National Museum Of Korean Contemporary History

Special Exhibition

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Online exhibition

Votes and Voices
Special Exhibition for the 30th Anniversary of the 1987 Korean Democratization Votes and Voices The Advance toward Democracy in Korea

On View : May 25 - Seplember 30, 2017

Exhibition Locationy :
Fourth and Fifth Floor Exhibit Space
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

Co - hosted by :
National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Prologue - The Ceaseless Advance toward Democracy


The constitution of the Republic of Korea (ROK) adopted in 1948 declared that "the Republic of Korea is democratic republic." The constitution proclaimed to the world that for the first time in history, a modern state founded upon the principle popular sovereignty had been founded on the Korean peninsula. However, it would take decades of strife before the ROK would become a full democracy.

The people of the Republic of Korea continued to express their will through the ballot box even under authoritarianism, and they finally succeeded in creation a democratic system as a result of the Democratic Uprising of June 1987 and the declaration of 29 June 1987 that followed. Subsequently, the ROK has transitioned to being a full-floedged democracy.

This exhibition aims to show how the Republic of Korea became a democracy. It commemorates the 30th anniversary of the ROK's democratization. As can be seen from path to democracy taken by the Korean people, democracy did not come naturally, it came amidst seismic historical events.

Democracy was born in the Acropolis of Ancient Greece, but the people of the world have to wait until the modern era before they could, though their own blood, sweat and tears, enjoy the full blossom of democracy. the Korean path democracy was no different. Free and fair elections, the separation of powes, and the rights of the citize are not just given. Democratic valuse and institutions were only built through the many sacrifices of citizens and civic leaders. continue in South Korea.
The Establishment of a Democratic Republic, but an Unsettled Democracy
On 15 August 1948, the Republic of Korea was declared a democratic republic. This new democratic state was born at the end of a long endurance. After the liberation from Japanese colonial rule, ROK immediately divided into Soviet and US occupation zones like /East and West Gemany, and intense ideological conflict between left and right ensued. It was through general elections, mandated by UN resolution, that democracy was born. The constitution of the Republic of Korea, adopted as a result of a general election, explicitly stated that the ROK is a democratic republic, with sovereignty being in the hands of the people, basic rights guaranteed, and the right to private property protected.

However, this democratic republic, born amidst great popular hope, was built upon fragile foundations. The ROK's first president, Syngman Rhee, clung to power for three terms, violating basic electoral principles, After seizing power in a 1961 military coup, Park Chung Hee instituted the Yushin authoritarian political system in 1972 that violated fundamental principles of liberal democracy like the separation of powers of competitive elections. This was met with resistances and struggle aimed at recovering democracy, and as a result, dictators and authoritarian politica systems repeatedly collapsed.

It is also important to remember that neither the electoral system, nor political parties were ever fomally banned, even amids such tumult. Even while having questionable legitimacy and being blighted by fraud, the cyclical process of democracy continued to find its expression in elections for the National Assembly. Thus, Koreans learned how the instiutions and rules of democratic politics worked. This was the basis for the historical momentum which ultimately led to the 1987 Korean democratization and its consolidation that followed.
Civic Resistance and the Great Compromise
In the 1980s, many changes occurred that were necessary in the country's democratization. Although, another military coup took place in 1979, continued economic development ensured that the middle class continued to grow, and education about democracy spread across society. In addition, preparations for the 1988 Seoul Olympics meant preparing the country for opening th the international community, and thus the South Korean political system gradually began to soften. Thus, rather than taking a radical road of resistance, a broad-based popular movenent for democracy emerged.

From 1986, students, opposition activists, and lead opposition politicians Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung began the movement to introduce a directly elected presidency. Chum Doo-hwan, the president at the time, tried to stop them, but his attempts to put down this movement actually precipitated the June 1987 Democracy Movement. An unstoppable democratizing wave had begun. the death of the student Lee Han-yeol, who was struck by a tear gas grenade in June 1987, was a symbol, while the death of the Student Park Jong-cheol tortured in January 1987 was a spark. The 'necktie brigades'-white collar workers started to join protests. They joined the chants demanding 'amend the constituion, down with dictatorship'. Again a wave of resistance threatened bloodshed. Political and religious leaders involved did everything to stop violent repression, and finally the military government chose to compromise.

In 1987, Roh Tae-woo was then head of the Ruling Party. He declared on 29 June 1987 that he would accept and amendment to the constitution mandating a direct presidential election system. Through compromise butween ruling and opposition partises, the constitution was amended and put to a referendum, where it was duly approved by a large majority of the people. Consequently, South Korea had a direct presidential election system again in 16 years, and the dark cloud of authoritarianism lifted, as South Korean society took its first steps toward better democracy.
Making Democracy a Reality
In 1987, the Sixth Republic of Korea was created by the amendment of the constitution and the subsequent direct election of the President. Since then, there have six direct presidential elections as of 2017. Each election has been followed by a peaceful transfer of power. Efforts to make a better democracy have taken place across South Korean society on a variety of forms. President Roh Tae-woo sought to rid the country's political culture of what he saw as authoritarian elements, while Proesident Kim Young-sam who followed him, took steps to completely prevent the military from intervening in politics. Public hearings were revived by the National Assembly, and the corruption of the Fifth Republic was investigated. What's more, regional government was restored, and power decentralized.

The growth of Korean democracy was made possible by a arowing civil society, and the development of civil society conversely helped democracy mature. The mass workers protests that followed the June Democratic Uprising presaged the emergence of labor unions as major, now legalized social force. Civil society monitored politicians, and sought to advance a range of agendas like reform of the financial system, elimination of political corruption, protection of the environment and human rights. It thus influenced policy formulation and implementation. After 2000, with the spread of new media, Korean society has witnessed further changes in political culture. Electronic democracy, in which individuasls utilize digital networks to find and discuss information, organize and participate, is changing the way representative government works. Elites can no longer monopolize information, and the power of the people, connected through networks, has become readily apparent. Previously non-political groups have become involved in politics, voice their ideas and concerns, and often enjoy the experience.

Epilogue - Popular Protest and the Rule of Law


The year 2017 marks the 30 year anniversary of ROK's democratization. The scenery from last thirty years shows overlapping images of people chanting in squares across the country and queuing quietly to vote in the ballet box. It was in city squares that the Korean People participated in the forging of a legal order, and it was the legal order that gave civic life to the city square. The city square of today is rather a place for individuals to meet and express ideas freely for themselves.

The movement that engulfed ROK in the last six months marks a new chapter of Korea's democratic history. Citizens carried candlelight or South Korean flags when they went to city squares across the country for/against impeachment and reaffirmed the constitutional order when they went to vote in the election for president. Long may the march to a better democracy continue in South Korea. tize are not just given. Democratic valuse and institutions were only built through the many sacrifices of citizens and civic leaders. continue in South Korea.