History of South Korea

The History of South Korea formally begins with the establishment of South Korea on 15 August 1948 while Syngman Rhee declared the establishment in Seoul on 13 August 1948.

In the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Korea which ended with Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel in accordance with a United Nations arrangement, to be administered by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. The Soviets and Americans were unable to agree on the implementation of Joint Trusteeship over Korea. This led in 1948 to the establishment of two separate governments, each claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea. Eventually, following the Korean War, the two separate governments stabilized into the existing political entities of North and South Korea.

South Korea's subsequent history is marked by alternating periods of democratic and autocratic rule. Civilian governments are conventionally numbered from the First Republic of Syngman Rhee to the contemporary Sixth Republic. The First Republic, arguably democratic at its inception, became increasingly autocratic until its collapse in 1960. The Second Republic was strongly democratic, but was overthrown in less than a year and replaced by an autocratic military regime. The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics were nominally democratic, but are widely regarded as the continuation of military rule. With the Sixth Republic, the country has gradually stabilized into a liberal democracy.

Since its inception, South Korea has seen substantial development in education, economy, and culture. Since the 1960s, the country has developed from one of Asia's poorest to one of the continent's most well-off. Education, particularly at the tertiary level, has expanded dramatically. Since the 1990s, Korean popular music, TV drama, and films have become popular throughout East and Southeast Asia, in a phenomenon known as "Korean wave."

U.S. Military administration

After Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers, division at the 38th parallel against the wishes of Korean people marked the beginning of Soviet and U.S. trusteeship over the North and South, respectively. While the de jure sovereignty of Korea was considered to be held by the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea based in China, U.S. leaders chose to ignore its legitimacy, partly due to belief that it was communist-aligned.

U.S. forces landed at Incheon on September 8 1945 and established a military government shortly thereafter. The forces landing at Incheon were of the 24th Corps of the US Tenth Army. They were commanded by Lt. General John R. Hodge, who then took charge of the government.

The country in this period was plagued by political and economic chaos, which arose from a variety of causes. The after effects of the Japanese exploitation were still felt in the country, as in Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In addition, the U.S. military was largely unprepared for the challenge of administering the country, arriving with no knowledge of the language, culture or political situation. Thus, many of their policies had unintended destabilizing effects. Waves of refugees from North Korea and returnees from abroad also helped to keep the country in turmoil.

The short-lived People's Republic of Korea had been established throughout Korea by Lyuh Woon-Hyung in August, after negotiation with Japanese invaders. It was declared invalid by U.S. in the South shortly after U.S. arrival. Yeo stepped down and formed the Working People's Party. In November and December 1945, members of cabinet of the Provisional Government, including President Kim Koo were forced to return as private citizens.

Faced with mounting popular discontent, in October 1945 Hodge established the Korean Advisory Council. A year later, an interim legislature and interim government were established, headed by Kim Kyu-shik and Syngman Rhee respectively. However, these interim bodies lacked any independent authority, nor de jure sovereignty, which was still held by the Provisional Government.

First Republic

On August 15 1948 the Republic of Korea was formally established, with Syngman Rhee as the first president, who was elected the President ahead of Kim Koo in July 1948. With the establishment of Rhee's government, de jure sovereignty also passed into the new government. On September 9, 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established under Kim Il-Sung. The investiture of the Rhee government followed the general election of May 10 1948. The country's first constitution had been promulgated by the first National Assembly on July 17. It established a system with a strong president, who was elected indirectly by the National Assembly. While the government with Ministerial responsibilities was originally considered, the opposition by a number of politicians who was seeking power prevented its application in favour of a Presidential Government.

On December 12 1948, by its resolution 195 in the Third General Assembly, the United Nations recognized the Republic of Korea as the sole legal government of Korea.

Around this time from 1945–1950, United States and South Korean authorities carried out a land reform that retained the institution of private property. They confiscated and redistributed all land held by the Japanese colonial government, Japanese companies, and individual Japanese colonists. The Korean government carried out a reform whereby Koreans with large landholdings were obliged to divest most of their land. A new class of independent, family proprietors was created.

Rhee was supported in the elections by the Korea Democratic Party, but neglected to include any of its members in his cabinet. In retaliation, the members of the party formed a united opposition Democratic Nationalist Party, and began to advocate a cabinet system which would remove power from the president. This led to a regrouping of the Rhee faction into the Nationalist Party, which later became the Liberal Party, and remained Rhee's base throughout his administration. The country's second parliamentary elections were held on May 30, 1950, and gave the majority of seats to independents.

