Resistance to the Park Regime
At the beginning of the 1970s, however, as Park’s first decade of power came to an end, his party began to face a strengthened democratic opposition in the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by a younger gen-eration of political leaders, including Kim Young Sam (b. 1927) and Kim Dae Jung. Both were moderate democrats, not leftists, and both were outspoken critics of the Park regime and were gathering strong support.
In 1971 Kim Dae Jung as a presidential candidate of the NDP won 45 percent of the vote, including more than half of the urban vote. The DRP was still in power, but it may have seemed to Park that its time was limited unless he took action while he could. To assure that no change of regime occurred, Park rewrote the constitution in 1972.
The new constitution was called the Yushin Constitution; the term Yushin was officially translated as “revitalizing reforms.” While it sounded good, in reality the new constitution was a tool that gave Park greater authoritarian power to arrest those he wanted to. He cracked down on newspapers, arresting some reporters and having others dis-missed from their newspapers. He went after other “impure” elements as well, including some professors who had criticized him.
He had already pressured the National Assembly in 1969 to eliminate the two-term limit on his office, allowing him to remain president indefinitely. Park saw Kim Dae Jung as a particularly dangerous opponent and was likely behind an assassination attempt (disguised as a car accident). Kim, left with a permanent hip injury, fled to Japan, where he spoke out against Park and the Yushin Constitution. In 1973 South Korea’s spy agency, the KCIA, kidnapped Kim from a Tokyo hotel and brought him back to Korea, where he remained under house arrest from 1973 to 1979.
On August 15, 1974, at a public meeting at the Citizen’s Hall in downtown Seoul, a young Korean, a pro-DPRK resident of Japan named Mun Se-gwang (1951–74), made an attempt on Park’s life. Despite rigorous security measures, he somehow had a handgun. He rose from his seat near the front of the hall and started shooting at Park.
He missed Park but fatally wounded Park’s wife, Yook Youngsoo, known as Madame Park (1926–74). Unlike her unsmiling and dour husband, Madame Park was well loved by the people and lent great dignity to public occasions. Her death was a blow to Park and to the nation. After her death Park became more austere in his own life and even more severe on his perceived enemies.
Yet, before the Yushin Constitution and after it, even as the South Korean economy boomed in an atmosphere of political repression, dissent grew. Disaffection spread to many sectors of society, includ-ing labor, which had been harshly repressed under the Park Chung Hee regime even before the Yushin Constitution.
Keeping wages in South Korea cheap was a way of luring business to the country and keeping the heads of the great South Korean business conglomerates happy. From its beginnings the government developed sophisticated methods for repressing labor, some of them evidently borrowed from Korea’s colonial period. Syngman Rhee had created a national, state controlled company union, which represented the interests of man-agement and helped to break strikes and prevent the rise of indepen-dent unions.
In 1961 the KCIA created unions for each industrial sector and founded a new national labor federation whose leaders pledged their loyalty to Park’s program; two years later the govern-ment outlawed political activity by labor (unless it was activity that favored the ruling party). Labor’s bargaining power was further weakened by an influx of young women and displaced peasants into the industrial labor market, and a generation of workers suffered for South Korea’s economic boom.
South Korea’s export companies and American manufacturers that relocated jobs to Korea thrived on the low-skilled labor in sweatshop conditions; many lived in company dormitories that were stiflingly hot in the summer and under-heated in winter, ate company food, and had one or two days off a month. Conditions like these at last spawned a real labor movement, arising from the shop floor without help from any existing political party. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a series of strikes at the firms of American and Korean compa-nies, by electronics workers, metalworkers, chemical workers, and autoworkers.
In a vast warren of small sweatshops known as Seoul’s Peace Market, 20,000 workers, the majority of them young women, toiled in unhealthy conditions for wages that, in the words of a study by the American Friends Service Committee, amounted to “the price of a cup of coffee at a tea room” (Cumings 2005, 574). In 1970 a textile worker named Chon Taeil immolated himself at Seoul’s Peace Market, shouting, as he burned, “Obey the labor standards act” and “Don’t mistreat young girls.”
The suicide shocked the nation, brought student demonstrators into the streets, and resulted in the formation of the Chonggye Garment Worker’s Union, founded within a month of Chon Taeil’s death by his mother, Yi Sosun. Park’s regime promptly passed a law that gave the president power to restrict civil liberties, set wages and prices, and stamp out industrial strikes and independent labor unions. Despite these measures, workers kept organizing.
