South Korea Modern History

By | January 30, 2023

South Korea is a country located in Eastern Asia. With the capital city of Seoul, South Korea has a population of 51,269,196 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Korea’s history after World War II began with the cleavage of the country and the utterly devastating civil war of 1950-1953. Politically, South Korea has evolved from an authoritarian state and militarily dominated dictatorship to a democracy with free elections and changes in power. At the same time, South Korea has risen from the devastation of the war and has emerged as one of the world’s strongest economies with large exports, world-renowned industrial products and high living standards.

The Allies had decided during World War II that Korea would regain its independence when the fighting ceased, but in late 1945, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union decided that Korea should be managed by the Allies for five years, which angered the Koreans.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing South Korea. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

When the US and Soviet could not agree on a Korean transitional government, a centralized communist state emerged under the rule of Kim Il-Sung in the Soviet-occupied zone in the north. In the south, the United States established a temporary government of moderate nationalists, which led to violent protests and assaults from right-wing groups.  Check best-medical-schools for more information about South Korea.

In May 1948, elections were held for a national assembly in South Korea, where right-wing candidates won a majority. Syngman Rhee was elected president, and in August the Republic of Korea was proclaimed. In the same month, the Communists in the north held elections for a People’s Assembly, and in September they proclaimed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The division was followed by provocations and clashes at the standstill line. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops crossed the border at the 38th latitude and entered South Korea. US troops dominated the UN forces deployed on the south side. At first, the North Koreans penetrated far south, but they gradually pushed back north toward China. After China’s intervention on the North Korean side, the front stabilized at the 38th latitude.

Peace negotiations began in 1951, but fighting continued until July 27, 1953, when a standstill agreement was concluded. However, no peace agreement was ever reached. The few kilometers wide, demilitarized zone still forms the border between North and South Korea.

Military coup 1961

Despite financial assistance from the United States to South Korea after the war, Syngman Rhee’s position weakened, and a student uprising in 1960 forced his departure. The political and economic turmoil was followed by a military coup in 1961, led by Major General Park Chung-Hee. The National Assembly was dissolved and exceptions laws were introduced, but after two years political activity was again allowed. Park, who withdrew from the army, won the 1963 presidential election and the military party gained a majority in parliament. Formally, a civilian government was appointed, but former military held all important posts.

During Park’s first year, the foundation was laid for rapid industrialization using capital from abroad. Investments were directed to heavy sectors, such as the steel industry and shipbuilding, while giving priority to the electronics industry. But domestic politics remained unstable. After the opposition was about to win the 1971 presidential election, Park dissolved the National Assembly, repealed the constitution and strengthened the president’s power through a new constitution. Direct elections to the office were replaced by an electoral college.

The changes triggered protests that grew when Park issued the so-called anti-communist law in 1975, which prohibited students from demonstrating, among other things. Concerns escalated, and in 1979 Park was assassinated by the head of the country’s intelligence service.

The new presidential election was followed by an army coup with General Chun Doo-Hwan as the strong man. After major student demonstrations in 1980, martial law was introduced, all political activity was banned and political leaders arrested, including Kim Dae-Jung from the city of Gwangju where an insurgency broke out, which was killed by the army with many casualties. The memory of the massacre has long cast its shadow over the country. Kim Dae-Jung was sentenced to death in 1980 accused of lying behind the uprising. Following international protests, the sentence was converted to life imprisonment and Kim was allowed to go into exile in the United States. He had then suffered severe torture during his years as a political prisoner.

Student demonstrations and political liberalization

Chun strengthened his grip on power. In 1981, the laws of war were softened and new parties could be formed, but Chun was still elected president by a new popular electoral college. A slump in the economy began to be noticed, but in the mid-1980s, political protests resumed. At the same time, Kim Dae-Jung and other opposition leaders regained the right to act politically.

In 1987, students went to the brink of giant demonstrations in Seoul, and President Chun was forced to compromise with the opposition. A new constitution was negotiated and approved in a referendum. By direct election to the presidential post, the door was opened for political liberalization, which began when the newly elected president Roh Tae-Woo took office in 1988. Under his rule, the military’s influence was cut and society became more open.

