In April 1987, as demonstrations became increasingly violent, Chun banned all further discussion of constitutional reform until after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The ban, which could have guaranteed the election of a hand-picked successor to Chun’s Democratic Justice Party (DJP), set off violent antigovernment demonstrations throughout the nation.

Chun attempted to squash the opposition by issuing a declaration on April 13, 1987, to suspend the "wasteful debate" about constitutional reform until a new government was installed at the end of his seven-year term. The declaration was, instead, his regime's swan song. Chun wanted to have his successor "elected" by his handpicked supporters; the public greeted the declaration with universal outrage. Even the Reagan administration, which had been taciturn about South Korea's internal politics, urged the Chun government not to ignore the outrage.

In June 1987, the DJP nominated its chairman, Roh Tae Woo, a former general and a close friend of Chun, as its candidate for his successor. On June 29, 1987, Roh made a dramatic announcement in favor of a new democratic constitution that embodied all the opposition's demands. When Roh accepted opposition demands for political reforms, Chun announced in July that the upcoming election would be held by direct popular vote. On July 8, 100,000 people demonstrated in Seoul in the largest protest since 1960. On the same day, the government restored political rights to 2,000 people, including the longtime opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Following the revision of the constitution in 1987, South Koreans enjoyed greater freedoms of expression and assembly and freedom of the press, and in 1988, several hundred political dissidents were released from prison.

The period from late June through December 1987 saw rapid implementation of political reforms in an unusual mood of compromise between the ruling and opposition parties. In July the government paroled 357 political offenders, amnestied more than 2,000 other prisoners, and restored full political rights to prominent opposition figure Kim Dae Jung. In August the National Assembly established a committee to study constitutional revision. Representatives of four parties took one month to negotiate and propose a draft constitution that incorporated most of the provisions long sought by the opposition parties: greater press freedom and protection for civil rights, a stronger National Assembly, and direct presidential elections. After the bill passed the National Assembly, more than 93 percent of the voters approved the new draft in a plebiscite on October 28, 1987.


Run-Up to the 1987 Elections

Anticipating the presidential election of December 1987, the four major presidential candidates (Roh Tae Woo, Kim Dae Jung, Kim Young Sam, and Kim Jong Pil, collectively referred to in the media as "one Roh and three Kims", began their informal campaigning with a series of public appearances and speeches in October. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In April 1987, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung had led their respective factions, who together included seventy-two National Assembly members, out of the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) to form the Reunification Democratic Party (RDP). Summer-long efforts to produce a single RDP presidential candidate failed. By late September, Kim Young Sam was finally left in control of the party when Kim Dae Jung and his followers departed to form a new party of their own — the Party for Peace and Democracy (PPD). Kim Young Sam announced his candidacy on October 10 and the RDP convention proclaimed Kim the party's candidate on November 9. Kim Jong Pil was affiliated with the New Democratic Republican Party (NDRP). *

Hoping to benefit from the inability of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam to agree on a unified candidacy, Roh Tae Woo's Democratic Justice Party (DJP) expected to win the election with a plurality of 1 million votes and sweep about 45 percent of the total vote. The party's strategy was based on the substantive appeal of Roh Tae Woo's June 29 declaration in favor of a new democratic constitution and other reforms along with a massive public relations campaign. The public relations campaign — roundly scored by Roh's political rivals — portrayed the former four-star general and division commander (he had helped Chun depose the army chief of staff in December 1979) as a simple, "ordinary man" who would bring about a society in which other ordinary people could live comfortably and more affluently. The Roh campaign also avoided the traditionally strident slogans of South Korean politics, preferring promising phrases, such as "Commitment to a Bright Future." *

In addition to the four principal candidates, several minor parties also offered candidates. These included relative unknowns, such as Kim Son-jok of the Ilche Party (Unified Party), Sin Chong-il of the Hanism Unification Party, and Hong Suk-cha of the Social Democratic Party. Another candidate, Paek Ki-wan, was prominent in dissident circles. Most of these candidates faded as the campaign progressed, eventually withdrawing their candidacy in support of one or another major candidate. *

Campaigning in the 1987 Elections

DJP strategists seeking the youth vote, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of the electorate, acknowledged the party's likely problem with the more opposition-minded liberal arts college graduates; instead, they focused on segments of the young population believed to be more easily won, such as high-school graduates and technical college graduates. As the campaign continued, Roh increasingly attempted to distance himself from his patron, Chun Doo Hwan, admitting that the government had committed torture and "other mistakes" and affirming that not even the head of state could be exempted in eradicating corruption. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The other conservative candidate, viewed by some of the press as a "spoiler," who would take votes from Roh Tae Woo, was Kim Jong Pil. Kim's campaign used the "man of experience" theme and was structured around small meetings (especially outside his native South Ch'ungch'ong Province), some larger rallies, and carefully Chosun television spots financed from the coffers of the Fraternal Association of National Revitalization and by other affluent and conservative South Koreans. In his speeches, Kim criticized Roh's long association with the evils of the Fifth Republic and outlined a tentative program of financial relief for farmers, coal miners, and others. *

