Continued from Part 3


Following the assassination of Pak Chung Hee, martial law was declared for most of the country, and Prime Minister Choi Kyu Ha became Acting President. There were no public uprisings and no demonstrations in the streets, but there was the widespread hope that the time had come for a transfer of political power to civilian hands. Surely the military, with their chief now dead, would return to their posts as defenders of their nation and give up their ambitions for political power. That, however, was not to be the case. Having experienced the benefits of governmental power, the military was not about to retire, and the citizens were not yet strong enough to force them back into their proper role.


The military made the first move. On December 12, 1979 General Chun Doo Hwan used troops from the Demilitarized Zone to carry out a purge within the army. Forty top military officers, including the Martial Law Commander, were arrested.  Chun elevated close friends into those positions.

At the same time, to ameliorate the burgeoning demands from the people for more freedom, Chun made a gesture toward democratization. On February 19 of 1980, he restored civil rights to leading political figures including Kirn Dae Jung, the opposition leader who nearly defeated Pak Chung Hee in the 1971 presidential elections. Dismissed university professors were reinstated to their former positions, and expelled university students were allowed to resume their studies.

Chun’s gesture was far from sufficient to satisfy those seeking democracy. University students revived their anti-government organizations and openly demanded that the KCIA be removed from the campuses and that martial law be ended. Professors, intellectuals and journalists rather than being pacified by the restoration of their civil rights once more became active demanding freedom of speech and the restoration of democratic processes. Kirn Dae Jung went on a speaking tour. Crowds of fifty to a hundred thousand came to hear him denounce the military and make demands for a democratic government.

General Chun had no intention of leading the country into democracy. He was heading the other direction.  He intended to see that the  military dictatorship would stay in power.  On March 11 (1980),  he received support from an unexpected source. General John Wickham, Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea was quoted in the Asian Wall Street Journal as saying that the South Korean military’s proper role includes “being watch dogs on political activity that could be de-stabilizing, and in a way making judgment about the eligibility and reliability of political candidates that may have some adverse stability.”

With this endorsement in pocket General Chun appointed himself as Acting Director of the KCIA.  Already he held the posts of Defense Security Commander and Director of Martial Law Joint Investigation Department.  His word to the Korean public was that the Yushin system would be preserved and that no criticism of the late President Pak Chung Hee would be allowed.

Chung’s “get-tough policy,” however, settled nothing.  The people were not willing to meekly submit to his orders.  By early May street demonstrations broke out all over the country.  Some 200,000 students, 50,000 in Seoul alone, demanded a complete end to martial law, an end to military training on campus and the resignation of Chun Doo Hwan.  Chun was not to be intimidated either.  On May 17, he led a military coup d’etat, declaring a nationwide state of full martial law, forbidding all political activity, closing universities, dissolving the national assembly and forbidding criticism of present and past national leaders.  Hundreds of students, democratic leaders and politicians, including Kim Dae Jung were arrested.


Protests against Chun’s coup began in the southern city of Kwangju.  As in the Tonghak rebellion of the 1890’s and uprisings of the People’s Committees in the 1940’s, once more the Southwest became the center of political revolt.

The day after martial law was declared about 500 Kwangju students demonstrated, demanding an end to martial law and the resignation of Chun.  In response soldiers and paratroopers surrounded the students and indiscriminately beat and bayoneted them leaving dozens dead.  Shocked at the military brutality citizens joined students.  Charging paratroopers killed hundreds including children, women and old people.  As word of paratrooper brutality spread, hundreds of thousands of citizens came out to demonstrate.  Two radio stations were burned for falsifying the news.  By May 21 angry Kwangju citizens seized arms from police stations and army stockpiles and commandeered vehicles. They drove the army out of the city.  For five days citizens controlled Kwangju.  By that time hospitals were full.  Five hundred people were confirmed dead, and 960 were reported missing.

The citizens of Kwangju appealed to the U.S. government to help negotiate a solution, but the U.S. State Department declined saying, “We recognize that a situation of total disorder and disruption in a major city cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely.”

