Changes in Military Rule: The Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan Regimes

After the 1961 coup, officers governed South Korea for two years under the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction. They eventually turned the system into a kind of quasi-civilian one, providing party politics in which coup-leaders-turned-civilians occupied supreme positions. But this quasi-civilianised party politics became increasingly a device for Park’s personal accumulation of power. The personalisation of power came to define the characteristics of Korean military rule in the 1960s, culminating in the promulgation of the Yushin Constitution in October 1972.

Why did Korea’s military rule turn out to be quasi-civilian and personal, rather than direct and institutional, as was the case with its Latin American counterparts? Answers are to be found in the internal characteristics of the Korean military at the time of the coup: the Korean military was not sufficiently institutionalised to put its political domination on a formal basis; the coup was executed by factions centred on the eighth class of the Korean Military Academy, and the infighting among the coup leaders was substantial (S.J. Kim 1971:112-118; Lovell 1975:183-188). Factional disputes during the years of direct rule were essentially struggles for more power sharing, but they also reflected different conceptions of the coup leaders’ role in politics. At the time of the coup, the officers, although having to a considerable degree a ruler mentality, did not have a clear ideology or set of policy programs to implement after seizing power. In other words, they had not yet developed the kind of ‘new professionalism’ which Latin American officers developed from the late 1950s (Stepan 1973); all they possessed was unequivocal anti-communism and vague conceptions of reform, intra-military and societal. The younger officers who planned and executed the coup were more of a ‘ruler’ type (Nordlinger 1977: 26-27) and, thus, intended to stay in power indefinitely. Senior officers, who were involved at later stages of the coup, were ‘moderators’ (ibid.: 22-24) who wanted to return to the barracks after ‘cleaning’ the polity. Because of internal struggles among coup leaders, the regime’s characteristics turned out to be eclectic; it was, after a considerable period of direct military rule, a quasi-civilian regime.

Quasi-civilianisation and factionalism provided the conditions for Park’s accumulation of personal power. Quasi-civilianisation came with the inauguration of Park Chung Hee as president after his narrow electoral victory against Yun Po Sun, former symbolic president in the Chang administration. It generated party politics around the ruling Democratic Republican Party and divided opposition parties, which merged in 1967 to form the New Democratic Party. Over a long period, however, party politics became a device for prolonging and concentrating the president’s political power. The political role of parties decreased and the ever-strengthening bureaucracy and security forces took over their role.

The weakening of party politics and strengthening of the bureaucracy was directly related to the concentration of power in the hands of the president. Park lacked Rhee’s personal charisma and failed to consolidate his power base from the outset. But he possessed the rare capacity to tilt the power balance toward himself in entanglements within the ruling group. He removed the possibility of revolt from within the military and utilised party politics for his own ends. After seizing supreme power, he removed any possibility of an independent power base being formed by using his classic tactics of ‘divide and rule’ within the military and the party (S.J. Kim 1971).

A turning point in Park’s consolidation of personal power came with the constitutional revision of 1969, which was executed despite considerable resistance, not only from opposition politicians and students/intellectuals (who represented the political opposition at the time) but also from within the ruling group, especially from Kim Jong Pil. The constitutional revision allowed Park a third term as president and signalled much more systematic and formidable institutional arrangements aimed at giving Park indefinite control of power – the proclamation of the Yushin system. With this, the façade of party politics introduced after the 1961 coup virtually disappeared and Park’s life-time authoritarian rule was guaranteed. Authoritarian control was strengthened and power became highly personalised. Park justified the authoritarianism by emphasising administrative efficiency which he deemed indispensable for reunification and economic growth.

Competing explanations have been given for the emergence of the Yushin system, which was similar to the bureaucratic authoritarian system in Latin America (Kang 1983; Im 1987; Y.M. Kim 1986). Clearly, however, it represented a culmination of the personalisation of power which developed after the inauguration of Park. With the advent of the Yushin system, a military-authoritarian regime changed into a more personalised authoritarian one. This change required massive political repression of civil society and of elite politicians. In order to maintain political control, as well as using outright repression, the president employed the ‘ideology of security’, referring to the threat of North Korea. Personal control, combined with quasi-military-mobilisation, made possible his (and the military’s) long-term domination of Korean society, a condition which was absent in most other developing countries.

