History of South Korea

For the history of Korea before its division, see History of Korea.
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History of South Korea
USAMGIK 194548
First Republic 194860
 : Korean War 195053
 : Syngman Rhee administration 194860
 : April Revolution 1960
 : Heo Jeong Caretaker Government 1960
Second Republic 196061
 : Jang Myeon Cabinet 196061
 : May 16 coup 1961
Constitutional Vacuum 196163
 : Yoon Bo-seon administration 196162
 : First Junta 196163
Third Republic 196372
 : Park Chung-hee administration 196372
 : Self-coup of Park Chung-hee 1972
Fourth Republic 197281
 : Assassination of Park Chung-hee 1979
 : Coup d'état of December Twelfth 1979
 : Coup d'état of May Seventeenth 1980
 : Gwangju Uprising 1980
 : Second Junta 198081
Fifth Republic 198187
 : Chun Doo-hwan administration 198187
 : June Democratic Uprising 1987
 : Grand Labor Struggle 1987
Sixth Republic 1987present
 : Roh Tae-woo administration 198793
 : Kim Young-sam administration 199398
 : National Moratorium 19972001
 : Kim Dae-jung administration 19982003
 : Roh Moo-hyun administration 20032008
 : Lee Myung-bak administration 20082013
 : Park Geun-hye administration 2013present
South Korea portal

The history of South Korea formally begins with its establishment on 17 August 1948, although Syngman Rhee had officially declared independence two days prior.

In the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Korea which ended with Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, Korea was divided the 38th parallel north in accordance with a United Nations arrangement, to be administered by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. The Soviets and Americans were unable to agree on the implementation of Joint Trusteeship over Korea. This led in 1948 to the establishment of two separate governments, each claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea. Eventually, following the Korean War, the two separate governments stabilized into the existing political entities of North and South Korea.

South Korea's subsequent history is marked by alternating periods of democratic and autocratic rule. Civilian governments are conventionally numbered from the First Republic of Syngman Rhee to the contemporary Sixth Republic. The First Republic, arguably democratic at its inception, became increasingly autocratic until its collapse in 1960. The Second Republic was strongly democratic, but was overthrown in less than a year and replaced by an autocratic military regime. The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics were nominally democratic, but are widely regarded as the continuation of military rule.[1] With the Sixth Republic, the country has gradually stabilized into a liberal democracy.

Since its inception, South Korea has seen substantial development in education, economy, and culture. Since the 1960s, the country has developed from one of Asia's poorest to one of the world's wealthiest nations. Education, particularly at the tertiary level, has expanded dramatically. It is said to be one of the "Four Tigers" of rising Asian states along with Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.[2][3]

U.S. Military administration 1945–1948

Yeo Woon-Hyung (far right) at the US-Soviet Joint Commission (1947) alt text
Yeo Woon-Hyung (far right) at the US-Soviet Joint Commission in 1947

Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of the Empire of Japan to the Allied Powers on 15 August 1945. General Order No. 1 for the surrender of Japan (prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of U.S. military forces and approved on 17 August 1945) prescribed separate surrender procedures for Japanese forces in Korea north and south of the 38th parallel. After Japan's surrender to the Allies (formalised on 2 September 1945), division at the 38th parallel marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the North and South, respectively. This division was meant to be temporary and was first intended to return a unified Korea back to its people until the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Republic of China could arrange a trusteeship administration. In February 1945 the Yalta Conference discussed the issue of trusteeship for Korea.[4][5][6] U.S. forces landed at Incheon on September 8, 1945 and established a military government shortly thereafter.[7] Lt. General John R. Hodge, their commander, took charge of the government.[8] Faced with mounting popular discontent, in October 1945 Hodge established the Korean Advisory Council. A year later, an interim legislature and interim government were established, headed by Kim Kyu-shik and Syngman Rhee respectively. However, these interim bodies lacked any independent authority or de jure sovereignty, which was still held by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea based in China, but U.S. leaders chose to ignore its legitimacy, partly because of it communist alignment.[9][10] Political and economic chaos - arising from a variety of causes - plagued the country in this period. The after-effects of the Japanese exploitation remained in the South, as in the North.[11] In addition, the U.S. military was largely unprepared for the challenge of administering the country, arriving with no knowledge of the language, culture or political situation.[9] Thus many of their policies had unintended destabilizing effects. Waves of refugees from North Korea and returnees from abroad also helped to keep the country in turmoil.[12]