The people’s committees were warned that at 4:0 A.M. on the morning of May 27, the 20th Division of the ROK army would enter Kwangju.  They were instructed to give no opposition.  At three o’clock, one hour before their announced time, the 20th Division invaded Kwangju, shooting as they came. Again scores of people were senselessly slaughtered.

Thus Kwangju became an albatross around the neck of Chun Doo Hwan and a rallying point for opposition throughout the country. It also became the locus for anti-American sentiments that were beginning to be voiced among students. The 20th Division had been brought in from the front lines where it was under the command of General John Wickham, U.S. Army.  It is widely believed that Wickham released the 20th Division to Chun knowing full well Chun’s intentions to send it to Kwangju.  When a few months later Wickham was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the U.S. would not object to Chun becoming president, the suspicions of America’s involvement in the “Kwangju massacre” became more firmly believed.

How was the massacre to be explained? Korean troops randomly killing and maiming Korean civilians had to be explained! How could such a thing happen? Some likened the shock of Kwangju to the shock of having cataracts removed from one’s eyes.  Suddenly they saw clearly what they had known all along. For over a decade their government had been killing them in one way or another; and as General Wickham was seen to be behind the massacre in Kwangju so the United States was now understood to be behind the oppressions perpetuated by the Korean government.  Had not the U.S. government and corporations propped up Pak Chung Hee? Was not the United States preventing democracy so that U.S. corporations could make big profits in Korea? All of a sudden the old ally became the suspected  enemy.


Three months after the Kwangju massacre as provided in the Yushin constitution, an electoral college designated Chun Doo Hwan  president of the Republic of Korea. Before he took office he was already an enemy of the people. An immediate visit to the United States as President  Reagan’s first foreign visitor was intended to shore up his authority among the Korean populace. Instead it brought scorn upon both parties as it further fed the fuel of anti-Americanism and the suspicions of the U.S. involvement in Kwangju.

Politically, Chun was “dead on arrival,” as they say. The time of the military had passed.  A new mood was beginning to emerge in the country. People were tired of the senseless cruelty that had been perpetuated against them for a decade. They wanted to share a little more in the great economic miracle which they saw emerge all around them and above all, they wanted to taste those ideals called democracy and freedom. They wanted to elect their own government, to participate and criticize. Even without Kwangju, it is unlikely that Chun would ever have gained the sympathies of the people. With Kwangju, his departure was only a matter of time.

King Rehoboam

Chun, moreover, lacked wisdom. He had no insight into the mind of his people. His attempt to rule by force recalls an old Biblical tale.  King Solomon had enriched Israel, built the temple, and created an economic abundance, but to do so, he had enslaved half the population. When Solomon died, his successor, Rehoboam, met with the spokesman of the opposition, a man named Jereboam. Jereboam is reported to have addressed the new king in this manner: “We have worked for Solomon and the glory of our nation, but he did us wrong. He enslaved and abused us. Only if you will now promise to lighten our load, shall we continue to serve you as King.” ,.

Rehoboam, however, had a hard head. He responded, “My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins. My father (King Solomon) made your yoke heavy, and I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.”  (I Kings 12)

Once that was said, the only road left open to Rehoboam was military force. From that day on there was civil strife in Israel. Rehoboam  did not prevail. Chun Doo Hwan responded to his people in a manner like unto that of King Rehoboam, with the same results.

Immediately upon his elevation to the presidency, Chun initiated a series of disastrous policies. He rigged the so-called national  assembly in the same way that Pak Chung Hee had done. That body then passed a new constitution which was the old Yushin in thin disguise. A new Presidential Election Law secured Chun in power. Edicts of the martial law command humbled the media into even deeper censorship, and the newly formed “Social Purification Committee” announced that persons of “impure” thought or character would undergo purification education. If after the initial education, an internee still persisted in his impurity, he or she would be “secluded”  from society for up to ten years. To wrap things up into a neat legal package, Chun had the Anti­ Communist and National Security laws combined. This would catch any “impurity” that might slip through other laws.

