A Quick History of the Democratization of South Korea


With the Presidential Election occurring tomorrow, I was curious about the history of South Korea. Talking to students and co-workers  peaked my interest so this past week I’ve been studying a bit about the history of the democratization of South Korea. I am by no means an expert but here are the basics along with some of the facts that I think gives us a glimpse into Korea. Here is a short summary of what I found :


1910 – 45 

The Japanese Occupation

Japan occupied Korea in 1910, ending its monarch rule. Japan helped build up Korea’s infrastructure, especially the street and railroad systems. The Japanese attempted to eliminate the Korean culture from society, destroying some Korean artifacts, statues and buildings in the process. People were forced to adopt Japanese names, convert to the Japanese religion of Shinto and were forbidden to use Korean language in schools and business. During World War II, Japan used Korea for its resources, including its people, whether for forced labor, sex slaves (women known as “comfort women”) and medical experiments. Koreans, along with many other Asians, were experimented on in Unit 731, a secret military medical experimentation unit in World War II. Many of the forced laborers were never repatriated to Korea.

1945 – 60

The First Republic & the Korean War

The Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the 38th parallel marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the North and South, respectively. In 1946, an interim legislature and interim government were established, making Seungman Lee 이승만 the first President of South Korea. On September 9, 1948, a communist regime, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Kim Il Seong 김일성.
Soon after taking office, Lee enacted laws that severely curtailed political dissent. It soon became clear that Lee’s governing style was going to be authoritarian. His government oversaw several massacres, including the Jeju massacre, where up to 60,000 rebels and civilians were reportedly killed by the Army. Both Lee and Kim Il Seong wanted to unite the Korean peninsula under their individual governments, but the United States refused to give South Korea any heavy weapons. By contrast, Pyongyang was well-equipped with Soviet aircraft and tanks. On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded the South, starting the Korean War 한국 전쟁. UN forces helped the South while Communist Chinese volunteers sided with the North, resulting in a three-year war which left millions dead on both sides.
Student protests in Masan (the city I visited just a few weeks ago) against the corrupt government caused Seungman Lee to step down as president in 1960. On that election day, protests by students and citizens against the irregularities of the election burst out in the city of Masan. Initially these protests were quelled with force by local police, but when the body of a student was found floating in the harbor of Masan, the whole nation was enraged and protests spread nationwide. He died in exile in Honolulu, Hawaii.

1961 – 79

The Second & Third Republic

The Democratic Party, which had been in the opposition during the First Republic, easily gained power and the Second Republic was established. The revised constitution dictated the Second Republic to take the form of a parliamentary cabinet system where the President took only a nominal role. The assembly elected Yun Bo Seon 윤보선 as President and Chang Myeon 장면 as the prime minister and head of government in August, 1960. Under pressure from the left, the Chang government carried out a series of purges of military and police officials who had been involved in anti-democratic activities or corruption. A Special Law to this effect was passed on October 31, 1960. 40,000 people were placed under investigation; of these, more than 2,200 government officials and 4,000 police officers were purged.

South Korea’s First Dictator

The May 16 coup, led by Major General Park Cheong Hee 박정희 on May 16, 1961, put an effective end to the Second Republic. He then established martial law and later had himself elected president. Park’s administration started the Third Republic by announcing the Five Year Economic Development Plan, an export-oriented industrialization policy. Though his leadership was oppressive, President Park instigated many economic and social changes which helped elevate Korea into and industrializing nation. Major infrastructure enhancements, including the Seoul-Busan expressway and the Seoul subway system, began under his regime. The Fourth Republic began with the adoption of the Yusin Constitution on November 21, 1972. This new constitution gave Park effective control over the parliament and the possibility of permanent presidency. The Korean CIA director Kim Jae Kyu 김재규 assassinated President Park on October 26, 1979, thus bringing the 18-year rule of military regime to an end.

2012 Elections

To understand what is happening currently in Korea, we must understand that he was born in Gumi, a small city outside of Daegu. Daegu is known to be a conservative city, so a lot of older people still support his rule and currently wish to see his daughter take power. His wife was assassinated the previous year by Mun Segwang, a North Korean sympathizer from Japan during an attempt on his life. His daughter,  Park Geun Hye 박근혜, is currently running for President. 