Like the other major candidates, Kim Young Sam took advantage of the liberalized political climate to begin his presidential campaign with a series of public rallies even before the October 28 national referendum on the new constitution. The failure to agree with Kim Dae Jung on a unified opposition candidacy required a two-pronged offensive, designed both to divert blame for potentially splitting the opposition vote in the election and to attack Roh Tae Woo. The RDP's slogans, "End Military Government with Kim Young Sam" and "A Man for Peace, Harmony, and Honesty," reflected the dual objectives of the campaign. On October 17, 1987, Kim told a home-town audience of 1 million in Pusan that, unlike Roh, he would lead a corruption-free government that would end a "long tradition of military-backed governments" and would make appropriate monetary and symbolic compensation to those killed and wounded in the 1980 "civilian uprising" in Kwangju. In a large rally in Taejon on October 24, Kim suggested that a Kim Dae Jung candidacy would "bring about sharp confrontation among Cholla and Kyongsang people." In keeping with the name of his party, Kim also publicized his plan for "Five Steps to Peaceful Unification" on October 12. *

Kim Dae Jung's populist campaign themes were national reconciliation, a just economy, political neutrality of the military, and pursuit of reunification. The platform struck a balance between appeals to Kim Dae Jung's hoped-for constituency among workers, farmers, and lower middle-class voters and reassurances to voters who feared that a Kim Dae Jung candidacy could inflame regional loyalties or result in vindictive purges against those who held power during the Fifth Republic. One of Kim's sons directed specialized party organs such as the United Democratic Youth Association to attract younger voters. Like Roh and Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung was able to assemble 1 million participants in rallies in Seoul and in home-province appearances, while drawing somewhat smaller crowds in other provinces. *

1987 Elections

Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam lost the election held on December 16, 1987 because they split the opposition vote and Roh Tae Woo won. The election results closely followed projections based on the regional origins of the four major candidates, despite protestations by all that regionalism should not divide the country. Of the major candidates, Roh took 36.9 percent of the votes, Kim Young Sam 28 percent, Kim Dae Jung 26.9 percent, and Kim Jong Pil only 8 percent. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Roh Tae Woo was the DJP candidate. Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung had been unable to agree on a single opposition candidacy and split 55 percent of the total vote. Two minor candidates divided the remainder. A reported 89 percent of all eligible voters participated. The two leading opposition candidates charged massive fraud, and a series of demonstrations were held to protest the results. However, no evidence of extensive fraud was produced, and the demonstrations did not attract wide support. Roh Tae Woo was inaugurated as president in February 1988 when Chun Doo Hwan's term expired. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Losers in the election had been charging the government party with illegal electioneering activities ever since it became clear in late September that Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam would not be able to agree on a unified candidacy. The traditional advantages of incumbency were evident early; by October the business pages of Seoul's daily press were already discussing the "election inflation" caused by election-related spending, which included government disbursements for development projects. Such spending, common in many countries prior to elections, included a substantial decrease in the price of heating oil, an increase in the official purchase price of rice, and a salary increase for civil servants. Also common, although by no means limited to the ruling party, were customary "transportation costs" given to people to people to attend rallies and the wide distribution of small gifts, such as the cigarette lighters bearing Roh Tae Woo's name, dispensed by the ruling party. Political cartoonists could easily make light of the latter practice, probably because it had been many years since the votes of South Koreans, even in rural areas, had been swayed by simple gifts such as a bowl of rice wine or a pair of rubber shoes. One candidate seemed to sum up the prevailing attitude in remarks at a mid-November rally: "If they give you money, take it. If they take you to Mount Sorak for sightseeing, then have a nice journey. But on 16 December, be sure to give your vote to me." *

More serious irregularities reported prior to and during the elections included acts of violence or intimidation against election observers, biased television coverage, mobilization of local officials and neighborhood organization officers to encourage people to vote for Roh, and fraudulent handling of ballot boxes. In one working class district in Seoul, for example, election observers seized two ballot boxes being surreptitiously brought in to a polling station on the morning of the election. The government, which removed the observers by force two days later, claimed that the boxes contained absentee ballots, but had no explanation for why they were delivered in commercial trucks carrying fruit, bread, and other consumer goods. *

Conversely, few election observers commented on the intimidating effect — no less on potential voters than on candidates — of acts of violence that repeatedly occurred against all major candidates. Candidates were forced to hire phalanxes of bodyguards with plastic shields for protection against flying objects and often were made to cut short public speeches during appearances in regional strongholds of other candidates. In spite of local abuses, it was difficult to estimate what fraction of Roh Tae Woo's plurality of almost 2 million votes, out of 23 million cast, may have been improperly influenced. Extravagant claims of wholesale manipulation in the computerized vote tabulation were made difficult to assess by the failure of those who had made such charges to present convincing evidence. Claims of election rigging also were undercut at the time by the continued insistence of both the Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam camps that their candidate was the one to whom the election rightfully should have gone. *

Within a week after the election, public anger at the outcome was divided. Protests continued against election irregularities, but were accompanied by increasing criticism of the two major opposition leaders for their failure to produce a unified candidacy that could have defeated the government party candidate. The RDP and PPD, embarrassed by the fact that Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam together received 54 percent of the vote to Roh's 36 percent, both apologized to the public, while vowing to continue disputing the results of the election. Both major opposition parties, together with Kim Jong Pil's party, gradually turned their attention to the question of upcoming National Assembly elections. *


Roh Tae Woo (president from 1988-1993) was a general and close friend of general and president Chun Doo Hwan. Surprisingly he won the 1988 election even though two thirds of the electorate voted against him the "two Kims" Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung — refused to unite and split the vote. There were also allegations election was rigged.

