South Korea The Military in Politics

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South Korea - The Military in Politics

The military in politics

The junta had drawn up a new constitution and put it before a popular referendum in December 1962, receiving 78.8 percent of the vote. Under the new constitution, the president was to be elected by direct popular vote and have strong powers--including the authority to appoint the premier and cabinet members without legislative consent and to order emergency financial and economic measures. Under United States pressure, Park, who had held the position of acting president following Yun's resignation in March 1962, retired from the army as a four-star general and ran as the DRP candidate in the October 1963 presidential election. He was elected by a narrow margin, winning 46.6 percent of the vote, as compared with 45.1 percent for Yun Po-son, the New Democratic Party candidate. In the subsequent election for the unicameral legislature, held in November 1963, the government won 110 of the 175 seats.

Until 1971 South Korea operated under the political framework it adopted in 1963. Even though Park imposed some restrictions on members of the press, intellectuals, and opposition politicians, these groups were permitted considerable latitude to criticize the government and to engage in organizational activities. Although there were numerous student demonstrations, particularly in 1965 when the government normalized its relations with Japan and sent 45,000 combat troops to support the Republic of Vietnam in response to a request from the United States, the students were controlled and there were no casualties in confrontations with the police. The presidential and National Assembly elections in 1967 and 1971 were closely contested but won by Park. In order to succeed himself for the third time in 1971, Park amended the constitution in 1969.

In December 1971, Park again tightened his control over the country. He proclaimed a national emergency and forced through the National Assembly a bill granting him complete power to control, regulate, and mobilize the people, the economy, the press, and everything else in the public domain. In October 1972, he proclaimed martial law, dissolved the National Assembly, closed all universities and colleges, imposed strict press censorship, and suspended political activities. Within a few days he "submitted" a new draft constitution--designated the yusin (revitalization) constitution--to a national referendum. The 1972 constitution allowed Park to succeed himself indefinitely, to appoint one-third of the National Assembly's members, and to exercise emergency powers at will. The president was to be chosen by the more than 2,000 locally elected deputies of the supposedly nonpartisan National Conference for Unification, who were to cast their votes as an electoral college without debate.

Students and intellectuals conducted a national campaign to revise the 1972 constitution in the fall of 1973. As the student campaign began to gather momentum, the president issued his first emergency decree in January 1974 outlawing all such campaigns. Successive emergency measures imposed further restrictions on other segments of society, but the harshest and most comprehensive restrictions were imposed by Emergency Measure Number Nine, issued in May 1975, which made it a crime either to criticize the constitution or to provide press coverage of such an activity, subject to a penalty of more than a year's imprisonment. Student participation in politics or coverage of student political activities in the press were subject to the same punishment. The president justified the harsh measures by citing the need for national unity in the face of an alleged threat of attack from North Korea.

Having concentrated all power around himself, Park suppressed his opponents harshly. KCIA agents abducted Kim Dae Jung, Park's opponent in the 1971 presidential elections, from a hotel in Tokyo in August 1973, precipitating a major crisis in South Korean-Japanese relations. Kim had been abroad after the election and remained there after Park declared martial law, traveling between Japan and the United States and conducting anti-Park activities. Students demonstrating against the yusin constitution were summarily incarcerated. In March 1976, prominent political leaders, including former President Yun and presidential candidate Kim, issued the Democratic Declaration calling for the restoration of democracy. Park had them arrested and sentenced to five to eight years in prison.

In the meantime, Park narrowly avoided an assassination attempt by a South Korean youth (resident in Japan), whose stray bullets killed the president's wife instead in August 1974. After this incident, Park became more reclusive and came to rely more and more on his chief bodyguard, Ch'a Chi-ch'ol, of the Presidential Security Force.

Force alone could not sustain the authoritarian system. Park's strongest defense against his critics had been the high rate of economic growth under his leadership. By 1978, however, the growth rate had begun to decline and inflation had become a serious problem. Seoul successfully weathered the first "oil shock" when Middle Eastern suppliers drastically raised prices in 1973, but was hard hit by the second shock in 1978-79. In December 1978, Park belatedly adopted a stabilization plan to cool down the economy, but the plan caused a serious recession, leading to a succession of bankruptcies and increased unemployment.

