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Eureka: Modern South Korean presidential history
by Jay Gutman
2018-09-09 08:36:57
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A brief history of the South Korean presidency.

Syngman Rhee: preventing a second Korean war

Syngman Rhee was a born again Christian, fervent anti-Communist, and some could argue, the father of the Republic of Korea. Many historians agree that he played a determining in preventing South Korea from falling into Communist hands.

koreapresid01_400When he led the creation of the Republic of Korea on August 15, 1948 everything had to be built in Korea. There was no administration to speak of, no real industry to speak of and the country was largely rural and agrarian. While Rhee was a seasoned diplomat and fared well with foreign powers, mainly the United States, he could not read or write Korean or Chinese characters, which made communication with his administration complicated.

After the Korean war ended in 1953, South Korea had to be completely rebuilt. Farmers lost their land and what little industry existed had been destroyed. While he was a seasoned political scientist and diplomat, he had little or no knowledge of the economy. That meant he relied heavily on his diplomatic skills to get foreign and military aid, but had no concrete plans to rebuild the economy. That cost him his job, as he was ousted in 1960.

Park Chung Hee: economic growth and investing in education

In 1961, Park Chung Hee took the presidency over after his military regiment led a coup on May 16, 1961. Park had seen the Japanese recovery of the 1950s and the West German economic recovery of the 1950s, and while he had little firsthand knowledge of the economy, he asked the West Germans for the recovery formula.

He hired German engineers to build roads, ports, and an industrial base, and followed the Japanese model of semi-planned industrial growth, bought used Japanese textile mill machines and established a textile-based economy. He also secured a loan to build a steel mill, which would lead to Korea's car, construction and manufacturing industry.

Park also built schools and modernized farms, and made sure farms had schools, electricity and other modern facilities. The literacy rate shot up to almost 100%. But Park also repressed anyone who dared criticize the authoritarian regime, complained about authoritarianism in the country, or those who picketed for higher wages or better work conditions. As picketers were jailed, factory workers, who worked long hours for low wages, started organizing spontaneous riots. As he continuously repressed riots, Park was eventually assassinated, during a dinner with the chief of his spy agency because of disagreements on how to repress the riots. The spy agency chief was from an industrial town that was rioting, and took it personally when the president allegedly told him to go ahead and repress the riot in his hometown. 

Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo: a leisure society to counter student protest movements

While factory workers were getting somewhat better wages and working conditions (often traded higher wages for longer working hours) Park's emphasis on education meant that the student population exploded. Chun Doo Hwan was another general who came to power during a coup in 1980 and made it clear that he would severely repress riots or demonstrations.

As student demonstrations were repressed, there were more student demonstrations, and the students had organized and even trained to endure torture, solitary confinement, and keeping silent during police interrogations. Chun Doo Hwan eventually became the “victim” of his own trick, as he won the organization of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games and the world was watching Seoul prepare for the Olympic Games. Students took advantage of the world watching to demonstrate, and as world news had picked up on student demonstrations, democratic elections were finally going to be held in 1987.

Roh Tae Woo, Chun Doo Hwan's best friend, was democratically elected president, taking advantage of a divided opposition at the presidential election. Both Chun and Roh's legacy is one of authoritarianism but also one of building a leisure society. The curfew was lifted, pubs sprang up everywhere, football and baseball leagues were set up, popular musicians and television programs were shown on television, and the cinema industry boomed. The restaurant scene became colorful, and parks, hotels, beaches and resorts started springing up everywhere. While that distracted some students, other students kept demonstrating for more democracy. During the 1990s, that generation of demonstrators were known as the 386 generation, or 30 year olds who demonstrated in the 1980s and who were born in poverty in the 1960s. They would go on to elect left-leaning candidates in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Kim Young Sam: Globalization, adapting the economy to global markets

When Kim Young Sam was elected in 1992, many argued that he was the first “democrat” to be elected president. While Korean exports kept going up, foreigners who tried to invest in Korea found an anomaly. Despite being an industrial powerhouse, Korea until 1992 was still ruled by a military elite, still had an old-fashioned banking system, and corruption was widespread. Furthermore, very few Koreans spoke any foreign language, Korean language courses were lackluster, and the legal system was in Chinese characters and could not be understood by most Koreans.

Kim Young Sam launched the “segyehwa” or globalization policy where he promised to train Koreans to learn foreign languages (mainly English) while training foreign-born people to study Korean. He also banned all military staff, any former military officer from entering politics, modernized the banking system, and put those who engaged in the ugly forms of corruption in prison. He also reformed the legal system.

Kim's legacy? The banking system reform made the economy collapse during the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Too many people had taken too many loans that they could not repay.

Kim Dae Jung: economic recovery and reconciling the North and the South

Up until 2000, the two Koreas were like a couple who slept in separate rooms and never talked to each other. Talking to each other was considered a crime by both country, treason at that. There were occasional terrorist attacks by the North in the 1980s and early 1990s. But when the Asian financial crisis coupled with a severe famine hit North Korea starting from 1994, North Korea eventually dialed the phone and begged the South for help.

