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One president was shot, four were imprisoned. It’s okay, this is South Korea

“Solidarity” within the framework of the special project “Power” tells about the phenomenon of South Korea: a state that in just a few decades has turned from an agrarian and impoverished economy into one of the richest and most technologically advanced economies in the world, and has also gone from a bloody dictatorship to a full-fledged democracy.

The first dictator: fighting dissent and fleeing the country

In his youth, Lee Syngman participated in the movement against Japanese rule on the Korean Peninsula, for which he ended up in prison. A few years later, he was lucky enough to leave due to some circumstances, and a native of a peasant family went to the USA, where he lived for about 40 years.

After the victory over Japan in World War II, the American authorities helped the political emigrant return to his homeland, where, after the division of Korea into two states and the war between them, Lee Syngman led South Korea.

Over time, he turned into a classic dictator. There were a lot of excuses for this – first of all, the threat of capture from the communist north. Lee Syngman relied on cooperation with the United States (even persuaded them to attack the DPRK) and brutally destroyed any dissent in his country.

South Korea in the early 1960s

By and large, the dictator did not care about the economy. Today it is hard to believe, but back in the 1960s, the economies of North and South Korea were at about the same level of development. Despite the fact that the state in the south was agrarian, most industrial enterprises remained in the north.

In 1960, 85-year-old Lee Syng-man ran for the fourth presidential election, but society no longer wanted to tolerate him. As a result of the April Revolution, the dictator fled the country: a few years later he died in Hawaii.

The second dictator: “Economic miracle” and a bullet from an ally

The first democratic regime existed in South Korea for only a few years. Society remembered it as a period of chaos, corruption and economic collapse. In such conditions, almost no one protested against the coup d’état, as a result of which General Park Chung-hee seized power.

At first, the military man behaved like a soft autocrat and tried to imitate democracy (opposition parties were active and competitive parliamentary elections were held). 
However, the repressive machine was slowly but surely gaining momentum again. 
Over time, anyone who risked publicly sharply criticizing the regime’s policies was subjected to arrests and criminal terms.

“In the first place is the protection of the life and freedom of 30 million people from the threat of aggression from the North, so there can be no question of ensuring the rights and freedoms of individual citizens.”

park chung hee

However, Park Chung Hee’s reign was very different from that of the previous dictator. The fact is that he paid much attention to economic reforms. Having discovered that the tactics of import substitution does not lead to anything good, South Korea set a course for the creation of an export-oriented economy.

The “Korean economic miracle” was created due to several factors. Park Chung Hee forged a relationship with Japan, hated by the Koreans, whose economy by that time had strongly pulled ahead. Thus, not only American, but also Japanese investments were attracted to the country.

The Koreans were willing to work for almost nominal money, and their hard work led to high productivity. Consumer electronics from South Korea eventually began to take over the whole world.

Park Chung Hee created “managed capitalism”: his government’s protectionist policy of actively growing chaebols, family-led financial-industrial groups that were simultaneously engaged in various types of business (electronics, automotive, shipbuilding, petrochemicals, metallurgy).

The largest chaebols are known all over the world: Samsung, LG Group, Hyundai, Daewoo.

GDP per capita in constant 1990 dollars, North and South Korea, 1950-2008

Thus, during the 17 years of his presidency, Park Chung-hee formed a “dictatorship of development.” His great merit was also the fact that he fought with property inequality, which could slow down the development of the country. The president once blasted several oligarchs after their wives showed up at a reception decked out in diamonds.

Park Chung-hee pursued such a policy not out of the kindness of his heart, but fearing the popularization of communist ideas in society. Otherwise, the dictator did not consider the fates and lives of his citizens: he easily gave orders to imprison or shoot protesters.

The life of the dictator, under whom his cult of personality developed in the country, ended unexpectedly. In October 1979, Kim Jae-gyu, director of the South Korean Central Intelligence Agency, shot him dead.

Kim Jae Gyu shows how he killed Park Chung Hee

Since the security official was executed rather quickly, there are still disputes about why he fired a bullet at the president: either to liberate the country from the dictatorship, or to seize power himself.

The third dictator: forced democratization and the first trial of the president

There was a brief period of political turbulence in South Korea after the assassination of the dictator, but eventually the country turned back to the traditional path of autocracy. Another military man established his dictatorship: Chun Doo-hwan changed the Constitution and introduced indirect presidential elections through the electoral college.

Chun Doo-hwan in 1985

Despite the fact that South Korean society has long demanded democratic changes. One example: in May 1980, in the city of Gwangju, government troops violently suppressed protests: according to unofficial data, about two thousand people were killed then.

According to some estimates, about 20,000 active opponents of the regime were imprisoned during the years of Chung Doo-hwan’s rule.

And yet, over time, circumstances forced the dictator to agree to democratic change.

As wealth grew, a middle class emerged in South Korea, and the younger generation was no longer prepared to endure what was the norm for their parents. The foreign policy situation has also changed: the situation required the country’s authorities to observe ever greater propriety so as not to scare off investors and trading partners. 

Finally, the position of the United States changed: the Cold War was ending, the Americans were no longer ready to turn a blind eye to human rights violations and the lack of democracy in South Korea.

In 1987, the country’s authorities went for democratization. According to the new Constitution, the president began to be elected by direct universal suffrage for a term of 5 years, without the right to re-election.

Jung Doo Hwan retired, and after a while, there was a strong request in society to persecute him. In 1996, the former dictator was sentenced to death, but later pardoned.

Democratic presidents: three were imprisoned, one committed suicide

Since 1988, 10 presidents have already been replaced in South Korea, and many of them have not managed to serve even one five-year term.

The first democratically elected president, Ro Dae-woo (1988-1993), was accused of corruption and suppression of protests in Gwangju after his resignation. He was sentenced to 22 years, but later pardoned.

President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) became involved in a corruption case after his resignation and committed suicide. In ancient times, in Korea, this was considered the only way to wash away the shame and restore respect for one’s name.

Former President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) was found guilty of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power a few years after his resignation and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, held the presidency for three years (2013-2016). She was accused of corruption and the transfer of classified information to people who were not civil servants (in fact, the sectarians to which she belonged). At first there was a harsh sentence (24 years), but a few years later the former president was pardoned.

Park Geun-hye in court

However, all these political scandals do not hinder the development of South Korean democracy and, moreover, the development of the economy. In the past, even autocrats were dictators only in politics, and in the economy they gave freedom to business.

As time has shown, the market economy was a movement towards democracy. Today, South Korea is a country with a strong civil society and a powerful economy (the average salary is over $3,000).

On the example of this country, which borders on the impoverished DPRK, where the same Koreans live, it is clearly seen that all the assurances that this or that people are not ready for democracy and the market are nothing more than a myth or manipulation on the part of dictators who want to maintain power .

Source : Салідарнасць