The history of South Korea from 1945 to the end of the Korean War and beyond is one of great upheavals and changes in culture, government, and economy that eventually propelled South Korea to being a well rounded regional power in East Asia. Officially known as the Republic of Korea, in contrast to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), South Korea emerged from the Korean War a much different nation than the one it would evolve into. Led by President Syngman Rhee from the end of the Second World War to 1960 South Korea was considered by many to be a state whose main focus, like many of the United States’ allies during the Cold War, was the halt of communist encroachment even at the expense of liberties that the United States claimed to espouse and promote around the world.
After the Second World War the Korean peninsula was split between pro-United States forces in the south and pro-Soviet Union/People’s Republic of China forces in the north. In the South a Korean politician was chosen to be the first President of the Republic of Korea: Syngman Rhee. He had long fought for liberation from the Japanese forces who had taken control of the peninsula in 1910. After leading South Korea through the Korean War until 1952, Syngman Rhee ruled over South Korea for a further eight years, working on rebuilding his country while had experienced a level of devastation akin to that of the Second World War. In 1960 President Syngman Rhee was forced to resign after allegations of rigging the 1960 election emerged and after the police fired on protesters. The resignation of Syngman Rhee would lead to a rise in authoritarianism which was endorsed by the government of the United States for the mere fact that this new dictatorship opposed communism.
In 1961 the May 16 coup occurred which saw the reversal of democracy in the Republic of Korea and launched a General named Park Chung-hee to the Presidency. A veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War, Park proved to be an effective albeit brutal leader of his nation. Economically his term in office led to a period of great growth in the country, and with numerous infrastructure programs underway it is evident that he had an impact on uplifting his country from its poverty stricken past. Throughout that all however, he managed to undermine the tenets of democracy that had been loosely established in the previous administrations. In 1972 Park solidified his power further with the adoption of a new constitution which greatly expanded his control over the government and drove them further from the ideology they were supposedly founded on.
Finally, in 1979, President Park Chung-hee was assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, a member of South Korean intelligence and a friend of Park’s. Following his assassination, a trio of leaders emerged as successors who took over the Presidency for a number of terms: Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988), Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), and, King Young-sam (1993-198). These three would see the eventual decline of the authoritarian government which finally ended upon Kim Dae-jung’s election to President of the Republic of Korea in 1998.
The tale of South Korea is a unique story which, while holding similar aspects to other freed nations of the twentieth century, is completely its own. They underwent huge changes in society in the course of one hundred years that have since led to them being one of the most important economies in the world with a similarly impressive military. With all of this considered, South Korea has faced many issues over the years with a number of military coups and rather oppressive regimes that resulted in societal regressions and nearly sliding back into their authoritarian regimes. While the Republic of Korea has faced these challenges they have shown that they can pull themselves off of the proverbial dirt and brush themselves off. With one of the most developed nations in Asia they will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, but as these years pass by they will begin to be more and more overshadowed by the monolith that is the People’s Republic of China.
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