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422 The Establishment of Authoritarian Rule in South Korea The First Republic South Korean politics during the Rhee regime (1948–1960) revolved around his struggle to remain in power indefinitely against the opposition’s efforts to unseat him. Since the inauguration of the ROK, on 15 August 1948, Rhee disingenuouslyportrayedhimself asatranscendentleaderwhostoodoutabove the partisan and factional struggles of daily politics, and at first this proved to be an indispensable political asset for his public image, as well as a key source of his popular support. As time went by, however, this strategy grew increasingly ineffectual in the face of the more stubborn opposition, which forced him to increasingly pursue authoritarian measures to retain power.1 The 1948 constitution provided for a popularly elected National Assembly, the members of which elected the president for a four-year term. The president could be elected for a second term. Although he lacked grass-roots support in his homeland, Syngman Rhee was handily elected to the presidency by the National Assembly on 20 July 1948 as a reward for his lifetime struggle against Japanese rule. He garnered 180 votes out of 198, and his rival, Kim Ku, obtained just13votes.ButRheeescalatedtheinstitutionaltensionbetweenthepresident 10 THE PERIOD OF POSTWAR RECONSTRUCTION (1953–1971) The Period of Postwar Reconstruction 423 and the legislature by seeking more terms and refusing to share power with the National Assembly. The outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950 proved fortuitous for the Rhee regime. As the leader of a nation in turmoil, he could rally various domestic political forces behind his leadership, particularly during the first year of the fighting. As the war progressed, however, the battle line was held and the tense atmosphere caused by the war gradually dissipated. Nevertheless, Rhee continued his arbitrary rule, which rapidly deteriorated his relationship with the opposition. At the time his political power base was a loose collection of rightist minor political parties, rightist social organizations, and a majority of independent assemblymen who relied on his patronage. This disparate crew, needing money for political activities and survival, were proving ineffective in the changing political environment. Thus Rhee felt impelled to create a strong ruling party backed by his government apparatus. The police acted to perpetuate his power within an easily maneuverable electoral system. Already in 1949 Rhee had ordered that all rightist youth groups be merged into the Taehan Youth Corps and that all unions join the Federation of Korean Trade Unions. These steps were probably motivated by his desire to strengthen his control over his supporters. In late December 1951 Rhee’s supporters in the National Assembly and five pro-Rhee social organizations—the Taehan Youth Corps, the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, the Federation of Korean Farmers Unions, the Korean National Association, and the Korean Women’s Association —combined to form the Liberal Party. The new party proved instrumental for gathering and distributing the political funds and patronage that made it a firm political base for Rhee to seek future terms as president. By 1952 Rhee had lost much of his support in the National Assembly and his reelection was in doubt. In an attempt to retain power and weaken the National Assembly, Rhee proposed constitutional amendments providing for direct popular election of the president and a bicameral legislature. On 18 January 1952 the National Assembly, led by the opposition Democratic National Party, overwhelmingly rejected the proposed amendments by a vote of 143 to 19. Rhee then instituted a campaign of political harassment and demonstrations against his opponents. When the opposition legislators held firm, Rhee declared martial law in and around Pusan, the temporary ROK capital, effective 25 May 1952. He also ordered the imprisonment of more than 50 opposition politicians. Most were soon released, but 7 were charged with participating in a communist conspiracy and several others then went into hiding. 424 A History of Korea Rhee’s actions concerned South Korea’s wartime allies, as his reckless tactics shattered the image of the ROK as a country moving toward democracy and thus jeopardized international support for the U.S.-led war effort. The United States attempted to persuade Rhee to end martial law and release the jailed politiciansbuttonoavail.Itthenconsideredstrongeraction,includingsupport of ananti-Rheecoupby ROK militaryofficersandevendirectmilitaryintervention . Ultimately it reverted to its admonitions and encouragement of a political compromise. The crisis ended in early July, not through political compromise but only when Rhee’s police rounded up all the legislators and confined them to the National Assembly building until they passed his constitutional amendment...


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