The nationalist government continued many of the practices of the U.S. military government. This included the brutal repression of leftist activity. The Rhee government continued the harsh military action against the Jeju uprising. It also crushed military uprisings in Suncheon and Yeosu, which were provoked by orders to sail to Jeju and participate in the crackdown.

Rhee sought to align his government strongly with America, and against both North Korea and Japan. The policy of the First Republic on North Korea, before and after the Korean War, was one of "unification by force. Although some talks towards normalization of relations with Japan took place, they achieved little. Meanwhile, the government took in vast sums of American aid, in amounts sometimes near the total size of the national budget.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea (see Korean War). Led by the U.S., a 16-member coalition undertook the first collective action under the United Nations Command (UNC). Oscillating battle lines inflicted a high number of civilian casualties and wrought immense destruction. With the People's Republic of China's entry on behalf of North Korea in 1951, the fighting came to a stalemate close to the original line of demarcation. Armistice negotiations, initiated in July 1951, finally concluded on July 27, 1953 at Panmunjeom, now in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Following the armistice, the South Korean government returned to Seoul on the symbolic date of August 15, 1953.

After the armistice, South Korea experienced political turmoil under years of autocratic leadership of Syngman Rhee, which was ended by student revolt in 1960. Throughout his rule, Rhee sought to take additional steps to cement his control of government. These began in 1952, when the government was still based in Busan due to the ongoing war. In May of that year, Rhee pushed through constitutional amendments which made the presidency a directly-elected position. To do this, he declared martial law and jailed the members of parliament whom he expected to vote against it. Rhee was subsequently elected by a wide margin. He regained control of parliament in the 1954 elections, and thereupon pushed through an amendment to exempt himself from the eight-year term limit.

The events of 1960, known as the April Revolution, were touched off by the violent repression of a student demonstration in Masan on the day of the presidential election, March 15. Initially these protests were quelled by local police, but they broke out again after the body of a student was found floating in the harbor. Subsequently nonviolent protests spread to Seoul and throughout the country, and Rhee resigned on April 26.

Second Republic

After the student revolution, power was briefly held by an interim administration under Heo Jeong. A new parliamentary election was held on July 29, 1960. The Democratic Party, which had been in the opposition during the First Republic, easily gained power and the Second Republic was established. The revised constitution dictated the Second Republic to take the form of a parliamentary cabinet system where the President took only a nominal role. This was the first and the only instance South Korea turned to a cabinet system instead of a presidential system. Yun Po Sun was elected as the President on August 13, 1960. The prime minister and head of government was Chang Myon.

The Second Republic saw the proliferation of political activity which had been repressed under the Rhee regime. Much of this activity was from leftist and student groups, which had been instrumental in the overthrow of the First Republic. Union membership and activity grew rapidly during the later months of 1960. Around 2,000 demonstrations were held during the eight months of the Second Republic.

Under pressure from the left, the Chang government carried out a series of purges of military and police officials who had been involved in anti-democratic activities or corruption. A Special Law to this effect was passed on October 31, 1960. 40,000 people were placed under investigation; of these, more than 2,200 government officials and 4,000 police officers were purged. In addition, the government considered reducing the size of the army by 100,000, although this plan was shelved.

In economic terms as well, the government was faced with mounting instability. The government formulated a five-year economic plan, although it was unable to act on it prior to being overthrown. The Second Republic saw the hwan lose half of its value against the dollar between fall 1960 and spring 1961. Unemployment and wholesale prices also rose during this period.

Military rule

A military coup d'état(5.16 coup d'état) led by Major General Park Chung-hee on May 16, 1961 put an effective end to the Second Republic. Park was one of a group of military leaders who had been pushing for the de-politicization of the military. Dissatisfied with the cleanup measures undertaken by the Second Republic and convinced that the current disoriented state would collapse into communism, they chose to take matters into their own hands.

The military leaders promised to return the government to a democratic system as soon as possible. On December 2, 1962, a referendum was held on returning to a presidential system of rule, which was allegedly passed with a 78% majority. Park and the other military leaders pledged not to run for office in the next elections. However, Park ran for president anyway, winning narrowly in the election of 1963.