Under Roh South Korea became a member of the U.N., and hosted the 1988 Olympics. Economic growth continued at an astounding pace. The theme of the Roh administration was government was run by "Ordinary Men." According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: Roh Tae Woo, who was elected president and took office in 1988, fought rising inflation rates brought on by South Korea's growing economy. Roh attempted to improve relations with opposition politicians and with the North, also establishing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union (1990) and China (1992). [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

“In the fall of 1988, the National Assembly audited the government and held public hearings on former President Chun's abuses of power. In November, Chun apologized to the nation in a televised address, gave his personal wealth to the nation, and retired into a Buddhist temple. Following the revision of the constitution in 1987, South Koreans enjoyed greater freedoms of expression and assembly and freedom of the press, and in 1988, several hundred political dissidents were released from prison.

“Unrest among students, workers, and farmers continued, however, and beginning in April 1989, the government repressed opposition. In October 1989, the government acknowledged making 1,315 political arrests so far that year. The National Assembly became less of a check on President Roh after two opposition parties (RDP, NDRP), including that of Kim Young Sam, merged with Roh's DJP, forming a new majority party, the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) in January 1990. Kim Dae Jung was then left as the leader of the main opposition party (PDP).”

Roh Tae Woo’s Political Agenda

President-elect Roh Tae Woo outlined his 1988 political goals — both old and new — in a New Year's interview. Some of Roh's comments echoed the authoritarian language of President Chun's 1987 New Year's speech, which had typically called for "grand national harmony" in which transcendent political leadership would see the country through, if only the people would "rid themselves of all vestiges of the old habit of confrontation and strife." Roh made ample reference to traditional themes, speaking of "suprapartisan operation of national affairs," "rooting out corruption," and a mixture of persuasion and "stern measures," if necessary, to bring leftist elements back into the fold. Roh also seemed to promise genuine innovations: to eliminate authoritarian practices, to investigate and punish people guilty of past financial scandals, to protect the press from harassment by law enforcement authorities, to reorganize intelligence agencies, to demilitarize politics, and to resolve the 1980 Kwangju incident by restoring honor to the victims and providing remuneration to the bereaved. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

After his inauguration in February 1988, Roh took steps to honor some of his campaign promises, appointing a woman to his cabinet and approving the rehabilitation of thirty-one generals dismissed in Chun's coups of 1979 and 1980. Another commitment, to appoint members of the opposition parties to cabinet posts, was not met when the two major parties failed to propose names for consideration. Four of the new cabinet appointees, however, were from the Cholla provinces. *

Negotiations among the major political parties promptly began over amending the National Assembly Election Law, one of the major political issues left unresolved in the 1987 Constitution. At stake were two variables: the size of the electoral districts and the degree of proportionality. Each party took a position that it believed would be to its advantage. Initially, the government party and Kim Jong Pil's NDRP favored different mixtures of large and small districts. Kim Young Sam's party was divided between its rural members, who also favored multiple- member districts, and the leadership, which argued for single- member districts. Kim Dae Jung's party, which in the presidential election had swept all but two districts in Seoul, hoped to use its heavily concentrated constituency in the Cholla provinces to become the largest opposition party with a single-member district system. *

The ruling party eventually shifted to a single-member district formula close to that proposed by the PPD, but finally withdrew from the negotiations, claiming that the other parties could not come to agreement in time. In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of the Park Chung Hee era, the ruling party took advantage of its legislative majority to unilaterally pass its own draft amendment in a one-minute session held at 2am on March 8, 1988. The newly amended law reinstated single-member electoral districts, last used in the general election of 1970. It also diluted the element of proportionality somewhat by reducing the number of at-large seats to 75, or about one-fourth of the total of 299, and by more evenly distributing them among the participating parties. The opposition parties strongly protested (Kim Dae Jung's party less vigorously than the others) and then started to prepare their campaigns. *

Opposition to Roh Tae Woo

Other leaders and other political forces also had their own agendas for the new year. Under the heading of "Liquidating the Legacy of the Fifth Republic," the opposition parties of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam sought to investigate corruption in the Fifth Republic, to reexamine the Kwangju incident, and demanded the release of all political detainees and the reform of numerous laws that had been used to control nonviolent political activity and free expression. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Like Roh, Kim Dae Jung's ability to compromise was limited to a degree by his own desire not to lose influence with an offstage constituency, in this case the dissident community and other elements to his left. Kim Chong- p'il's presidential campaign had also made use of these themes in its attacks on the government party's candidate, Roh Tae Woo. Of even greater importance, however, was restoration of the reputations and professional careers of numerous individuals from the Park Chung Hee era who, like Kim himself, had been purged in 1980 during Chun Doo Hwan's takeover. These individuals included more than 8,800 civil servants and officers of state corporations as well as several dozen senior military officers (from the army chief of staff down), who had lost both ranks and pensions. Successful resolution of these issues greatly increased Kim's ability to work with the government party. *

