Since the partition of the Korean peninsula in 1945, the political development of the southern part of Korea has followed a democratic-authoritarian cycle, which has produced six republics to date. When American troops entered the southern region after the surrender of Japanese armed forces, Korea was a society with no experience of the institutions and organizations of a representative democracy. The history of the Korean electoral system goes back to 1948. Since then there has been universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage.
The first step in the process of South Korea’s independence was the decision of the United States Military Government in Korea to establish a separate Korean state south of the thirty-seventh parallel. A draft constitution was elaborated by a parliament (National Assembly) which had been directly elected in May 1948. This National Assembly in turn elected Syngman Rhee (李承晩, bio in Wiki countrystudies.us) to the presidential office.
The Republic of Korea eventually became independent on 15 August 1948. The vast majority of South Korean citizens had no understanding of the system of political representation and democratic institutions. A truly national party system did not exist.
In the new presidential form of government Rhee acted both as head of state and head of government, with a vice-president at his side. Yet after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Rhee gradually consolidated his one-man rule.
The 1952 parliamentary elections brought the National Assembly under the control of Rhee’s supporters. The subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections of the 1950s were subject to extensive vote-buying, abuse of electoral rules and fraud.
As a result of his government’s failure economically, Rhee saw himself increasingly deprived of both domestic and foreign support. By March 1960 he had to resort to illegal mechanisms to be re-elected, followed by large-scale demonstrations by both students and urban residents. Finally, Rhee went into exile in Hawaii on 26 April 1960.
The short-lived Second Republic followed. On 10 June 1960, a new constitution was passed, which provided for a bicameral parliament. The new parliament was elected three weeks later. Chang Myon (bio AsiaSource), a member of the former main opposition Democratic Party (DP), became Prime Minister on 19 August 1960.
However, due to internal turmoil, widespread corruption in the state administration and Chang Myon’s announcement that he intended to cut the defence budget, several factions of the military were reluctant to support the new democratic regime. On 16 May 1961, a junta, known as the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR), led by General Park Chung-hee (朴正熙, bio Wiki MSN Encarta) took over power.
A new constitution was approved by a referendum on 17 December 1962, and the presidential system was restored. After free and more or less fair elections Park became president in October 1963. The elections of 1967 gave him another term in office, and the constitution was amended in 1969 to provide for the possibility of a third presidential term.
In the 1971 presidential elections, Park prevailed against the candidate of the oppositional National Democratic Party (NDP), Kim Dae-jung (金大中, bio Nobel Wiki), albeit only through massive fraud. In October 1972, Park suspended the constitution and declared martial law.
Legitimized by a pseudo-democratic referendum, the notorious Yushin (Revitalization) Constitution was enacted. Park was confirmed as president twice more (1973 and 1978) by an electoral committee known as the National Conference for Unification. On 26 October 1979, he was assassinated by Kim Jai-kyu (金載圭, bio Wiki Britannica), the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
A new military regime led by General Chun Doo-hwan (全斗煥, bio Wiki Encyclopedia)emerged. The new junta (Special Committee for National Security Measures) declared martial law, dissolved the National Assembly and banned all political parties.
Finally, with the approval by referendum of a new constitution in October 1980, the Fifth Republic was institutionalized. It meant more or less the continuation of disguised military rule.