Third Republic

Park ran again in the election of 1967, taking 51.4% of the vote. At the time the presidency was constitutionally limited to two terms, but a constitutional amendment was forced through the National Assembly in 1969 to allow him to seek a third term. He was re-elected in the 1971 presidential election. The leading opposition candidate was Kim Dae-jung, who lost by a narrow margin.

The Third Republic saw South Korea begin to take a more confident role in international relations. Relations with Japan were normalized in an agreement ratified on August 14, 1965. The government continued its close ties with the United States, and continued to receive large amounts of aid. A status of forces agreement was concluded in 1965, clarifying the legal situation of the US forces stationed there. Soon thereafter, Korea joined the Vietnam War, eventually sending a total of 300,000 soldiers to fight alongside US and South Vietnamese troops.

The economy grew rapidly during this period. The Park regime used the influx of foreign aid from Japan and the United States to provide loans to export businesses at negative interest. It also supported the construction of the POSCO steel mill, which came online early in the Fourth Republic.

On December 6, 1971, Park declared a state of national emergency. On July 4 of the following year, he announced plans for reunification in a joint communique with North Korea. Park declared martial law on October 17 1972, dissolving the National Assembly. He also announced plans to eliminate the popular election of the president.

Fourth Republic

The Fourth Republic began with the adoption of the Yusin Constitution on November 21 1972. This new constitution gave Park effective control over the parliament. In the face of continuing popular unrest, Park promulgated emergency decrees in 1974 and 1975 which led to the jailing of hundreds of dissidents. This period also saw continued dramatic economic growth.

Fifth Republic

After the assassination of Park Chung-hee by Kim Jae-kyu in 1979, a vocal civil society emerged that led to strong protests against authoritarian rule. Composed primarily of university students and labor unions, protests reached a climax after Major General Chun Doo-hwan's 1979 Coup d'état of December Twelfth and declaration of martial law. On May 18, 1980, a confrontation broke out in the city of Gwangju between students of Chonnam National University protesting against the closure of their university and armed forces and turned into a citywide riot that lasted nine days until May 27. Immediate estimates of the civilian death toll ranged from a few dozen to 2000, with a later full investigation by the civilian government finding 207 deaths (see: Gwangju Massacre). Public outrage over the killings consolidated nationwide support for democracy, paving the road for the first democratic elections in 1987.

Sixth Republic

In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, one of Chun's colleagues in the 1979 coup, and a member of Hanahoi, was elected to the president by the popular vote.

In 1992, Kim Young-sam was elected president. He was the country's first civilian president in 30 years.

In 1997, the nation suffered a severe financial crisis from which it made a solid recovery. South Korea has also maintained its commitment to democratize its political processes, as Kim Dae-jung won the presidency in the same year. This was the first transfer of the government between parties by peaceful means. Kim Dae-jung pursued the "Sunshine Policy", a series of efforts to reconcile with North Korea, which culminated in the summit talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, for which Kim Dae-jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. However, the efficacy of the Sunshine Policy was brought into question amid allegations of corruption. Roh Moo-hyun was elected to the presidency in 2002.

On 12 March, 2004, the South Korean National Assembly (Parliament) voted to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun on charges of corruption and political patronage. The Uri Party, which solely supported the President, angrily boycotted the vote. This motion clearly affected the outcome of the parliamentary election held on 15 April, 2004, in which the Uri Party won 152 seats from the total of 299 seats in the National Assembly. For the first time in 18 years the ruling party became the majority in the House. This was arguably the first time in more than 40 years that a liberal party had held a majority in the Assembly. However, the Uri Party then lost its majority in by-elections in 2005.


  1. Cumings (1997, p. 321).


  • Cumings, Bruce (1997). Korea's place in the sun. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31681-5.
  • Lee, Ki-baek, tr. by E.W. Wagner & E.J. Shultz (1984). A new history of Korea (rev. ed.). Seoul: Ilchogak. ISBN 89-337-0204-0.
  • Nahm, Andrew C. (1996). Korea: A history of the Korean people (2nd ed.). Seoul: Hollym. ISBN 1-56591-070-2.
  • Yang, Sung Chul (1999). The North and South Korean political systems: A comparative analysis (rev. ed.). Seoul: Hollym. ISBN 1-56591-105-9.
  • Yonhap News Agency (2004). Korea Annual 2004. Seoul: Author. ISBN 89-7433-070-9.

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