Other groups in society had their own expectations. Members of labor unions at many of South Korea's large corporations, fresh from a major campaign of strikes in late 1987, hoped for the right to elect their own leaders and organize outside the framework of the government-sponsored Federation of Korean Trade Unions. Some dissident organizations hoped that the forthcoming 1988 Seoul Olympics could be held jointly in Pyongyang and Seoul. Leftist students also sought opportunities to meet with North Korean students. Some activist students hoped to establish firmer contacts with farmers and the growing labor movement, while at the violence-prone fringe of the radical student movement others planned to continue to dramatize their grievances through arson attacks against United States and South Korean government facilities. Still other dissidents planned to continue demonstrating against the Roh government out of conviction that it was a simple continuation of the previous militarized regimes. *

General Election in 1988

In the elections for the National Assembly, held in April 1988, President Roh Tae Woo's party, the DJP, won only 34 percent of the vote and 125 seats in the assembly, while Kim Dae Jung's Peace and Democracy Party (PDP) gained 70 seats, Kim Young Sam's Reunification Democratic Party (RDP) won 59 seats, 35 seats went to the new Democratic Republican Party (NDRP), and 10 to independent candidates. Thus, for the first time in 36 years, the government did not have a controlling vote in the National Assembly. Among other things the assembly quickly challenged President Roh's choice for head of the Supreme Court and forced the president to compromise with the assembly to pass the budget. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

According to most observers, the results of the general election of April 26, 1988, set the stage for a new political drama. For the first time in South Korean history, the government party lost its working majority in the legislature. The government party had hoped to emerge victorious, as the two largest opposition parties again split the antigovernment vote. With 34 percent of the popular vote, however, the DJP held only 125 seats (87 district seats and the remainder at-large), well under the 150 needed for a majority. Kim Jong Pil's party, the NDRP, ended up with a total of thirty-five seats, enabling it to form its own bargaining group in the National Assembly. Kim Young Sam's RDP gained a small number of seats, but lost in overall ranking in the larger body. Kim Dae Jung's PPD took the senior opposition party position with more than 19 percent of the vote and 23 percent of the total number of seats. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

There were several reasons for the upset. The government party might have made a stronger showing had not Roh, intent upon consolidating his control of a party that still contained many holdovers from the Chun period, replaced one-third of incumbent legislators with political newcomers. Because the new candidates were not able quickly to build up the personal networks necessary for success at the district level, the ruling party in effect gave up one of its strongest campaign assets on the eve of the election. Other factors included the ruling party's lack of a following among younger and better-educated voters and its failure to distance itself sufficiently from the Chun government (the former president's brother was arrested on corruption charges one month before the election). Increasing regionalism also played a role, especially in the Cholla provinces, where the government party candidates failed to win a single district seat. *

The impact of the new balance of political forces in the National Assembly, characterized by the press as yoso yadae (small ruling power, large opposition power), quickly became evident. Even before the thirteenth National Assembly convened in late May 1988, the floor leaders of the government and opposition parties met to agree upon procedures and to discuss the release of political prisoners. These four-way talks became common during the next two years, especially for routine business matters. Four-way talks also were used to negotiate in advance such political issues as the distribution of committee chairmanships (nine for opposition parties, seven for the government party) and the National Assembly's investigation of dozens of cases of corruption or other irregularities committed under the preceding Fifth Republic. *

Changes in the South Korean Judiciary

The judiciary also moved toward greater political independence in 1988. In June one-third of the nation's judges demanded that the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Kim Yong- ch'ol, resign as a measure to restore public trust in the politicized court system. Two weeks after the chief justice resigned in disgrace, the two major opposition parties abstained from the National Assembly vote to confirm Roh's first choice for the vacancy, thereby causing the nomination to fail. This action resulted in the nomination of Yi Il-kyu, a more independent- minded figure known for not bending to political pressure. A Supreme Court justice during the Chun presidency — until his appointment was not renewed in 1986 — Yi had won wide public respect for overturning lower court rulings in political cases. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Yi's appointment as chief justice led to National Assembly approval of thirteen new Supreme Court justices and a major reshuffle of the judiciary in July that affected some thirty-five senior District Court and High Court judges. At a meeting of chiefs of all court levels in December 1988 when the Supreme Court was drafting a revision to the Court Organization Law that would give the judiciary full control over its own budgets, Chief Justice Yi Il-kyu called on the judiciary to "take a hard look at ourselves for the situation in which the public felt distrust for the judiciary" and pledged that he would "never tolerate any outside influence in court proceedings." *

Under Yi's leadership, the South Korean judiciary became more independent. This trend continued into 1989, as courts overturned the parliamentary election victories of two government party candidates on charges of illegal campaigning and sentenced numerous former officials and relatives of former President Chon Doo Hwan to prison terms on corruption and power-abuse charges. In another unprecedented action in late 1989, a judge acting on his own initiative granted bail to a student activist charged with violating the National Security Act. *

Seoul Olympics and Chun Doo Hwan Hearings

The Seoul Olympics, scheduled to begin in September 1988, contributed to a tacit political truce where the more contentious and difficult political questions, such as the revisions of "bad laws" sought by the two larger opposition parties, were concerned. The primary focus of partisan politics during 1988 was the settling of old accounts concerning the Fifth Republic. These issues in turn were divided into two categories: questions related to Chun's seizure of power in late 1979 and early 1980, including the Kwangju incident, and questions concerning corruption and other irregularities during the period of Chun's rule through 1987. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

In July 1988, following the president's veto of two bills that would have expanded the legislature's inspection powers — for example, enabling the National Assembly to order judicial warrants forcing subpoenaed witnesses, such as former President Chun, to testify — the government party agreed with the three major opposition parties to hold hearings into numerous irregularities of the Fifth Republic. Other special committees established in July were charged with studying reunification policy, democratization issues, problems of regionalism in politics, the conduct of the Seoul Olympics, and irregularities in the recent presidential and general elections. *

