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  • The Korean Experiment
  • Sung-Joo Han (bio)

Korea was at the forefront of the democratic revolution that has now swept through Latin America and Eastern Europe, toppling authoritarian governments and redefining the nature and balance of international relations throughout the world. In the spring of 1987, business people, workers, and other ordinary Korean citizens joined student activists in the streets to demand free elections and an end to authoritarian government. After weeks of escalating tension and confrontations between fire-bomb wielding protesters and helmeted riot police armed with tear gas, the government yielded to the people's demands. On June 29, Roh Tae Woo, the presidential nominee of the ruling Democratic Justice Party (DJP), launched Korea's experiment with democracy by declaring that its next president would be chosen by the people through free elections under a new democratic constitution.1

This pathbreaking venture was truly an experiment. The country's only previous democratic revolution, led by student protestors against South Korea's first leader, Syngman Rhee, in April 1961, survived for less than a year. The popularly elected successors to Rhee, Prime Minister Chang Myon and President Yun Po-Sun, were ousted in a military coup led by General Park Chung Hee. Park imposed a strict authoritarian regime and ruled until he was assassinated by the director of the Korean Central [End Page 92] Intelligence Agency, Kim Chae-kyu, in 1979. After months of political turmoil, General Chun Doo Hwan took power in 1980 and suppressed a popular uprising in the provincial city of Kwangju to cement his control over the nation.

This history of authoritarian rule was not the only obstacle to the success of Korean democracy. Korean culture emphasizes community hierarchies and social order over individual freedom of expression and self-determination, the central tenets of democratic societies. Roh Tae Woo's June Declaration was the first step in discovering if democratic reforms were indeed adaptable to Korea, and if so, what kind of democracy Korea would be.

After the ratification of a new democratic constitution in October 1987, over 90 percent of the people went back to the polls in December for the first election of a president by direct popular vote in 26 years. DJP candidate Roh Tae Woo was able to win with a plurality of only 37 percent because the vote for the two long-time opposition leaders, Kim Dae Jung of the Party for Peace and Democracy (PPD) and Kim Young Sam of the Reunification Democratic Party (RDP), was split almost evenly. Kim Jong Pil of the New Democratic Republican Party (NDRP), a fourth candidate whose party included former leaders from Park Chung Hee's government, did much better than expected, capturing 8 percent of the vote. A divided opposition had only itself to blame; the two Kims who led the opposition received a combined 55 percent of the vote, yet the DJP retained its hold on power.

By early 1988 it appeared that, after several years of volatile confrontations, South Korean politics might at last become more stable. A peaceful transfer of power—albeit within the same party—had been accomplished through democratic elections. With the opposition leaders discredited among the electorate due to their failure to form a united front against Roh, the dominance of the DJP in South Korean politics seemed assured, at least for the foreseeable future.

But the voters handed the DJP an unexpected and serious setback in the April 1988 parliamentary elections. The party failed to secure a majority, winning only 125 seats in the 299-seat National Assembly. Kim Dae Jung's PPD won 71 seats and became the largest opposition party. With Kim Young Sam's RDP and Kim Jong Pil's NDRP securing 59 and 35 seats respectively, the three rival parties to the ruling DJP held a large majority in the parliament. This result not only resurrected the political lives of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam but also rewarded the third Kim, Kim Jong Pil of the NDRP, with disproportionate political influence because he could control the balance of power between the government and the two major opposition parties. When all three opposition parties cooperated, they could reject presidential nominations...


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pp. 92-104
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