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The Military Revolution and the Third and Fourth Republics

Before daybreak on May 16, 1961, in Korea, the sound of sporadic rifle fire announced an uprising of military men. Battalions of soldiers, marines, and paratroopers marched into Seoul, occupying the capital city in a lightning coup led by Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee.

Later that morning, the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Army Chief-of-Staff Lt. Gen. Chang Do-yCong, announced over the radio that it had taken over all three branches of the government and proclaimed a six-point pledge: strong anticommunism, respect for the U.N. Charter, closer relations with the United States and other free nations, eradication of corruption, establishment of a self-supporting economy, and efforts for national reunification. He also pledged transfer of the government to civilian rule as soon as the revolutionary missions were accomplished.

The Revolutionary Committee, later renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, set out implement its aims. A new constitution was approved in a national referendum and promulgated in December 1963, thus inaugurating the Third Republic. In the presidential election held in October the following year, Park Chung Hee, who had resigned from the army, ran for office, despite his original promise of retiring from politics, and was elected President. In the National Assembly elections held in November, candidates from Park's Democratic Republican Party won an impressive victory, forming a stable majority force. With the stage thus set, Park formally took office in December.

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In the 1967 presidential election, President Park, with 51.4 percent of the total votes, was re-elected to a second four-year term over his chief opponent Yun Po-sun. In 1971, he won a third term by defeating Kim Dae-jung.

Under President Park's leadership, the human and natural resources of the nation were effectively organized for the first time in modern history. The economy began to grow at an annual rate of 9.2 percent. Per capita GNP increased from a mere US$87 in 1962 to US$1,503 in 1980, and exports rose by 32.8 percent a year from US$56.7 million in 1962 to US$17.5 billion in 1980.

In the diplomatic area, relations were normalized with Japan in June 1965, putting an end to the hiatus of formal bilateral relations due largely to antagonism stemming from Japan's occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. It was also at the initiative of President Park that the first formal inter-Korean dialogue was begun. The Red Cross societies of the two parts of Korea began meetings in September 1971, to discuss the question of locating and exchanging information about relatives separated by the South-North division. Political contacts were started in May 1972, culminating in the historic South-North Joint Communique of July 4, 1972, in which South and North Korea agreed to work for peaceful reunification.

Perceiving grave implications for Korea in the rapidly changing domestic and international situation, the Park administration introduced new constitutional amendments. These amendments were proposed in October 1972 and approved in a subsequent national referendum. With the promulgation of the revised Constitution in December, a new political order, referred to as the Yushin (Revitalizing Reforms) system was established and the Fourth Republic inaugurated.

In the ensuing years, Korea successfully weathered the oil crisis and continued to develop economically. The SaemaCul Undong (New Community Movement) brought increasing prosperity to rural and urban areas and provided experience in problem solving. Diplomatic relations continued to expand. Only the South-North dialogue floundered and then came to a standstill.

Successful as he was in developing a backward economy and in modernizing certain aspects of society, President Park relied on autocratic means in implementing his policies. The Yushin Constitution made it possible for him to remain in office indefinitely through well-controlled electoral procedures and also ensured him a kind of built-in majority in the Legislature.

People began criticizing the harshly repressive measures of the government. There was also criticism of the injustices perpetuated in the wake of policies geared to rapid economic growth, particularly to the underprivileged. Trade union movements were severely restricted. The combination of pent-up dissatisfaction with the high-handed methods of the government and frustration in popular desire for political participation and economic redistribution led to Park's demise.

On October 26, 1979, President Park was assassinated by the chief of the Korean CIA, Kim Jae-kyu, and Prime Minister Choi Kyu-hah became acting President under the Constitution. Shortly thereafter he was elected President by the National Conference for Unification, an electoral college set up as part of the Yushin system.

During the next several months, Korea went through a difficult period characterized by political, social and economic instability. Hanging in balance was Korea's development toward a fuller democracy or reversion to the autocratic past. Under such circumstances, another military leader, Chun Doo Hwan, emerged. It also was in the midst of this political upheaval that the tragic Kwangju incident took place. In May 1980, civilian uprisings in that southern city protesting the new military autocracy were harshly put down by troops, causing a large number of casualties and providing an anti-government issue that was to linger on for years.

Chun was subsequently elected President in the electoral college set up under the Yushin Constitution on August 27, and in October, he promulgated a new revised constitution, which limited the presidency to a single seven-year term.

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The Fifth Republic

Following the establishment of the Fifth Republic, events moved quickly. Political parties began to organize again in December 1980, and all political activities were resumed in January 1981; martial law was lifted at the same time. A presidential election was held in February along with National Assembly elections. On April 11, the opening session of the National Assembly, consisting of 276 members from eight political parties, was convened and the groundwork for the Fifth Republic was in place. On March 3, 1981, President Chun took office, promising to build a "Great Korea" in a new era.

Although it was virtually the same as the Third and the Fourth Republics in its autocratic governing-style, the Fifth Republic registered some remarkable achievements, including the first-ever surplus in the international balance of payments and a peaceful transfer of power at the end of the seven-year term of President Chun, no small feat considering Korea's past record of political upheaval at the end of every presidency. The period also was plagued by many political problems, however, that tended to overshadow the accomplishments. Questions included the legitimacy of the government itself and pressure for constitutional change for the direct election of a president. The Sixth Republic was born out of the need to find a solution to these pressing issues which had grown to crisis proportions.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy

 


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