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10-08-2015, 23:24


While the world was focused on the economic miracle occurring on the Japanese islands, another miracle of sorts was taking place across the Sea of Japan on the Asian mainland. In 1953, the Korean peninsula was exhausted from three years of bitter fraternal war, a conflict that took the lives of an estimated four million Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel and turned as much as one-quarter of the population into refugees. Although a cease-fire was signed at Panmunjom in July 1953, it was a fragile peace that left two heavily armed and mutually hostile countries facing each other suspiciously. North of the truce line was the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK), a police state under the dictatorial rule of Communist leader Kim Il Sung (1912–1994). To the south was the Republic of Korea, under the equally autocratic President Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), a fierce anti-Communist who had led the resistance to the northern invasion and now placed his country under U.S. military protection. But U.S. troops could not protect Rhee from his own people, many of whom resented his reliance on the political power of the wealthy landlord class. After several years of harsh rule, marked by government corruption, fraudulent elections, and police brutality, demonstrations broke out in the capital city of Seoul in the spring of 1960 and forced him into retirement. The Rhee era was followed by a brief period of multiparty democratic government, but in 1961, a coup d’état placed General Chung Hee Park (1917–1979) in power. The new regime promulgated a new constitution, and in 1963, Park was elected president of a civilian government. He set out to foster recovery of the economy from decades of foreign occupation and civil war. Adopting the nineteenth-century Japanese slogan “Rich Country and Strong State,” Park built up a strong military while relying on U.S. and later Japanese assistance to help build a strong manufacturing base in what had been a predominantly agricultural society. Because the private sector had been relatively weak under Japanese rule, the government played an active role in the process by instituting a series of five-year plans that targeted specific industries for development, promoted exports, and funded infrastructure development. Under a land reform program, large landowners were required to sell all their farmland above 7.4 acres to their tenants at low prices. The program was a solid success. Benefiting from the Confucian principles of thrift, respect for education, and hard work (during the 1960s and 1970s, South Korean workers spent an average of sixty hours a week at their jobs), as well as from Japanese capital and technology, Korea gradually emerged as a major industrial power in East Asia. The economic growth rate rose from less than 5 percent annually in the 1950s to an average of 9 percent under Park. The largest corporations—including Samsung, Daewoo, and Hyundai—were transformed into massive conglomerates called chaebol, the Korean equivalent of the zaibatsu of prewar Japan. Taking advantage of relatively low wages and a stunningly high rate of saving, Korean businesses began to compete actively with the Japanese for export markets in Asia and throughout the world. The Japanese became concerned about their “hungry spirit” and began refusing to share technology with the South Koreans. Per capita income also increased dramatically, from less than $90 (in U.S. dollars) annually in 1960 to $1,560 (twice that of Communist North Korea) twenty years later. But like many other countries in the region, South Korea was slow to develop democratic principles. Although his government functioned with the trappings of democracy, Park continued to rule by autocratic means and suppressed all forms of dissidence. In 1979, Park was assassinated, and after a brief interregnum of democratic rule, a new military government under General Chun Doo Hwan (b. 1931) seized power. The new regime was as authoritarian as its predecessors, but opposition to autocratic rule had now spread from the ranks of college and high school students, who had led the early resistance, to much of the urban population. Protest against government policies became increasingly frequent. In 1987, massive demonstrations drove government troops out of the southern city of Kwangju, but the troops returned in force and killed an estimated two thousand demonstrators. With Chun under increasing pressure from the United States to moderate the oppressive character of his rule, national elections were finally held in 1989. The government nominee, Roh Tae Woo, won the election with less than 40 percent of the vote. New elections in 1992 brought Kim Young Sam to the presidency. Kim selected several women for his cabinet and promised to make South Korea “a freer and more mature democracy.” He also attempted to crack down on the rising influence of the giant chaebols, accused of giving massive bribes in return for favors from government officials. In the meantime, representatives of South Korea had made tentative contacts with the Communist regime in North Korea on possible steps toward eventual reunification of the peninsula. But the problems of South Korea were more serious than the endemic problem of corruption. A growing trade deficit, combined with a declining growth rate, led to a rising incidence of unemployment and bankruptcy. Ironically, a second problem resulted from the economic collapse of Seoul’s bitter rival, the PRK. Under the rule of Kim Il Sung’s son Kim Jong Il, the North Korean economy was in a state of free fall, raising the specter of an outflow of refugees that could swamp neighboring countries. To relieve the immediate effects of a food shortage, the Communist government in Pyongyang relaxed its restrictions on private farming, while Seoul agreed to provide food aid to alleviate the famine. In the fall of 1997, a sudden drop in the value of the Korean currency, the won, led to bank failures and a decision to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In December, an angry electorate voted Kim Young Sam (whose administration was tarnished by reports of corruption) out of office and elected his rival Kim Dae Jung to the presidency. But although the new chief executive promised drastic reforms, his regime too was charged with corruption and incompetence, while relations with North Korea, now on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, remained tense.