In December 1945 a conference convened in Moscow to discuss the future of Korea.[13] A 5-year trusteeship was discussed, and a US-Soviet joint commission was established. The commission met intermittently in Seoul but deadlocked over the issue of establishing a national government. In September 1947, with no solution in sight, the United States submitted the Korean question to the UN General Assembly.[4][5]

The resolution from the UN General Assembly called for a UN-supervised general election in Korea, but after the North rejected this proposition, a general election for a Constitutional Assembly took place in the South only, in May 1948. A constitution was adopted, setting forth a presidential form of government and specifying a four-year term for the presidency. According to the provisions of the Constitution, an indirect presidential election took place in July. Syngman Rhee, as head of the new assembly, assumed the presidency and proclaimed the Republic of Korea (South Korea) on August 15, 1948.[14][15][16]

First Republic 1948–1960

General Douglas MacArthur and Syngman Rhee, Korea's first President, warmly greet one another upon the General's arrival at Kimpo Air Force Base alt text
General Douglas MacArthur and Syngman Rhee, Korea's first President, warmly greet one another upon the General's arrival at Gimpo Air Force Base

On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was formally established, with Syngman Rhee as the first president. With the establishment of Rhee's government, de jure sovereignty also passed into the new government. On September 9, 1948, a communist regime, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), was proclaimed under Kim Il-sung.[14][15][16] However, on December 12, 1948, by its resolution 195 in the Third General Assembly, the United Nations recognized the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea.[17]

In 1946, the North implemented land reforms by confiscating private property, Japanese and pro-Japanese owned facilities and factories, and placed them under state ownership.[14] Demand for land reform in the South grew strong, and it was eventually enacted in June 1949. Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. Approximately 40 percent of total farm households became small landowners.[18] However, because preemptive rights were given to people who had ties with landowners before liberation, many pro-Japanese groups obtained or retained properties.[14]

The country now divided, the relationship between the two Koreas turned more antagonistic as time passed. The Soviet forces having withdrawn in 1948, North Korea pressured the South to expel the United States forces, but Rhee sought to align his government strongly with America, and against both North Korea and Japan.[19] Although talks towards normalization of relations with Japan took place, they achieved little.[20] Meanwhile, the government took in vast sums of American aid, in amounts sometimes near the total size of the national budget.[21] The nationalist government also continued many of the practices of the U.S. military government. In 1948, the Rhee government repressed military uprisings in Jeju, Suncheon and Yeosu.[15][22]

The main policy of the First Republic of South Korea was anti-communism and "unification by expanding northward". The South's military was neither sufficiently equipped nor prepared, but the Rhee administration was determined to reunify Korea by military force with aid from the United States. However, in the second parliamentary elections held on May 30, 1950, the majority of seats went to independents who did not endorse this position, confirming the lack of support and the fragile state of the nation.[15][23][24]

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the U.S., a 16-member coalition undertook the first collective action under the United Nations Command (UNC) in defense of South Korea.[25][26][27] Oscillating battle lines inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. With the People's Republic of China's entry on behalf of North Korea in late 1950, the fighting came to a stalemate close to the original line of demarcation. Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, finally concluded on July 27, 1953[28] at Panmunjeom, now in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Following the armistice, the South Korean government returned to Seoul on the symbolic date of August 15, 1953.[25][29]

