At the start of the American occupation, close to 700,000 Japanese return home, including the skilled managers and technicians who run Japanese-owned industries. A population explosion occurs as millions of refugees return from Japan, China, Manchuria, and North Korea; most flock to urban centers, where high unemployment is compounded by food shortages and rampant inflation.
Before the truce, the Korean War kills an estimated five million people and destroys 43 percent of the South's industry and 33 percent of its housing. Colleges and universities are rebuilt, but better employment and career advancement opportunities do not follow. The newly educated (and now discontented) populace grows increasingly critical of the government.
After the 1960 presidential elections, student demonstrations over fraudulent election practices bring the country to the brink of civil war. Riot police in Seoul kill 142 demonstrators as they march on the presidential palace, and President Syngman Rhee's government collapses. Even after the formation of a transitional government, student protests demanding social and economic reforms continue.
Korea's transformation from an agrarian society to a modern industrial nation begins under the reign of Gen. Park. He sees this shift as a means to improve the quality of life for Koreans while at the same time providing a strong defense against the North. Family-planning policies are implemented to control population growth.
Students demonstrate throughout the country to protest normalization of relations with Japan and the decision to send troops to Vietnam. As industrialization proceeds, the annual agricultural growth rate lags (a mere 2.5 percent), and farm income is half that earned by urban workers. The Saemaul Undong (New Community) Movement aims to improve farm life while increasing efficiency and income.
Park declares martial law and assumes virtual dictatorial control over the country. Universities are closed, and the press is censored and controlled. In rural villages, living conditions improve dramatically, bringing plumbing, electricity, telephones, and televisions into most homes. Emergency Measure Number Nine, enacted in 1975, criminalizes student protests.
Consumer prices rise as much as 30 percent as the nation suffers double-digit inflation. Korea has become an urban country: 54.9 percent of the population lives in cities. This exacerbates existing housing, sanitation, transportation, and pollution problems. In a year filled with violent protest, 1979 sees striking workers massacred at Kwangju and students battling police in Pusan and Masan.
Widespread student demonstrations demanding the end of martial law shut down the country. Gen. Chun's proposal to double university enrollments is seen by some as a ploy to deflect student protest into white-collar aspirations. Political life resumes when martial law is lifted, but violent student protests continue. Chun maintains power through security forces and tight control of the media.
Student protests occur almost daily, reaching a peak with reports of the torture and death of a student activist by police. Students engage in arson and firebombing against government offices, businesses, the police, and U.S. interests. A National Pension System, covering age pensions, disability, and survivors pensions, is introduced, as is an unemployment insurance program.
South Koreans develop a capacity for luxury spending thanks to burgeoning personal savings and annual double-digit wage increases since 1987. In the mid-1990s, television choice and viewership expand as local commercial television stations begin broadcasting in eight major cities. Cable TV also makes its debut.
As part of expanded economic relations between the two Koreas, the first South Korean tourists visit North Korea on a cruise and tour. Following the North-South Joint Declaration in 2000, 100 people from families that were separated by Korea's partition from both sides of the border travel to each other's capitals for family reunions.
The year 2002 brings a great boost to consumer confidence and social enthusiasm in the form of the soccer World Cup, which Korea co-hosts with Japan and in which the national team performs exceptionally well. A rebounding Korea, "wired" with high technology, is becoming the region's cultural magnet and trendsetter. But tension renews with the North as well as with U.S. troops.
back to top