60 Years of the Republic: The End of Syngman Rhee's Rule

      July 07, 2008 09:24

      In February 1960, Koreans felt an odd sense of déjà vu. Cho Byong-ok, the presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Party, died just before the fourth presidential election, just like Democratic Party presidential nominee Shin Ik-hui had four years earlier. The fourth term of 85-year-old president Syngman Rhee was practically assured.

      The ruling Liberal Party, which suppressed the opposition parties and the press outright, systematically fabricated the result of the March 15 election to elect its second-in-command Lee Gi-bung vice president. Massive protests took place across the country. The body of Kim Ju-yeol, a high school student who had disappeared during the riot in Masan, South Gyeongsang Province, was found floating off the shore with a tear gas grenade stuck in his eye.

      Seoul National University students come out of the campus to join protests on April 19, 1960.

      On April 18, students of the Korea University marched toward downtown Seoul and began sit-ins in the National Assembly, shouting slogans like "Let's drive out the enemies of democracy." On the way back to the university, they were attacked and badly beaten by thugs hired by politicians. The next morning, the Chosun Ilbo reported the story under the title, "Seoul in the shadows of violence," the only newspaper to accompany its report with actual photographs from the scene. The aftermath was shocking. On April 19, over 100,000 high school and university students came out to the street in protest, and more than 180 students and citizens were shot and killed by the police.

      The first page of the April 19, 1960 edition of the Chosun Ilbo, with the largest headline in the history of Korean newspapers.

      It was clear who the enemy was. There was no division in public opinion; the issue was clear: it was an explosion of pent-up indignation accumulated over a decade by a government without scruples about violating the basic principles of representative democracy. The public was on the side of the opposition party, and academics joined the protest at the decisive moment. There was no anti-American sentiment. When an American flag was found in the house of Lee Gi-bung, the crowd handed it over to an American journalist covering the place for the story.

      On April 26, Syngman Rhee left Cheong Wa Dae, saying he would resign if the people want him to, and would hold the election again. Lee Gi-bung, who had been eyeing the presidency, committed suicide with his family. Twelve years of Liberal Party rule under Syngman Rhee finally ended.

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