How Korean War Continues to Shape South Korean Politics

The Korean War (1950-53) which marked North Korea’s unilateral attempt to reunify the Korean peninsula by absorbing South Korea had far reaching implications for both Pyongyang and Seoul. While up North it led to the formation of a security state dominated by the personality cult of the Kim family, it shaped political forces down South in several ways which continue to be felt even seven decades after the guns have silenced. 

Military Boots in the Blue House

The economic devastation which followed the Korean War was directly responsible for the May 1961 coup led by Park Chung Hee, unleashing three decades of quasi civilian military rule. 

Apart from developing a wafer thin educated workforce and two rounds of land reforms, the Rhee government of the First Republic (1948-1960) brought nothing but chaos and gross corruption as Japanese industries of the Colonial era were sold at throwaway prices to the erstwhile Yangban elite who had collaborated first with the Japanese regime and then with Rhee. The wealth chasm between the rich and poor drastically increased. South Korea was largely regarded as not just the poorest but also a lawless “failed” country with a virtually non-existent government.  Moreover, as the South Korean military was not a signatory to the Panmunjom armistice  signed in 1953 which led to the ceasefire, North Korea refuses to consider Seoul a party to any multilateral negotiations regarding reunification and continues to claim itself as the sole legitimate government of the Korean Peninsula.

The pent up anger among South Koreans over brute force used by the corrupt  Rhee regime  erupted in the form of the April Revolution of 1960 which saw Rhee fleeing the country. Chang Myon’s Second Republic (April 1960- May 1961) failed to harmonise the chaotic conditions which ultimately resulted in the coup that brought Park to power. 

The War further intensified the security situation in South Korea. Police and military forces rapidly increased as a direct consequence of the War, sharpened by the possibility of another invasion, aiding the successive quasi civilian military regime to take root.  Though the military has moved back to the barracks with no political interference since the establishment of the  Sixth Republic (1987-Present),a soft spot for the institution continues to dominate the broader public sphere  through both valorisation of militarist virtues and mandatory military conscription, evading which is not received favorably. 

Gendered Impact

The War also had widespread gendered  socio economic and political consequences. Regimes since Park Chung Hee privileged a militarised masculinity where men were privileged as they were expected to both defend the nation through military service and to contribute in nation building as diligent workers. Such an  ideology recrafted and intensified the prevalent Confucian patriarchy and gender morality prevalent in Korean society as women were primarily viewed as ‘dutiful daughters, obedient wives and wise mothers’ who were expected to readily assist the men in their economic and military duties. Even in the democratic movement that developed against the military regime, women were not considered equal participants and their duty was restricted to non-combatant, assisting roles to men who led the protests. Women’s workforce participation still remains low in South Korea, as highlighted by the Gender Gap Report.

The “Enemy” up North

The most significant consequence of the War was the construction of a fear psychosis, a constant threat of another invasion from the North which, both real and imagined, was sustained by all regimes for much of South Korea’s political history.

Such an idea shaped North Korea as  “the enemy” which, facilitated by many cases of kidnapping, espionage and border aggression, worsened bilateral ties.

A direct implication of this has been the narrow ideological latitude in South Korean politics as people with Communist leanings, which stood banned by the National Security Law  of 1948, were brutally attacked.

The Rhee regime carried out mass arrests on the mere suspicion of being sympathetic to Communism or North Korea, Park Chung Hee’s arrest being a glaring case of this abuse of power. This further increased under Park and Chun regimes.  Communism is still banned and remains a taboo due to which the political ideological continuum is restricted from far-right conservatism to liberal progressivism. Under the National Security Law, South Koreans are banned from publicly praising the North Korean regime. The National Security Law however has remained controversial.

In 2004, the Uri Party tried to annul the  Law but faced staunch opposition from the ultraconservative Grand National Party. The Supreme Court too supported the Law in a 2015 judgment against the United Progressive Party leader Lee Seok-ki. Any political leader who talks of bringing welfare policies or mending relations with North Korea is branded a ‘Communist’ and ‘North Korean sympathiser’ by the Conservatives. 

The Eclipse of Democracy

The security dilemma prevalent after the Korean War strengthened the Executive at the cost of all other institutions such as the Legislature and the Judiciary, whose autonomy remained only in ink.

While such a  development had already started under the early days of  the First Republic as Rhee’s Liberal Party dominated every aspect of the Political society-from appointments to accountability- in a “quasi leninist” fashion, rendering formal institutions of governance threadbare, the successive military dictatorships of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan further sabotaged and tweaked democratic institutions to suit their needs. Though unpopular, Rhee still possessed a political charisma which Park lacked. In order to mend this, Park ruled first in the Third Republic (1963-1972) through sham democracy where his own Democratic Republican Party dominated other shell opposition parties and then broke this façade himself by annulling all political institutions other than the Executive through the Yushin Constitution of 1972. Chun too resorted to the technique of shielding behind a sham democracy through his Democratic Justice Party. Post democratisation in 1987, the Constitution continues to favour the Executive through extensive powers of appointment, veto,etc., making the South Korean President the second most powerful leader in Asia.