The Yushin system eventually collapsed with the assassination of Park Chung Hee by one of his close associates, Kim Jae Kyu, the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (another institutional device created for quasi-civilian rule). Yet, the demise of the personal ruler did not result in the demise of military rule; rather, another military group, often called the New Military Group, occupied the power vacuum created by Park’s death. To understand why this happened we should first look into the causes of the breakdown of the Yushin system.

The Yushin system resembled the bureaucratic authoritarian (BA) system in Latin America, but its power base was more personal than the latter. At the same time, it shared characteristics with the pre-war militarist system of Japan, in that the state systematically employed the security threat, real or perceived, as a means of mobilising and controlling civil society.

The ‘Total Security System’, the term coined by the military regime, was another aspect which distinguished the Yushin system from the Latin American BA regimes. The regime’s rationale for the proclamation of the Yushin system was in terms of national security and economic growth, as well as the administrative efficiency deemed indispensable to accomplishing the first two objectives. During the Yushin years, from 1972 to 1979, the whole country was systematically organised into a kind of garrison state, which ultimately contributed to strengthening the authoritarian ruler’s political power. It is true the Korean peninsula was at the time on military alert, and many Koreans shared the government’s threat perception in the mid 1970s when a large part of the Indochina peninsula was under communist control. This not only facilitated the state’s control over the society, but effectively weakened the opposition (Sohn 1989:82-83).

Combining personalisation of political power and militarisation of the society, Park Chung Hee stifled any semblance of liberal democracy, the façade of which was created after the 1961 coup. He denounced the ‘Western system of democracy’ as inappropriate to Korea’s ‘emergency’ situation and instead presented ‘Korean-style democracy’ which emphasised efficiency and national harmony under a great leader (Park 1978). Needless to say, the Korean-style democracy was an antithesis of genuine democracy, and was directed toward perpetuation of Park’s personal power.

However, this coercive system could not be imposed upon civil society indefinitely. In addition to the general problems of BA regimes, such as the inefficacy of coercion as a basis for long-term political control, and the breakdown of the ruling coalition in the midst of political-economic crisis (O’Donnell 1979), personalisation of power produced a political problem more salient than in more institutionalised Latin American BA regimes, namely the problem of political succession. Because the consolidation of personal power prevented the regime from preparing for post-Park transition, Park’s political options were much too limited when popular revolt erupted in 1979; he could not find an effective political successor who would maintain the existing political and economic structures while easing the pressures of popular discontent. The regime was unable to respond effectively to growing political challenges from the combined forces of students, intellectuals, workers, and opposition politicians. The situation was further aggravated by personal animosities between close associates of the president, his chief body guard, Cha Ji Chul, and Kim Jae Kyu, his assassin. It was aggravated by a dispute about which option to take to resolve the political crisis. The hardliner Cha’s option of brutal suppression was gaining presidential approval when both of them were murdered by Kim, who was considered the moderate.

Despite the passing of personal rule, the basic structures of the polity, the society, and the economy remained the same; if there was any change, it was toward a deepening of the existing system, although there were naturally changes in political recruitment. The basic reason for this was that Park’s death and the breakdown of the Yushin system did not come about by popular uprising but from within the power bloc. What was toppled was an individual ruler, and not the system itself. This was mainly because the opposition forces lacked sufficient power resources to use the death of the ruler to change the regime. The Yushin system had become outdated and was losing its dynamism, but the socio-political and, above all, military structures which defined the system remained intact. In a way, it proved the resilience of the Korean style ‘Total Security System’.

After brutal struggles between military-authoritarian and civilian-democratic forces during 1979-1980, the eventual victor turned out to be the New Military Group centreed around Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, who were to become the next two presidents. What was this group? During his one-man rule, Park Chung Hee, while firmly controlling the military with a combination of ‘stick and carrot’, had allowed a selective group of senior officers to accumulate power as long as they were loyal to him. This politicised a segment of the officer corps and provided them with a basis for resuming power after Park’s assassination by the military. The locus of power resided in a group named Hanahoe, of which both Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo were leading members. Members of the group were graduates of the Korean Military Academy and were from North Kyongsang Province. It was supposed to be an informal fraternity society but, under tacit permission of the president, it accumulated political power and finally emerged as the most powerful group after Park’s death.

