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How Far Did General Chun Doo Hwan Prevent a Democratic Development in South Korea During the Late 1980s to Early 1990s?


General Chun Doo Hwan (hereafter referred to as ‘the general’) was a military dictator who rules South Korea from 1980 to 1988 under martial law and regime. He came to power after a bloody coup and imprisoned the elected representative and installed his own regime of chosen military officers. The paper examines the lengths to which the general went to ensure that his military rule continued and also examines how he subverted the democratic process.

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Plan of Investigation

The paper will conduct a thorough literature review from published journals, books, and reliable Internet sites to find out the nature of events, causes, manifestations of how the general managed to grab power. The paper also examines literature sources to understand the electoral process in South Korea and attempt to find out how the process of democracy was effectively subverted.

Subject of Investigation

The paper will examine the following thesis statements

  • How far did General Chun Doo Hwan prevent a democratic development in South Korea during the late 1980s to early 1990s
  • Steps were taken by the general to ensure that the process of democracy in South Korea was subverted.

Methods used in the investigation

The paper has used a number of resources related to the political activities in South Korea during the years that the general rose to power. It also examines sources and provides an analysis into the fear regime that was used by the general, the repression he created, and the atrocities that were committed by him and his circle of friends in power.

Summary of Evidence

The section provides a summary of evidence about how General Chun Doo Hwan rose to power and how he managed to subvert the democratic process.

About General Chun Doo Hwan

Croissant (2002) has provided a study into the electoral process in South Korea and he has written extensively about the general. The general completed his graduation along with the eleventh class of the Korean Military Academy in 1955. He was a member of Hanahoe, which was a powerful group of like-minded military officers who supported his actions. The general was in command of an investigation into the murder of General Chung Sung Hwa who was the ROK army chief of staff without obtaining any authorization from then-President Choi Kyu-ha. Chung Sung Hwa resisted, leading to a bloody shoot-out at the Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence, and officially the general seized power by the next morning and installed his fellow commanding officers to position of power. Major General Roh Tae-woo was made commanding general of the 9th Infantry Division and Major General Jeong Ho-Yong was made in charge of the Korean military. On 17 May 1980, the general extended martial law in the entire country of South Korea. He disbanded the national assembly and arrested many politicians including opposition left-wing liberal politician Kim Dae-Jung, who was later sentenced to death. Protests across the nation were suppressed. Ignited by violent suppression with bayonets, however, people in Gwangju rose up, arming themselves with stolen guns and military jeeps in self-defense, and drove off the army units dispatched to quell the protest. In the end, at least 207 people were killed and 987 injured in this Gwangju massacre. Choi resigned in August, and Chun was elected his successor by the National Conference for Unification, the puppet electoral college of then South Korea. In February 1981, Chun was elected president under a revised constitution as the candidate of the Democratic Justice Party (the renamed Democratic-Republican Party), having resigned from the army after promoting himself to four stars general.

The Electoral Process in South Korea

Naham (1993) argues that 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.2 When American troops entered the southern region after the surrender of Japanese armed forces, they found a society with no experience of the institutions and organizations of representative democracy. Before Japan occupied the Kingdom of Korea in 1910, the political model was one of absolute rule by the Korean monarchy. The social and cultural system was deeply penetrated by Neo-Confucian philosophy. The economic system was pre-capitalist, with only a rudimentary market system based on agriculture and almost without any modern industrial structure. Unlike other countries in the region, elections in South Korea were held in democratic as well as in authoritarian regimes. Though most of the time elections were neither free nor fair, they were politically relevant. The popular vote effectively gave legitimacy to the ruling coalition headed by the president. The arbitrary character of the electoral law was particularly pronounced in legislative elections. The National Assembly Election Laws, used from the 1960s until the late 1980s, was constructed to secure the hegemonic position of the ruling Democratic-Republican Party (DRP) of President Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) and later of the Democratic Justice Party (DJP) of President Chun Doohwan (1980-1988).