In 1990, the political picture changed dramatically when Roh and opposition leaders Kim Young-Sam and Kim Young-Pil together formed a new party, the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), which gained a clear majority in parliament. The following year, several opposition parties merged into a new alliance, the Democratic Party (DP), where Kim Dae-Jung became one of the leaders.

The economic situation hardened and in the 1992 elections, DLP lost its parliamentary majority. But the party’s candidate Kim Young-Sam won the presidential election over Kim Dae-jung. Thus, for the first time in more than three decades, South Korea received a president with no military background. Senior officers with ties to former regimes were forced to leave their posts. The intelligence service is cut in its powers. An anti-corruption campaign killed ministers and thousands of officials.

But President Kim himself was accused of irregularities and authoritarian leadership style. When former presidents Chun and Roh were indicted for corruption, Kim had to fight to distance himself. Chun and Roh were also prosecuted for the 1979 coup and for the Gwangju massacre in 1980. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh to life imprisonment. Both were pardoned and released later.

The Asian financial crisis

DLP changed its name to the New Korea Party and with little need retained government power after the 1996 election in which Kim Dae-Jung’s new party was successful. President Kim Young-Sam and the government were further weakened by a corruption scandal in which many senior government officials were accused of receiving bribes by the founder of the steel company Hanbo. Kim resigned as party leader.

The successor Lee Hoi-Chang was allowed to lead the new Conservative Party, the Great National Party (GNP), after the New Korea Party and DP merged. But Lee lost the presidential election in December 1997 after the Great Asian Financial Crisis triggered the worst economic crisis in South Korea’s history (see Economy). The election was won by opposition leader Kim Dae-Jung. With his resignation as president in 1998, the traditional concentration of political and economic power was broken. The country’s elite had claimed its base in the south-east Gyeongsang provinces, which has long been opposed to Kim’s base in the city of Gwangju and Jeolla provinces in the southwest, where development has been lagging behind.

The severe economic crisis came to characterize much of President Kim Dae-Jung’s policies. Millions of people lost their jobs and major strikes and violent protests followed.

In the wake of the economic crisis, the Conservative opposition won the 2000 parliamentary elections. But President Kim Dae-Jung’s party, which changed its name to the Millennial Democratic Party (MDP), could keep the government in coalition with a liberal party.

sunshine policy

Kim Dae-Jung’s so-called sunshine policy against North Korea culminated in a summit in Pyongyang 2000 (see Foreign Policy and Defense) and resulted in Kim receiving the Nobel Peace Prize that year. But the opposition in South Korea believed that the reconciliation policy cost too much economically and politically without giving anything in exchange. In 2001, the Minister for Unity in Action was convicted in a vote of no confidence in Parliament. The government was also accused of indirectly bribing the regime in North Korea by paying the large company Hyundai hundreds of millions of dollars to establish businesses and tourist facilities in the north.

At home, Kim’s government was met by protest strikes against plans for privatization of railways and electricity and gas networks. Corruption scandals involving Kim’s closest men and two of his sons weakened the president’s position as the term of office ended.

In the 2002 presidential election, however, Liberal Roh Moo-Hyun won from Kim’s ruling party. But the victory was barely over the Conservative candidate Lee Hoi-Chang of the Great National Party, who wanted to stop financial support for North Korea because of the country’s nuclear weapons program.

President Roh’s party split and he had to fight economic recession. After the opposition pushed through national law against Roh in 2004, he had to temporarily leave the post. However, he was acquitted of charges of corruption and misconduct by the Constitutional Court. Roh’s new support party Uri achieved success in the 2004 elections and was able to form a government.

Lee Myung-Bak takes over the presidential post

However, financially tough times lowered support for the government and President Roh. In 2007, the Uri Party split and dissolved. A majority of its members joined the newly formed Liberal United Democratic Party, which became Parliament’s second largest party. However, in the December 2007 presidential election, the party’s candidate Chung Dong-Young lost big to Lee Myung-Bak of the Big National Party. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Roh government’s economic policy affected the currency outflow. With his background as a successful businessman within the Hyundai Group and Mayor of Seoul, Lee pledged to stimulate growth and drive a tougher policy towards North Korea.

The 2008 parliamentary election was a great success for Lee’s party, which won its own majority. The United Democratic Party (which has now abandoned the word “new” in the name) lost half of its mandate. It changed its name to the Democratic Party after the election.

