[For Korean history before 1948, see Korea, Democratic People's Republic of.]
The Republic of Korea, headed by President Syngman Rhee (Rhee Syngman), was proclaimed on 15 August 1948 in the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula, which had been under US military administration since 8 September 1945. Like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), established in the north on 9 September 1948 with Soviet backing, the ROK claimed to be the legitimate government of all Korea. The ROK was recognized as the legitimate government by the UN General Assembly.
At dawn on 25 June 1950, following a year and a half of sporadic fighting, the well-equipped People's Army of the DPRK struck south across the 38th parallel. Proclaiming that the war was for national liberation and unification of the peninsula, the DPRK forces advanced rapidly; Seoul fell within three days, and the destruction of the ROK seemed imminent. At US urging, the UN Security Council (with the Soviet delegate absent) branded the DPRK an aggressor and called for the withdrawal of the attacking forces. On 27 June, US president Harry S. Truman ordered US air and naval units into combat, and three days later, US ground forces were sent into battle. The United Kingdom took similar action, and a multinational UN Command was created to join with and lead the ROK in its struggle against the invasion. Meanwhile, DPRK troops had pushed into the southeast corner of the peninsula. At that juncture, however, UN lines held firm, and an amphibious landing at Inch'on (15 September 1950) in the ROK under General Douglas MacArthur brought about the complete disintegration of the DPRK army.
MacArthur, commanding the UN forces, made a fateful decision to drive northward. As the UN forces approached the Yalu River, however, China warned that it would not tolerate a unification of the peninsula under US/UN auspices. After several weeks of threats and feints, "volunteers" from the Chinese People's Liberation Army entered the fighting en masse, forcing MacArthur into a costly, pell-mell retreat back down the peninsula. Seoul was lost again (4 January 1951) and then regained before the battle line became stabilized very nearly along the 38th parallel. There it remained for two weary years, with bitter fighting but little change, while a cease-fire agreement was negotiated.
On 27 July 1953, an armistice agreement finally was signed at P'anmunjom in the DPRK. The Korean War was ended, but it had brought incalculable destruction and human suffering to all of Korea (some 1,300,000 military casualties, including 415,000 combat deaths, for the ROK alone), and it left the peninsula still more implacably divided. A military demarcation line, which neither side regarded as a permanent border, was established, surrounded by the DMZ. An international conference envisioned in the armistice agreement was not held until mid-1954. This conference and subsequent efforts failed to reach an agreement on unification of the North and South, and the armistice agreement, supervised by a token UN Command in Seoul and by the Military Armistice Commission and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, both in P'anmunjom, remains in effect.
In 1954, the United States and ROK signed a mutual defense treaty, under which US troops remained in the country. Financial assistance throughout the 1950s was provided by the US, averaging $270 million annually between 1953 and 1958, and by other nations under UN auspices. Syngman Rhee ran the government until 1960, when his authoritarian rule provoked the "April Revolution," the culmination of a series of increasingly violent student demonstrations that finally brought about his ouster. The Second Korean Republic, which followed Rhee, adopted a parliamentary system to replace the previous presidential system. The new government, however, was short-lived. Premier Chang Myon and his supporters were ousted after only 10 months by a military coup in May 1961, headed by Major-General Park Chung-hee. The military junta dissolved the National Assembly, placed the nation under martial law, established the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) as a means of detecting and suppressing potential enemies, and ruled by decree until late 1963 through the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction. General Park created a well-organized political party—the Democratic-Republican Party (DRP)— designed to serve as a vehicle for the transition from military to civilian rule, and in October 1963, under a new constitution, he easily won election as president of the Third Republic.
During the summer of 1965, riots erupted all over the ROK in protest against the ROK-Japan Normalization Treaty, which established diplomatic relations and replaced Korean war-reparation claims with Japanese promises to extend economic aid. The riots were met with harsh countermeasures, including another period of martial law and widespread arrests of demonstrators. Further demonstrations erupted in 1966, when the ROK's decision to send 45,000 combat troops to Vietnam became known. Park was elected to a second term in May 1967, defeating his chief opponent, Yun Po-sun, and the DRP won a large majority in the National Assembly. In 1969, Park pushed through the National Assembly a constitutional amendment permitting him to run for a third term. He defeated Kim Dae Jung, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), in the elections of April 1971, but Kim's NDP made significant gains in the National Assembly elections that May.