Executive dominance and sham political  parties not just resulted in the formation of an authoritarian party system but also rendered opposition political parties extremely weak. In the name of security threat, old politicians were banned from political activity which led to the virtual absence of seasoned Career politicians in South Korea till date. This political immaturity is also visible in frequent cases of violence in the legislature or rushing through bills by circumventing the procedure.

Economic Blues

The devastation of the Korean War pushed Seoul behind Pyongyang which possessed a well performing centralised welfare economy, robbing it of its legitimacy to lay claims as the sole representative government of the Korean Peninsula. Economically catching up to the North thus became necessary not just to restore legitimacy but also as a security assurance.

To achieve this as quickly as possible, Park’s Developmental state model  exclusively focused on raising a strong state supported capitalist class called Chaebols who soon developed monopoly networks and thriving on state concessions, began to yield enormous political influence by funding elections. While the rich capitalist class received a whole hearted support, the State  turned a blind eye towards the labouring poor. This policy continued even after democratisation as evident in President Roh Tae Woo’s  organisation of capitalists into a management federation, giving them enormous powers in dispersing labour disputes while unionisation of the working class was severely restricted.

Suppression of Labour demands was another characteristic of the post War Developmental state as they were seen as possessing communist tendencies and sympathies towards Pyongyang. The end of the 1960s exposed the weakness of the economy as growth slowed and  many businesses failed. Massive bailouts to save the faltering Chaebols  resulted in wage freezing as well as delay in payments which sparked several atomised protests. Tensions intensified beyond control when on November 13, 1970, a young worker called Chun Tai Il immolated himself after his requests to the government to intervene in cases of circumvention of labour laws fell on deaf ears. This proved to be a turning point in the labour movement as several students, intellectuals and churches, emotionally jolted by the incident, joined forces to integrate the labour movement with their own political struggle for democracy. The State responded with brutal suppression and managed to maintain the authoritarian political structure.

The capitalist nature of the Developmental state remains entrenched to the extent that even politicians with welfarist policies like Kim Dae Jung and Moon Jae-in have failed to implement them which have resulted in continued labour suppression. A huge chunk of the population including state institutions revere Chaebols as the face of South Korea’s remarkable economic rise which is often dubbed as the ‘Miracle on the Han river’ and believe that they would play an important role in recovering the economy.

South Korea’s performance in terms of welfare safety nets and labour reforms continues to be  unsatisfactory.

One Race, One Nation

Ethnic Nationalism and extreme groupism developed by the Park regime to mould South Koreans with conflicting interests into a single entity is another consequence of the War.  The state building process post division did not just demand  time but also loyalty to the regime. In order to prevent the populace from being attracted by the economic development up North, Park flared race and community centric  ultranationalism focusing on Korea being a single race nation, an ideology which specifically targeted primary education as children with their malleable personalities can be easily moulded.

As a result, South Koreans view ethnic Koreans living abroad more favourably than foreigners living in Korea as many cases of racial discrimination show. For instance, both South Koreans as well as the government were deeply ashamed of Korean-American Cho Seung hui’s involvement in the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre so much so that South Korean President Roh Moo hyun apologised for the incident though it was widely viewed as an individual assault, nowhere linked to his Korean ethnicity.

Interracial marriages and progeny of such unions are not viewed favourably and are rather seen as a threat to cultural homogenity of the nation. While the South Korean society has become more diverse with an increase in the practice of marrying  foreigners, foreign wives of Korean men are expected and even forced by mothers-in-law to assimilate into Korean culture and learn the language.

Foreign Relations

While South Korean foreign policy had been staunchly pro-United States since its inception as an independent nation in 1948, the Korean War further allied Seoul to Washington owing to security concerns. Washington too realised the potency of the  Communist nexus of China and North Korea and the danger it could pose to its interests in the Northeast Asian region and hence, redefined its policy to extend unprecedented support to allies in the Asia-Pacific region such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan which included mutual military support and bringing them under the American nuclear umbrella.

Another consequence of the War on the foreign policy front was the deterioration of relations with China which fought beside Pyongyang. Allied with Washington, Seoul came to see Beijing and its claim of being as close to Pyongyang as “lips” are to “teeth” as a major security concern. China too was concerned about South Korea’s proximity to the United States and Mao Zedong often described Synghman Rhee as a ”lackey” of US imperialism. Formal diplomatic ties between the two were established as late as  1992 as a part of South Korean President Roh Tae Woo’s Nordpolitik with the aim of befriending Pyongyang’s socialist allies. Relations however continue to be strained.

While Liberal and Progressive politicians such as former President Moon Jae-in have tried to balance relations with Washington and Beijing and craft an independent course for Seoul, South Korea still remains closely tied to the United States.

Largely considered a ‘forgotten war‘ for the little international traction that it garnered vis à vis the Second World War and the Vietnam War; on the Korean Peninsula, not just the memories of the Korean War are kept alive through its continuation in principle but its consequences are lived and experienced through South Korea’s political dynamics which it deeply impacted.

[Photo by Divided Families Foundation]

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India. 

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