1980 – 87

The Fifth Republic 

After President Park’s assassination, the prime minister took the president’s role. It only lasted for 6 days, when  General Cheon Du Hwan 전두환 staged a military coup and took power on May 17, 1980. After re-establishing martial law which closed universities, placed further restrictions on the press and banned political activities, he had himself elected President and banned several hundred former politicians from campaigning.  Uprising in the city of Gwangju occurred on May 18 to 27, 1980 and is referred to as the Gwangju Democratization Movement 광주 민주화 운동 and sometimes called 5.18, in reference to the date the uprising began.  During this period, citizens rose up against Cheon’s dictatorship and took control of the city. In the course of the uprising, citizens took up arms by raiding police stations and military depots to oppose the government and re-establishment of Marshall law, but were ultimately crushed by the South Korean army. Estimates suggest up to 2,000 people may have died, although numbers range from as little as a few hundreds to a few thousands. 
The government denounced the uprising as a rebellion instigated by Kim Dae Jung 김대중 (a politician) and his followers. In subsequent trials, Kim was convicted and sentenced to death. With the intervention of the United States government and international supporters (including the Pope), the sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison and later he was given exile to the U.S. Kim temporarily settled in Boston and taught at Harvard University as a visiting professor to the Center for International Affairs, until he chose to return to his homeland in 1985. 
In September of 1980, Chun was elected president by indirect election and inaugurated in March of the following year, officially starting the 5th Republic. A new Constitution was established with notable changes; maintaining the presidential system but limiting to a single 7 year term, and strengthening the authority of the National Assembly. But the system of indirect election of president stayed. Despite the economic growth and results in diplomacy, the government, having gained power by coup d’etat, was essentially a military regime When a protesting Seoul National University student died under police interrogation in 1987, public fury was immense, forcing President Chun to implement more social reforms and hold presidential elections in 1988.

Relevant to today

A new movie called 26년 (26 years) is now out in theaters. It is a fictional story about a group of people searching for the person responsible for the Gwangju attacks. 
Ex President Chun is still alive today and this past year got into some hot water: Disgraced Ex-President Claims to Live on $300, Joins Golf Club

1988 – 92 The Sixth Republic

General Noh Tae Woo 노태우, Chun’s chosen political successor, won the presidential election. Noh befriended Chun Du Hwan while in high school in Daegu. The opposition party failed to field a single candidate, splitting the opposition vote and giving Noh a comfortable win and became the country’s first cleanly elected president. During his term, President Noh’s government established diplomatic relations with many non-capitalist countries, including the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, both long-term allies of communist North Korea. The successful hosting of the 1988 Olympic Games brought Korea to the center stage of world recognition.

1992 – 1996

The election of President Kim Yeong Sam 김영삼 ushered in a new era of civilian rule. The implementation of the real-name financial transaction act put an end to the easy hiding of hot money. Another 2,000 rules and regulations were abolished or amended during President Kim’s term. Kia Motors collapsed, setting off a chain of events which embroiled South Korea in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis during the last year of his presidency. Despite the many contributions he made, Kim, Yeong- Sam will probably be remembered most for the dismal economic situation the country was in when he left office. 

“Trial of the Century”

Almost immediately, Kim came under pressure to right the wrongs of the military government’s past transgressions. After a long investigation, former Presidents Chun and Noh were found to have initiated the 1979 coup, now referred to as a “premeditated military rebellion,” that led them to power. At first, it appeared the two men would not be prosecuted; however, public outrage demanded that they be tried for staging the 1979 coup and the Gwangju massacre. They each faced separate bribery charges. Chun received life imprisonment, while Noh was sentenced to 17 years in jail. President Kim Yeong Sam issued a special pardon for them a year later, in the name of national reconciliation.

1997 – 2002

The election of President Kim Dae Jung 김대중 (the man who had been arrested during the Gwangju Democratization Movement) marked the first time an opposition leader has been elected as president in Korea. In diplomacy, Kim Dae Jung pursued the “Sunshine Policy“, a series of efforts to reconcile with North Korea. This led to reunions between the separated families of the Korean War, and the summit talk with North Korean leaderKim Jong-il. Because of this, he was the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He came to be called the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” for his long-standing opposition to authoritarian rule. The Wikileaks data reveals that the US Embassy in Seoul described Kim as “South Korea’s first left-wing president” to the American government on his day of death.

Bill Clinton Kim Dae-Jung


So here is where I read up to. I was blown away by how hard it was to get a democratic government in South Korea. And even the past few presidents have shown moments of corruption, bribery etc. I forget how young Korea is sometimes, the flashy technology sometimes blinds me from how new it all really is. So tomorrow is election day, and another moment for Koreans to choose how they will be governed. But I am assured that if they are really unhappy and disagree with what their government is doing, they (especially the young people) will stand up for their rights. I hope they continue to feel like they are being heard, and can mature and define what democracy means to them.