Korea achieves independence after 35 years of Japanese rule, but is divided by Russian and American forces. The Allies propose a five-year trusteeship to prepare for a unified Korea, but the Korean people object. A U.S.-Soviet commission is formed to help organize a "provisional Korean democratic government," making Korean independence a playing piece in the new U.S.-Soviet conflict.
Two separate states are proclaimed. UN-sponsored elections (boycotted by the right, which seeks a unified state) create the Republic of Korea in the South; Syngman Rhee is president. In the North, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is led by Soviet-supported Premier Kim Il Sung. Fighting flares across the 38th parallel. The South Korean army is weakened after a revolt by Communist elements.
During the Korean War, President Rhee's four-year term expires. With no hope of reelection by the National Assembly, he forces a constitutional amendment to elect the president by popular vote, and in 1951 he is reelected. The 1953 cease-fire sets the officially recognized border between North and South at the 38th parallel.
The constitution allows only two terms in office. Rhee again amends the constitution, this time so he may be reelected indefinitely. He wins the election, but the next four years see his Liberal Party maneuvering to keep him in office. Fearing for Rhee's health, subordinates withhold information that may upset their 88-year-old leader, making him a prisoner of his own political party.
Rhee resigns after students protesting fraudulent presidential elections are massacred. A day later the vice president and his family kill themselves. Constitutional reform creates a parliamentary government with a bicameral legislature. The opposition Democratic Party takes control of the Assembly, but soon splits into two groups and is unable to satisfy demands for social and economic reforms.
A military coup led by Gen. Park Chung Hee dissolves the government. Park institutes martial law and becomes acting president. He clears the government of corrupt and unqualified individuals and replaces civilian officials with military officers. Military leaders establish the Democratic Republican Party. The junta proposes a constitution calling for a president elected by popular vote.
Park resigns from the military and runs for president as the DRP candidate in the 1963 election, barely defeating his opponent. In the 1963 National Assembly elections, the DRP wins an impressive majority, consolidating power under the majority party. Park wins the presidential election again in 1967, and in 1969 he amends the constitution so he will be able to succeed himself a third time.
Park assumes virtual dictatorial control, dissolving the Assembly and suspending all political activities. A new constitution allows him to remain in control indefinitely and provides him with discretionary use of emergency powers. The president is "elected" by a council of hand-picked party deputies, and one-third of the National Assembly is nominated by Park.
Park cracks down on increasingly vocal opposition with Emergency Measure Number Nine, which criminalizes criticism of the new constitution. The U.S. agrees to keep military forces on the Korean peninsula only if Korea improves its human rights record. Opposition leader Kim Young Sam is dismissed for voicing political discontent in the National Assembly; opposition politicians respond by resigning.
After Park is assassinated, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan takes control. Chun's forces brutally slaughter hundreds of students and civilians protesting the coup in Kwangju. Political opponents are removed through trumped-up legal charges and compulsory "political purification." Existing political parties are dissolved and banned, and a Chun-appointed security council assumes control.
Korea's "Nordpolitik," or Northern policy, pursues ties with China and the Soviet Union and its European satellites. Chun survives several assassination attempts and is reelected by the electoral college. Political parties are again allowed to organize, and banned political figures return to political life as martial law is lifted. Opposition parties capture a majority in the National Assembly.
Gen. Roh Tae Woo, Chun's protégé, agrees to democratic reforms, such as a return to direct presidential elections. The constitution is drastically revised, with the first input from opposition parties since 1960. The president's emergency powers are eliminated, and the Assembly can investigate state affairs. Divided opposition allows Roh to win the presidency with just 36 percent of the vote.
A new constitution is ratified, calling for a president, who appoints and heads a state council, and for a National Assembly of 299 members. In the elections for the Assembly, the ruling party loses the majority for the first time in Korean history, paving the way for exercise of the new constitution's separation of powers. The opposition promptly rejects Roh's first nominee for chief justice.
Roh secretly negotiates with two of three opposition parties to gain control over the National Assembly. The combined Democratic Liberal Party now has a two-thirds majority. The government admits to misappropriating US$14 million from the 1987 budget to finance Roh's presidential campaign. Diplomatic relations are formally established with the Soviet Union.
Kim Young Sam (DLP) wins the presidential election, the first publicly elected civilian president since Park's 1961 coup. North and South Korea sign the Joint Declaration of Denuclearization, which is broken almost immediately as North Korea attempts to procure nuclear weapons. In 1995 direct elections for local officials, including mayors and governors, are held for the first time in 30 years.
President Kim Dae-jung (National Congress for New Politics) is elected by popular vote to a single five-year term. His inauguration is the first peaceful democratic transition from a ruling to an opposition party in Korea's history. Kim pursues a "Sunshine Policy," actively engaging the North for peace and reconciliation. At the same time he maintains a strong stand on security.
A historic summit between North Korea's Kim Jong Il and South Korea's president Kim Dae-jung yields the North-South Joint Declaration, which leads to joint efforts toward solving humanitarian problems and increasing economic cooperation. President Kim wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on democracy and human rights.
In elections in late 2002, the governing Millennium Development Party retains power; Roh Moo-hyun, who favors extending the "sunshine policy" toward the North, becomes president in February 2003. The government weathers several scandals. Relations with the North fluctuate, then grow tense over the North's nuclear stance and standoff with the United States.
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