In twenty meetings held between late September and mid- December 1988, the committee investigating corruption under the Chun government interviewed dozens of witnesses, many of them high-level civilian and military officers. The televised hearings dazzled the public with revelations concerning the suppression of media independence in 1980, the extortion of political funds from large corporations, and improprieties connected with the Ilhae Institute, a charitable foundation established by Chun Doo Hwan. *

The hearings had several effects. Pressures against the former president grew as the hearings continued; in late November 1988, Chun appeared on television to apologize to the nation, taking responsibility for what he termed the "tragic consequences" in Kwangju in 1980. He also stated that he would surrender US$24 million in cash and property and announced that he would seek seclusion in a Buddhist monastery in repentance. The hearings led to subsequent criminal prosecutions of numerous members of Chun's family, as well as former high officials, including the former director of the Agency for National Security Planning, Chang Se-tong. The hearings also gave many South Koreans their first opportunity to see their legislators in action and set a precedent for future broadcasts of National Assembly business. *

The drama of the hearings drew attention away from the more prosaic business of the National Assembly, which during the year passed dozens of laws and decided on a 1989 budget. Despite often strong disagreements among parties, these results underscored the role of four-way talks in the process of political compromise, previously a rare commodity in South Korean politics. The resulting de facto coalition foreshadowed the merger of three of the four parties in early 1990. *

People dissatisfied with Roh's first year as president overlooked significant political factors, including the restraining impact of world attention prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics on Roh's conduct. Roh did make effective moves to consolidate his political position during the year, including a series of appointments and reshuffles within the Democratic Justice Party, the cabinet, and the senior ranks of the military. Changed political circumstances in 1989 made it possible for Roh to move more decisively to deal with opponents inside and outside the National Assembly. *

Roh Tae Woo Begins Clamping Down on Dissent

In his 1989 New Year's address, President Roh promised greater efforts in reaching out to communist bloc countries and in improving relations with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). He also emphasized continued democratization, coupled with stability. The emphasis on stability was shared by the NDRP, which in its New Year's statement noted the need to correct the unbalanced distribution of wealth and to eliminate conflicts based on regionalism but also rejected "any action to undermine political and social stability." Both the RDP and the PPD viewed 1989 as the year for the final resolution of Fifth Republic issues and called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate impartially criminal charges stemming from the National Assembly investigations. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The president's willingness to move toward tighter social controls was given further impetus by developments in the first few months of the year. In February farmers angry over the government's liberalization of agricultural trade staged largescale , sometimes violent, demonstrations in Seoul. During the same month, the nationwide leftist student organization, the National Association of University Student Councils (Chondaehyop) challenged the government's desire to retain the initiative between the two Koreas by announcing plans to send members to Pyongyang's World Youth and Student Festival scheduled for July. In March a subway workers' strike paralyzed commuter transportation in Seoul for seven days. Nationwide labor unrest continued through April with a violent a strike by Hyundai shipyard workers. Student demonstrators continued to match police tear gas with Molotov cocktails through the early months of the year. In May the nation was shocked when students who had taken police officers hostage in a building at Tongui University in Pusan set a fire that took the lives of seven police officers who had stormed the facility. *

These events were accompanied by signs of uneasiness among advisors of President Roh. In March a cabinet minister, known as a spokesman for those in the military seeking a crackdown on labor union and student radicalism, resigned. A week later, at graduation ceremonies of the Korea Military Academy, the academy superintendent twice failed to salute the president and in his speech complained that "people have such confused perceptions about which are hostile and which are friendly countries that they do not know who our enemy is." Pressures on the president to curb what these and other conservatives in the military and the government party believed was a trend toward deterioration increased further in late March, when it became known that two prominent South Korean dissidents had traveled to Pyongyang, where they met with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and attended a church service. These developments and others, such as the announcement in June that a former opposition legislator had made an unauthorized trip to North Korea in 1988, gave the president the rationale to reverse another trend — the declining involvement of the national security agencies in domestic political life. *

During the political openness of 1988, a report of the government's Administration Reform Commission had denigrated the Agency for National Security Planning, on grounds that the agency had in the past "violated human rights on many occasions and interfered in politics, thus incurring the condemnation of the public." As ruling and opposition parties studied ways to limit the agency's role in domestic political surveillance, the ANSP also appeared to take a new approach, announcing that it was scaling back domestic operations, sharing classified documents on external security issues at press conferences, and sending new agency directors to pay respects to the presidents of the opposition parties. By early 1989, political agreement had been reached on a revised ANSP law that would require the agency to observe the right of habeas corpus, remain politically neutral, and end other forms of interference in domestic political life. *