Kim Dae Jung had a lot on his plate, as South Korea took a massive loan from the IMF that it had to repay. Korean conglomerates, which was a system set up in the 1970s, were restructured. In the past, Samsung, LG and Hyundai sold pretty much everything. Textile, food, cars, phones, construction, schools, entertainment, name any business and they had it. Kim Dae Jung ordered each conglomerate (there were about 50 of them like Samsung and LG) to pick three things and focus on those three things. Samsung picked electronics and construction, LG electronics and chemicals, Hyundai cars and construction. This is why you won't find Hyundai televisions or smartphones.

As for North Korea, Kim Dae Jung heard their cry for help and organized a summit with the North. A series of agreements were signed, for which Kim Dae Jung won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Roh Moo Hyun: Fighting corruption wherever it is

Kim Dae Jung left the presidency on a high note. Korea was co-host of the football world cup, and finished in fourth place, beating Portugal, Italy and Spain. The IMF loan had been completely repaid, and the conglomerates survived.

When Roh Moo Hyun was elected in 2002, he was known as a straight shooter. No one could beat him at debates, as he was always polite, calm, but had the rare ability of making long speeches without looking at notes. Now we in the West have Toastmasters and learn how to improvise our speeches, but in South Korea, speech improvisation is something almost unheard of.

In 2002, South Korea had a reality few Koreans ignored. If you had money, you could bribe your way through life's difficulties. You could buy public servants. You could buy the National Assembly so they change laws in your favor. You could buy military draft officials so your sons don't serve in the military. You could buy politicians and other businesses for business deals. You could buy your nephews a job at the local administration or at the local university, even when they had zero qualifications. More importantly, you could have an attitude about having money and doing what you want with it.

Roh Moo Hyun issued decree after decree making any abuse of power illegal. You could no longer buy draft officers to get your sons out of the military. You could no longer buy your daughter a job at the local administration. If you were caught doing that, you would be sent straight to prison. This eventually led Roh to commit suicide, as his wife allegedly took bribes in exchange for giving construction companies markets. When Roh committed suicide, the allegations were dropped.

Lee Myung Bak: Trying to become a world leader

When Lee Myung Bak was elected president, he was mainly elected because North Korea had tested a nuclear bomb in 2006, and that meant South Korea's aid to the North was no longer useful. Also, there were complaints that Roh Moo Hyun had regulated business so much there was no room for business to breathe.

Lee Myung Bak was elected on promises that he would make South Korea great. Not great again, but great for the first time. Whether he succeeded or not could be debated for hours, days, perhaps weeks. But he brought Gangnam style. He made K-pop great. He made Korean cinema great. He organized several international forums. Obama visited Seoul more than any other capital city outside Washington DC. Leaders flocked to South Korea.

But small business was also collapsing like it never did. K-pop stars appeared and disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Under Lee Myung Bak, Korea became one of those countries where even winning the lottery won't guarantee you much of anything, except perhaps for a lousy apartment in a not-so-posh neighborhood. Companies were struggling to make profits.

Lee Myung Bak's main legacy is while until 2007 Korea tended to compete with Japan for high-quality, hi-tech products, competition trends reversed. Now Korea found itself competing with not-so-high quality, low-tech products from China. Korea missed out on the software revolution, barely made the cut in the smartphone revolution, its automobile industry struggled to stay afloat but survived, its once glorious shipbuilding industry was on the verge of collapse, construction and manufacturing basically collapsed, and Korea made a somewhat failed entry in the global retail business.

Park Geun Hye: Introducing a welfare state and a society that focuses on happiness

If anything, Park Geun Hye, the daughter of Park Chung Hee, was elected to make Korea great again, great like her father made it great. Koreans wanted double-digit growth, wanted ten percent growth a year, like during her father's time. More importantly, Koreans could not tell the difference between her and her father, and many felt like they had elected her father again.

But Park was not her father. She wanted to make Korea a happy place to live, and to set up a welfare state in South Korea. While some may say money doesn't buy happiness, Koreans wanted money, not happiness. Park's happiness strategy was made to clear some of the anxiety resulting in the numerous business failures, but when Koreans realized Park had no plans for economic growth, they soon called her a lame duck.

Park retreated in her palace never to be seen. She rarely gave speeches, never gave a single interview, and the few times she answered journalist questions she made sure journalists had sent the questions beforehand, after which she read her answers. With no economic recovery plan in sight, the economy showing signs of weakness, Park fell in disgrace, and became the first Korean president to be impeached.

Moon Jae In: Jobs at all costs, trade wars and reconciling with the North

In times when businesses collapse one after the other, Moon Jae In was elected with the promise to bring back jobs and to bring higher income. He raised the minimum wage, prompting many small businesses to actually dismiss or fire what little staff they had.

One hot potato Moon had to deal with were the trade wars. Up until then Korea tended to be a net exporter, but in 2016 and 2017 many countries started demanding that trade with South Korea be reciprocal. Korean electronics, semi-conductors and cars are what is left of the Korean economy. Unfortunately those sectors face harsh competition from a lot of countries now.

But as they say, security first. Moon Jae In has somewhat reconciled South Korea with North Korea, and they say a peace treaty may be on the tables. While Moon Jae In may take home the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to sign a peace treaty with North Korea, South Koreans are expecting their president to think outside the box to revive South Korea's economy. Moon is facing the triple whammy of high household debt, stagflation and job loss. I hope he's not counting the days until his term ends.

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