Student demonstrations against the government in the fall of 1971 prompted Park to declare a state of national emergency on 6 December. Three weeks later, in a predawn session held without the knowledge of the opposition, the Assembly granted Park extraordinary governmental powers. These failed to quell mounting opposition and unrest, and in October 1972 martial law was declared. A new constitution, promulgated at the end of the month and ratified by national referendum in November 1972, vastly increased the powers of the presidency in economic as well as political affairs. Under this new document, which inaugurated the Fourth Republic, Park was elected for a six-year term that December, with a decisive legislative majority for his DRP. Soon the economy began to expand at a rapid rate. But Park's regime became increasingly repressive. Typical of its heavy-handed rule was the abduction by KCIA agents of Kim Dae Jung from a Japanese hotel room back to Seoul, an incident that provoked considerable friction between Japanese and Korean officials. On 15 August 1974, a Korean gunman carrying a Japanese passport and sympathetic to the DPRK attempted to assassinate the president but killed Park's wife instead. Park responded by drafting a series of emergency measures; the harshest of these, Emergency Measure No. 9, issued in May 1975, provided for the arrest of anyone criticizing the constitution and banned all political activities by students.
Park was reelected for another six-year term in July 1978, but the NDP, now led by Kim Young Sam, made major gains in the National Assembly. In October 1979, Kim was expelled from the legislature after calling for governmental reform. Riots protesting Kim's ouster were reported in several major cities. On 26 October 1979, in what may have been an attempted coup, Park was assassinated by KCIA Director Kim Jae-gyu, who was later executed. Martial law was again imposed, and a period of relative calm followed as some of the more restrictive emergency decrees were lifted by Park's constitutional successor, the prime minister, Choi Kyu-hah, who promised a new constitution and presidential elections.
In December 1979, Maj. Gen. Chun Doo Hwan led a coup in which he and his military colleagues removed the army chief of staff and took effective control of the government. Demonstrations, led by university students, spread through the spring of 1980 and, by mid-May, the government once more declared martial law (in effect until January 1981), banned demonstrations, and arrested political leaders. In the city of Kwangju, more than 200 civilians were killed in what became known as the Kwangju massacre. Choi Kyu-hah was pressured to resign and Chun Doo Hwan, now retired from the military, was named president in September 1980. Chun Doo Hwan came to power under a new constitution inaugurating the Fifth Republic. A total of 567 political leaders, including Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam, were banned from political activity. Kim Dae Jung, arrested several times after his 1973 kidnapping, was originally sentenced to death but allowed to go to the United States in 1982. All existing political parties were dissolved, and all political activity banned until three months before the 1981 elections.
Twelve new parties (reduced to eight) were formed to enter the 1981 elections, in which Chun Doo Hwan was elected to a seven-year presidential term by a new electoral college and his Democratic Justice Party (DJP) secured a majority in the reconstituted National Assembly. Despite harsh controls, opposition to Chun continued. In 1982, 1,200 political prisoners were released, and in early 1983, the ban on political activity was lifted for 250 of the banned politicians. On 9 October 1983, Chun escaped an apparent assassination attempt in Rangoon, Burma, when an explosion took the lives of 17 in his entourage, including 4 ROK cabinet ministers. Chun subsequently blamed the DPRK for the bombing. In 1984, under increasing pressure for political reforms prior to the 1985 parliamentary elections, the government lifted its ban on all but 15 of the 567 politicians banned in 1980. In 1985, the ban was lifted on 14 of the remaining 15. Kim Dae Jung was allowed to return from exile in the United States in 1984 but rearrested. He remained banned from all political activity because of his conviction for sedition in 1980.
