The April Revolution
While the aging Syngman Rhee took steps to tighten his grip on the reigns of power, the society over which he ruled did not stand still, and the changes led to an erosion of support even among the narrow groups that had acquiesced to Rhee’s rule.
Partly through the brutal repression early in his regime and partly through a program of land reform after the Korean War, Rhee had largely succeeded in quelling political activity in the countryside. In fact, the landowning peasantry had become rather conservative and was the only really popular base of Rhee’s support, but the cities were another matter. By 1960 nearly 30 percent of Koreans lived in cities of 50,000 or more, double the number that had in 1945.
Partly with American assistance, school enrollments had increased, literacy rates had more than tripled, and more than 70 percent of the population could read and write. The readership for newspapers and magazines had expanded enormously—the circulation of Tong a Ilbo, the nation’s leading newspaper, went from 20,000 to about 400,000 between the end of the war and 1960. The press was increasingly hostile to the government.
South Korea’s enormously expanded population of students was a particularly destabilizing element for the regime of Rhee and his successors. There were far too many of them to find employment appropriate to their skills, especially university graduates, whose number increased twelvefold between 1948 and 1960.
Thus, they were a discontented class, with time on their hands. Furthermore, they had inherited from Korea’s Confucian past a belief that it is a scholar’s duty to keep watch on the virtue of the state.
The constitution provided for an independent vice president, and Rhee’s vice president from 1956 to 1960 was Chang Myon (1899–1966), who had served as ambassador to the United States at the outbreak of the Korean War. Chang was a New Faction Democrat and a proponent of reform, a potential rival for the presidency.
Rhee determined that he would see his candidate, Yi Kibung, elected vice president in 1960. Yi Kibung was a distant relative, and the childless Rhee had adopted Yi as his son. Yi, however, was perceived not only as abrasive but as the core of the growing corruption of the Rhee administration. His popularity fell in the campaign, yet in the March 15 elections Yi won by a wide margin.
Clearly, the ballot boxes had been compromised. Chang Myon resigned in protest. Students began demonstrating, and demonstrations spread and grew larger each day.On April 11 the body of a 17-year-old boy was discovered in the bay around Masan, a port city in South Kyongsang that had been the site of demonstrations against the elections in March.
The boy had apparently been struck and killed by a tear gas canister and dumped into the bay by the police. The citizens of Masan immediately thronged the streets in renewed protest, while Rhee laid the blame on his favorite boogey-man, “communist infiltrators,” who, he said, had caused the trouble by organizing the demonstrations in Masan.
As the student protest spread, Rhee’s attempts at suppression became increasingly savage. On April 18 Rhee’s Anticommunist Youth Corps attacked a demonstration of students at Korea University in Seoul. The following day students from Korea University, about three miles east of the Blue House (the presidential mansion), began to march in protest against Rhee.
As their column made its way toward the Blue House, protesters’ courage and numbers mounted—to an estimated 30,000. They marched past Sungkyunkwan University and Seoul National University, picking up more students. Soldiers blocked their final approach to the Blue House. It appeared that the demonstrators could overwhelm them, and the soldiers were ordered to shoot if necessary.
When the protesters kept com-ing, shouting for Rhee to go and confronting the soldiers, the soldiers opened fire. Students fell, but others pressed forward. The soldiers continued to fire until about 125 students were dead and 1,000 more were wounded.
Then, in sympathy with the protesters, the soldiers decided to stop protecting a corrupt government. They laid down their weapons and went home. The students were now in control.
In most contexts, the term student government refers to student involvement in school and student body activities. In Korea in 1960, however, student government meant students running the government, literally. Students manned police stations, city hall, and central government offices. After a time government officials returned to service and society returned, somewhat, to normal.
Rhee remained in Korea for one more week, hoping that the dem-onstrators would blame those around him and not him. On April 28 Yi Kibung’s eldest son shot his father, his mother, his younger brother, and himself in a suicide pact.
Rhee’s life was in danger, and he finally saw that he had better leave Korea. He resigned on April 27, leaving his foreign minister, Ho Chong, as the head of the government, but he still had trouble letting go.
On the way out of town, the aged president made one last suggestion for saving the situation: that he leave the Blue House by walking away alone.
The people, he reasoned, would be sad-dened at such a pitiful sight and would rally around him and beg him to stay. His advisers got him into the car and off to the airport. Rhee spent the next five years in exile in Hawaii, where he died at the age of 90.