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Why the General Lost Power and was Overthrown

Kim (1985) has provided reasons as to why the general had to relinquish power. The facts of history show that in the period when the general was in power, South Korea had seen a rapid rise in growth, there was considerably less inflation and exports were really healthy. He argues that although the president always has been the most powerful and dominating institution in South Korean politics, parliamentary elections became a window of opportunity for the opposition to challenge the authoritarian regime several times. Because of its violent origins, the authoritarian regime of President Chun Doo-hwan was caught in a permanent crisis of legitimacy, and faced with the presidential elections in Autumn 1987 and the Summer Olympics in 1988, it was under pressure to prevent political upheaval and secure political stability. Against the background of strong oppositional protests from the notorious student movement, the regime decided to open up the electoral arena. The decision to use the semi-competitive parliamentary elections in February 1985 seemed to be a good idea at the time. The chances of holding a ‘fair but quiet election’, which would increase citizen support for the regime and channel political protest into the regime’s institutions seemed promising. The electoral system practiced at that time greatly benefited the ruling Democratic Justice Party while the opposition was divided into several parties, camps, and factions. However, when the government decided to tolerate the newly established New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) under the co-leadership of prominent opposition members Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Young-sam and permitted the NKDP to take part in the elections, it gave the opposition the opportunity to oppose the regime openly. The NKDP succeeded in mobilizing the urban middle-class voters and creating an active extra-parliamentary coalition including student opposition groups, churches, and NGOs, which translated into almost one-third of the votes in the election. This, in turn, gave the opposition the legitimacy to criticize the regime and to protest even more directly than before. The country’s domestic policy crisis then escalated in the summer of 1987 as a result of skillful political maneuvering on the part of the opposition leaders, the strategic failures of the ruling elite, and external influences, such as pressure from the United States and the upcoming Olympic Games. The country’s major cities saw mass protests. Faced with the choice of using military force and putting at risk its already strained relations with the United States, the country’s most important political, military and economic partner, or giving in to the opposition, the moderate forces within the regime preferred the second option. Chun’s designated successor, Roh Tae-woo, declared the democratic opening of the regime on 6 June 1987. In bilateral talks, the NKDP and the DJP negotiated the transition to the Sixth Republic. The institutional democratization was completed a few months later, after the approval of a new constitution by a referendum and the election of the president. The soft liners in the regime accurately calculated that they would win the election against a divided opposition. Roh Tae-woo won the free and sufficiently fair presidential election of December 1987 with a little more than one-third of the total valid votes. The opposition had been unable to find sufficient common ground due to both an atmosphere of personal animosity between their leaders and an inability to learn from mistakes and had entered the elections with three candidates.

Evaluation of Sources

The sources utilized in this thesis are listed as follows.

Aurel S. Croissant: Aurel Croissant is a Professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences of the University of Heidelberg. Croissant received his Dr. Phil. in Political Science from the University of Mainz (magna cum laude) and his M.A. in Political Science, Sociology, and Public Law from that university, which he graduated with summa cum laude. He speaks and reads German, English, French and has basic-to-intermediate skills in Korean, Thai, and Spanish. From 2004 to 2006 he was Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School’s National Security Affairs Department. Croissant teaches graduate courses and supervises Master’s theses on Southeast and East Asian politics, democratization, security, and other topics in comparative politics. He has published more than 50 articles and book chapters on politics in Southeast and East Asia, political theory, political institutions, civil society, and democratization. During 2001-2003, he taught as Assistant Professor at the Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg Germany. He taught and conducted research from 1996-2001 at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and the University of Heidelberg, both in Germany. He taught and conducted research in Thailand, the Philippines, and Korea and served as the Co-Chair of the Research Council on Democratization of the German Association of Political Science. He has authored many books, journals and has served as a political commentator for southeast Asian Affairs (Croissant Aurel. 2002).

Lie John: John Lie was born in South Korea, grew up in Japan and in Hawaii, and attended Harvard University where he received an A.B. magna cum laude in Social Studies in 1982 and a Ph.D. in Sociology in 1988. Currently, he is a Class of 1959 Professor and Dean of International and Area Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Lie’s “sociological imagination trilogy” has explored his Korean origins and Korean diasporas trajectories. The trilogy includes Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots (co-authored, Harvard University Press, 1995), Han Unbound: The Political Economy of South Korea (Stanford University Press, 1998), and Multiethnic Japan (Harvard University Press, 2001). Lie’s primary intellectual focus is social theory. The more abstract articulation of the sociological imagination trilogy is Modern Peoplehood (Harvard University Press, 2004). He is currently working on a more systematic work, tentatively entitled The Consolation of Social Theory. Lie has devoted considerable energy to undergraduate teaching and academic administration. His longstanding interest in pedagogy has culminated in an introductory textbook, Sociology: Your Compass for a New Century (co-authored, Wadsworth, 2003). Before joining the Berkeley faculty, Lie was Head of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for five years and directed the Center for Japanese Studies and the Korean Studies Program at the University of Michigan. In addition to Illinois and Michigan, he has taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Yonsei University (South Korea), University of Oregon, Keio University (Japan), National Taiwan University, University of Waikato (New Zealand), and Harvard University (Lie John. 17 February 2000).

