The Lingering Shadow of Militarism on South Korea


It has been three and a half decades since South Korea made its historic transition to democracy and its leaders vowed never to let the military take over the reins of governance ever again. While much water has flown down the bridge since then, the shadow of Militarism of the yester years continues to linger.

The Era of Militarism

South Korea’s post colonial political history has been divided into Six Republics, each marked by a major Constitutional amendment.

The Synghman Rhee regime, which marked the First Republic (1948-1960), was highly notorious for its undemocratic governance. While the Civil society was effectively repressed, Rhee’s Liberal Party dominated all aspects of the Political Society in a “quasi-Leninist” fashion. Everything- from police and military to the economy- was kept under firm control as the Party penetrated all State institutions, weakening it in both functionality and essence.  The wealth chasm between the rich and poor also drastically increased. South Korea was largely regarded as not just the poorest but also a lawless “failed” country with a virtually non-existent government.

Anger brewed  over Rhee’s naked abuse of power leading to mass protests which resulted in the “April Revolution’‘ and Rhee had to flee to Hawaii. He was replaced by  South Korea’s first government with a Prime Minister, the Second Republic (April 1960-May 1961) led by Chang Myon but Chang was soon   overthrown by General Park Chung Hee  and a military junta ruled from the coup d’état of May 1961 (known as the “5.61 incident”) till the formation of the Third Republic (December 1963-1972) after which the ruling  military officers including General Park took off their uniforms and entered politics as civilian leaders.

As to pursue his commitment to uplift South Korea from excruciating poverty, Park Chung Hee ruled with an iron fist where all opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. While the economy grew phenomenally,  opposition continued to mount and Park responded by implementing the Yushin Constitution in 1972 marking the commencement of the Fourth Republic (1972-1979). Though the new Constitution emboldened Park by concentrating all powers in his hands while brutally suppressing dissent, opposition  grew to the extent that Park was assassinated by his own officer in 1979.

Social unrest grew beyond the control of the succeeding Choi Kyu hah’s government and the military which was eagerly waiting for an opportunity to move back into the political corridors found an excuse to intervene as happened following the December 12 coup (“12.12 incident”) when General Chun Doo Hwan took over power. Soon after, in 1980, Chun dissolved the National Assembly and appointed himself as the President, marking the advent of the Fifth Republic (1979-1987). While Park was ruthless, Chun’s oppressiveness knew no bounds as evident in the tragic Gwangju Massacre of 1980.

Transition to Democracy

A strong, nonviolent Civil society movement predominantly led by students in 1987 marked the historic transition to democracy in South Korea after nearly three decades of military rule, marking the advent of the Sixth Republic (1987-present). A new Constitution promising free and fair elections ensured that democracy would never be compromised with. Though the military has constrained itself to the barracks since 1987, the impact of its rule continues to be felt in all aspects of South Korean life.

The Shadow of the Gun

Politically, the military continues to remain the most important institution, if not the most developed, in South Korea, evident from the election of former military officer Roh Tae woo soon after the end of military rule.  His government was dominated by ex-military personnel who reserved important say in both policy making and implimentation. Today, the importance of the military is aggravated by the threat of a North Korean invasion, marked by heavy budgetary allocation.

This can be seen at the Constitutional level too. Article 39 (1) makes service in the military mandatory for all adult male citizens, circumvention of which does not receive popular favourable response.

The Sixth Republic inherited the democratic institutional weakness of the preceding quasi-civilian regimes. The political system’s excessive grant of power to the Executive vis à vis other institutions has been labelled by many as “Imperial Presidency“. The Presidents can, and have been, controlling the legislature or the National Assembly through an authoritarian party system. The Judiciary’s independence is too questionable since its appointees are nominated by the President. Moreover, the Congressional executive powers, the Prosecutor and the Board of Audit and Inspection which are supposed to scrutinise government acts, remain under the thumb of the President. The Prime Minister too is appointed by the President (though with the consent of the National Assembly, which too remains weak) and is known to follow his orders rather than checking his power. There exists no real system of checks and balances.

Following Park’s ruling style, South Korea continues to be a heavily centralised state where the national government led by the President enjoys enormous financial powers at the cost of local governments which has sustained imbalances in regional development. Calls for greater decentralisation and division of power have not led to any tangible results.

A weak opposition to the ruling party is another legacy which was immediately seen and must be understood as part of the formative stage of democratisation in South Korea. Even when the military receded from the political scene in 1987, the ruling party, Democratic Justice Party, won the elections because its candidate Roh Tae woo presented the only moderate alternative to the public among the two rival factions of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young sam. Hence, after decades of struggle yet another former military leader sat in the Blue House with just 36.6% of total votes.

The narrow ideological spectrum which places anti-Communism at the centre of political values continues to exist post the era of military dictatorship in the form of the National Security Law (NSL) even after repeated attempts at democratisation. The most fierce debate to amend the law came under Roh Moo Hyun’s government who saw it as an impediment to political expression and freedom of speech. The issue went to the Constitutional Court in 1990 where it was recognised that the NSL in its form is crucial to sustain liberal democracy in South Korea. Despite the progressives’ repeated attempts, anti-Communism remains a part of South Korean political life to the extent that even the most well meaning of Moon Jae-in’s welfare measures have been read by conservatives as ‘too radical’ and harmful to the safety of the nation. Communist leaning organisations remain banned while the ideology itself continues to be a taboo.

Associated with anti-Communism is the fear psychosis of North Korea that  continues to exist as a pretense to suppress all genuine challenges to the Executive’s authoritarianism as all voices which favour equality and structural reforms are seen as North Korean sympathisers.