President Lee encountered tough opposition in Parliament. When an import stop for American beef was lifted (introduced in 2003 after the outbreak of BSE, “mad cow disease” in the US), students, unions and leftist groups forced Lee to reverse the meat import and dismiss the Minister of Agriculture, among other things. A controversial free trade agreement with the US also led to boycotts and violent riots in Parliament (see Foreign Trade).

North Korean attack

Tensions rose sharply in the region after a South Korean patrol boat was lowered and 46 people were killed in March 2010. North Korea was singled out as guilty, and at home the military was criticized for its way of dealing with the crisis. The tone between the two Korean states was sharpened in November 2010 when the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong was fired by North Korean artillery (see Foreign Policy and Defense).

The major national party, which changed its name to the Saenuri Party, retained its majority in the parliamentary elections in April 2012. The ruling party backed from 165 seats to 152, while the Democratic United Party (DUP) increased sharply from 89 seats to 127. The DUP was formed at the end of 2011 when the main opposition party Democratic Party (which then changed its name from the United Democratic Party) merged with the small Citizens United Party.

In June 2012, Saenuri Party leader Park Geun-Hye confirmed that she would run for president later that year. Park, the daughter of dictatorial president Park Chung-Hee, had for a few years been identified as one of the favorites to succeed Lee at the presidential post. Despite his father’s undemocratic rule, his name was for many a symbol of the country’s economic transformation.

Presidential elections 2012

During the summer, the Saenuri Party and President Lee were plagued by a corruption scandal involving the president’s older brother along with 200 other politicians, lobbyists and officials. The brother was accused of receiving bribes from two unprofitable banks who wanted to get help to avoid scrutiny and possible closure. The brother’s involvement prompted President Lee to apologize to the South Koreans for a televised speech.

Two Liberal presidential candidates, Moon Jae-In from the DUP and IT millionaire Ahn Cheol-Soo, were the main contenders for Saenuri Party Park Geun-Hye. Moon and Ahn both wanted to see an equalization of prevailing income gaps as well as a reform of the system of powerful family conglomerates, so-called chaebol. When the election moved closer, however, Ahn surprisingly chose to withdraw from the fight for the presidential post, as the opposition’s voter share would otherwise have split on two candidates, which would have strengthened the conservatives’ chances of winning.

Park Geun-Hye takes over the presidential post

Voter turnout in the December 2012 presidential election was the highest in a decade and a half. Park Geun-Hye won with just over 51 percent of the vote against about 48 percent for Moon Jae-In.

South Korea thus got its first female president ever. In its installation figures in February 2013, Park promised, among other things, to stimulate economic growth (for example through measures to support small businesses) and to invest in welfare. She wanted to encourage a dialogue with North Korea to improve relations, if possible, that deteriorated during President Lee’s time in power. At the same time, she promised a firm stance on national security issues and labeled North Korea’s recently conducted nuclear weapons tests as a threat to the survival of the Korean people.

Shortly after Park’s installation, North Korea canceled existing non-assault agreements, closed the border crossing to the South at the demilitarized zone and severed direct contacts with Seoul.

The security scandal 2013

In the fall of 2013, a major political rebellion arose after it was discovered that an opposition politician, according to the security service, had committed treason and attempted cooperation with North Korea. The politician was a member of the United Progressive Party, a party formed by a merger of a number of left-wing parties in 2011, and because he was a Member of Parliament, Parliament had to approve of being arrested and brought to trial. Both the ruling Saenuri Party and the Liberal Opposition Party (which now chose to call themselves the Democratic Party) voted in favor of his arrest. The man was accused of conspiring to overthrow the government should there be a war with North Korea. He and six other party members were sentenced to prison for up to nine years.

In the autumn of 2013, the Constitutional Court decided to dissolve UP, on a request for this from the Ministry of Justice. The party was considered to support the North Korean socialist system and pose a threat to South Korea’s democracy. The UP members criticized the decision, claiming that they had only sought to achieve reconciliation with North Korea. Since UP was dissolved, some former UP supporters formed a new party, the Justice Party.

