The Demise of the Chun Regime
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.
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