The first overt manifestation of workers' discontent appeared in August 1979 with demonstrations by 200 women employees of the Y.H. Industrial Company, which had just gone bankrupt. Women workers occupied the headquarters of the opposition New Democratic Party and demanded the right to manage the company themselves. When the workers refused to obey the government's order to disperse, some 1,000 riot policemen raided the building. Pandemonium occurred, and one of the workers died--it was unknown whether she had jumped, was pushed, or was jostled to her death. Despite the government's efforts, the "Y.H. Incident" became a rallying cry of the opposition.

Aside from the visible social unrest caused by political suppression and economic recession, the opposition camp had reason to become emboldened in its criticism of the government in 1979. Disaffection was particularly severe in urban areas. Although the New Democratic Party was suffering from internal dissension, it won a plurality in the December 1978 general elections for the National Assembly, the first general elections to be held since 1973. In the 1978 elections, the Democratic Republican Party won only 30.9 percent of the popular vote, a decline of 7.8 percent from 1973. In contrast, the opposition obtained 34.7 percent, an increase of 2.2 percent from 1973. Independent candidates won 27.2 percent of the vote (twenty-two seats in the National Assembly); fifteen of the twenty-two subsequently joined the New Democratic Party, although three were "persuaded" to switch to the government party. Because one-third of the National Assembly's members were government-appointed, the opposition could not command a majority.

The new leader of the New Democratic Party, Kim Young Sam, began his challenge to the government in June 1979. He announced to the foreign press his readiness to meet with Kim Il Song, the North Korean president, to discuss matters relating to unification and delivered a scathing attack on the government in the National Assembly. He argued that the government had been in power too long and had been clearly discredited by the elections; that Emergency Measure Number Nine suffocated peoples' freedom and was clearly unconstitutional; that Seoul had colluded with hoodlums to assault the New Democratic Party headquarters and to harass him; that the suppression of human rights had become an international disgrace; that the people should be permitted to elect their own president through direct elections and be allowed to live without fear; and that a fair distribution of wealth should be permitted without government interference. The government immediately retaliated and ousted Kim from the National Assembly. In a show of solidarity, all opposition members of the National Assembly resigned on October 13, 1979.

The Y.H. Incident and the harsh confrontation between the government and the opposition parties agitated the college students. Students in Taegu and Seoul staged campus rallies and demonstrations in September 1979. In mid-October, students in Pusan poured into the streets and clashed with police, leading the government to declare martial law in that city. In late October, students in Masan launched a demonstration; the government placed the city under "garrison decree." The army took over the responsibility for public order.

Close Park associates such as Kim Chong-p'il were reported to have counseled the president to meet some of the student demands and reduce repression, but were opposed by presidential security chief Ch'a Chi-ch'ol. Ch'a also sharply disagreed with Kim Chae-gyu, the director of the KCIA, who had counseled moderation in the government's handling of the student protesters. On October 26, 1979, the nation's most powerful figures, Park, Ch'a, and Kim Chae-gyu, met in a KCIA safe house restaurant for dinner to discuss, among other things, the Pusan situation. In the sharply divided discussion that followed, Kim gunned down Park, Ch'a, and their bodyguards.

It could be argued that Park had created his own dilemma by instituting the yusin constitution and by assuming unlimited powers. If he had loosened control, however, the demand for reforms might have spread, proving impossible to contain. The system had provided for neither a pressure-release valve nor an escape hatch.

In his eighteen years in power (1961-79), Park had been obsessed with ushering the country into the ranks of developed nations, had pursued his goal relentlessly, and had achieved considerable results. Having been trained under the Japanese, he closely patterned his development strategies after Japan's, where a feudal society had been turned into a modern nation between the 1860s and 1930s.

The Japanese leaders of the Meiji era (1868-1912), however, possessed two advantages over Park. First, they had operated in a period when the masses were less politically conscious and authoritarian control was more easily accepted. This was not the situation in South Korea, where students had already toppled a government in 1960. Second, the Japanese also had a built-in system of checks and balances, because the top-echelon leaders operated in a council where different leaders interacted among themselves as equals. Park, by contrast, operated on a one-man- rule basis, unchecked by constraints on his own decision-making powers.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

The Transformation of South Korean Politics: Implications
Politics of South Korea - Political Science - Oxford
Electoral Politics in South Korea - Friedrich Ebert Foundation
U.S. and South Korea to Resume Joint Military Exercises
History of South Korea - Wikipedia

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