After the verdict, the government and Park were criticized for putting freedom of expression and organizational freedom at risk, among others by Amnesty International. The security service, which was behind the investigation and suspicions of UP members, was criticized by the opposition for fabricating spy deals, a proven method used during the country’s authoritarian past, as a way of strengthening its power and shifting focus from other current political issues. The security service was already in blustery weather because its manager was charged with ordering agents to throw government critics and opponents of Park into Internet forums ahead of the December 2012 presidential election.

The ferry disaster

After just over a year as President Park’s Prime Minister, Chung Hong-Won filed his resignation as a result of widespread criticism in connection with the ferry’s Sewol shipwreck off South Korea’s southwest coast in April 2014. Of the ferry’s 476 passengers, more than three hundred died, most of whom were school children. The government received harsh criticism from relatives for the rescue work being too slow and for inadequate control of the ferry, which had a design defect and was too heavily loaded.

The ferry disaster had major consequences in society and the president received farewell applications from both the head of intelligence and the chairman of the National Security Council (which advises the president on security issues).

President Park was criticized not only for dealing with the ferry disaster, but also for a good bit of his second year in power, having not yet fulfilled election promises on double basic pension, free health care for four deadly diseases (including cancer) and general child care. Nor did the small number of women in leading positions increase significantly. The problems were reflected in declining figures for the president.

In late 2015, a few months before the April 2016 parliamentary elections, the New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), formed in the spring of 2014, was shattered by a merger of the Democratic Party and a smaller party led by the popular Anh Cheol-Soo. But just over a year later, Anh Cheol-Soo, who along with Kim Han-Gil was one of NPAD’s two chairmen, left the party and announced that he would lead a new party called the People’s Party (PP). NPAD then changed its name to the Minjoo Party (The Minjoo Party of Korea). The split of the opposition was expected to favor the ruling Saenuri Party in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The party’s most important election promises were about creating jobs, not least for young people, by deregulating the labor market and about curbing the growing income gaps in the country. But the election was a big disappointment for the Saenuri Party and Park. The party received only 122 seats in parliament and was seen to be defeated by the Minjup party with a mandate. The newly formed People’s Party also did well in the election with 38 seats.

The corruption scandal surrounding Park

In the fall of 2016, a political scandal surfaced with links to President Park himself. A close female friend and advisor to the president, Choi Soon-Il, was arrested by police on suspicion of fraud and abuse of power. It circulated information that the woman had long been able to influence government work and managed to control appointments of important services through her contacts with Park. The president was strongly criticized by the opposition and hundreds of thousands of South Koreans went out into the streets of Seoul demanding her resignation. When it became clear that prosecutors wanted Park to stand for hearing in connection with the opening of a formal legal inquiry against her advisers, opposition parties, including the Minjeparty, announced that they intended to investigate the possibility of putting the president before state law.

In early December, Parliament voted to put Park before national law. Park was suspended from the presidential office pending the Constitutional Court’s decision on the national court decision. The President’s duties were temporarily taken over by Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn.

The Saenuri party split into a phalanx that continued to support Park and another who withdrew from the president, and by the end of 2016, some 30 party supporters broke out of the party, forming a new right-wing party – the Bareun Party. The ruling Saenuri Party changed its name to the Liberty Korea Party a few months later, as a way to avoid being associated with the corruption scandal linked to President Park.

Court confirms national court decision

On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court’s decision was clear. It upheld Parliament’s judicial procedure against Park, which meant she could not return as the country’s president. Thus, she could not invoke any prosecution immunity as president but now risked trial in a regular court.

According to the Constitutional Court, Park had violated the law when she allowed her close friend Choi to interfere in state affairs and did not admit it had happened when asked. In addition, Park had released secret documents.
Presidential friend Choi Soon-Il, in turn, was charged with pressuring powerful companies to donate millions of dollars to her own, non-profit, foundations. A number of government officials were also suspected of being involved in the corruption revolution and a legal process had also been initiated against Samsung’s chief of staff, Lee Yae-Yong. He was suspected of donating close to $ 40 million to Choi’s foundations as a way to try to get top funding for a 2015 merger of two Samsung companies.

Presidential elections must be held within 60 days of the Constitutional Court’s decision. Until the presidential election on May 9, 2017, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn continued as acting president.

South Korea Modern History