Officers’ ideological orientations were also undergoing change during Park’s rule. Within the military there emerged growing interest in non-military political and social issues. Through curriculum changes in the institutions of higher military education, such as the National Defence College, military officers systematically studied political and social issues (J.H. Kim 1978). For them, the concept of national security should be expanded to include defence against internal enemies such as communist agitators. Although the officers’ major concerns lay still in the area of national defence against possible invasion from North Korea, they were developing aspects of the ‘new professionalism’ found in their Latin American counterparts. As a result, they strengthened and systemised a ruler mentality which provided an ideological basis for reintervention in politics.

Compared to the military’s ideological, organisational, and physical strength, democratic forces lacked the organisational cohesion necessary to force the military to remain in the barracks. Students, workers, and intellectuals were incapable of accomplishing what they wanted, namely political democratisation and a more equitable distribution of wealth, because they lacked organisation and effective leadership. Added to this was the division in the leadership of the opposition party between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. Power imbalance between the military and democratic forces was further widened by the withdrawal of support for the democratic movement by the middle class, which had more interest in political stability and economic growth than in democratisation. As a result, the breakdown of the Yushin system did not develop into more than a violent transfer of power from one authoritarian regime to another. The Chun regime retained essential characteristics of the Yushin regime, though there were also significant differences between the two.

While the 1961 coup was accepted by the general populace as an almost inevitable result of political crisis, Chun’s seizure of power was simply not accepted by everyone in Korea, for reasons discussed below. The immense political cost of Chun’s rule was manifested in the bloodshed in Kwangju. He tried to compensate for weak political support by coercion (and lip service to social reform). Thus, the degree of political repression was considerably higher after his assumption of power than immediately after the 1961 coup (although somewhat lower than under the Yushin system).

However, Chun’s coercive rule was met by strengthened opposition, which grew in size and was better organised and ideologically radicalised. This was an inevitable consequence of social diversification and a long history of political opposition but, more directly, a result of the brutal suppression of the democratic movement in Kwangju and of growing anti-Americanism derived from the alleged role of the US there. Consequently, democratic challenges to the Chun regime grew much stronger than those to the Park regime.

Regime characteristics were also different. Park Chung Hee consolidated personal control over the state apparatus and political society which Chun could not emulate. Chun, for his part, accumulated some degree of personal power over the ruling bloc, but the possibility of his long-term rule was effectively blocked from the very beginning because he argued that a single term president presented possibly the only source of political legitimacy. In addition, the institutional development of the military by then rendered one-man rule extremely difficult. As a result, soon after Chun’s inauguration the issue of political succession became prominent within both the ruling and opposition camps.

Although Chun’s control of the military was relatively firm, it cannot be said that he established personal control over it. Rather, the New Military Group constituted a collective leadership around the senior leader, Chun, again reflecting the military’s institutional development as compared to 1961. Although it could not, either, be regarded as an institutional military regime, in which the military’s institutional norms and procedures dominated the regime structure, the Chun regime certainly possessed some of the characteristics of such a regime. This fact was significant in the transition from Chun’s rule; Chun’s fall did not require the sort of violence which was necessary in the transition from Rhee and Park because under his rule power was not entrenched exclusively in a personal dictator. Especially toward the end of Chun’s rule power was more or less divided among the ruling group, and internal friction within the ruling group played a significant role in determining the direction of political transition.

The most significant difference between the two regimes probably lay in the historical functions each was bound to perform. While Park’s regime, for all its contradictions, played positive roles in economic development and political stability at an earlier stage of nation building, Chun’s rule was essentially redundant in that the historical function of military-authoritarian rule had virtually evaporated. Chun tried to reverse the historical flow toward a more open political and economic system and, in so doing, paid the price with the lives of hundreds of citizens. As a result, the Chun regime lost its political legitimacy. This was not compensated for by government’s efficacy in policy implementation; in fact, a powerful democratic movement erupted in spite of the economic boom in the latter half of Chun’s term. Lack of political legitimacy produced constant and severe opposition during Chun’s rule.