Kim Dae Jung

These were only a few of the Rehoboam-like measures that Chun Doo Hwan undertook.  In one way, he outdid Rehoboam. He created a martyr figure to go along with the martyred city, Kwangju. Kim Dae Jung had been an enemy of Pak Chung  Hee since the elections of  1971. Chun Doo Hwan inherited Kim as an enemy. As soon as he came to power, he moved to rid himself of this Jereboam. Kim, a native of the Southwestern section of the country, where Kwangju is located, was charged with masterminding the Kwangju rebellion (as the government called it). He was put  through the charade of a military court and sentenced to die.  Pressures inside and outside of Korea, however, were too great.  Chun backed off.  Kim’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Two years later, on December  23, 1982, Kim and his wife were exiled to the United States. Kim Dae Jung became the hero figure to go along with Kwangju.

Student Opposition

The opposition to Chun included just about everyone — politicians, students, and church groups. He had little support among the citizenry to offset these enemies. Students, as is usual in Korea, took the lead. Despite the fact that Chun had officially disbanded all student  groups except his own Student Defense Corps, the students became even more adept at organizing and at out­ thinking the authorities. Rhetoric became  more inflammatory, more anti­-American. An example of the fired-up rhetoric came from a speech by one Seoul  National University student: “The  Chun  regime is anti-nation, anti­ democratic, and anti-people. It is fascist.  It must be overthrown by the struggle of the people. The fascists, while dependent on foreign capital, enslave workers in low wages, and farmers in low prices and loss of land. It protects only the privileged class. The economic and political systems are but two sides of the same coin.” Demonstrations popped up like popcorn, out of control. Tons of tar gas were poured upon them, but to no avail. The demand for tear gas was so great that it stimulated a new industry in Korea. In 1987, it was reported that Mrs. Han Youn Jao, president of Sam Yang Chemical Company, earned more money than any other individual in Korea.  Her business had been multiplied by two hundred times since 1979. Mrs. Han paid $3.4 million in taxes on a gross income of $7.3 million. On a daily basis, she made $20,000.  Her company’s one product was tear  gas.

In addition to street demonstrations, increased numbers of dedicated students left college and found jobs in factories. Their mission was to conjoin the strength of students and workers to bring down the house of Chun. They were also accused of injecting anti-American rhetoric into the slogans of labor. When discovered, they were dismissed for giving false information on their applications for employment. The government followed through by either drafting them into the army or sending them to prison for a couple years on other charges. Sending dissidents to prison is, of course, in the long run self-defeating. They come out more determined, better trained than when they went in. Neither Pak nor Chun seemed to understand that fact of life. Each year they kept a ready supply of “graduates” coming out of prison to return to the task of bringing the government down. The numbers of college students who became factory workers may have reached three thousand or more. In one year alone, 1985-86, the police claim to have apprehended 671 such “agitators.”

In 1986 a woman student named Kwon In Sook was discovered working in a factory near Inchun. She was arrested and put in the local jail. Her male captors unfortunately showed their disdain for Miss Kwon by assaulting her sexually and then torturing her with electric shock. When she gained consciousness, her humiliation was so great she tried to commit suicide. Other women prisoners prevented the deed. The attempt at suicide must have been cathartic, however, for when Miss Kwon was finally freed on bail she did a quite unprecedented thing: she made her story public and brought legal suit against the culprits and the chief of the police station. Kwon In Sook’s story hit the nation like a slap in the face. It was one more sin that was piled up against Chun Doo Hwan and his regime. She was taken to court, found guilty of lying on her employment application, and sentenced to a year and a half in prison. At first, government prosecutors refused to indict the policeman directly involved in the case. Finally, after two appeals and much public protest, he was found guilty and was fired from his job.

Opposition Politics

Under the impetus of Kwangju even the opposition political parties joined ranks. From the days of Syngman Rhee the opposition politicians have always been factious, fighting against each other rather than providing the people with a credible option. In 1984 the two leading opposition political parties joined together. Kim Dae Jung led one party from exile in the U.S.A. Kim Yong Sam led the other one from inside Korea. Together they decided to dethrone Chun Doo Hwan.