After the armistice, South Korea experienced political turmoil under years of autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee, which was ended by student revolt in 1960. Throughout his rule, Rhee sought to take additional steps to cement his control of government. These began in 1952, when the government was still based in Busan due to the ongoing war. In May of that year, Rhee pushed through constitutional amendments which made the presidency a directly-elected position. To do this, he declared martial law, arrested opposing members of parliament, demonstrators, and anti-government groups. Rhee was subsequently elected by a wide margin.[30][31][32]

Rhee regained control of parliament in the 1954 elections, and thereupon pushed through an amendment to exempt himself from the eight-year term limit, and was once again re-elected in 1956.[33] Soon after, Rhee's administration arrested members of the opposing party and executed the leader after accusing him of being a North Korean spy.[32][34]

The administration became increasingly repressive while dominating the political arena, and in 1958, it sought to amend the National Security Law to tighten government control over all levels of administration, including the local units.[31] These measures caused much outrage among the people, but despite public outcry, Rhee's administration rigged the March 15, 1960 presidential elections and won by a landslide.[35]

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 country was enraged and protests spread nationwide.[36][37] On April 19, students from various universities and schools rallied and marched in protest in the Seoul streets, in what would be called the April Revolution. The government declared martial law, called in the army, and suppressed the crowds with open fire.[36][38][39] Subsequent protests throughout the country shook the government, and after an escalated protest with university professors taking to the streets on April 25, Rhee submitted his official resignation on April 26 and fled into exile.

Second Republic 1960–1961

After the student revolution, power was briefly held by an interim administration under the foreign minister Heo Jeong.[40] A new parliamentary election was held on July 29, 1960. 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. This was the first and the only instance South Korea turned to a parliamentary cabinet system instead of a presidential system.[41] The assembly elected Yun Bo-seon as President and Chang Myon as the prime minister and head of government in August, 1960.[36][42][43][44]

The Second Republic saw the proliferation of political activity which had been repressed under the Rhee regime. Much of this activity was from leftist and student groups, which had been instrumental in the overthrow of the First Republic. Union membership and activity grew rapidly during the later months of 1960, including the Teachers' Union, Journalists' Union, and the Federation of Korean Trade Union.[36][45] Around 2,000 demonstrations were held during the eight months of the Second Republic.[46]

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.[47][48] 40,000 people were placed under investigation; of these, more than 2,200 government officials and 4,000 police officers were purged.[47] In addition, the government considered reducing the size of the army by 100,000, although this plan was shelved.[49]

In economic terms as well, the government was faced with mounting instability. The government formulated a five-year economic development plan, although it was unable to act on it prior to being overthrown.[50] The Second Republic saw the hwan lose half of its value against the dollar between fall 1960 and spring 1961.[51]

Although the government had been established with support of the people, it had failed to implement effective reforms which brought about endless social unrest, political turmoil and ultimately, the 16 May coup d'état.

Military rule 1961–1963

May 16 coup, Major General Park Chung-hee (right)

The May 16 coup, led by Major General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961, put an effective end to the Second Republic. Park was one of a group of military leaders who had been pushing for the de-politicization of the military. Dissatisfied with the cleanup measures undertaken by the Second Republic and convinced that the current disoriented state would collapse into communism, they chose to take matters into their own hands.[52][53][54]

The National Assembly was dissolved and military officers replaced the civilian officials. In May 1961, the junta declared "Pledges of the Revolution": anticommunism was to be the nation's main policy; friendly relations would be strengthened with allies of the free world, notably the United States; all corruption and government misdeed would be disposed and "fresh and clean morality" would be introduced; the reconstruction of a self-reliant economy would be priority; the nation's ability would be nurtured to fight against communism and achieve reunification; and that government would be returned to a democratic civilian government within two years.[52][53][54][55]

As a means to check the opposition, the military authority created the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) in June 1961, with Kim Jong-pil, a relative of Park, as its first director.[53][55][56] In December 1962, a referendum was held on returning to a presidential system of rule, which was allegedly passed with a 78% majority.[57] Park and the other military leaders pledged not to run for office in the next elections. However, Park became presidential candidate of the new Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which consisted of mainly KCIA officials, ran for president and won the election of 1963 by a narrow margin.[52][54][55][57]

Third Republic 1963–1972

South Korean citizens perform a card stunt for President Park Chung-hee on South Korean Army day, 1 October 1973.

