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The First Republic
Home > Korea in brief > The First Republic


The elections took place on May 10, 1948 as scheduled. During the elections, the Communists used all obstructionist tactics, attacking polling booths and government offices on 348 occasions and killing 47 candidates and election officials. Of the 48 parties and organizations taking part in the elections, the National Council forExpediting Inde-pendence led by Syngman Rhee won 55 seats, whereas the Korea Democratic Party obtained 29 seats in the 200-seat National Assembly. 85 seats went to independents.


The Constituent Assembly, thus elected for a 2-year term, was convoked on May 31, 1948, and decided to reserve 100 seats vacant for prospective representatives from the northern half of the nation. Dr. Syngman Rhee was elected speaker and Shin Ik-hui and Kim Dong-won vice speakers. The Assembly designated the embryo state the Republic of Korea on July 1, and passed draft Constitution on July 12. Dr. Rhee and Lee Si-yong were elected by the National Assembly President and Vice President, respectively.

The Constitution was promulgated on July 17, 1948 and Rhee and Lee were inaugurated on July 24. President Rhee subsequently appointed Lee Bom-sok as Prime Minister and Kim Byong-no as chief justice with parliamentary consent, while the Assembly elected Shin Ik-hui to speakership. Thus, the Republic of Korea proclaimed itself on Aug. 15, 1948 on the occasion of the third anniversary of the national liberation. The U.N. General Assembly declared on Dec. 1, 1948 that the Republic of Korea was the sole legitimate government of the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, the North Korean Communists proclaimed the establishment of what they called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on Sept. 9, 1948.


As the government was struggling to restore order and stability throughout the country after the turbulent period preceding the birth of the new Republic, Communists intensified their campaign of agitation and sabotage to create unrest in the Republic. On Oct. 20, 1948, a revolt broke out in army units stationed in the cities of Yosu and Sunchon on the south coast of the country, and the rebels occupied the two cities until they were crushed by government troops. The remnants of the rebels went into mountainous areas and became guerrillas to infest the areas for the next few years.

Subsequently, the government enacted the State Security Law which was instrumental in bringing Communist subversion and other anti-state activities under control. At about the same time, pro-Communist elements in the National Assembly started to demand withdrawal of the U.S. and Soviet occupation forces from Korea and peaceful unification of Korea through negotiations with North Korean leaders.

On Feb. 5, 1949, a formal resolution asking for negotiated unification was int-roduced in the Assembly by leftist Vice Speaker Kim Yak-su and his fellow travellers. Similar motions were repeatedly tabled until 12 leading leftist law makers were arrested between May and June of 1949 to face trial for conspiring with the South Korea Labor (Communists) Party to overthrow the newly formed government in South Korea. This led to the formal outlawing of all leftist parties including the Labor Party on Oct. 16, 1949.

In the meantime, President Syngman Rhee came out with a list of names to fill his new cabinet. President Rhee utterly ignored the Korea Democratic Party, which had played a key role in bringing him to power, in picking his cabinet members. Leaders of the Korea Democratic Party were infuriated and took an anti-Rhee stance throughout his presidency. In time, its head, Kim Song-su, aligned with Shin Ik-hi and Lee Chong-chon, organized a united opposition by the name of Democratic Nationalist Party (DNP) with Shin as its chairman.

In an attempt to curb the nearly absolute power Syngman Rhee was wielding under the presidential responsibility system, the DNP advocated creation of a cabinet responsibility system patterned after the British system of government. Holding 70 of the 200 seats in the Constituent Assembly against 55 of the pro-Rhee Ilmin Club, DNP began promoting a constitutional amendment in favor of a cabinet system.

This forced pro-Rhee groups to re-group themselves into the Nationalist Party on Nov. 12, 1949, which resulted in the redistribution of Assembly seats to 71 for the Nationalist Party, 69 for DNP, 30 for the Ilmin Club, asnd 28 Independents. Subsequently, the opposition DNP, in alliance with some of the independents, introduced a constitutional revision stipulating a cabinet system of government. Rhee's supporters, however, succeeded in defeating the amendment bill.

On May 30, 1950, general elections for the second National Assembly were held. Some 2,209 candidates registered for the 210-seat legislature from 39 parties and organizations including 165 from the ruling Nationalist Party, 154 from the Opposition DNP and 1,513 independents. The voting, conducted amid Communist disturbances, was the first election held without supervision of any outsiders such as the United Nations. Of the 210 seats, 126 went to independents, 24 to the ruling Nationalist Party, 24 to the opposition DNP, and 36 to pro-government splinter groups. The second National Assembly was convoked on June 19, 1950, only six days before the North Korean Communists launched all-out invasion.

