What has changed over 30 years of democracy in Korea?

democracy in korea30 years ago this week, on January 14th 1987, a Seoul University Student Park Jong Cheol died in police custody after being tortured by waterboarding. His death sparked protests leading to the democratic political system in Korea that remains in place today.

At the time, Korea was under the military dictatorship of President Chun Doo Hwan (1980-1988) and police brutality was not unusual – at the beginning of his presidency in 1980 hundreds of protestors marching for democracy were killed by police in the infamous Gwangju massacre.

Torture and deaths while in police custody were usually covered up though, but this incident in 1987 was reported and public anger led to more protests and democracy marches.

But now as the 30th anniversary of democracy approaches there are articles in the news reflecting over the changes that have occurred over the years for good or bad. The peaceful anti-president marches held in Seoul at the end of last year certainly reveal how much the country has changed politically.

democracy in korea

picture: joongang daily newspaper

But people have become fed up with politics. Elections are held every 5 years and the president can only stay for one term, but it seems that every president has managed to get tangled up in corruption – usually involving their family members. Even the respected President Roh committed suicide over corruption claims.

Trying to find someone immune to corruption and nepotism is one of the reasons that people have given me for voting for Park Geun Hye. (they are regretting that decision now…) Her policies may have been vague but the fact that she was estranged from her siblings and had no close family (both her parents were assassinated) made her seem like a perfect candidate. That’s how much voters were concerned about corruption. So last year’s revelations that the president had virtually handed over her power to her friend Choi Sun Sil (who made herself very rich indeed) made the scandal even more of a bombshell. Well, no man is an island as they say.

According to this Joongang Daily article, (Korean) after 30 years of democracy, satisfaction with life in general is pretty low. In the OECD Better Life Index Korea ranked 31 out of 38 countries in life satisfaction. (Even the UK was ranked higher at 21 and Brits are miserable as sin 😉 )

In terms of the economy, times are much better. But life feels more unstable. Since 1987 suicide rates have trebled to 26.5 per 100,000 citizens the highest in the world. While the birth rate has dropped to the lowest in the world. And everyone is worried about supporting themselves in old age.

I ask my adult students what they would say to a better welfare system. What about a more socialist approach like in Scandinavia where tax may be 50% but education, health care, and retirement care is ‘free’? Everyone says the idea is good. But in reality they are against doing that here because they don’t trust the government to allocate the money properly…

After recent scandals the current president has become a laughing stock with pictures of her as a puppet being handled by Choi Sun Sil just one of many jokes. But at least this shows that people feel they can express their opinions about the president and politics openly.

It hasn’t always been so.


Current president Park Geun Hye depicted as a puppet of Choi Sun Sil. picture: BBC.com


On the front page (Nov 14th 2016) of the Joonang Ilbo newspaper (Korean), Hwang Seok Young (a famous Korean novelist) compares his experience at the peaceful anti-Park protest to his terrible experience of the student-led ‘April Uprising’ against dictator Syngman Rhee in 1960.

He describes how 56 years ago in April 1960 when he was just a high school student, he went to the same location chanting for President Rhee Syngman to ‘하야 ha-ya‘ (resign) But back then the police didn’t just stand by, they started firing guns with live ammunition into the crowd of protestors.

When the police fired at the protestors, the writer’s friend standing next to him was shot. He took his school cap off to try and stop the bleeding that was coming from the young man’s head. And then with the help of other students, he carried him to an ambulance. But he died. And was placed under a white sheet along with all the other corpses at the hospital. The writer remembers how he went to the hospital bathroom and took off all his clothes to wash his friend’s blood off them. And as he saw the bloody water he couldn’t stop crying.

Rhee was the first president of the Republic of Korea 1948-1960, but his leadership was authoritarian and he finally resigned after allegations of election rigging and corruption. The 1970s continued under the military dictatorship of President Park Chun Hee (Park Geun Hye’s father) until he was assassinated by the head of his own Intelligence Agency in 1979. 


picture: Joongang Daily newspaper

1980s TEAR GAS

One of my adult students told me that when he was about 12, he and his friends found some kind of tear gas bomb or canister thing in his school playground in Seoul. His friend picked it up. And as they stood there inspecting it, they got tear gassed… He thought he was going to die from the pain as tears streamed down his face! (The worst thing I experienced at my junior school was someone bringing in a stink bomb from a joke shop in French class – nobody cried when we had to evacuate the room though…)

Tear gas was used a lot at pro-democracy marches.

In the 80s many students took part in marches against the authoritarian leadership of President Cheon Do Han.  One lady told me about her experience at one of these marches. She was a student at a woman’s university at the time she and her friends had come to school in their usual outfits of skirt suits and high heels before deciding to join the protest. But they knew that protesting could be dangerous and they wouldn’t be able to run away in high heels. So before they joined the protest they went to a nearby shoe shop that sold sports shoes.

The shoe shop was packed with other young women with the same problem. They didn’t want to carry their high heels with them on the march so the shop owner let them all put their shoes in shoe boxes to collect later from the shop. The young women wrote their names on the boxes which were piled up up to the ceiling along the walls.

Sure enough when the march began police tear gassed the protestors. The leaders of the protest at the front had banners and wore masks. But students behind them who were not wearing masks could only clasp their eyes in agony and run away in their new training shoes.


protestors at Gwanghwamun Nov 2016 picture: Joongang Daily Newspaper


At the end of last year, demonstrations in Gwanghwamun demanding that Park Geum Hye step down were peaceful. People who attended said there was even a kind of festival atmosphere with street stalls set up selling tasty snacks from donuts to spicy squid on a stick. People were not afraid to take their children with them to the protest despite the packed stations and streets where a 10 minute walking distance could take an hour. One family told me they spent 3 hours walking the distance of one subway station.

I was in Gwanghwamun the weekend after government voted to impeach the president. Lots of people were out and about. The street stalls were still selling food and candles. A couple of old men were enjoying some outdoor karaoke in the street – with microphones and a karaoke box and everything. A huge screen with comedians making jokes about Park Geun Hye was still playing at 10pm although most people had gone home by then.

It was a time for people to get together and vent their frustration. The Park Geun Hye scandal has caused shock and disbelief but it has also made people more interested in politics again. And the protests have shown how different Korea is today compared to 30 years ago.

2 thoughts on “What has changed over 30 years of democracy in Korea?

  • January 12, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks for the update. Ive seen photos of this lady in the newspaper quite often these days, now I know why :s

    • January 22, 2017 at 4:45 pm

      Yes, she’s infamous in Korea!

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