In addition to these, many other sources have been used for the paper and these are referenced in the paper and listed in the references section.


This section provides an analysis of various facts as mentioned in the previous sections. The paper will provide information on how the general managed to subvert and prevent the legitimate democratic system in South Korea.

How the General stopped the democratic electoral process from functioning

Croissant (2002) has argued that Korea had many authoritarian governments throughout this period.2 Two of these were established by a military coup, one by General Park Chung Hee (1961) and the other by Chun Doo Whan (1980). These leaders like their authoritarian counterparts who achieved governing status through an election were interested in 1960. preserving their power and maintaining their respective governing statuses. The general to remain in power ensured that his party maintains a majority in the National Assembly. Though he came to power through a coup he also wanted to accomplish this in a way that would legitimize his being in power, which meant that he would have to accomplish this goal through the electoral process. Achieving dominance of the National Assembly through the electoral process also meant that the rules of the game would have to be favorable to candidates from the governing parties. He ensured this by seeing that the existing systems were manipulated. When his government party did not have a majority in the National Assembly, and its preferences for legitimacy and dominance in the National Assembly, he brought about the required change to the election system that would help achieve such a legislative majority, this action is referred to as a seat-maximization strategy. A seat-maximization strategy was necessary in his case in order to achieve the goal of establishing a majority in the National Assembly after his governments came to power through military coups. But the general found that sometimes, though his party enjoyed legislative majorities in the National Assembly he faced the situation where this majority was being undermined in the long term by certain changes going on in the country. While these conditions also required manipulation of existing election systems, they required different types of electoral institutions where legislative seat shares had to be increased dramatically. Specifically, this situation required changes that would help halt the electoral decline government parties were experiencing. Election system changes made in this electoral context are referred to as a status-maintaining strategy. In such situations, the government party’s candidates may experience short-term electoral losses, but in the long term, its governing status is preserved through the electoral system changes it implements. The authoritarian governments of Korea made such institutional changes as the result of rational calculation because electoral rules in society are created by politicians in light of their electoral preferences. In other words, electoral rules are political institutions determined by politicians who make such determinations based on what outcomes these institutions are likely to produce. This means that while preferences are essentially fixed, they do not always lead to the same determination about whether to keep or change an election system and, if a decision to change the system is made, what change to make. Politics takes place in contexts, and actor preferences and strategies are constrained by certain contexts. As a consequence, electoral rule choices and changes are largely contingent on how political actors see conditions affecting their electoral interests.

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According to Lie (17 February, 2000), there are two main assumptions made by rational choice theory in these studies: methodological individualism and purposeful action. His analysis shows that preserving political power rather than maximizing seats was the main motivation for Korea’s authoritarian governments to change existing election systems. He points out that the government of Park Chung-Hee changed the Korean election system from a mixed system of SMD and PR to a two-seat district system for this reason. With a new system in place, the government party, the Democratic-Republican Party (DRP), could consolidate its rule because the new system increased its representation in areas where it was underrepresented. At the same time, this new system helped the parties of the opposition gain more support at the district level. Thus, the decrease of total electoral seat shares experienced by the government party in the short term did not in any threaten its overall majority. He also points out that a rational choice theory that relies on a single goal does not explain why the ruling party, the Democratic Justice Party (DJP) in this case, adopted a mixed system of SMD and PR for the 1981 National Assembly election. Lie (2002) argues that the general decided to alter the country’s election system in major and minor ways in order to address the electoral problems he faced at various times. The specific electoral problems he faced were determined mostly by four contextual factors and they include previous election outcomes which determine the electoral strength of the opposition and the government parties, demographic changes, political events, and specific voting patterns. Previous election outcomes provide very important information about the government and opposition parties’ prospects in future elections. Based on the vote and seat shares that government and opposition parties receive in elections, the government estimates how strong the opposition is electorally and whether it poses a threat to the government party’s majority. The author suggests that after a military coup in 1981 the Chun Doo Hwan military government readopted the PR system used in the National Assembly elections between 1963 and 1971, along with the two-seat district (TSD) system that was in use.