Korean War At dawn Sunday, June 25, 1950, the North Korean Communist army unleashed an all-out invasion across the entire 38th parallel. The well-equipped Communist divisions, spearheaded by a large number of Russian-made tanks, overran Korean defense positions manned without a single tank or a field gun. The Communist forces occupied Seoul on June 28, and continued their lightening assault southward. The Korean government moved to Taejon on June 27, then to Taegu on July 16, and finally to Pusan on the southeastern tip of the peninsula on Aug. 18, 1950.

On June 30, 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur to use U.S. forces in Japan to help defend the Republic of Korea. The first elements of the 24th U.S. Division arrived in Korea from Japan on July 2 and made an initial engagement with North Korean forces at Osan south of Seoul on July 4, 1950.U.N. Intervention The North Korean invasion, the first full-scale hostility in the world since World War II, shocked the world. The United States promptly brought the matter before the United Nations Security Council, which in an emergency session on June 25, called for immediate cessation of the hostility and withdrawal of the North Korean forces. The veto-wielding Soviet delegate happened to be absent at the session, making adoption of the resolution possible.

On June 27, 1950, the Security Council recommended that the U.N. member nations furnish military and other assistance to help stop the Communist aggression. On July 7, the Security Council established a unified U.N. Command under which the troops provided by the U.S. and other U.N. members were to fight the aggressors. Thus, for the first time in world history, international police force was set up under a single command.

A total of 16 U.N. member nations con-tributed armed forces to the U.N. forces. They are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, South Africa, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey and the United States. Denmark, India, Italy, Norway and Sweden also provided medical and other forms of assistance to Korea.

President Truman appointed U.S. Army Gen. MacArthur as Commander-in-Chief of the U.N. forces. The Korean ground, air and sea forces were also placed under his command. However, the U.N. forces were forced to retreat down to the Naktong River line. The U.N. and Korean troops had been cornered to a small pocket along the southeast coast of the Korean Peninsula.

The U.N. forces, regrouped and reorganized at Taegu, quickly built up a strong defense line along the Naktong River, where the Communist advance was halted for more than a month. Then on Sept. 15, 1950, the United Nations forces landed at Inchon, far behind the enemy line, in one of the most successful amphibious assaults in history. 10 days after the landing, the U.N. forces recaptured Seoul, and from then on marched in close pursuit of the fleeing Red army that offered almost no resistance.


On Nov. 2, 1950, nearly 30 divisions of Communist Chinese army began to storm the U.N. forces along the entire front. At the time, the victorious U.N. forces had made a deep thrust into North Korea, some of them reaching the Yalu River that divided Korea from Manchuria. Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, had been captured on Oct. 19. When the Chinese army intervened in the war, Gen. MacArthur announced that an entirely new war had started.

The heavily outnumbered U.N. forces pulled back, followed by more than 600,000 North Korean refugees seeking freedom in South Korea. The U.N. General Assembly, in a resolution on Feb. 1, 1951, branded Communist China an aggressor. Seoul fell again to the enemy in early January 1951. The government, in the meantime, again moved to Pusan where it stayed for more than three years though the Communists were thrown back beyond the 38th parallel in a month.

Armistice By the end of May 1951, both sides pitched against each other roughly along the 38th parallel. General lull set in across the battle fronts. It was at this time that Soviet delegate Jacob Malik hinted at the United Nations that a negotiated settlement of the conflict would be possible. The United States responded to the Russian offer and authorized its top commander in Korea to negotiate a truce with his Communist counterpart.

The truce talks, which began on July 10, 1951 at Kaesong, ran into difficulties from the outset over the question of setting up a demilitarized zone along the front line. Both sides also differed on the questions that concerned the exchange of prisoners of war and enforcement and observance of truce. The negotiations were stalemated for months while the bloody fighting went on along the nearly fixed front line. The U.N. Command proposed that POWs be repatriated according to their free will. But the Communists demanded indiscriminate repatriation of all prisoners. In the meantime, more than half of the 130,000 Communist war prisoners refused to go back to the north.

In April 1953, President Syngman Rhee declared that his government would never accept an armistice short of complete uni-fication of Korea. He threatened to stage a unilateral military action by South Korea alone to achieve unification. His adamant stand against the truce received support from the National Assembly and the general public. Anti-truce demonstrations organized by the government broke out across the country.Then in a dramatic move, President Rhee defiantly freed 27,000 North Korean anti-Communist prisoners of war who refused to go back to the north from POW camps at Taegu, Yongchon, Pusan, Masan, Kwangju, Nonsan and Pupyong. Rhee's dramatic move shocked the world and caught the U.S. government off balance. U.S. government leaders who were anxious to end war in Korea blamed Rhee for undercutting the U.S. bargaining position at the truce parley. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower sent Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as special envoy to persuade Rhee to accept truce terms.