Opposition groups quickly formed the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) to challenge the DJP in the 1985 election; the new party became a strong minority voice in the National Assembly. The issue of constitutional reforms, particularly changes in the way in which presidents are elected and the way in which "bonus" seats in the legislature are distributed, became prominent, especially after Chun reaffirmed a commitment to step down in February 1988 and, in April 1986, dropped his long-standing opposition to any constitutional changes prior to that date. Demonstrations against Chun continued and became violent at Inch'on in May 1986 and at Konkuk University that fall. Opposition groups began collecting signatures on a petition demanding direct (instead of indirect) election of the president. In April 1987, as demonstrations became increasingly violent, Chun banned all further discussion of constitutional reform until after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The ban, which could have guaranteed the election of a handpicked DJP successor, set off violent antigovernment demonstrations throughout the nation. In June 1987, the DJP nominated its chairman, Roh Tae Woo, a former general and a close friend of Chun, as its candidate for his successor. When Roh accepted opposition demands for political reforms, Chun announced in July that the upcoming election would be held by direct popular vote. On 8 July, 100,000 people demonstrated in Seoul in the largest protest since 1960 and, on the same day, the government restored political rights to 2,000 people, including the longtime opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung.
In the elections, held on 16 December 1987, Roh Tae Woo, as the DJP candidate, won a plurality of 37%, defeating the two major opposition candidates, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, who had been unable to agree on a single opposition candidacy and split 55% of the total vote. Two minor candidates divided the remainder. A reported 89% of all eligible voters participated. The two leading opposition candidates charged massive fraud, and a series of demonstrations were held to protest the results. However, no evidence of extensive fraud was produced, and the demonstrations did not attract wide support. Roh Tae Woo was inaugurated as president in February 1988 when Chun Doo Hwan's term expired.
In the elections for the National Assembly, held on 26 April 1988, President Roh Tae Woo's party, the DJP, won only 34% of the vote. This gave the DJP 125 seats in the assembly, while Kim Dae Jung's Peace and Democracy Party (PDP) gained 70 seats, Kim Young Sam's Reunification Democratic Party (RDP) won 59 seats, 35 seats went to the new Democratic Republican Party (NDRP), and 10 to independent candidates. Thus, for the first time in 36 years, the government did not have a controlling vote in the National Assembly, which quickly challenged President Roh's choice for head of the Supreme Court and by year's end forced the president to work with the assembly to pass the budget.
In the fall of 1988, the National Assembly audited the government and held public hearings into former President Chun's abuses of power. In November, Chun apologized to the nation in a televised address, gave his personal wealth to the nation, and retired into a Buddhist temple. Following the revision of the constitution in 1987, South Koreans enjoyed greater freedoms of expression and assembly and freedom of the press and, in 1988, several hundred political dissidents were released from prison.
Unrest among students, workers, and farmers continued, however, and beginning in April 1989, the government repressed opposition. In October 1989, the government acknowledged making 1,315 political arrests so far that year. The National Assembly became less of a check on President Roh after two opposition parties (RDP, NDRP), including that of Kim Young Sam, merged with Roh's DJP, forming a new majority party, the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) in January 1990. Kim Dae Jung was then left as the leader of the main opposition party (PDP).
There were continuing demonstrations into 1990 and 1991, calling for the resignation of President Roh and the withdrawal of United States troops. In May 1990, 50,000 demonstrators in Kwangju commemorated the tenth anniversary of the massacre, resulting in clashes with police which lasted several days. The United States agreed to withdraw its nuclear weapons from the ROK in November 1991. And, on the last day of the year, the ROK and the DPRK signed an agreement to ban nuclear weapons from the entire peninsula.
In the presidential election on 19 December 1992, Kim Young Sam, now leader of the majority DLP, won with 41.9% of the vote, while Kim Dae Jung (DP) took 33.8%. Inaugurated in February 1993, Kim Young Sam began a new era as the first president in 30 years who was a civilian, without a power base in the military. President Kim granted amnesty to 41,000 prisoners and instituted a series of purges of high-ranking military officials, including four generals who had roles in the 1979 coup. Among political and economic reforms was a broad anticorruption campaign, resulting in arrests, dismissals, or reprimands for several thousands of government officials and business people. In March 1994, a former official of the National Security Planning Agency made public President Roh Tae Woo's authorization of a covert program to develop nuclear weapons at the Daeduk Science Town through 1991.
South and North Korea continue to have a rocky relationship. In April of 1996, North Korean troops on three successive days violated the 1954 armistice which had ended the Korean War by entering Panmunjom. The soldiers, who were apparently conducting training exercises, withdrew after a few hours on all three occasions. In September of the same year, a small North Korean submarine was grounded off the Eastern coast of South Korea and 26 crew members fled into the interior of South Korea. The ship appeared to be carrying a team of North Korean spies who intended to infiltrate into South Korea to carry out what remain unknown missions against South Korean targets. Twenty-four of the crewmen were killed, one escaped and one remains at large. In a surprise unusual move, the North Korean government apologized in February of 1997 for the incursion.
