the opening session of the National Assembly, consisting of 276 members from eight political parties, was convened and the groundwork for the Fifth Republic was in place. On March 3, 1981, President Chun took office, promising to build a “Great Korea” in a new era.

Although it was virtually the same as the Third and the Fourth Republics in its autocratic governing, the Fifth Republic registered some remarkable achievements, including the firstever surplus in the international balance of payments and a peaceful transfer of power at the end of the seven-year term of President Chun, no small feat considering Korea’s past record of political upheaval at the end of every presidency. The period also was plagued by many political problems, however, that tended to overshadow the accomplishments. Questions included the legitimacy of the Government itself and pressure for constitutional change for the direct election of a president. The Sixth Republic was born out of the need to find a solution to these pressing issues which had grown to crisis proportions.

The Sixth Republic

The Sixth Republic began with the inauguration of Roh Tae Woo as president for the 13th presidential term and the simultaneous implementation of the revised Constitution. These events had been preceded by the June 29, 1987 Declaration of Political Reforms in which Roh acceded to all of the opposition’s demands, thereby defusing the political crisis and providing for the first direct election of the president in 16 years. The Sixth Republic, unlike the Fifth, thus began on a positive note with the most serious political issues being resolved.

President Roh began his term of office promising that authoritarian rule would end and that the June 29 Declaration would continue to be faithfully implemented. Many steps were taken to change not only the appearance of the Government but the substance as well. These ranged from the repeal or revision of non-democratic laws after the entire legal code had been reviewed, to the use of a round table at presidential meetings to improve interaction with his ministers. A number of people who had been detained on political charges were released and had their civil rights restored. Institutional and non-institutional interference in press activities and labor-management affairs was discontinued.

The elections for the 13th National Assembly held on April 26, 1988, ended with surprising results. Not only was the ruling Democratic Justice Party unable to win a working majority in the Assembly, but Kim Daejung’s Party for Peace and Democracy became the largest opposition party, with Kim Young Sam’s Reunification Democratic Party and Kim Jong-pil’s New Democratic Republican Party placing third and fourth respectively. In their first test of strength in the Assembly after the elections, the strengthened opposition rejected President Roh’s first appointee for Chief Justice, although they later accepted his second choice.

The Assembly’s first major work was the establishment of special panels to look into various aspects of the Fifth Republic, including irregularities of the government, the Kwangju pro-democracy movement of 1980, claims of election fraud, controversial laws, and the problem of regionalism.

The political environment was shaken in January of 1990 when the ruling DLP, in an effort to overcome its mere plurality-status in the Assembly, managed to bring in Kim Young Sam’s RDP and Kim Jong-pil’s NDRP. The three parties were merged into the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), which now commanded a two-thirds majority in the legislative body.

The DLP won a landslide victory in local-council elections on March 26 and June 20, 1991. In the 14th National Assembly elections held on March 24, 1992, however, the ruling DLP fared much worse, failing to maintain its majority by a single seat. This setback was only temporary as the DLP managed to recruit several independent lawmakers to its flag, thereby regaining its simple legislative majority. The Kim Young Sam Administration

The Kim Young Sam Administration

The elections for the 14th presidential term were held on December 18, 1992.The three major candidates were the ruling DLP’s Kim Young Sam, the opposition Democratic Party’s Kim Dae-jung, and the newly founded United People’s Party candidate Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai Group. Kim Young Sam was elected, winning 42 percent of the votes, far outpacing Kim Dae-jung, his former opposition party colleague and fellow participant in the fight against authoritarian regimes, as well as his intense political rival. Chung Ju-yung did not do as well as some had expected. Kim’s election returned Korea to the hands of a democratically elected civilian President for the first time since the military coup d’etat of 1961.

In his inaugural remarks on Feburary 25, 1993, President Kim Young Sam vowed publicly to build a “New Korea,” pledging to fight corruption in the public and private sectors and to revitalize Korea’s straining economy. President Kim called on the Korean people to join him in building a New Korea by increasing national discipline, cooperating more extensively and bearing a fair share of the load. He urged Koreans to recapture their evaporating industriousness, to stop the erosion of their values and regain their self-confidence.

One of President Kim’s initial measures after taking office was to open the streets around Chong Wa Dae, the presidential office and residence complex, to ordinary citizens. Under the previous authoritarian governments, citizens had been barred access to the areas surrounding the Blue House for security reasons.

In his first few months in office, President Kim was more active in his fight against corruption than anyone could have ever imagined, unleashing a veritable whirlwind of reform. His cabinet almost immediately published a “100 Day Plan for the New Economy,” a series of short-term measures designed to boost the economy; this was later followed by the announcement of a New Five-Year Plan for the New Economy, a set of long-term economy policies. The President also announced the implementation of the real-name financial transaction system in August 1993, a major economic reform designed to eliminate corruption and irregularities in the economy.

Asserting that “no one should strive for power and money at the same time,” President Kim also required the submission of financial statements by all major government, political and military figures, most of which were made public. Several of the initially appointed cabinet members were forced to resign when the public became aware of their past improperties. A number of DLP Assemblymen resigned or bolted from the party for similar reasons, and the prosecution moved to indict others. The opposition DP, after releasing its own round of public financial statements, also lost face when it could not agree on how to proceed against several of its own Assemblymen caught in the same snare. A common refrain emerged in the press- “There’s no stopping Y.S.”-as the press has nicknamed the new President, after his English initials.

President Kim has said he expects his reform campaign against corruption to continue throughout his five-year term, and at this point, no one doubts him. His anti-corruption efforts extended to not only the Administration and party, but also the military, universities, banks, and even traffic police. Some of these sectors were known as sanctuaries in past regimes. President Kim’s reforms have amounted to a “quiet revolution” which is enormously popular. A nationwide poll released by the Korean Gallup Company in late September showed over 90 percent approval rating for his reforms.

History will rate the success of President Kim’s five-year term on whether his quiet revolution succeeds. If the reforms continue with their success, President Kim’s popular civilian government will set the precedent for what a clean and democratic government can and should accomplish in Korea.