Despite the initial plan of a unified Korea in the 1943 Cairo Declaration, escalating Cold War antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States eventually led to the establishment of separate governments, each with its own ideology, leading to the division of Korea into two political entities in 1948: North Korea and South Korea. In the South, Syngman Rhee, an opponent of communism, who had been backed and appointed by the United States as head of the provisional government, won the first presidential elections of the newly declared Republic of Korea in May. In the North, however, a former anti-Japanese guerrilla and communist activist, Kim Il-sung was appointed premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in September.
In October the Soviet Union declared Kim Il-sung’s government as sovereign over both parts. The UN declared Rhee’s government as “a lawful government having effective control and jurisdiction over that part of Korea where the UN Temporary Commission on Korea was able to observe and consult” and the Government “based on elections which was observed by the Temporary Commission” in addition to a statement that “this is the only such government in Korea.” Both leaders began an authoritarian repression of their political opponents inside their region, seeking for a unification of Korea under their control. While South Korea’s request for military support was denied by the United States, North Korea’s military was heavily reinforced by the Soviet Union.
On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, sparking the Korean War, the Cold War’s first major conflict, which continued until 1953. At the time, the Soviet Union had boycotted the United Nations (UN), thus forfeiting their veto rights. This allowed the UN to intervene in a civil war when it became apparent that the superior North Korean forces would unify the entire country. The Soviet Union and China backed North Korea, with the later participation of millions of Chinese troops. After an ebb and flow that saw both sides almost pushed to the brink of extinction, and massive losses among Korean civilians in both the north and the south, the war eventually reached a stalemate. The 1953 armistice, never signed by South Korea, split the peninsula along the demilitarized zone near the original demarcation line. No peace treaty was ever signed, resulting in the two countries remaining technically at war. Over 1.2 million people died during the Korean War.
Post-Korean War (1960–1990)
President Park Chung-hee played a pivotal role in rapidly developing the South Korean economy through export-oriented industrialization
In 1960, a student uprising (the “April 19 Revolution”) led to the resignation of the autocratic President Syngman Rhee. This was followed by 13 months of political instability as South Korea was led by a weak and ineffectual government. This instability was broken by the May 16, 1961, coup led by General Park Chung-hee. As president Park oversaw a period of rapid export-led economic growth enforced by political repression.
Park was heavily criticised as a ruthless military dictator, who in 1972 extended his rule by creating a new constitution, which gave the president sweeping (almost dictatorial) powers and permitted him to run for an unlimited number of six-year terms. The Korean economy developed significantly during Park’s tenure. The government developed the nationwide expressway system, the Seoul subway system, and laid the foundation for economic development during his 17-year tenure, which ended with his assassination in 1979.
The years after Park’s assassination were marked again by political turmoil, as the previously suppressed opposition leaders all campaigned to run for president in the sudden political void. In 1979 there came the Coup d’état of December Twelfth led by General Chun Doo-hwan. Following the Coup d’état, Chun Doo-hwan planned to rise to power through several measures. On May 17, Chun Doo-hwan forced the Cabinet to expand martial law to the whole nation, which had previously not applied to the island of Jejudo. The expanded martial law closed universities, banned political activities and further curtailed the press. Chun’s assumption of the presidency in the events of May 17, triggered nationwide protests demanding democracy, in particular in the city of Gwangju, to which Chun sent special forces to violently suppress the Gwangju Democratization Movement.
Chun subsequently created the National Defense Emergency Policy Committee and took the presidency according to his political plan. Chun and his government held South Korea under a despotic rule until 1987, when a Seoul National University student, Park Jong-chul, was tortured to death. On June 10, the Catholic Priests Association for Justice revealed the incident, igniting the June Democracy Movement around the country. Eventually, Chun’s party, the Democratic Justice Party, and its leader, Roh Tae-woo announced the 6.29 Declaration, which included the direct election of the president. Roh went on to win the election by a narrow margin against the two main opposition leaders, Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Young-Sam. Seoul hosted the Olympic Games in 1988, widely regarded as successful and a significant boost for South Korea’s global image and economy.
South Korea was formally invited to become a member of the United Nations in 1991. The transition of Korea from autocracy to modern democracy was marked in 1997 by the election of Kim Dae-jung, who was sworn in as the eighth president of South Korea, on February 25, 1998. His election was significant given that he had in earlier years been a political prisoner sentenced to death (later commuted to exile). He won against the backdrop of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, where he took IMF advice to restructure the economy and the nation soon recovered its economic growth, albeit at a slower pace.