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    Korea, South The Demise of the Chun Regime
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies

    Even though Chun Doo Hwan's government had attained considerable results in economy and diplomacy, his government failed to win public trust or support. In spite of Chun's lofty pronouncements, the public basically regarded Chun as a usurper of power who had deprived South Korea of its opportunity to restore democracy. Chun lacked political credentials; his access to power derived from his position as the head of the Defense Security Command--the army's nerve center of political intelligence--and his ability to bring together his generals in the front lines.

    Chun and his military followers failed to overcome the stigma of the Kwangju incident, and the new "just society" that he promised did not materialize. In fact, between 1982 and 1983, at least two of the major financial scandals in South Korea involved Chun's in-laws. The Chun government's slogans became hollow. While Park had gained respect and popularity through the record-breaking pace of economic development, Chun could not repeat such a feat. In the 1985 National Assembly elections, opposition parties together won more votes than the government party, clearly indicating that the public wanted a change. Moreover, increasing numbers of people became more sympathetic to the students, who presented increasingly radical demands.

    One of the most serious problems the government faced was that the argument for restricting democracy became less and less credible. The people had long been tolerant of various restrictions imposed by succeeding governments because of the perceived threat from the north, but the consensus eroded as the international environment moderated. More and more people became cynical about repeated government pronouncements, viewing them as self-serving propaganda by those in power. This tendency was particularly pronounced among the post-Korean War generation that constituted a majority of the South Korean population.

    The unpopular Chun regime and its constitutional framework was brought down in 1987 largely by the student agitation that beset the regime. Student activists set the tone and agenda of the society as a whole because the government and the government-controlled press had lost their credibility. The opposition parties worked with the students, although they disagreed on the ultimate aim--the politicians wanted reform, while the students demanded revolution. The opposition politicians wanted constitutional reform to replace the existing system of electing the president through the handpicked electoral college with direct popular election. The students attacked not only the military leaders in power, but also the entire socio-political and economic establishment.

    A small number of confirmed radicals led the student movement. They argued that the basic cause for the political and social malaise in South Korea was "American imperialism," which they believed had dominated South Korea ever since it was liberated from Japan in 1945. In their view, "American imperialism" buttressed the military dictatorship and the exploitative capitalist system; the struggle against the military dictatorship and American imperialism was inseparable. This position was the same argument that North Korea had been advancing since 1946, but a more important source of intellectual persuasion came from the revisionist school of historiography that swept United States academia during the 1970s.

    The revisionist argument was very similar to that of Lenin on imperialism. The Cold War was seen as the inevitable outcome of the United States capitalist system's need for continuous economic expansion abroad. United States participation in the Korean War and the subsequent stationing of United States forces in South Korea satisfied such a need, according to this perspective. For the revisionists, it was irrelevant that the United States had decided to abandon Korea in September-October 1947, or that the United States had withdrawn its occupation forces from South Korea in 1949. The communist countries, whether the Soviet Union or North Korea, were seen as passive entities reacting against the aggressive actions of "American imperialists" rather than pursuing their own goals. The fact that the United States had interjected itself into the Korean War in 1950, and that it continued to station its troops in South Korea after the war, was evidence enough.

    The revisionist arguments found a fertile soil among the university students. The inquisitive students had long viewed the one-sided anticommunist propaganda emanating from official and established sources as stifling and as leaving too many questions unanswered. The new arguments sounded logical and convincing, particularly when some of the revisionists took liberty with historical evidence. Increasing numbers of students took to the streets to denounce the military dictatorship and American imperialism.

    Initially, the public was apathetic to the confrontation between the student demonstrators and government, but the daily fracas on the streets and the never-ending smell of tear gas aroused their ire. The news about the torture and death of a student, Pak Chong-ch'ol, by the police touched the sore nerves of the people. President Chun attempted to squash the opposition by issuing a declaration on April 13, 1987, to suspend the "wasteful debate" about constitutional reform until a new government was installed at the end of his seven-year term. The declaration was, instead, his regime's swan song. Chun wanted to have his successor "elected" by his handpicked supporters; the public greeted the declaration with universal outrage. Even the Reagan administration, which had been taciturn about South Korea's internal politics, urged the Chun government not to ignore the outrage. Finally, on June 29, 1987, Roh Tae Woo, the government party's choice as Chun's successor, made a dramatic announcement in favor of a new democratic constitution that embodied all the opposition's demands.

