Korean History Since 1945

Korea, one of the oldest nations in the world, was first unified in the 7th century (see History of Korea). The country was occupied by Japan in 1905 and formally annexed by that state in 1910. During World War II, Korea was promised independence following the defeat of Japan. At the end of the war, however, it was divided at the 38th parallel of latitude; Soviet troops occupied Korea north of this line, and U.S. forces were south of the parallel. Under the two occupation regimes, leftist Koreans led by Kim Il Sung became powerful in the north, while right-wing Koreans backed by the United States took the lead in the south. The two zones diverged politically and efforts to reunite them became increasingly impracticable. In 1947 the United Nations agreed to supervise countrywide elections for a new government but were denied access to North Korea, which accused the UN of complicity in a U.S. scheme to establish right-wing dominance over the entire peninsula. Elections proceeded in the south, however, and on Aug. 15, 1948, the U.S. military government ended, and the Republic of Korea, with Syngman Rhee as president, was proclaimed. On Sept. 9, 1948, a Communist-controlled government in North Korea proclaimed the independence of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea under Premier Kim Il Sung. Both governments claimed jurisdiction over the entire peninsula, but only the southern republic won support from the UN. The Soviet Union and its satellites recognized only the north.

In 1950, North Korea invaded the South, beginning the international phase of a civil war that had already gathered considerable intensity in the late 1940s. The United States quickly came to the aid of the South, leading an international force under the UN flag. In 1953 the war ended inconclusively, and the cease-fire line was placed at about the 38th parallel, with a 2,000-m-wide (6,560-ft) demilitarized zone (DMZ) on either side. The truce has been an uneasy one, marked by frequent border skirmishes. Reunification talks have been held and proposed periodically since 1972 without result.

Reconstruction after the war was a painful process in a country physically and morally devastated by the fighting. Aid from the United States and the United Nations was essential to sustain life in South Korea in the 1960s. The government of President Syngman Rhee sank ever deeper into corruption and dictatorship until the spring of 1960, when a rigged election was followed by a student-led revolution that ousted Rhee from power. After a constitutional amendment creating a more democratic form of government, Prime Minister Chang Myon (John M. Chang) spent a year trying to launch economic reforms. The lag in results and concerns about political drift prompted elements of the South Korean army to seize power in a coup d'etat in May 1961. The coup leader, Gen. Park Chung Hee, promised economic progress but demanded austerity and discipline from the people. He created centralized planning organizations for the economy and an effective secret police structure to enforce cooperation. He also created a political party for the military and in 1963, after promising a return to civilian rule, he "retired" from the military and ran for president. He was elected under a new constitution that reflected his objectives and methods for modernizing the country.

President Park Chung Hee succeeded in stimulating the economy as promised, and with export-oriented industries leading the way, his government put South Korea on the road to prosperity. However, it was his repression of the labor movement and workers' demands for a share of the prosperity that seemed to be flowing toward big business that eventually brought him down. In an argument within his government over how to handle labor unrest, he was shot and killed by one of his own men in 1979. Premier Choi Kyu Hah was then elected president.

President Park's assassination was a shock to all South Koreans. It was shortly followed by the emergence of a new army strongman, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, ostensibly the chief investigator of the assassination. He used his position first to stage a coup by which he took control of the military, and then to order the use of brute force against demonstrators who protested his takeover. In May 1980 in the southwestern city of Kwangju, Chun's forces met prodemocracy demonstrators with guns and bayonets, killing several hundred. Though Chun organized his own election to the presidency shortly thereafter, the Kwangju massacre robbed him of his legitimacy, created burning hatred in the populace against him personally, and haunted him for the rest of his life.

The Chun years saw South Korea growing ever faster and life improving materially for most South Koreans under a cloud of political repression that brought blacklists, press censorship, religious persecution, and torture. In 1987, on the eve of South Korea's triumphant hosting of the 1988 Summer Olympics, a crisis developed over the rules for the next presidential election. Although Chun had promised to step down, he had picked his successor, another army general who shared responsibility for Chun's bloody rise to power. This payoff was too much for the public, which began marching in the streets for a constitutional amendment to permit direct popular voting for the next president. After hundreds of thousands of Koreans from all walks of life braved Chun's bayonets to demand reform, the military gave in. Chun's successor was elected by direct popular vote. The irony is that the opposition split the vote and handed the election to former general Roh Tae Woo, Chun's hand-picked heir. Roh, who received the support of only 37% of the electorate, assumed office on Feb. 25, 1988.