On the third anniversary of Kwangju (May 1983), Kim Yong Sam began a hunger strike, demanding the return of democracy.  Kim fasted  for 26 days. To keep him from dying, the authorities took him to a hospital and force-fed him. They did not want another martyr.  It was too late.  Kim did not die, but his actions precipitated hunger strikes and anti-Chun rallies across the country. Policemen breaking into churches and attacking worshippers as they prayed and fasted for democracy further fueled the movement.

Then in August of 1983, Chun Doo Hwan gave the opposition the opening it needed, a cause and a date upon which it could focus its energy. Chun announced that he would step aside when his first term as president was over in 1987. However, the Yushin’s indirect system of presidential elections would be continued. There would be no direct elections to choose his successor. From then on, the battle cry of the opposition became “direct free elections in ’87.” The tide became irresistible. Little by little Chun was backed into a corner. An end to military rule was in sight. Kim Dae Jung was permitted to return to Korea in early 1985.  He joined Kim Yong Sam in attacking Chun on the issue of direct elections.

In the midst of these domestic eruptions, the American State Department managed to throw another log on the fire. Secretary of State George Schultz made a visit to Korea. He embraced Chun Doo Hwan, praising him for making progress toward democracy. It was a ludicrous posture for the Secretary State, and it provided more evidence that the dictator Chun was being propped up by the U.S. government.  Shultz’s remark further enforced the suspicion that the U.S. had been behind the Kwangju massacre.

On April 13, 1987, Chun Doo Hwan ordered all discussion of direct elections and constitutional revision to be discontinued until after the 1988 Olympics. By then he hoped to have his hand-picked successor in place. Religious leaders strongly denounced Chun’s order with fasting and prayer and led a nationwide campaign of resistance.  Intellectuals, writers, lawyers and university professors issued statements demanding constitutional change and direct elections. Chun responded by stepping up the oppression. Opposition legislators were jailed; anti-government politicians and church leaders were threatened or arrested; and student demonstrators were beaten down with increased harshness. When a tear gas canister struck a Yunsei University student, Lee Han Yol, in the chest and killed him, the battle between government and people heated to a fury.

The next day (June 10) Chun’s ruling party held its national convention and nominated another general, Roh Tae Woo, as its candidate for the presidency. U.S. Ambassador James Lilley was an honored guest at the convention to hear Noh’s acceptance speech.

The demonstrations aggravated by the death of Lee Han Yol, however, did not abet. They grew into chaos. For nineteen days in thirty  seven cities people lashed out at the government demanding direct elections. “People power” became a front page story. The viability of the Olympics and the government itself came under increasing attack.

In this context, candidate Roh Tae Woo, on June 29, made a surprise announcement. He said that he, and the ruling party, supported direct elections.  Furthermore he promised that there would be release of political prisoners; restoration of civil rights — even to Kim Dae Jung; freedom of the press; and an end to human rights  abuses.

Throughout the nation, “people power” was celebrated. Everyone was sure that in the December elections the democratic opposition would win ending the decades of military dictatorship .

Then in one of those ironies that seem to populate so much of Korean history, Kim Yong Sam and Kim Dae Jung split.  They had worked, suffered, and bled for the return of democracy, but when the opportunity arrived, the thirst for power and the drag of traditional factionalism was too much. Neither would defer to the other despite public pledges to do so.  Both ran for president.

Neither won. Chun Doo Hwan’s protegee got the victory. Some say that it was because of corruption and the use of force that Roh Tae Woo won.  Perhaps.  But psychologically and morally, the Kims had disqualified themselves.  The hopes of the people had once more  been betrayed.

Continued in Part 5


George Ogle spent twelve years with Korean industrial workers in Incheon as a “factory chaplain” of Urban Industrial Mission but was deported in 1974 for speaking out on behalf of eight men, accused of being part of a communist conspiracy then tortured and executed by the Park Chung-hee government. He returned to Korea in 1989 to write South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle about the history of worker struggles that gave birth to South Korea’s modern labor movement.  As we strive to understand the current labor-management standoff in South Korea, Ogle’s historic account sheds light on the origins of South Korea’s labor repression and dissent.

With the author’s kind permission, ZoominKorea reproduces select chapters from South Korea: Dissent within the Economic Miracle as a special series. Part 4 of the series is from Chapter 5 of the book.

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