Park's administration started the Third Republic by announcing the Five Year Economic development Plan, an export-oriented industrialization policy. Top priority was placed on the growth of a self-reliant economy and modernization; "Development First, Unification Later" became the slogan of the times and the economy grew rapidly with vast improvement in industrial structure, especially in the basic and heavy chemical industries.[58][59] Capital was needed for such development, so the Park regime used the influx of foreign aid from Japan and the United States to provide loans to export businesses, with preferential treatment in obtaining low-interest bank loans and tax benefits. Cooperating with the government, these businesses would later become the chaebol.[53][58][60]

Relations with Japan were normalized by the Korea-Japan treaty ratified in June 1965.[61][62] This treaty brought Japanese funds in the form of loans and compensation for the damages suffered during the colonial era without an official apology from the Japanese government, sparking much protest across the nation.[53][58]

South Korean involvement in the Vietnam War, a controversial issue of the Third Republic.

The government also kept close ties with the United States, and continued to receive large amounts of aid. A status of forces agreement was concluded in 1966, clarifying the legal situation of the US forces stationed there.[63][64] Soon thereafter, Korea joined the Vietnam War, eventually sending a total of 300,000 soldiers from 1964 to 1973 to fight alongside US troops and South Vietnamese Armed Forces.[53][59][65]

Economic and technological growth during this period improved the standard for living, which expanded opportunities for education. Workers with higher education were absorbed by the rapidly growing industrial and commercial sectors, and urban population surged.[66] Construction of the Gyeongbu Expressway was completed and linked Seoul to the nation's southeastern region and the port cities of Incheon and Busan. Despite the immense economic growth, however, the standard of living for city laborers and farmers was still low. Laborers were working with low wages to increase the price competitiveness for the export-oriented economy plan, and farmers were in near poverty as the government controlled prices.[58][67] As the rural economy steadily lost ground and caused dissent among the farmers, however, the government decided to implement measures to increase farm productivity and income by instituting the Saemauel Movement ("New Village Movement") in 1971. The movement's goal was to improve the quality of rural life, modernize both rural and urban societies and narrow the income gap between them.[66][68]

Park ran again in the election of 1967, taking 51.4% of the vote.[57] At the time the presidency was constitutionally limited to two terms, but a constitutional amendment was forced through the National Assembly in 1969 to allow him to seek a third term.[58][69][70] Major protests and demonstrations against the constitutional amendment broke out, with large support gaining for the opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, but Park was again re-elected in the 1971 presidential election.[71]

Parliamentary elections followed shortly after the presidential election where the opposition party garnered most of the seats, giving them the power to pass constitutional amendments. Park, feeling threatened, declared a state of national emergency on December 6, 1971.[58] In the midst of this domestic insecurity, the Nixon Doctrine had eased tensions among the world superpowers on the international scene, which caused a dilemma for Park, who had justified his regime based on the state policy of anti-communism.[58] In a sudden gesture, the government proclaimed a joint communiqué for reunification with North Korea on July 4, 1972, and held Red Cross talks in Seoul and Pyongyang. However, there was no change in government policy regarding reunification, and on October 17, 1972, Park declared martial law, dissolving the National Assembly and suspending the constitution.[68][72]

