The Transition

The Transition

Soon after Park's October 26, 1979 assassination, South Korea went through kaleidoscopic changes--intense and open competition for power, student upheavals, a military takeover, a gruesome massacre, and the emergence of a new authoritarian order. Since Park had concentrated virtually all political power around himself, his assassination created a political vacuum. One of his main pillars of power, the director of the Presidential Security Force, was assassinated with him; the director of the other major political instrument, the KCIA, was quickly arrested by the Martial Law Command for conducting the assassinations. In addition, the National Assembly, one-third of its members presidential appointees, had been rendered impotent by the yusin constitution.

Ch'oe Kyu-ha, premier under Park, was elected president in December 1979 by the National Conference of Unification, a rubber stamp electoral college. Ch'oe had no independent political base. He reaffirmed the need for a new constitution in his December 21 inaugural speech, stating that a new constitution supported by a majority of the people would be adopted within a year and that a fair general election would be held soon afterward.

Even before his inauguration, Ch'oe, as acting president, had abolished Emergency Measure Number Nine. Several hundred individuals serving prison terms or being investigated on charges of violating that decree were released on December 8. One of those benefiting from the release was Kim Dae Jung, who had been under house arrest and whose civil rights were to be restored on February 29, 1980. Also affected were student activists who had been arrested for staging campus demonstrations.

Lieutenant General Chun Doo Hwan, the head of the Defense Security Command was responsible for conducting the investigation of Park's assassination. Chun used the factionalism rife within the military to assert his control over the army on December 12, 1979. He promptly set about uprooting the Park-era power elite and building a new political base. This power play, combined with increasing social and labor unrest, economic instability, and the factionalism within and between the ruling and opposition parties, set the scene for the military's consolidation of power and culminated in Chun's assumption of the presidency in August 1980.

Politics in South Korea in 1980 mainly revolved around framing a new constitution. The principal opposition party, the New Democratic Party under Kim Young Sam, advocated concluding the process by August 15, but President Ch'oe, evidently under military pressure, was not ready to expedite the constitutional process. The scheduling issue led to a major student upheaval in May 1980, followed by a military takeover.

The Democratic Republican Party

In the meantime, the country underwent a brisk process of political realignment. Although Park had organized and headed the Democratic Republican Party in 1963 to mobilize mass support behind his regime, by 1972 he had discarded it when he imposed the yusin constitution. As a result, the DRP had only a nominal existence at the time of Park's death. It was incumbent upon the new president of the DRP, Kim Chong-p'il, to revive the party. The DRP had suffered a disastrous loss in the December 1978 National Assembly elections. This situation led to a call for "rectification" (chongp'ung) within the party, which meant removing certain top leaders who had attracted notoriety for illicit wealth and undemocratic political behavior.

The New Democratic Party

The New Democratic Party (NDP), the principal opposition party, also had its share of problems. Kim Young Sam was elected as NDP leader for three years in 1979, so his position would have been secure, had not the Ch'oe government restored Kim Dae Jung's civil rights. Even though Kim Dae Jung, the NDP presidential candidate in 1971, had been out of the political arena for more than seven years, he commanded a large political following. Because the NDP was expected to win the forthcoming election by a wide margin, the presidency of the republic was at stake in the negotiations for Kim Dae Jung's reinstatement in the party. In the end, negotiations broke off, and on April 7, 1980, Kim Dae Jung declared that he would no longer seek to rejoin the NDP.

Although Kim Young Sam and his supporters had waged a fierce political struggle against President Park toward the end of his rule, many of those in leadership positions in the NDP had tended to be accommodating to the Park regime. Kim Dae Jung and his followers, on the other hand, represented the active dissident students, intellectuals, and progressive Christians who had engaged in direct struggle against the Park regime. The chaeya seryok (literally, forces in the field, but the term also means an opposing political force) were more radical in orientation. Kim Dae Jung and his group wished to expedite the process of restoring democracy, even if it meant forcing the hands of Ch'oe and his supporters.

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