President Rhee announced his intention to accept the truce only after he received commitments from the U.S. that she would sign a mutual defense pact with the Republic of Korea. The armistice agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. Both sides folded their war machines at 10 p.m. that day. The two sides pulled back 2 km each from their positions, creating 4 kim-wide demilitarized zone. The buffer zone remains unchanged until today. The four-nation Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission began overseeing the armistice.

During the Korean War, over an estimated one million persons were killed in combat. The combat casualty toll included 225,784 Koreans, 57,440 U.N. troops, 294,151 North Koreans, 184,128 Communist Chinese soldiers. Some 244,663 civilians were killed in combat-related actions. In addition, 128,936 Korean citizens were murdered by Communist troops and secret police with 84,523 others abducted to North Korea.Geneva Conference The Geneva conference opened in accordance with the terms of the Korean armistice agreement to discuss issues related to the reunification of Korea.

A total of 19 nations including North Korea and Communist China participated in the meeting which was held in Geneva in April 1954. The government sent Foreign Minister Pyon Yong-tae to represent the Republic of Korea at the parley. The Communist side submitted a six-point proposal calling for a nationwide election under the supervision of an international commission to be composed of representatives from both North and South Korea and those from neutral countries.Foreign Minister Pyon at the meeting proposed a 14-point formula that called for a united, independent and democratic Korea through a free election in the whole of Korea under the supervision of the United Nations in accordance with the constitutional provisions of the Republic of Korea. He also suggested that representation in all-Korea legislature be proportionate to the population of the whole country. Pyon then called for the complete withdrawal of Chinese troops one month in advance of the election date and for continued stationing of U.N. troops in Korea until such time as the unified government of all-Korea was established. The conference was terminated by the U.S. and its allies after two months of futile wranglings.


Due to his high-handedness, Syngman Rhee's popularity was sagging among the National Assembly members during the war. And the party lineup in the second National Assembly, which started to function in the wartime capital of Pusan on March 15, 1951, was unfavorable to Rhee. Sen-sing that he could not win a presidential election through an indirect parliamentary vote as stipulated in the existing Constitution, Rhee decided to change the Constitution to make the President chosen through a popular vote.

On Dec. 23, 1951. President Rhee, who had been first elected in 1948, organized his supporters in the Liberal Party to form a parliamentary majority numerically large enough to pass constitutional revision. When the new party had been organized, the party initiated a constitutional amendment aimed at paving the way for popular election of President. But the bill was killed in the legislature due to the revolt of some of Rhee's own party members on Jan. 18, 1952. However, using persuasion and armtwisting, he had it introduced for the third time on June 21, 1952. The amendment finally passed in an unprecedented standing vote on the night of July 4.

The second presidential election was scheduled for Aug. 5, 1952 under the revised Constitution. The Liberal Party renominated Rhee at its national convention held in Taejon on July 19, 1952. The convention also named Lee Bom-sok to run as Rhee's running mate. But seeing Lee as a political menace to himself, Rhee ignored the convention endorsement of Lee and instead picked Ham Tae-yong as his running mate. The major opposition DNP, in the meantime, nominated Lee Si-yong for presidency and Cho Byong-ok for vice presidency.

In the election, Syngman Rhee was elected for his second four-year term on Aug. 5, 1952, by a large margin over his runner-up Cho Bong-am who ran on the ticket of the Progressive Party. President Rhee wanted to run for another term as his second presidential tenure approached to its end, but found himself unable to do so under the constitutional provision limiting presidential terms to eight years. Therefore, he set out to change the Constitution again.

In June 1954, the Liberal Party formally introduced a constitutional amendment designed to lift, totally this time, any curb on presidential terms. The bill was voted on Nov. 27, 1954, and mustered 135 of the total of 203 votes, whereupon it was declared defeated.

However, the next day the Liberal Party speaker of the National Assembly hurriedly convened the Assembly to announce that he had made a grave mistake in declaring the bill killed the previous day. The constitutional revision bill which required 135.333 votes for its passage had in reality been approved under the mathematical practice of knocking off fractions under 0.5, he declared. In the face of the scornful jeers, he insisted that affirmative votes of 135 were sufficient for a constitutional amendment.

Under the new revised constitution, the government announced that the third presidential election would be conducted on May 15, 1956. The Liberal Party again nominated Rhee for presidency, while picking Lee Gi-bung as its vice presidential candidate. On the other hand, the opposition Democratic Party nominated Shin Ik-hui as its presidential candidate and Chang Myon was chosen to be its vice presidential nominee. Cho Bong-am announced his presidential aspiration with backing of his Progressive Party.But Democratic Party nominee Shin Ik-hui died of heart attack at the height of electioneering. This left only Syngman Rhee and Cho Bong-am in the field where Cho was bound to turn out to be the loser. Now with the major rival in the presidential race out of the way, the Liberals were determined to do everything in their power to see that Lee Gi-bung gets enough votes to beat his opponent from the Democratic Party.

