The Chun Government

The Chun Government

Chun was the least popular of the autocratic leaders who ruled South Korea for its first four decades. His aim was evidently to continue Park’s policies and methods, but the effect was rather different since South Korea was a less compliant subject for autocracy by 1980, and also because Chun was a man of less ability than Park.

If there was another major dif-ference between the governing style of Park and Chun, it was that Chun evinced a distinct propensity for totalitarian tactics, akin to those used by Kim Il Sung in the DPRK. He created a group of “purification camps” in remote mountain areas and filled them with 37,000 journalists, stu-dents, teachers, labor organizers, and civil servants, where, in classic Red Chinese,

North Korean, and Vietnamese style, they were reeducated in an atmosphere of beatings, forced marathon runs, near-starvation, group criticism, and verbal indoctrination. The KCIA, renamed the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP, also abbreviated NSP), issued a decree commanding newspapers to print Chun’s photograph in every issue. A comedian who had the misfortune of resembling Chun Doo Hwan was banned from television (Cumings 2005, 384).

With a narrow base of support even among Korea’s elites, Chun relied heavily on the loyalty of military officers in North Kyongsang province and Taegu, its capital. They were collectively known as the “T-K” group or the Hanahoe (“Club of One Mind”), and Chun put them in positions of power. George E. Ogle, author of South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle, notes: “Under Chun’s regime, Hanahoe members vir-tually monopolized politically sensitive positions . . . the Army Security Command, the Special Forces Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Ministry of National Defense” (Ogle 1990, 99).

The Chun government was able to make the economy function, and after a rocky first year the economy rebounded and flourished again. Chun dubbed the fifth five-year plan (1982–86) “The Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan.” This plan shifted away from Park’s emphasis on heavy industries and toward technology, precision machinery, and electronics, including televisions, VCRs, and computer products. As the new title implied, plans included the goal of improv-ing social welfare.

To counter his unpopularity Chun lifted the midnight to dawn curfew that had been a part of Korean life since the Korean War nearly 30 years earlier, and he rescinded the requirement that students in middle and high school wear uniforms, one of the last remnants of Japanese colonial influence in Korea. On the other hand, overwhelmingly heavy-handed repression of the press and suppression of the universities continued.

These moves by Chun, repressive on the one hand and liberalizing on the other, split the populace. A portion of Korea’s expanding middle class disliked Chun. Much of it was more interested in making money, and he, like Park before him, was able to exploit fear of North Korea. Ultimately, what delayed South Korea’s full democratization was factional division among Chun’s opponents.

Soon after taking office President Chun Doo Hwan publicly announced that he intended to step down after one term. Journalists and historians are divided in their assessments of Chun’s motives. Don Oberdorfer, author of The Two Koreas, who interviewed Chun during his presidency, believes that Chun was sincere and wanted to avoid the bloody end met by his predecessor (Oberdorfer 2001, 162).

Chun planned to support Roh Tae Woo, his co-conspirator in the 1979 mili-tary coup, as the next president by means of the rigged electoral college by which he himself had come to power; the constitution Chun had established did not provide for a direct election to the presidency.

For Chun, even if he sincerely wanted to push South Korea down the road to democracy, retiring was bound to be difficult. He had acquired the presidency by violence and illegality, and once out of power he might face the vengeance of his surviving enemies.His plans were complicated by the approach of the 1988 Olympics, which were to be held in Seoul.

Though the selection of his country as the host of Olympics was a triumph for Chun, testifying to South Korea’s growing prosperity and lending an aura of legitimacy and inter-national recognition to his presidency, it also emboldened the opposi-tion. They judged, correctly, that Chun would find it harder to practice his usual methods of intimidation and repression when the eyes of the world were focused on Seoul.

Many Koreans, hoping that Chun’s promise would translate at last into a truly democratic Korea, were furious when Chun announced that Roh Tae Woo would be “elected” president under the existing system. In June 1987 the discovery that a student had been tortured to death by the police led to nationwide demonstrations against the regime.

The protesters’ demands included direct election of the president and freedom of the press. More vocal and widespread than any since 1980, and subject to brutal suppres-sion by riot police, the protest made some in the Reagan administra-tion wonder if South Korea might be on the verge of a revolution, and the Americans put Chun under intense pressure to prepare for a more democratic transition.

On June 19 Roh Tae Woo announced that he would be the next rul-ing party candidate for president and he would welcome a change in the constitution so that direct election of the president would be pos-sible. Elections were announced to be held on December 27, together with amnesty for political prisoners, including Kim Dae Jung, and abol-ishment of the existing law restricting the press.

The constitution was quickly amended, and Roh, with a suddenly impressive record of giving Koreans what they wanted, ran an open and fair campaign for the presi-dency. Three major parties opposed Roh, each headed by a Kim—the same “three Kims” Chun had arrested in May 1980. Kim Jong Pil (b. 1926), often distinguished from the other Kims by his initials, J. P., had at one time been Park Chung Hee’s closest adviser.

A colonel when Park took over in 1961, Kim Jong Pil had advanced to KCIA director and prime minister under Park. So close that he had married Park’s niece, he nonetheless fell into disfavor and even left the country for a time. Kim Young Sam (b. 1927), or Y. S. Kim, was a strong opposi-tion leader. Once the youngest member ever of the National Assembly, he became a key leader in the fight for democracy during Park’s and Chun’s administrations.

The third Kim was Kim Dae Jung, or D. J. Kim, the candidate who had surprised Park Chung Hee with a strong showing in 1971, who had been kidnapped, tortured, and imprisoned by Park, and who had barely escaped execution by Chun. His native Cholla region had lagged in economic development and remained bitter over the government’s suppression of the Kwangju uprising of 1980.

None of the three Kims would either step aside or form an alliance to create a united opposition ticket. As the vote count would reflect, their constituencies were strongly rooted in rivalries between different Korean regions. A Korean-American professor, Manwoo Lee, has com-mented that “each candidate was like a Chinese warlord, occupying his own solid territory” (Manwoo Lee 1990, 49–51).

Together, they received a high enough share of the electorate to represent a decisive rejection of the Chun years and Roh’s party, yet the surprising result was that Roh won the December 1987 election with a 37 percent plural-ity. In a messy and unsatisfying way, a step toward genuine democracy had been taken.