The June Democracy Movement and South Korea's Democratization

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The April Revolution of 1960 marked the beginning of subsequent democracy movements in South Korea that ingrained into the people’s minds the core values and principles of democracy. It was sparked by a protest against the rigged presidential and vice-presidential elections held on March 15. Syngman Rhee, who had been in office since 1948 was re-elected after his opponents were executed for being Communists or "accidentally" died of heart attacks.

When the opposition Democratic Party, exposed the Rhee government's electoral fraud, a protest erupted in the City of Masan, Gyeongsangbuk-do. When the body of high school student Kim Ji-yeol was found on the shore in April, a massive protest erupted nation-wide. He had been shot by a tear-gas grenade in a violent clash between the protesters and the police.

On April 19, 2,000 protesters consisting mostly of university students but also middle and high school students, marched to the Blue House demanding President Rhee’s resignation. The police opened fire on the protesters, killing 21 people and injuring 172.

On the same day, the government declared martial law in major cities. However, the student protests did not stop. On April 25, the Democratic Party submitted an official request for Rhee's resignation to the National Assembly while university professors joined the student and citizen protestors. The April Revolution ultimately led to President Rhee’s resignation on April 27.

A 1972 referendum granted the president absolute control over the government and increased the term of presidency to six years without any restrictions on how many terms he or she could serve. The president also held indirect power over the National Council of Electoral College, the highest government authority that appointed members of the National Assembly as well as the president under the Yusin Constitution implemented by President Park Chung-hee.

The Korean people, who had elected six previous presidents through direct elections since 1952, could not easily accept the indirect electoral college system. They held firmly to the belief that direct election was an exercise of their democratic rights.

In mid-October 1979, student protests that erupted in Busan and Masan soon spread nation-wide as more citizens joined the movement. Kim Jae-gyu, the director of Korean Central Intelligence Agency who thought that President Park had lost the people's trust, assassinated him on October 26. This marked the end of the Yusin regime, but not the its dictatorship.

Chun Doo-hwan ascended to power as Park's successor by the appointment of the National Council of Electoral College in 1981. Chun ignored the people’s demand for an amendment to the Yusin constitution. His plan to hold presidential election under the same Yusin system enraged the opposition leaders, and they formed a coalition for democratization. Student activists joined forces with the coalition.

In May 1987, Park Jong-chul, a student-protester died during a brutal interrogation and torture. Protests against the Chun regime became more violent until another student named Lee Han-yeol was killed by a tear gas grenade shot by the police. The two students' deaths were commemorated by a massive demonstration joined by not only students but also office workers nicknamed the "necktie troops" who were angered by the state's violent abuse of basic human rights. The 1987 June Democracy Movement was the second nation-wide democratization movement that inherited the values and spirit of the April Revolution.

On June 28, Roh Tae-woo, a presidential candidate and Chun’s successor, promised to amend the Constitution to restore the system of direct presidential elections and limited the winners to a single 5-year term. As a result, the 9th amendment of the Constitution was adopted through a referendum. South Korea’s democratization was thus achieved by the people’s persistent struggle and sacrifice.

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