Democratic Interlude and Coup d’État

Democratic Interlude and Coup d’État

After Syngman Rhee’s resignation in April 1960, Koreans enjoyed a brief and exciting, if also chaotic, period of freedom. With restrictions on the press and on political activity removed, new newspapers, magazines, and political groups flourished.

A new constitution was drafted, creating a bicameral parliamentary government, with a prime minister and cabinet responsible to the National Assembly, who would also elect the president (as in the Republic of Korea’s first [1948] constitution).

In free elections held on July 29, the Democratic Party won a large majority and selected Yun Poson (1897–1990) as president and Chang Myon as prime minister. While Yun later achieved prominence running for president against Park Chung Hee, at this point power was in the hands of the prime minister, and the president was largely a figurehead.

It was a rebirth of democracy, and many individuals and parties vied for power. Some Koreans look back on those days nostalgically, but oth-ers shake their heads at some of the excesses of the times. The National Assembly was contentious, and fistfights were known to break out on the floor during legislative sessions.

Critics often cite this as an example of how troubled the Korean experiment in democracy had become. In reality, however, the situation was not all that bad—any growing democracy has its less-than-perfect moments—but such bad examples were all the excuse the military needed to take control.

On the morning of May 16, 1961, the military rolled into the streets of Seoul. After commandeering the radio stations they proclaimed martial law and announced that the military was assuming control of the government for the good of the nation. Although Kim Jong Pil (b. 1926) led the group of colonels who planned the coup d’état, a major general, Park Chung Hee (1917–79) soon emerged as the most important member of the military cabal that had taken over the country.

Park asserted that the military was cleaning up the corruption for the sake of national security: North Korea could read the political and social chaos in South Korea as an opportunity to step in, so the military would stabilize the situation temporarily. “Temporarily” for Park Chung Hee turned out to be the next 18 years, during which he invoked national security to justify suspension of basic rights. Standing firm against a possible invasion from the North was a recurring theme throughout Park’s administration.

Besides declaring martial law and controlling all mass media, the military takeover of May 16 involved the systematic arrest of all politicians, reporters, and professors who were deemed problems to the military. With the help of a special military tribunal, Park also purged the military—his ultimate source of power—of anyone who opposed his rule. Park dissolved the National Assembly, forbade all political activity, and severely censored the press.

In what would prove to be a temporary effort to appeal to conservative morality, the military government also broke up prostitution rings and closed down bars and dance halls. In 1961 Park made Kim Jong Pil the head of a new secret police organization, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), which established a vast network of agents who would help to repress Park’s political opposition throughout his rule. For two years Park saw to the restructuring of the government to his liking.

Then in 1963, under strong pressure from the United States to end military rule, he retired from the military and ran for president as a civilian. The most oppressive and obvious bans on free speech and political activity were lifted, and with the help of the KCIA and what Carter Eckert calls “a large reservoir of funds whose precise sources have never been conclusively identified” (Eckert 1990, 362), Park created the Democratic Republic Party (DRP), which became the vehicle for his forays into electoral politics.

To weigh the elections in the DRP’s favor, the military junta excluded many of Park’s strongest rivals from participation. Though it is unlikely that Park would have won a truly free election, many Koreans who longed for stability supported him; his base of support included not only right-wing business and military figures but also many poor Koreans who regarded Park’s rivals as an elite group out of touch with problems of the common man.

The DRP won 32 percent of the popular vote but a majority of seats, thanks to a system that gave great advantages to the party winning a plurality of votes. Yun Poson, probably judging that a step toward democracy had been made, publicly congratulated Park on his victory. In the years to come, Park would continue to rig the system to maintain the maximum appearance of democracy with the minimum of interference with his power.

The period would see vocal protests and demonstrations in opposition to Park’s policies, in strong contrast to the total muzzling and fake unanimity of opinion in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, but whenever the civilian electoral machinery threatened to unseat him, Park would take steps to see that he stayed in power. Still, while showing himself to be at least as authoritarian as Syngman Rhee, he would prove to be a more competent leader, and his plans for the economic revitalization of South Korea won enthusiastic support from development experts in the United States and from a growing class of Korean technocrats.