If At First You Don't Succeed: The Puzzle of South Korea's Democratic Transition

In October 1979, the conditions were ripe for a transition to democracy in South Korea, also known as the Republic of Korea (ROK). After two decades of stunning economic growth, the plunge toward recession had begun. Labor unions launched a wave of strikes and demonstrations. Korean students also filled the streets in protest, their numbers swollen by the expansion of the universities during decades of rapid growth. South Korean churches also lent their support to the movement. Finally, the workers, students and clergymen were joined by the parliamentary opposition, which had maintained a certain prestige in spite of its negligible power under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee. Although the United States customarily favored stability in South Korea, the Carter administration resented the Park dictatorship, both because of its human rights violations and its apparent efforts to bribe American legislators. Under pressure, the Park dictatorship found itself beset by internal divisions, with hard-liners calling for the use of force and soft-liners advocating a measure of compromise with the protesters. This division culminated in the assassination of Park by his own intelligence chief. The reins of power then passed to a provisional government that committed itself to democratic elections and the protection of civil liberties. Yet just six months later, Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, a protégé of Park, violently consolidated his control of the government, ushering in another seven years of dictatorship.