The division of Korea after WWll and the subsequent war with the communist North shaped the early politics of the Republic of Korea, which was proclaimed in August 1948.
Throughout the 1950s, the South was sustained by crucial US military, economic and political support, enabling it to overcome attempts by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) led by Kim Il Sung, to undermine the regime.
Syngman Ree was President of the Republic of Korea until April 1960, using the cloak of anti-communism to rule autocratically, limiting political freedom.
In 1960 fraud in a presidential election led to student unrest, which forced the President to step down. A new constitution was passed in August 1960, forming the Second Republic, but political freedom remained limited, using the pretext of anti-communism.
This led to further political demonstrations and a military coup in 1961.
The leader of the military, General Park, restored some political freedom and proclaimed the third republic on December 17, 1963. Park increased his powers with constitutional changes in 1972 and remained in control until he was assassinated in 1979.
In 1980 martial law was declared after student demonstrations. In the city of Kwangju at least 200 were killed by the army, causing resentment that has yet to fade. This led to the resignation of President Choi and the naming of General Chun as President. A fifth republic and new constitution followed in 1980.
President Chun was indirectly elected to a seven year term in 1981. Although martial law ended that year, the government continued to have strong powers to prevent dissent. In 1986 the constitution was changed to allow direct election of the president.
During Park’s rule, South Korea underwent a huge economic transformation through export oriented industrialisation. South Korea imported raw materials to develop finished goods.
This depended on increasing investment and maintaining a cheap labour force. During the 80s, the country also moved increasingly towards high-tech and computer industry.
By the 1980s the economy had developed to the point where pressure for political liberalisation was becoming strong and in 1987 President Chun was pushed out of office by student unrest and also international pressure in the build up to the 1988 Olympic games, held in Seoul.
A sixth constitution was passed on 12 October 1987, as Roh Tae-Woo succeeded Chun. Roh gained popularity by granting a greater degree of political liberalisation and also launching an anti-corruption campaign directed against his own party and predecessor, Chun. The constitution was revised to allow direct presidential elections and a strengthened National Assembly of 299 members.
In December 1987, Roh won the first direct presidential election since 1971. The first free parliamentary elections took place in 1988 and Roh managed to broaden his political base through the creation of the Democratic Liberal Party.
1990 also saw a general re-ordering of the political parties. Roh was succeeded in February 1993 by Kim Young Sam. Kim was a former opponent of the regime and the first civilian president.
Kim initially passed a series of reforms to try to clean up the political system and undermine the long South Korean tradition of close links between businessmen and politicians.
This process culminated in the jailing of his two predecessors as President, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo, on corruption charges.
But after a promising start with moves towards increased accountability and transparency, things began to turn sour and Kim is now accused of many of the corrupt practices he had promised to combat.