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Democracy in Revolution: The History of America and Korea

Democracy – n. a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system. (dictionary.com)

Democracy has spread throughout the world and affected change in many nation states. The U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1788, providing the world with the first institution of modern democracy. The U.S. had thrived under its democratic system for over two centuries. The Republic of Korea is also a democratic nation, but democracy is relatively new compared to its Western counterpart. Once freed from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, the Republic of Korea was established as a democracy in 1948.

We will take a look at the history of democracy in the U.S. and South Korea, and how it affected their culture.



The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, signaling the American colonies’ freedom from British rule. What many people don’t realize is that the Declaration of Independence didn’t institute the democracy that America enjoys today. That would be the Constitution, which was ratified in 1788, twelve years after the Declaration. The American Constitution, with a few amendments here and there, lasted for over 200 years, and it is the foundation upon which democracy stands in the U.S.

The signing of the Declaration of Independence

The signing of the Declaration of Independence

However, though America was a democracy, its past certainly raises questions about how well it upheld the institution. Keeping slaves was commonplace and Southern states wanted to continue using these laborers for their profits.
The Emancipation Proclamation led to the eventual abolishment of slavery, but it brings up questions about the democracy that America’s Founding Fathers had in mind. Because American democracy was led by majority rule, the slavery issue was the forefront to a heated debate and one of the leading causes of the rift between the North and the South.
On one hand, if the majority of the people wanted to continue using slaves, did that mean it would be unconstitutional to go against the public will? On the other hand, wasn’t slavery itself a tyranny against the oppressed? Even after the abolishment of slavery, in 1865, the prejudice against African Americans lasted more than a hundred years.

African Americans suffered great discrimination for a long time

African Americans suffered great discrimination for a long time

Not until 1965 were African Americans finally free from voting discrimination. Democracy, as stated above, is an institution that gives its people the power to exercise their constitutional rights. But it wasn’t until only 49 years ago that every American citizen could equally take part in democracy’s biggest medium: voting.


The government regimes in Korea can be broken down into six republics, each signaling a period of time.

– The First Republic (1948-1960) was under Rhee Syngman’s rule. He used his executive powers to keep himself in power and rid his political oppositions. He pushed amendments to the Constitution that would allow him to serve more than the eight-year presidential term limit. During elections, he would use military force to make sure he would be re-elected at the polls. In 1960, the April 19 Revolution, when college students and professors and civilians protested against Rhee’s dictatorship, forced Rhee to finally give up his presidential seat.

Korea's first president Rhee Syngman

Korea’s first president Rhee Syngman

– The Second Republic (1960-1961) was a truly democratic system in which the people had the freedom to practice their constitutional rights that they could not under the Rhee administration. However, the Second Republic only lasted a year because the government had trouble building an effective strategy to improve Korea’s economy along with other policies. In 1961, Major General Park Chung-hee staged a coup and usurped power.

– Park led the country in its Third Republic (1963-1972). He was a military dictator, and anyone that challenged his authority was labeled a traitor and quickly disposed. Like Rhee, Park also forced an amendment to the constitution that would allow him a third term in office. He also declared martial law and dissolved the National Assembly, replacing it with a parliamentary system.

Park Chung-hee

Park Chung-hee

– The Fourth Republic 1972-1979) started with the Yushin Constitution, which gave Park control over the parliament and the prospect of forever being the president. However, in 1979, he was assassinated, bringing his 18-year military rule to an end.

– The Fifth Republic (1979-1987) saw Chun Doo-hwan come into power. He, too, used his military power to take control of the executive power. Through political manipulation and authoritarian power, he got himself elected as president. After mass protests, his presidential term ended in 1987, which paved the way for the current Republic.

– The Sixth Republic (1987-present day) saw many presidents, who were all elected directly through the citizens. Currently, the Park Geun-hye administration stands as Korea’s first female president.

Korean presidents, from 1980-2008 (Source: South Korea's Miraculous Democracy, Hahm Chaibong)

Korean presidents, from 1980-2008 (Source: South Korea’s Miraculous Democracy, Hahm Chaibong)



The road to democracy in America began in the 18th century, when the colonies rebelled against British rule. The American Revolution brought freedom to Americans after they defeated the British. America established its democratic system and its constitution through war against a foreign oppressor. This united the people together until the Civil War which almost destroyed the America we know to be today. America has been a democratic nation for over 200 years, but in that time span, there have been many bumps.
Today, America is a country of endless diverse ethnicities and cultures. However, there are still many in America that looks upon these multitudes of ethnicities with contempt.
In the Revolutionary War, Americans fought outside forces, which may have led to some Americans today to judge outsiders with prejudice. Even though Barack Obama, the nation’s first non-white president, sits in the Oval Office, the majority of politicians, Congressmen, and Senators are predominantly white.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama

If democracy is supposed to promote equality for everybody, why does it seem so unequal when it comes to who holds power? Of course, every American citizen has the right to vote for their representatives, be it Congressman or the president. However, the history of discrimination against minorities has not made it easier for those that are non-white to hold public office.

Unlike America, Korea’s path to democracy started with a revolution against its own government. Koreans didn’t face tyranny from outside forces. Instead, their democratic system was oppressed by dictators and authoritative figures like Park or Rhee.
Korea’s economy flourished under Park’s rule, but at what cost? Those that fought for democracy were met with violent force by the military regimes. In Korea, those that saw its economy thrive under Park’s rule believe that without his firm grasp on power, the country would not be where it is today.
Does the end justify the means? Korea has become a global powerhouse in economic terms, but its democracy has not had time to mature into a system where people have faith in it.

The Gwangju Democratic Uprising in May, 1980.

The Gwangju Democratic Uprising in May, 1980.

People in Korea are divided upon issues related to the current administration. The older generation (those that grew up under the Park Chung-hee regime) lean heavily toward right-wing political parties like the Saenuri Party, while the younger generation tends to support more liberal parties like the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (formerly the Democratic Party). Thus, in Korea, liberal minded people are often ridiculed and accused of being “commies.”
With such a stark contrast in public opinion about politics and policies, there isn’t a single Congressional session that goes by without lawmakers going at each other’s throats (sometimes literally).
Having protests against the government is widely looked down upon, and anyone that participates is usually socially ostracized.
Even in the military, servicemen are highly discouraged from admitting that they had been in a demonstration or protest, for fear of being labeled a North Korean sympathizer.

America and Korea both went through uprisings to achieve democracy. Though Korea has only recently practiced democratic freedom (27 years to be exact), it follows a system much like the U.S.
Both country has a judicial, legislative, and executive branch. They also have a constitution to which they adhere.
The history of both countries has led them both to prosperity, but it was not an easy struggle. History plays a huge role in constructing society and culture. It’s important to know a country’s back story in order to truly understand its current structure. We cannot simply look at different cultures and expect things to change without digging deeper and looking at its cultural roots.

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Written by Isaac Kim

Hey there, I’m an aspiring journalist who is in the prime of his life. I’ve lived in America most of my life, but because I can adapt to anything, I’ve integrated quite well in Korean society. I hope to see the world and write about and share what I see. I like places with large bodies of water (especially the ocean), and one day, I will have a kickass beach house where I’ll spend my time writing and sipping mojitos.

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