Ethnic Nationalism and extreme groupism  lingers on as a legacy of the militarist past.  South Koreans view ethnic Koreans living abroad more favourably than foreigners living in Korea as many cases of racial discrimination show. Similarly, interracial marriages and progeny of such unions are not viewed favourably and are rather seen as a threat to cultural homogenity of the nation. It can be traced back to Park’s policies of inculcating a sense of ethno-cultural superiority among the Koreans.

Anti-Americanism is another legacy of the militarist period. Chae-bong Ham points to the presence of “two South Koreas” since democratisation- the Conservative trend who conform to the pro-US, anti-North Korea, monopoly capitalist tradition and the Progressives who seek to alter this view. Many progressive leaders like Kim Dae Jung not only witnessed US’ staunch support and indifference to atrocities inflicted by the military regimes but also saw it as the main reason behind the conflict with North Korea, a chasm which was both created and sustained by the US for its own interests during the Cold War. Progressives’  favourable political opinion came to be popularised where North Korea was seen both as a brother, an independent country which did not allow any interference or troops to be stationed on its terrain unlike South Korea under Conservatives, as well as a victim of US imperialism and Cold War politics.  Kim’s Sunshine Policy,which won him the Nobel Peace Prize, was a step in this regard. The issue of rape and assault of South Korean women by American soldiers during the initial phases post division, the 2002 Yangju Highway incident where two South Korean schoolgirls were killed by a US military vehicle and the 2008 US beef protests where thousands hit the streets to protest against the Government’s decision to reverse a ban on US beef imports are all events which underscore growing Anti-Americanism. In fact, it was by riding on the wave of anti-Americanism post the Yangju Highway incident  that Kim Dae Jung won the 2002 Presidential elections.

The ethos of militarism have been imbibed at several levels of South Korean society.

Park regime’s emphasis on maintaining a rigid patriarchal structure with fixed codes of masculinity and femininity which privileged men as the breadwinners and decision makers continues to exist, in ways so subtle that even progressive female participants of the pro-democracy movements against the military regime neither questioned the sexual division of labour within anti-regime students’ groups which priveleged men nor linked compulsory military service for young men or rise in sexual violence against women as linked to militarism. 

South Korean society remains deeply hierarchical and gendered where women face discrimination both at home and at the workplace. Seoul was placed 115th in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap report as well as 124th out of 149 countries in terms of economic participatory opportunities for women. Wage differences between men and women is another major issue with South Korea having the largest pay gap among OECD countries. In terms of the number of female ministers, South Korea has the third lowest percentage among OECD nations. Though the Moon government has been committed to raising the percentage of women in senior government positions to 10% and 20% in public company executives by 2022, women are largely seen as homemakers and are expected to leave their jobs for raising children, a trend which would be further reinforced in future considering the new President Yoon Seok-youl plans on dissolving Ministry of Gender Equality.

The same can be seen in Korean television dramas which fall prey to the “Cinderella Complex”, “Beauty and the Beast Complex” and what Collette Dowling describes as “women’s hidden fear of independence”. Shows like True Beauty (2020), Goblin (2016) and  My ID is Gangnam Beauty (2018) depict female characters as ‘damsels in distress’ who constantly require male leads to reassure and protect them. Others  such as Jugglers (2017), Hyde, Jekyll and Me (2015) and What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018) , to name a few, depict female characters as striving to change a careless, rude ‘beast’ into a caring and loving ‘prince’. 

The show Descendants of the Sun (2016), partially financed by the Ministry of National Defense and promoted by the President Park Geun-hye herself as a “remarkable contribution to tourism industry, patriotism and nationalism”, was seen by many as a way of soft power promotion and image correction of the military as the South Korean soldiers have not just been portrayed as extraordinarily brave but also humane. The innocent stylisation of the lead characters playing military officers speak nothing of its ugly past. One of the characters, in fact,is portrayed as being transformed from a lawless street fighter to a calm and responsible person once he joins the military.

One of the enduring and most remarkable legacies of the military regime is its phenomenal economic growth which continues to enhance Park’s popular  image as a nationalist and prudent leader. The development state of the Park Chung Hee era continues till date as the South Korean state heavily intervenes in a state guided capitalist economy. However, its ills can also be seen till date.

Unionisation of labour remains a contentious issue even under progressive regimes as there is always a threat of the demand of workers’ rights leaning further left which might compromise national security. The formation of the National Association of Managers and the Federation of Korean Industries under the Roh Tae woo’s administration, gave capitalists a united,interventionist power while disorganising the labour, ran in the same vein as the military regimes’ attempts at breaking workers’ solidarity.

As a 2015 case against Samsung Electronics for alleged union busting shows, Chaebols or family owned business conglomerates continue to remain equally repressive. Though Kim Dae Jung promised to reform Chaebols, his neoliberal policies in the wake of the ‘IMF crisis’ as a result of the organisation’s Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) turned out to further embolden them. The conservative government of Park Geun hye presented one of the most glaring cases of a Chaebol-State nexus which ultimately led to her impeachment from office.  Chaebols continue to exist in a symbiotic relationship with the State which protects them through favourable policies. Even the judiciary which is supposed to be a neutral organisation remains pro Chaebol through the famous “Three Five rule” where if found guilty, the businessmen are sentenced a minimum three year imprisonment term which is then delayed for the next five years, no matter what the crime and eventually annulled if he restraints from committing any other offense during the period. Chaebols are seen as the lead actors of both the past and future economic growth of South Korea.

Though no attempts have been made for the military to gain centrestage since 1987, the lingering shadow of the militarist past presents both a challenge for South Koreans to further the ideals of democracy and wash away the stains of the past and a case study for students of politics to understand the transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in post colonial societies.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.


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