Korea’s churches became centers of resistance to the regime, as they had during the Japanese colonial period at the time of the 1919 March First Movement. Korea’s Catholics, influenced by Latin American liber-ation theology, began Korea’s Minjung (“masses” or “common people”) Movement. The Urban Industrial Mission (UIM), run by Christians, sought to make workers aware of their rights.
In 1974 George Ogle, a Methodist missionary associated with the UIM, was deported by Park for defending eight men who had been tortured into confessing they were part of a Communist conspiracy. The Reverend Cho Hwasun, a female Methodist minister who worked at the Dongil Textile Company in Seoul, helped to found an independent women’s union. Throughout the 1970s the members of this union bravely confronted the company and the government, steadfast in the face of persecution by the hired thugs, the police, and the KCIA.
Though unskilled laborers in South Korea worked for next to noth-ing, wages among skilled laborers rose in the late 1970s because the use of skilled South Korean workers for construction projects in the Middle East left a shortage of them at home. In 1979 Korea’s economy suffered a severe downturn, caused partly by high levels of debt, by the second of the 1970s great oil shocks, and by rising labor costs. Park’s regime became less popular than ever, and severe labor disputes erupted in several sectors. First the miners at the Sabuk coal mines in the central mountain region went on strike.
Miners demanded improved safety and wages as well as the right to organize. Park summoned riot police to break up the demonstrations by force, and the severity of the fighting between miners and riot police made the news. Then, in an incident at the YH Trading Company, the government took an action that helped to lead to Park’s abrupt and bloody end.
The YH Trading Company was essentially a large sweatshop in which Korean women manufactured wigs for export made from other Korean women’s hair and did simple needlework, for which they were paid next to nothing plus room and board at the company dormitories. In early August 1979 workers at the company were holding a sit-down strike.
On August 7 the owner shut the factory, fired all its employ-ees, closed the dormitories and mess halls, and had the police evict the workers. Many were severely beaten. Kim Young Sam, then chair-man of the New Democratic Party, agreed to let them use the party headquarters. On August 9 about 1,000 police stormed the building, in the process killing a woman worker.
Park Chung Hee called for “a thorough investigation into the true activities of certain impure forces which, under the pretense of religion, infiltrate factories and labor unions to agitate labor disputes and social disorder.” Park’s attacks were aimed particularly at the UIM, which the government-controlled media accused of Communist connections. In the United States the administration of President Jimmy Carter called Park’s actions “brutal and excessive.” Hearing this, the opposition parties stepped up support of the workers.
On October 4 the DRP, the ruling party, voted to expel Kim Young Sam from the National Assembly. Workers and students demonstrated in the streets of Masan and Pusan, ordinarily a privileged and relatively content area where Park had usually enjoyed support. Demonstrators demanded Kim’s reinstatement, Park’s resignation, and an end to the Yusin system. The political moment obviously resembled the demo-cratic ferment that had led to the end of the Syngman Rhee regime, and Park and his advisers debated whether the response should be liberal-ization or stepped-up repression.
On October 26, 1979, Park met to discuss the situation over dinner at a KCIA safe house with Kim Chaegyu, head of the KCIA along with Cha Chichol, Park’s ever-present bodyguard and confidant, a short, squat man known for his toughness and also said to be a strong influ-ence on Park. Partway through the meal Kim excused himself and went outside, where his coconspirators were waiting.
He got a revolver from one of them and returned to his place at the table. Looking at Park’s armed bodyguard, Cha Chichol, he exclaimed, “How can we conduct our policies with an insect like this!” and shot him (Cumings 2005, 379). Park was not armed, and Kim shot him next. Kim then attempted to shoot Cha again to make sure he was dead, but his gun jammed and he ran from the room.
After acquiring a pistol from one of his aides, Kim shot Cha again several times, and then shot Park again. Then he left the house and went to the waiting jeep of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Chong Sunghwa. The president had been shot, Kim told Chong, not revealing that he had done the shooting. Kim suggested that they go to KCIA headquarters to moni-tor events and decide what to do.
On the way Chong recommended that they change course and go to his headquarters, the Ministry of Defense. When they arrived Chong ordered Kim’s arrest; he had con-cluded that Kim was behind the shootings. The prime minister, Choi Kyu Ha, was an uncharismatic bureaucrat who had been picked by Park Chung Hee specifically for his mediocrity; Park had regarded him as an unthreatening number two. Choi became acting president and declared martial law.
In February, after a brief period during which younger officers of the Korean military purged their ranks of the older generation, the interim government launched a general liberalization. It restored the political rights of Kim Dae Jung and other politicians and allowed the rehiring of university professors who had been fired for political reasons. Expelled students returned to the universities. Koreans around the country met to discuss rewriting the constitution and to prepare for a new election.