They in fact did everything they could to rig the election, mobilizing police force and making use of government officials, because they knew Lee Gi-bung, if left alone, would have no chance of winning against Chang Myon of the popular opposition Democratic Party. On the voting day opposition witnesses at voting booths were terrorized, ballot sheets were forged and in some districts ballot boxes had been stuffed beforehand.

When the votes were tallied, Syngman Rhee scored an easy victory as expected winning 5,046,437 votes or 70 percent of all valid votes, while 2,163,808 votes went to Progressive Party Cho Bong-am. Cho was hanged in late 1959 for allegedly collaborating with North Korean communists. When it came to the vice presidential race, however, the Liberals suffered a humiliating defeat.

Despite all-out efforts to fake the returns, there were simply too many people who cast their votes for Chang Myon of the oppositon. The final vote count revealed, it was announced, Chang defeated Lee Gi-bung by a margin of 200,000 votes. Thus, Syngman Rhee was thrown into an untenable position where he had to accept the top opposition politician as his chief deputy.

The Liberals suffered another setback in the general elections held on May 2, 1958. They failed to win a two-thirds majority as they had hoped for, while the Democrats increased their seats at the cost of Liberals. In the local elections that closely followed the presidential election, the government party openly attempted to fake the returns. The successive defeats in elections had convinced the Liberal Party that the only way it could win future elections would be to rig the elections and fake the returns.

With this in mind the Liberals started to take a series of measures. The measures included an amendment to the Local Autonomy Law under which they could pack every local government with their own henchmen. The amendment was pushed through the National Assembly. Another bill was aimed at revising the National Security Law to include a provision warning that those who publish or circulate false or distorted reports to mislead the public shall be subject to heavy punishment.

The occasion of passage of this bill came to be known as the Dec. 24 Political Turmoil. On Christmas eve, policemen stormed into the Assembly floor, manhandled opposition legislators to carry them forcibly out of building to enable the Liberals to pass the bill alone. As the presidential election set for March 15, 1960 approached, the Liberal Party again nominated Syngman Rhee for its presi-dential candidate and Lee Gi-bung as its vice presidential candidate. The opposition party picked Cho Byong-ok as its presidential candidate and Chang Myon for vice presidency.

But once again, as in 1956, death snatched away from the Democratic Party a chance for power. On Feb. 15, 1960, Democratic Party presidential nominee Cho Byong-ok died in Walter Reed Army Hospital in the United States, leaving Syngman Rhee as the only contestant in the presidential race. Despite the demise of the opposition candidate, the Liberals would take no chance, however. Opposition observers were thrown out of the polls to allow the Liberals to freely manipulate ballots. Voting booths were left open in some places so that the voters could be watched from outside.


The Liberals b-razen rigging of elections finally touched off violent demonstrations in Masan just west of Pusan. On the election day, March 15, 1960, thousands of citizens and students marched through the streets of Masan and clashed with police. Police fired on the crowds, killing, according to the official count, eight men and injuring 50 others. About 20 days later, the body of a high school student was found floating in the sea off the port.

This triggered another wave of even more violent demonstrations in the city. On April 18, the students of Korea University swarmed through the streets of Seoul and staged demonstrations outside the National Assembly building. The following day, April 19, they were joined by colleagues from other schools and by noon students from almost all the universities, colleges and high schools in the capital hit the streets.

The government proclaimed martial law as it was apparent that the demonstrations were developing into a popular uprising. In the meantime, demonstrations were also launched in other big cities, threatening to spread throughout the country. Then on the evening of April 25, some university and college professors in the capital marched through the streets of Seoul in support of the students, giving a decisive blow to the faltering Liberal regime.

Next day, President Rhee promised a new election while saying that he was ready to step down if the people so wanted. At the same time, he carried out a partial reshuffle of his cabinet. The National Assembly, however, in an emergency session, resolved that President Rhee resign immediately. Thereupon, Rhee finally announced his resignation on April 27. On April 28, Lee Gi-bung, together with his wife and two sons, committed suicide evidently to escape public disgrace and trial.

After Syngman Rhee stepped down from presidency, Ho Jong, former acting Prime Minister, was installed as Acting President. The caretaker government of Ho Jong started to prepare for new parliamentary election. The National Assembly voted for a consitutional amendment to provide for a bicameral legislature and to replace the presidential system with a parliamentary system which would give the prime minister full responsibility for governing the nation.