Roh Tae Woo's term is remembered chiefly for "nordpolitik," the policy by which South Korea took advantage of the fall of communism to achieve supremacy over its rival to the north. However, it is also known for its remarkable scale of graft and corruption. After Roh left office in 1993, it developed that he had profited from bribery and graft to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. It was not long before the corruption charges against him were broadened to include similar offenses by his predecessor, Chun Doo Hwan. The two men were investigated, arrested, and tried on a combination of charges ranging from corruption to murder to treason stemming from their rise to power in the wake of President Park's assassination in 1979. In August 1996, Chun was sentenced to death (later reduced to life imprisonment) and Roh to 22.5 years in prison. In December 1997, just before he left office, President Kim Young Sam pardoned both former presidents with the approval of the new president-elect in the interests of national unity. Former dissident Kim Young Sam himself had come to office in 1993 on a reform platform calling for an end to the abuses of military rule. However, by 1997 he too had been exposed as corrupt, having accepted millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions. Kim, who had called corruption "the Korean disease," had fallen ill himself.

The winner of the 1997 presidential election was Kim Dae Jung, a career politician in his seventies who had first challenged Park Chung Hee in the election of 1971. Kim Dae Jung, a native of the relatively depressed southwestern province of South Cholla, had been at the head of a main element of the opposition to military rule. The Park and Chun regimes had repaid him at various points with police intimidation, house arrest, imprisonment, kidnapping, trials, exile, and even, briefly, a death sentence for inciting resistance to Chun Doo Hwan's military takeover in 1980. International attention had helped save Kim Dae Jung's life at crucial points, and in the 1980s he returned to active politics, challenging Roh Tae Woo for the presidency in 1987 and narrowly losing to Kim Young Sam in the election of 1993. The 1997 victory was, therefore, a vindication for Kim Dae Jung and his supporters, although he took the helm at a moment of severe economic crisis. In his first year as president he navigated perils that included coaxing the South Korean people to accept the International Monetary Fund's remedies for restructuring South Korea's ailing economy, measures that contributed to high unemployment and the dissolution of many faltering businesses. His declared "sunshine policy" toward North Korea angered many right-wing elements who had always seen him as soft on communism, while his appointment of arch-conservative Kim Jong Pil as premier in an effort to resolve a legislative deadlock over economic reforms angered his supporters. For the most part, however, Kim Dae Jung exceeded expectations in the first part of his term, winning praise for his steadiness and imagination in the face of great difficulties.

Robert B. Hall

Reviewed by Donald N. Clark


KOREA (NORTH AND SOUTH): Cumings, B., Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History (1997; repr. 1998); Hwang, E., The Korean Economies (1994); Lee, P. H., et al., eds., Sourcebook of Korean Civilization (1996); Macdonald, D. S., The Koreans, 3d ed., rev. by D. N. Clark (1996); Oberdorfer, D., The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (1997); Pratt, K., ed., Korea: A Cultural and Historical Dictionary (1996); Tennant, R., A History of Korea (1996); Thompson, K. W., Korea: A World in Change (1996); Yang, S. C., The North and South Korean Political Systems (1994).

SOUTH KOREA: Bedeski, Robert E., The Transformation of South Korea: Reform and Reconstruction in the Sixth Republic under Roh Tae Woo, 19871992 (1994); Cotton, J., Politics and Policy in the New Korean State (1995); Kim, D., Mass Participatory Economy (1995); Lee, H., The Korean Economy (1996); Nahm, A. C., Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Korea (1993); Shapiro, M., The Shadow in the Sun 1990; Sigur, C. J., ed., Korea's New Challenges and Kim Young Sam (1993); Turner, J. E., et al., Villages Astir (1993).

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