Posted by: rbbadger | July 28, 2008

60 years of the Republic of Korea

2008 marks a momentous anniversary in the history of the Republic of Korea.  On August 15, 1948, the first Republic came into being.  The first president, Dr. Rhee Syngman took the oath of office on the steps of the old National Assembly building. 

60 years is an auspicious birthday in Korean and Chinese culture.  The whole cycle of the Chinese zodiac has been completed.  A 60th birthday is as big, if not bigger celebration, than that of a baby’s first birthday.  Yet, in the history of Korea, sixty years is not very long. 

Unfortunately, the new Republic did not remain in peace for long.  Rhee Syngman, despite his long residence in America, wasn’t much of a democrat and was pretty authoritarian.  Following Rhee’s resignation and exile in America, Korea made an attempt to move away from an American model of governance into a more British style of a parliamentary government with a prime minister, but keeping the president on as head of state and more as a ceremonial figurehead.  A coup, lead by General Park Chung-hee toppled this new regime.  Park lead his country’s economy to grow faster and farther than anyone had anticipated.  However, he himself was assassinated by his own director of the KCIA. 

In 1980, another general by the name of Chun Doo-hwan took office as president.  He, like Park before him, came to power in a military coup.  On May 15, 1980, protests took place in Gwangju against this and the Korean government responded with the full force of the military.  Many people died in those protests.  In 1987, Seoul was rocked by another series of protests.  The man who Chun had tapped to succeed him, Roh Tae-woo sided with the protestors on a lot of the issues.  Basically, Chun and Roh realised that the show was over.  In the first popular election of a president in South Korea, Roh Tae-woo won the election.  1987 also saw the Sixth Constitution of the Republic of Korea.

Following Roh’s presidency, one of the prominent democracy protestors, Kim Young-sam became president.  Kim launched a programme to eliminate corruption from the government, a campaign which has been somewhat successful.  During Kim’s presidency, both of his predecessors were arrested on charges of corruption and treason.  Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death, though his sentence was reduced.  Perhaps as a way to put to rest all the acrimony and bitterness, incoming president Kim Dae-jung who had himself been imprisoned and sentenced to death during the Chun years, requested that Kim Young-sam pardon both men.  Both were subsequently pardoned.

And so, on a cold February morning outside the National Assembly, the five living ex-presidents were present.  Outgoing president Roh Moo-hyun was in the front with incoming president Lee Myeong-bak.  In a prominent place were the four ex-presidents, all seated together.  Thus, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo found themselves together with the president under whose administration they were imprisoned (Kim Young-sam) and together with the president under which they were pardoned (Kim Dae-jung).  One can only imagine what they talked about!

If anything, it has been a tumultous 60 years.  Those who lived through it saw their country liberated from Japanese control, went through six different constitutions, saw a Westminster system of governance, experienced presidential systems of governance, and a couple military dictatorships.  There are now calls for rethinking the constitution all together, though I rather think that the reforms won’t work.  Does Korea really need another constitution?

Still, I am looking forward to see what sorts of celebrations the Korean government has planned.  These have been a difficult and tumultous sixty years.

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