Meanwhile recent domestic events inside South Korea have been equally tumultuous. In August of 1996, former President Chun Doo Hwan and his successor, Roh Tae Woo were tried and found guilty of treason and mutiny for the 1980 coup that brought them to power, and the subsequent Kwangju massacre, in which troops killed at least 154 pro-democracy demonstrators. The court gave Chun a death sentence (extremely rare in Korea) and sentenced Roh to 22.5 years in prison. An appellate court later reduced Chun's sentence to life imprisonment and Roh's sentence to 17 years. When Kim Dae Jung was inaugurated as president in 1998, both leaders were released from prison under Kim's grant of amnesty.
On 11 April 1996, legislative elections took place amid allegation of corruption that reached to the inner circle of President Kim Young Sam and his New Korea Party. During the pre-election campaigning, Kim promised to launch an anti-corruption effort if his party gained power; in a major upset, the NKP captured 139 of the 299 seats, while the main opposition party (National Congress for New Politics—NCNP) or Kim Dae Jung won only 79 seats. Kim Dae Jung lost his own seat in the legislature. Several important New Korea Party officials and even Kim Young Sam's son, were implicated on charges of taking or giving millions of dollars in bribes to arrange loans to Hanbo Steel Industry Co., which eventually went bankrupt under $6 billion of debt. Some of those officials were indicted in February of 1997 but Mr. Kim's son, Kim Hyun Chul, was cleared. However, in May of the same year Kim Hyun Chul was arrested on bribery and tax-evasion charges unrelated to the Hanbo scandal.
By 1997, many of the large chaebols (business conglomerates) reported serious problems with debt. A portion of Kia Group, a major manufacturer of automobiles, was nationalized to prevent bankruptcy. Increased domestic economic instability coupled with economic crisis sweeping through Asia, led to a severe decline in the value of the currency. The ensuing financial panic coincided with presidential elections on 18 December 1997, the month that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began. In the election Kim Dae Jung narrowly defeated the ruling party's candidate Lee Hoe Chang by 40.3% to 38.7%. A third candidate Yi In Che garnered 19.2% of the votes, effectively splitting the pro-government vote. Kim Dae Jung pledged to adhere to IMF conditionality and reform government-business relations in South Korea by increasing transparency. In 1998 and 1999, the government reduced the role of government intervention in the domestic economy despite numerous strikes by workers protesting layoffs.
By mid-2000, Kim Dae Jung managed to steer Korea's economy out of the worst of the crisis. The economy started to grow in 1999 and economic estimates suggested that economic growth would top 10% for 2000. In April 2000, the legislative elections improved the position of Kim's party, renamed the New Millennium Party (NMP) to 115 seats. However, the Grand National Party (GNP), successor to the NKP obtained 133 seats and the United Liberal Democrats, allied to the GNP, won 17. Thus, Kim's objective to continue economic reform was imperiled.
In June 2000, Kim Dae Jung traveled to P'yongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) for an historic meeting with his counterpart, Kim Jong Il. The two agreed to pursue further cooperation in the future. This summit meeting marked the high point of what became known as Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement toward the North. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his commitment to democracy and human rights in Asia.
Roh Moo Hyun was elected president in the December 2002 election, taking 49% of the vote; he was inaugurated in February 2003. While campaigning, Roh had stated he would continue with Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" toward the North, but prior to his election, it was revealed that North Korea was secretly developing a program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. Relations between North Korea and the US were tense in 2002 and 2003, as the US maintained North Korea should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and the North asserted it had the right to do so to provide for its defense and security. Roh took the position that North Korea's moves to develop nuclear weapons and export missiles could only be countered by dialogue. This put him at odds with some in the Bush Administration who held that the United States would not be "blackmailed" into negotiating with the North. In June 2003, the United States announced it would redeploy some of its 37,000 troops in South Korea to positions south of the DMZ, in an effort to create more agile and mobile forces.
South Korea's economy in 2003 was growing at 6.3%, a rate that was among the highest in the developed world.