Roh Tae Woo Increases the Authority of Police and Security Agencies

The president's response to the growing political crisis of early 1989 was to grant a renewed mandate to the police and security agencies. In view of increasing attacks on police boxes, a long-standing program to provide police with M-16 rifles was stepped up and new rules of engagement issued, permitting police to fire in self-defense on Molotov cocktail-throwing demonstrators. In the aftermath of the Tongui University incident, the National Assembly quickly passed a law providing special penalties for the use of Molotov cocktails. In early April, the president established a Joint Security Investigations Headquarters to coordinate the work of police, intelligence, and national security agencies. This organ, which was in existence from early April through late June 1989, investigated student union groups, dissident organizations, and an antigovernment newspaper, eventually arresting more than 500 persons (including the pair who had traveled to North Korea in March, on suspicion of "aiding an antistate organization," North Korea) under the broad terms of the National Security Act. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The Joint Security Investigations Headquarters was disbanded in June under pressure from the National Assembly. Public prosecutors and the Agency for National Security Planning, however, continued making arrests and pursuing investigations into a variety of political activities on national security grounds. There also was a resumption of the quasi-legal or illegal practices common in national security cases before 1988: breaking into the campaign headquarters of an opposition candidate in a by-election in July; publishing lists of banned "antistate" books even after a civil court ruling that such a ban was illegal; arresting people for reading or possessing books considered to be pro-North Korean; arresting an antigovernment journalist for planning unauthorized coverage of North Korea; and ignoring court orders to allow arrested political detainees to meet with their attorneys. By the end of 1989, all people who had traveled to North Korea without authorization had been convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. *

The role of the ANSP was further strengthened during the rest of the year. As part of a cabinet shuffle in July, Roh appointed a former high-school classmate, with a reputation for a hardline approach as a prosecutor under the Fifth Republic, as head of the ANSP. In the National Assembly, discussion of amendments that would ease sections of the National Security Act and restrict the powers of the ANSP were indefinitely postponed. In September the government introduced an amendment that would enable the ANSP to bypass the constitutional guarantees of access to a lawyer in national security cases. In late 1989, the government claimed that 342 people had been charged under the National Security Act during the year. *

Demonstrations in the 1990s, Sometimes with a Pro-North Korean Slant

Student activism declined after the passing of democratic reforms and collapse of Communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the activism in mid- and late 1990s consisted of protests against the activities of American soldiers, anti-Japanese rallies, and labor strikes. The most well publicized demonstrations focused on reunification with North Korea on North Korea's terms, with student leaders espousing the teachings of Kim Il Sung and extorted class struggle ideology.

There were demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Roh and the withdrawal of US troops. In May 1990, 50,000 demonstrators in Kwangju commemorated the 10th anniversary of the massacre, resulting in clashes with police which lasted several days. The United States agreed to withdraw its nuclear weapons from the ROK in November 1991. And, on the last day of the year, the ROK and the DPRK signed an agreement to ban nuclear weapons from the entire peninsula. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

When I was teaching in Pusan in 1989 sometimes my university-age students would come to class right after they had been in a demonstration. The tears gas fumes would be enough to make everybody start wheezing and coughing. The Korean tear gas is supposedly the best in the world. Around the same time there were women's rights festivals in which women chanted slogans like "Rape Me" and "Your Body Is A Battleground."

Most of the pro-Pyongyang student demonstrations were led by Hanchongnyon (Federation of Korean Student Councils), which was made up of student councils from 155 universities. Well organized, Hanchyongnyon was financed in part by money from students collected when they paid for tuition, and from vending machines and cafes. The group organized field trips for new students with pro-North Korean chants and propaganda. Many conservatives believed that Hanchyongnyon was infiltrated by North Korean spies.

In August 1996, a huge Hanchongnyon-organized, pro-Pyongyang demonstration was held at Yonsei University in Seoul. Buildings were set on fire, rocks were hurled at police and students made daring escapes by leaping from the roof of one building to another. By the time the dust settled, more than a thousand students and police were injured, 5,715 students were detained or arrested and one policeman was killed by a rock dropped from the roof of a building. Not long afterwards, two men accused of being informers were beaten to death by student activists. It was not clear whether either man was really an informer. One of them was a mechanic at Hanyang University.

After the demonstration Hanchongnyon was outlawed as a "pro-North Korean" group, and members were warned that they could face criminal punishment. Ordinary Koreans and workers, who supported pro-democracy student demonstrations in the 1980s, and moderate student leaders were disappointed that university activism had taken such a radical direction. They believe there are plenty of worthwhile causes that need attention such as the environment and the women's right but that public support has been compromised by the radical pro-Pyongyang positions.

Roh Tae Woo's US$654 Billion Slush Fund

In 1995, Roh was charged with taking US$310 million in bribes from 32 businessmen from Korea's leading chaebols (including Hyundai, Samsung, LG, Daewoo) in return for rewarding lucrative government infrastructure projects and military procurement programs.

The money was part of an unbelievable large US$654 million slush fund that Roh admitted collecting between 1988 and 1993. After he left office, Roh kept US$221 million, investing US$42 million in real estate and depositing the rest into more than 40 personal bank accounts of family members and friends.

Roh's trouble's began when government of President Kim Young Sam banned false-name accounts like the ones that Roh originally used to stash his money. Roh was forced to transfer his millions to the accounts of political and business associates and friends. News of the money reached a member of the opposition party when a businessman complained to friends about taxes on interest on Roh's money kept in his account.

Roh admitted having the money in a teary-eyed press conference and later collapsed after a 16-hour interrogation. After admitting on national television that he accepted US$650 million in illicit contribution he said, "I am ready to accept any judgement, even stone throwing."