                                             * * *

    Extensive literature is available in English on all the subjects covered in this chapter. Ki-baik Lee's, A New History of Korea is the best account of Korean history available in English. The following sources are also helpful: Han Woo-kuen's The History of Korea; William Henthorn's A History of Korea; The History of Korea by Sohn Pow-key, Kim Chol- choon, and Hong Yi-sup; and East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, coauthored by John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig.

    Aspects of the Choson Dynasty are dealt with in JaHyun Kim Haboush's A Heritage of Kings, William Shaw's Legal Norms in a Confucian State, and Young-ho Ch'oe's The Civil Examinations and the Social Structure in Early Yi Dynasty Korea. Late nineteenth-century developments are covered in Vipan Chandra's Imperialism, Resistance, and Reform in Late Nineteenth-Century Korea, James B. Palais's Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea, and C.I. Eugene Kim and Han-Kyo Kim's Korea and the Politics of Imperialism, 1876-1910.

    Various aspects of Japanese rule are detailed in Andrew J. Grajdanzev's Modern Korea and Chong-Sik Lee's Japan and Korea: The Political Dimension. Korea's reaction to Japanese colonialism is recounted in Chong-Sik Lee's The Politics of Korean Nationalism. George McAfee McCune's Korea Today is particularly valuable for the period between 1945 and 1948. The period of Japanese colonial rule is also treated in Dennis L. McNamara's The Colonial Origins of Korean Enterprise and Michael Edson Robinson's Cultural Nationalism in Colonial Korea, 1920-1925.

    Among the numerous works that have taken advantage of declassified documents concerning the period leading up the Korean War are James Irving Matray's The Reluctant Crusade, the second volume of Bruce Cuming's work on that period, The Roaring of the Cataract, 1947-50, and Peter Lowe's The Origins of the Korea War.

    Information about Korea under Syngman Rhee can be found in Gregory Henderson's book, in Joungwon Alexander Kim's Divided Korea: The Politics of Development, 1945-1972, and in Chi- young Pak's, Political Opposition in Korea, 1945-1960. Robert T. Oliver, a close associate of Rhee, explains Rhee's actions in Syngman Rhee and American Involvement in Korea, 1942-1960. Lee Hahn-Been's Korea: Time, Change, and Administration analyzes governmental performance under Rhee and subsequent regimes. Han Sung-Joo's The Failure of Democracy in South Korea provides an incisive analysis of both the Rhee regime and the Chang Myon government.

    A number of books treat Korea in the modern era, although most of them emphasize the political aspect of the society. Gregory Henderson's Korea: The Politics of the Vortex is particularly valuable for its treatment of modern and contemporary periods through the late 1960s. The 1961 coup d'├ętat and the government under Park Chung Hee are discussed in Kim Se- Jin's The Politics of Military Revolution in Korea, John Kie-Chiang Oh's Korea: Democracy on Trial, David C. Cole and Princeton N. Lyman's Korean Development: The Interplay of Politics and Economics, Young Whan Kihl's, Politics and Policies in Divided Korea, Sung Chul Yang's, Korea and Two Regimes, and The Economic and Social Modernization of the Republic of Korea by Edward S. Mason and others. For the government under Chun Doo Hwan, see Harold C. Hinton's Korea Under New Leadership; for South Korea's foreign policy, see Youngnok Koo and Sung-joo Han's Foreign Policy of the Republic of Korea and Byung Chul Koh's The Foreign Policy Systems of North and South Korea. South Korea's relations with North Korea are treated in detail by Robert A. Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee's Communism in Korea and Ralph N. Clough's Embattled Korea.

    Studies on Korea: A Scholar's Guide, edited by Kim Han-Kyo, lists numerous books and articles; many items are annotated. Far Eastern Economic Review [Hong Kong], Journal of Northeast Asian Studies, Asian Wall Street Journal, and Asian Survey regularly provide analyses of South Korea's politics and economy. A comprehensive source of publications dealing with Korean history is the Association for Asian Studies' Annual Bibliography of Asian Studies. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

    Data as of June 1990

    NOTE: The information regarding Korea, South on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Korea, South The Demise of the Chun Regime information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Korea, South The Demise of the Chun Regime should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
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