Fourth Republic 1972–1979

The Fourth Republic began with the adoption of the Yushin Constitution on November 21, 1972. This new constitution gave Park effective control over the parliament and the possibility of permanent presidency. The president would be elected through indirect election by an elected body, and the term of presidency was extended to six years with no restrictions on reappointment. The legislature and judiciary were controlled by the government, and educational guidelines were under direct surveillance as well. Textbooks supporting the ideology of the military government were authorized by the government, diminishing the responsibilities of the Ministry of Education.[68]

Despite social and political unrest, the economy continued to flourish under the authoritarian rule with the export-based industrialization policy. The first two five-year economic development plans were successful, and the 3rd and 4th five-year plans focused on expanding the heavy and chemical industries, raising the capability for steel production and oil refining. However, large conglomerate chaebols continuously received preferential treatment and came to dominate the domestic market. As most of the development had come from foreign capital, most of the profit went back to repaying the loans and interest.[60][68]

Students and activists for democracy continued their demonstrations and protests for the abolition of the Yushin system and in the face of continuing popular unrest, Park's administration promulgated emergency decrees in 1974 and 1975, which led to the jailing of hundreds of dissidents. The protests grew larger and stronger, with politicians, intellectuals, religious leaders, laborers and farmers all joining in the movement for democracy. In 1978, Park was elected to another term by indirect election, which was met with more demonstrations and protests. The government retaliated by removing the opposition leader Kim Young-sam from the assembly and suppressing the activists with violent means. In 1979, mass anti-government demonstrations occurred nationwide, in the midst of this political turmoil, Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the director of the KCIA, Kim Jae-gyu, thus bringing the 18-year rule of military regime to an end.[68][72][73]

Fifth Republic 1979–1987

Mangwol-dong cemetery (2008)
Mangwol-dong cemetery, burial grounds of the victims of the Gwangju Democratization Movement

After the assassination of Park Chung-hee, prime minister Choi Kyu-hah took the president's role only to be usurped 6 days later by Major General Chun Doo-hwan's 1979 Coup d'état of December Twelfth.[68] In May of the following year, a vocal civil society composed primarily of university students and labour unions led strong protests against authoritarian rule all over the country. Chun Doo-hwan declared martial law on May 17, 1980, and protests escalated. Political opponents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil were arrested, and Kim Young-sam was confined to house arrest.[74]

On May 18, 1980, a confrontation broke out in the city of Gwangju between protesting students of Chonnam National University and the armed forces dispatched by the Martial Law Command. The incident turned into a citywide protest that lasted nine days until May 27 and resulted in the Gwangju massacre. Immediate estimates of the civilian death toll ranged from a few dozen to 2000, with a later full investigation by the civilian government finding nearly 200 deaths and 850 injured.[75][76][77] In June 1980, Chun ordered the National Assembly to be dissolved. He subsequently created the National Defense Emergency Policy Committee, and installed himself as a member. On 17 July, he resigned his position of KCIA Director, and then held only the position of committee member. In September 1980, President Choi Kyu-ha was forced to resign from president to give way to the new military leader, Chun.

In September of that year, 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 it to a single 7-year term, strengthening the authority of the National Assembly, and conferring the responsibilities of appointing judiciary to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. However, the system of indirect election of the president stayed and many military persons were appointed to highly ranked government positions, keeping the remnants of the Yushin era.[77][78]

The government promised a new era of economic growth and democratic justice. Tight monetary laws and low interest rates contributed to price stability and helped the economy boom with notable growth in the electronics, semi-conductor, and automobile industries. The country opened up to foreign investments and GDP rose as Korean exports increased. This rapid economic growth, however, widened the gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and rural regions, and also exacerbated inter-regional conflicts. These dissensions, added to the hard-line measures taken against opposition to the government, fed intense rural and student movements, which had continued since the beginning of the republic.[74][78]

