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Korea - Politics Background - 1987-2007

Although today South Korea is recognized as a democracy, for several decades following the Korean War it was ruled by a succession of leaders who assumed office under less than democratic circumstances. Fair elections in 1952 were followed by corrupt ones later that decade. A succession of military leaders assumed power in South Korea starting in 1961 with a coup led by army officers. Growing frustration with repressive rule among South Koreans led to demonstrations in May 1980 in the city of Kwangju. These demonstrations were violently suppressed, killing hundreds of civilians.

Whereas the South Korean economy flourished, democratic institutions and a free press often did not. In spite of political violence in the form of brutal crackdowns against civilian protests and the assassination of government leaders, a civil society emerged to lead the South Korean democracy movement. The Council for the Promotion of Democracy, which was established by the Sangdo-dong faction loyal to Kim Young-sam and the Donggyo-dong faction loyal to Kim Dae-jung, led South Korea's democracy movement. But the group fell apart in 1987 after the two Kims failed to field a single presidential candidate that year.

In 1987, after years of regular protests, the military leaders of South Korea were forced to hold free and democratic elections. Their handpicked successor, Roh Tae-woo, won, as opposition parties failed to unite around a single candidate and split the vote.

Additional democratic advances during the tenure of Roh Tae-woo, a former general, resulted in the 1992 election of a long-time pro-democracy activist, Kim Young-sam. Kim became Korea's first civilian elected president in 32 years. Until 1993 and the advent of the Kim Young Sam administration (1993-1998), military governments had dominated South Korean politics. The move towards democratic civilian rule coupled with the gradual rise of a "post-military society" had a marked influence on South Korean attitudes to military and security issues.

For almost 20 years after the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between North and South Korea were minimal and very strained. Official contact did not occur until 1971, beginning with Red Cross contacts and family reunification projects in 1985. In the early 1990s, relations between the two countries improved with the 1991 South-North Basic Agreement, which acknowledged that reunification was the goal of both governments, and the 1992 Joint Declaration of Denuclearization. However, divergent positions on the process of reunification and North Korean weapons programs, compounded by South Korea's tumultuous domestic politics and the 1994 death of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, contributed to a cycle of warming and cooling of relations.

The 1997 presidential election and peaceful transition of power marked another step forward in Korea's democratization when Kim Dae-jung, a life-long democracy and human rights activist, was elected from a major opposition party. In 1998 Korea experienced its worst economic crisis since the Korean War. A wildly fluctuating exchange rate, plummeting property values, and a temporaryparalysis of the financial system are among the key features of this period. The financial crisis made importing extremely risky for everyone, and credit impossible for many.

Relations between North and South improved following the 1997 election of Kim Dae-jung. His "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with the DPRK set the stage for the historic June 2000 inter-Korean summit between President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. President Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for the policy, but the prize was somewhat tarnished by revelations of a $500 million dollar "payoff" to North Korea that immediately preceded the summit. The sunshine policy was created to thaw the relations between the ROK and DPRK by supplying aid and maintaining a spirit of open cooperation.

The transition to an open, democratic system was further consolidated in 2002, when human rights lawyer, Roh Moo-hyun, won the presidential election on a "participatory government" platform. Hailing from a very poor family, Roh was a self-made man without a college degree in an elitist society that values formal education. His home town in Gyeongsang Province near Busan was a conservative stronghold but Roh was a progressive politician who made his name as a champion of labor rights.

President Roh was impeached by the opposition-dominated National Assembly on 12 March 2004 for illegal electioneering, failing to stop corruption and mismanagement of the world's 12th largest economy. The court ruled that election laws had been violated but the infraction was too minor to warrant impeachment.

The pro-government Uri Party recorded a resounding victory in general elections April 2004 while the two main parties that had backed impeachment were soundly defeated. The main opposition Grand National Party lost its majority in the legislature to the Uri Party, putting power into the hands of liberal elements for the first time in the history of the country's parliament.

South Korea's Constitutional Court overturned the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun and restored his executive powers, effective immediately. The decision on 14 May 2004 by the nine judges brings to an end 63 days of leadership crisis in South Korea. The president of the Constitutional Court, Yun Young-chul, announced the reinstatement of President Roh Moo-hyun in a national broadcast.

The Roh administration espoused three key values: 'equality' in domestic affairs 'Korean solidarity' in policies toward North Korea and 'autonomy' in foreign policy. Under 'equality' it placed equal distribution above economic growth. In North Korea policies, 'Korean reconciliation' dominated all other policies. In foreign policy, 'autonomy' fueled xenophobic sentiments and anti-Americanism among the younger generation. Above all, Roh stood for cleaning up politics, doing away with regionalism, and reconciling with the North. This vision captured the imagination of the Korean public and catapulted him to the presidency. That by his own admission he failed to fulfill his vision does not diminish the public's support for the kind of politics he promised.

The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, which advocated a "sunshine" policy of engaging the North, often downplayed threats posed by the North Korean military. South Korea maintained its sunshine policy toward North Korea up until the Lee Myung-bak administration [2008-2013] of Korea's conservative Grand National Party.

South Koreans voted for a new president 19 December 2007. Former business executive and Mayor of Seoul Lee Myung-bak's 5-year term began with his inauguration on February 25, 2008. President Lee Myung-bak articulated a policy of continued engagement and cooperation with North Korea, but has noted that any such engagement should occur in parallel with further progress toward complete denuclearization. The new, conservative South Korean government warned that it would speak out against human rights abuses in the Communist North and that it would not expand economic ties unless the North abandoned its nuclear weapons programs. Lee Myung-bak pledged to better ties with major trading partner Japan after his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun tried to score points at home by fanning the flames of lingering anti-Japan sentiment. Infighting in the National Assembly and concern that the conservative Lee Myung-bak government was trying to consolidate power in the executive resulted in deepening public distrust of the political process.

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Page last modified: 06-09-2016 12:24:20 ZULU