Mechanisms and Methods used for the changes

Lie (2002) has pointed that once in power, the generals destroyed the power base of individual politicians by arresting and detaining them. His last effort to re-establish order in areas where protests continued resulted in the Kwangju massacre. This event involved martial law military forces controlled by General Chun brutally suppressing civil demonstrations that had been occurring in the city of Kwangju, South Chollar Province on May 18-27, 1980. On August 27, 1980, Chun was declared president, and he amended the constitution by a referendum in October 1980, opening the Fifth Republic in Korea. The new constitution granted the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly and declare martial law, and, in accordance with this new constitution, Chun abolished Park’s National Conference for Unification and dissolved the National Assembly. In the legislature’s place, he created the Legislative Council for National Security (LCNS) which worked to draft new election law. With no opposition participation, this new law was completed in January of 1981. Like the previous Park government, Chun came to power through a coup and thus lacked democratic legitimacy. Only through the electoral process would the Chun government be able to legitimize its rule, but it also needed to be sure that it could obtain a majority of seats in a reconstituted National Assembly. To accomplish its electoral victory, the government created a new affiliate party, the Democratic Justice Party, and it also created a new electoral system that would benefit the candidates of this party. Previous election outcomes helped the new Chun government understand the features that a new electoral system should have if it was to be beneficial to the government party.

Electoral changes brought by the General

Croissant (2002) suggests that the new electoral system adopted by the Chun government was a mixed system. It combined the original system of two-seat districts (TSD) with a second part where seats were allocated by proportional representation (PR). In other words, the Chun government maintained the original TSD system but replaced the “Yujonghoe” system with the PR rule that had been used during the Third Republic. Moreover, the new system included an increased number of legislative seats, from 231 to 276. Two-thirds (184) of these 276 seats would be filled by a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) in two-member districts where Korean voters would cast a single vote. This would result in the top two vote-getters obtaining seats. The remaining one-third (92 seats) of the National Assembly’s 276 seats would be elected in a single nationwide district with a PR formula. The PR part of the system would allocate seats based on the vote percentages cast for parties in the two-seat districts. This meant that the allocation of PR seats under the Chun government was different from that of the Park government from 1963 to 1971. This is true for several reasons. First, Chun increased the threshold of exclusion from more than three district seats to more than five seats in the 1981 National Assembly election. In other words, at-large seats under the PR system were allocated only to parties winning more than five TSD seats. Second, the formula for allocating PR seats was different in the new system. Under the original law, the political party ranked first in the voting would get more than 50% of the PR seats, but its share of these seats could not exceed two-thirds of the available PR seats. The next highest party could receive more than two-thirds of the remaining PR seats, depending on its district vote share. In the new system, however, two-thirds (61) of the PR seats were to be allocated to the party with the most two-member district seats while the remaining seats would be allocated to other parties in proportion to the share of TSD seats they received. In other words, the new election system allowed the largest party to obtain more PR seats than it could in the PR portion of the earlier system.


The paper has examined the manner in which General Chun Doo Hwan rose to power in a bloody coup and seized control of the government and introduced martial law. To provide himself with a legitimate face and gain acceptance in the world, the general resigned from the army and assumed the role of president, and announced elections. To ensure that his members retained power, the general manipulated the electoral rules and made sure that only his chosen candidates were allowed to contest so that winning was assured.


  1. Croissant Aurel. 2002. Electoral Politics in Southeast and East Asia. Office for Regional Co-operation in Southeast Asia: Singapore. ISBN 981-04-6020-1
  2. Kim, CH. 1998. An Institutional Engineering Against Parliamentary Politics of Local Constituency and Party Politics of Rival Regionalism. The Korean Political Science Review. Volume 32. Issue 4.
  3. Lee Sangmook. 2006. The logic of election system change in South Korea: context, strategy, and institutional choice. PhD Dissertation: Texas Tech University, USA
  4. Lie John. 2000. Han Unbound: The Political Economy of South Korea. Stanford University Press; 1 edition. ISBN-13: 978-0804740159
  5. Nahm, A. 1993. Korea. Tradition & Transformation. A History of the Korean People. Elisabeth and Seoul: Hollym.

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