South Korea Government

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The Constitutional Framework

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THE CRISIS OF JUNE 1987 brought public dissatisfaction with the Chun Doo Hwan government to a head. The next eight months saw the beginning of a compromise between the ruling and opposition camps that marked a potential watershed in South Korean politics. Politicians who had been in exile or under house arrest for many years returned to leadership roles. The media, unleashed from both censorship and official guidance, began a qualitative and quantitative explosion. A newly critical press probed previously hidden aspects of the military, the national security agencies, and the government more aggressively than ever before.

For the first time since the fall of the Syngman Rhee regime in 1960, the Republic of Korea produced a constitution through deliberative processes rather than through military intervention or emergency measures. Moreover, elections for the presidency in December 1987 and for the National Assembly in April 1988 redefined the political process; a minority president leading a minority party began a five-year term with full awareness that, at least in the near term, compromise was necessary for political survival.

The search for the political middle ground was handicapped by external pressures upon ruling and opposition parties alike. On President Roh Tae Woo's right, conservative bureaucrats, military leaders, and Democratic Justice Party members held over from the Chun period watched the president carefully. During the first two years of Roh's rule, the rightists grew increasingly suspicious of the process of compromise and upset with the direction taken by South Korea's emerging left, both within and outside of the political process. The traditional opposition parties--the Reunification Democratic Party and the Party for Peace and Democracy led by Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, respectively, felt similar pressures from younger and more progressive elements within their parties, as well as from the more radical opposition outside the political process. By mid-1989 the Roh government appeared to have reached its limit of reform and began to return to earlier patterns of political control, including the broad use of the National Security Act and national security agencies to limit dissent.

The National Assembly came into its own in the late 1980s and at least temporarily achieved the balance of powers provided for in the 1987 Constitution. For the first time in South Korea's history, the government party, as a minority in the legislature, was forced to seek procedural and substantive compromises with three opposition parties. Partisan conflict was temporarily muted for the Seoul Olympics in September 1988 but surfaced again at the end of the year in a series of legislative committee hearings concerning corruption under Chun. Further debate in 1989 led to a political compromise late in the year that resolved the question of the "legacies" of the Fifth Republic (1980-87) that had animated politics in the legislature since the beginning of the Roh administration.

A judicial revolt in mid-1988 forced the resignation of a chief justice appointed by the Chun administration, the subsequent appointment of a more politically independent successor, and the replacement of several dozen senior judges. An administrative reform commission conducted a surprisingly independent investigation of numerous government agencies, including the national security bodies that had long interfered in the political process.

The pattern of politics outside the formal institutions of government continued to change as the 1990s began. New interest groups, particularly within the intellectual professions, emerged to challenge the government-sponsored professional associations in fields such as journalism, teaching, and the arts. These developments in turn often provoked heavy-handed responses from the government, long accustomed to controlling professional organizations through nationwide umbrella groups. Cause-oriented groups of various political persuasions prepared to launch new parties, stimulated by the prospect of local council elections to be held in 1990.

Many of the political developments of the late 1980s reflected important and irreversible social and economic changes that had occurred during the previous two decades. As the 1990s began, a key question of South Korean politics remained the degree to which the development of a better-educated and more affluent populace--essential to South Korean modernization, yet corrosive of the older style of political leadership--would contribute to greater political liberalization.

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