In foreign policy, ties with Japan were strengthened by state visits by Chun to Japan and Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro to Korea. U.S. President Ronald Reagan also paid a visit, and relations with the Soviet Union and China improved.[79] The relationship with North Korea was strained when in 1983 a terrorist bomb attack in Burma killed 17 high-ranking officials attending memorial ceremonies and North Korea was alleged to be behind the attacks. However, in 1980 North Korea had submitted a "one nation, two system" reunification proposal which was met with a suggestion from the South to meet and prepare a unification constitution and government through a referendum. The humanitarian issue of reuniting separated families was dealt with first, and in September 1985, families from both sides of the border made cross visits to Seoul and Pyongyang in an historic event.[74][78]

The government made many efforts for cultural development: the National Museum of Korea, Seoul Arts Center, and National Museum of Contemporary Art were all constructed during this time. The 1986 Asian Games were held successfully, and the bid for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul was successful as well.[74]

Despite economic growth and success in diplomatic relations, the government that gained power by coup d'etat was essentially a military regime and the public's support and trust in it was low when the promises for democratic reform never materialized.[78] In the 1985 National Assembly elections, opposition parties won more votes than the government party, clearly indicating that the public wanted a change.[80] Many started to sympathize with the protesting students. The Gwangju Massacre was never forgotten and in January 1987, when a protesting Seoul National University student died under police interrogation, public fury was immense. In April 1987, President Chun made a declaration that measures would be taken to protect the current constitution, instead of reforming it to allow for the direct election of the president. This announcement consolidated and strengthened the opposition; in June 1987, more than a million students and citizens participated in the nationwide anti-government protests of the June Democracy Movement.[78][81][82]

On June 29, 1987, the government's presidential nominee Roh Tae-woo gave in to the demands and announced the June 29 Declaration, which called for the holding of direct presidential elections and restoration of civil rights. In October 1987 a revised Constitution was approved by a national referendum and direct elections for a new president were held in December, bringing the 5th Republic to a close.[81][83]

Sixth Republic 1987–present

Olympic Park – Seoul, South Korea text
Olympic Park – Seoul, South Korea.
Korean peninsula at night in 2000.
Bushes greet South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2008
President George W. Bush and Laura Bush welcome South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok to the Presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland in 2008.

The Sixth Republic was established in 1987 and remains the current republic of South Korea.[84]

The government of the Sixth Republic had transferred power from the authoritarian Fifth Republic of Chun Doo-hwan to the Sixth Republic as a result of popular protests. In modern independent South Korea, typically governments have changed as the result of coups and assassinations. The Sixth Republic has represented a break from previous South Korean politics and has presided over South Korea's most successful period of economic development. That same year, Roh Tae-woo, one of Chun's colleagues in the 1979 coup, was elected president by popular vote. By 1992, Kim Young-sam was elected president. He was the country's first civilian president in 30 years.

In 1997, the nation suffered from the Asian financial crisis, from which it has now more than fully recovered. South Korea has also democratized its political processes. This was the first transfer of the government between parties by peaceful means. Kim Dae-jung pursued a "Sunshine Policy" to reconcile with North Korea, culminating in the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for which Kim Dae-Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. However, the efficacy of the Sunshine Policy was brought into question amid allegations of corruption.

Roh Moo-hyun was elected to the presidency in 2002. On 12 March 2004, the South Korean National Assembly (Parliament) voted to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun on charges of corruption and political patronage. The Uri Party, which solely supported the President, angrily boycotted the vote. This motion clearly affected the outcome of the parliamentary election held on 15 April 2004, in which the Uri Party won 152 seats from the total of 299 seats in the National Assembly.

For the first time in 18 years the ruling party became the majority in the House. This was arguably the first time in more than 40 years that a liberal party has held a majority in the Assembly. However, the Uri Party suffered several electoral setbacks thereafter.

Park Geun-hye was inaugurated in February 2013. She is the eleventh and current President of South Korea. She is the first woman to be elected as the South Korean president and is serving the 18th presidential term. She also is the first woman head of state in the modern history of Northeast Asia.[85]

See also


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