Roh reportedly gave US$72 million to his political party, the Democratic Liberal Party, and other Korean politicians. Kim Dae Jung admitted to taking US$2.6 million but said he used it only for his political campaign, and Kim Jong Pil reportedly took US$13 million. Kim Young Sam steadfastly insisted he didn't take any money. The chairmans of all the chaebols were questioned in connection with the slush fund. Roh's brother in law was charged with helping to launder the slush money. His wife and daughter were accused by the opposition of stashing the money in secret accounts and using it for land speculation.

Trial of Roh Tae Woo

In 1996 former presidents Chun and Roh were put on trial on corruption charges and also tried, with 14 former generals, on charges in connection with the 1979 coup following Park's death and the 1980 massacre of more than 200 pro-democracy demonstrators in Gwangju (Kwangju).

In August 1996, Chun and Roh were found guilty of corruption and treason and mutiny for the 1980 coup that brought them to power and the Kwangju massacre. The court gave Chun a death sentence and sentenced Roh to 22.5 years in prison and fined US$350 million. An appellate court later reduced Chun's sentence to life imprisonment and Roh's sentence to 17 years. Roh had already spent a year in jail when he was sentenced in September, 1996 When Kim Dae Jung was inaugurated as president in 1998, both leaders were released from prison under Kim's grant of amnesty.

Nine leading businessmen — including the chairman of Samsung and Daewoo — were convicting of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to presidential slush funds. The prosecution showed that Roh had taken US$30 million bribes from Daewoo Group chairman Kim Woo-choong. One US$6 million bribe, for example, was used to secure a contract to build a naval submarine base near Pusan. The most dramatic moment of the trial was when photographs were shown of 25 cardboard boxes stuffed US$8 million in Korean currency that was found in Roh's house.

Roh was ordered to pay back 260 billion won (US$225 million) he had received as bribes from businessmen. As of 2013, he had paid back more than 90 percent of the money, and most of the assets that would account for the outstanding balance have been discovered. [Source: Sam Kim, Associated Press, June 24, 2013]


Kim Young Sam (1927-2015, president 1993-1998) was the first civilian president of South Korea's new democratic era. Hailing from Koje Island near Pusan, he attended Seoul National University and was a member of the first national assembly after the Korean War. In the 1960s he spent a month in jail, was tear-gassed at student demonstrations and staged an internationally-publicized hunger strike against the dictatorial policies of Park Chung Hee. In 1960, his mother was murdered by suspected North Korean infiltrators.

In 1992, Kim Young Sam, a former opposition leader who had merged his party with that of his predecessor Roh Tae Woo, was elected president. President Kim launched a campaign to eliminate corruption and administrative abuse and began to encourage economic cooperation with the North. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

In the presidential election December 1992, Kim Young Sam won with 41.9 percent of the vote, with Kim Dae Jung in second with 33.8 percent. Kim Dae Jung and resigned from politics after the vote. The president of Hyundai, Chung Ju Yong, received 13 percent of the vote. Kim Young Sam formed the Democratic Liberal Party (DLP), a three-party merger including Roh's ruling party, which won the legislative elections in March 1992, with 38.5 percent of the vote; Kim Dae Jung’s Democratic Liberal Party came in second with 29.2 percent of vote.

The 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis struck while Kim Young Sam was president. At the end off 1997, South Korea companies were unable to pay off their loans, the stock market crashed and the Korean currency lost half of its value. The South Korean government had go begging to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a US$58 billion loan — the biggest IMF rescue package ever — but even that wasn't enough. Japan, the United States and other countries coughed up more money to prevent the South Korean economy from totally collapsing. When the crisis hit Kim Young Sam seemed to panic — incapable of grasping it and unable to deal with it — and handed over power before his term was over to Kim Dae Jung, who followed the advise of the IMF and pulled South Korea out of the crisis.

Kim Young Sam’s Political Career

In 1979, Kim Young Sam became the new leader of the New Democratic Party and began to challenge the government of Park Chung Hee —who ruled for 18 years from 1961 to 1979. Kim announced to the foreign press his readiness to meet with Kim Il Song, the North Korean president, to discuss matters relating to unification and delivered a scathing attack on the government in the National Assembly. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Kim Young Sam argued that the government had been in power too long and had been clearly discredited by the elections; that Emergency Measure Number Nine imposed by Park suffocated peoples' freedom and was clearly unconstitutional; that Seoul had colluded with hoodlums to assault the New Democratic Party headquarters and to harass him; that the suppression of human rights had become an international disgrace; that the people should be permitted to elect their own president through direct elections and be allowed to live without fear; and that a fair distribution of wealth should be permitted without government interference. The government immediately retaliated and ousted Kim from the National Assembly. In a show of solidarity, all opposition members of the National Assembly resigned on October 13, 1979.*

Kim staged a month-long hunger strike in 1983 and was a major force behind the student demonstrations in 1986 and 1987 that coerced President Chun Doo Hwan into resigning, writing a new constitution and holding elections. In 1990, Kim abandoned his career as a dissident and joined the ruling party. He was elected in 1992 with the support of Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo and most likely received some of their slush fund money, although Kim has denied this.

