Development of a Liberal Democratic System in South Korea

Of all the states involved in the Six Party Talks, South Korea has perhaps the most at stake in the process. Until the Korean War in 1950, the Korean peninsula had been viewed as one nation for over 1,000 years.[1] Ethnically and linguistically, the peninsula remains homogeneous despite the divide along the 38th Parallel, or the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Yet politically, the two states have experienced vastly different trajectories since the 1953 armistice.

South Korea began a sometimes tumultuous path towards democratization and modernization. Even before the civil war in 1950, the government of Rhee Syng Man was strongly anti-communist and was supported by the United States. After the Korean War, the US turned a blind eye to the increasingly authoritative measures of the Rhee Administration, because, given the choice between an anti-communist dictatorship or a multi-party democracy, US realists preferred the former.[2] Then, in 1961, General Park Chung Hee took power in a military coup, followed by several decades of military rulers. During those decades of military rule, grassroots democracy movements in the country were sometimes brutally crushed, including the 1980 massacre of civilians in the city of Gyeongju.[3] During this time, a number of prominent activists were jailed, including future President Kim Dae Jung, who was imprisoned twice, and sentenced to death the second time but later pardoned.[4]

Still, democracy had finally found fragile roots in the South by the 1990s,[3] not long before the North began to gain attention for its nuclear ambitions. 1993 saw the first civilian President come to power in South Korea, Kim Young Sam, and in 1998 Kim Dae Jung followed.

  • [1] Kim, “The Two Koreas and the Great Powers,” xii.
  • [2] Jung and Kim, “Development of Democratization Movement in South Korea,” 8.
  • [3] Branford “Lingering Legacy of Korean Massacre.”
  • [4] Nobel Prize Website, 2011.
  • [5] Branford “Lingering Legacy of Korean Massacre.”
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