Kim Young Sam as President

Kim Young Sam was the first civilian to hold the office of president since the Korean War. Without a power base in the military, which had been the pattern of South Korean politics, he took office with a lot of hope and promise but in the end accomplished very little. One of the first things that Kim did after he was elected was pass a series of anti-corruption laws that among another thing requires the rich and powerful to use their real names on banks accounts and land titles and disclose their personal wealth.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “President Kim granted amnesty to 41,000 prisoners and instituted a series of purges of high-ranking military officials, including four generals who had roles in the 1979 coup. Among political and economic reforms was a broad anticorruption campaign, resulting in arrests, dismissals, or reprimands for several thousands of government officials and business people. In March 1994, a former official of the National Security Planning Agency made public President Roh Tae Woo's authorization of a covert program to develop nuclear weapons at the Daeduk Science Town through 1991. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Under Kim, 1,600 "chronically corrupt" government officials were forced to resign or were fired; the Hanahoe the "One-Way" military society, credited with bringing Chun Doo Hwan hwan to power in 1981, was disbanded: and 62 percent of Korea's corps commanders and 39 percent of division commanders were replaced. Kim's popularity ratings was at it highest after he ordered the closing of buildings and private restaurants and clubs where generals and corrupt politicians plotted against their enemies. When Kim was through, there were hardly any general left from the old military elite. A cousin of Kim's wife was even tried and punished under the anti-corruption laws. [Source: Anthony Spaeth, Time magazine, June 26, 1995]

Soon after he was elected Kim Young Sam promised to "eradicate every symbol of our colonial past." One of the first things he did when he took office was order the destruction of the old Blue House, the presidential mansion, which once served as the home for the Japanese imperial governor. Later he organization the destruction of another colonial building to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule.

One of the most amazing things about Kim was the way his hair went from black to white almost over night. Kim was 65 when he was elected. He died his hair in the first couple of years he was president and then suddenly stopped, revealing his white hair. Kim ate modest meals, jogged before dawn, and entertained ordinary people at the Blue House. He was often pictured in running suits and once was photographed jogging with U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Kim Young Sam's Fall

Kim's popularity rating dropped from 90 percent, shortly after he was elected in 1992, to 9 percent in his last year in office in 1997. In one poll he was selected as the person people least likely want to see cloned.

Kim governed like a party boss and surrounded himself with people from his home province. He ended up encouraging chaebol corruption when he sought their help to create jobs and get the economy rolling again after a mild recession. He gave the chaebols a seemingly endless line of credit at cheap interest rates, which encouraged waste and helped bring about the economic crisis in 1997. His much touted "globalization" program ended up encouraging companies to expand to aggressively abroad while accruing huge debts.

At the end of his term, he seemed ineffectual in handling the 1997 economic crisis which was caused in part by the corrupt relationship between his government and Korean businesses. In his final months in office he effectively disappeared and Kim Dae Jung ran the country before he was even sworn in.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: By 1997, many of the large chaebols were reporting serious problems with debt. A portion of the Kia Group, a major manufacturer of automobiles, was nationalized to prevent bankruptcy. Increased domestic economic instability coupled with economic crisis swept through Asia, leading to a severe decline in the value of the currency. The ensuing financial panic coincided with presidential elections on 18 December 1997, the month that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) began.

Legislative elections in April 1996 took place amid allegations of corruption that reached the inner circle of President Kim Young Sam and his New Korea Party (NKP). According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”,: “During the preelection campaign, Kim promised to launch an anticorruption effort if his party gained power; in a major upset, the NKP captured 139 of the 299 seats, while the main opposition party (National Congress for New Politics — NCNP) of Kim Dae Jung won only 79 seats. Kim Dae Jung lost his own seat in the legislature. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Hanbo Scandal and Corruption Charges Against Kim Young Sam's Son

“Several important New Korea Party officials and even Kim Young Sam's son were implicated on charges of taking or giving millions of dollars in bribes to arrange loans to Hanbo Steel Industry Co., which eventually went bankrupt under US$6 billion of debt. Some of those officials were indicted in February of 1997, but Mr. Kim's son, Kim Hyun Chul, was cleared. However, in May of the same year, Kim Hyun Chul was arrested on bribery and tax-evasion charges unrelated to the Hanbo scandal. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Kim Young Sam's achievements on the anti-corruption front were overshadowed by the arrest and imprisonment of his son, Kim Hyun Chul, for taking US$6 million of dollars in bribes. Kim Hyun Chul is said to have received US$226 million in kickbacks. In 2004, he stabbed himself before he was supposed be arrested. The Korea Joong Ang Daily reported: “Faced with a warrant for his detention on bribery charges, Kim Hyun-chul, the second son of former President Kim Young Sam,stabbed himself several times in the abdomen. Mr. Kim is alleged to have accepted 2 billion won (US$1.74 million) in illegal political donations from a businessman...Prosecutors at the Seoul District Prosecutors Office were seeking to take Mr. Kim into custody, he used a gimlet to puncture his abdomen. He had not been handcuffed, as is the customary during an arrest. Mr. Kim’s lawyer said his client had suffered a panic attack. Appearing before the Seoul Central District Court afterwards, Mr. Kim wept as he denied prosecutor’s charges that he received 2 billion won from Cho Dong-man, former vide chairman of the Hansol Group, as political funds. “I took the money because Kim Ki-seop said that the 2 billion won was interest on the 7 billion won that I had entrusted to Mr. Cho to invest on my behalf,” Mr. Kim said. Mr. Kim was preparing to run in the April legislative election using the funds, prosecutors said. Mr. Kim denied the charges. [Source: Kim Ji-soo, Korea Joong Ang Daily, September 12, 2004]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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