Global Significance of the April 19 Revolution
By George Katsiaficas
On the way home from school,
Bullets flew through the air
And blood covered the streets.
The lonely discarded book bag
Was as heavy as it could be.
I know, yes, we all know
Even if Mom and Dad say nothing
Why our brothers and sisters were bleeding.
—Elementary school pupil, April, 1960
“The evil influence of political power has swallowed up the people’s right of fair
elections, which constitutes a minimum requirement of democracy. The knavish
railings of ignorant despotism have trampled down all remaining hopes of
freedom of speech, assembly, association, and thought. With an overpowering joy
and happiness, we are now lighting up the torch of freedom. Behold! We are
proud to toll freedom’s bell which will shatter the stillness of the Dark Age.”
—South Korean student declaration, April 19, 1960
When pruned, some varieties of trees wither and die. Others grow back stronger than
ever. The same may be true of peoples. In the twentieth century, Koreans responded to
the severity of Japanese colonization and the devastation of the US war by rebuilding
with reinvigorated strength. The cunning dialectic of history meant that the Korean War’s
extermination of old social structures nearly wiped out the yangban aristocracy and
prepared the grounds for the emergence of the minjung—the new subject-object of
Korea’s history. Comprised of the vast majority of people—excluding very rich landlords
and industrialists, former Japanese collaborators, elite military men and police officials—
minjung became the name for the cross-class social force that overthrew decades of US-
backed dictatorships and shaped southern Korea into an egalitarian and prosperous
society. The first minjung victory came with the overthrow of the Syngman Rhee regime,
a globally significant event. First, some background.
Rebuilding Korea After the War
In both North and South Korea, governments drew upon their impressive human
resources, especially the civil society produced by 5,000 years of culture, to reconstruct
quickly and efficiently after the devastation of one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. In
three short years, five million lives had been extinguished.1 U.S. bombs and artillery had
destroyed nearly every major city, including every large building in northern Korea.
Despite being reduced to rubble, Korea’s recovery made it the envy of many Third World
countries wishing to emulate its rise from rags to riches. One of the world’s poorest
1 Dong-Choon Kim, Der Korea-Krieg und die Gesellschaft (Munster: Wesphalisches Dampfboot, 2000)
estimates 1.3 million South Korean soldiers and civilians killed, 2.5 million North Koreans, an additional
650,000 refugees from the North who were killed in the South, and in addition, Chinese and American
countries in 1953, Korea grew at “miraculous” rates for three decades. Although the
North today lags far behind, in 1980, the two Korea’s were roughly equivalent
economically. South Korea continued its fabulous development from one of the world’s
poorest countries to one of its wealthiest. Today it is an OECD member with the world’s
11th largest economy (in 2015) and a substantial high-tech sector. Her modern
infrastructure, efficient public transportation, and safe social spaces make the US and
much of Europe seem archaic. Gross National Product (GNP) is more than 100 times
what it was in the 1950s—having increased from $200/person to more than $20,000 in
2008 (before falling back slightly during the financial crisis that began that year). As a
sign of how the country has grown, the average male today is fully 5 inches taller than his
Although it now seems unlikely, the North may even have outpaced the South in
economic growth until 1978. At the time, many people maintained that it was superior in
people’s satisfaction with government and economy as well.2 Che Guevara visited North
Korea in the mid-1960s and described it as a model for what Cuba should become.
Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett and British economist Joan Robinson both admired
the North for its progress. Land reform was thoroughgoing and comprehensive, and
millions of families still own their own land. Although it retains substantial technological
sophistication, a number of factors combined to impoverish the country: decades of
confrontation with the US and the ROK in the aftermath of an armistice—not a peace
treaty—at the end of the war in 1953; systematic US economic blockade of material
goods and financial services; collapse of Pyongyang’s main trading partner, the USSR;
poor decisions made by high leaders; and devastating droughts and floods. Korea’s
division into two states—named the “division system” by Paik Nak-chung—enervates the
both nations’ dynamism and eats away at their souls. In both North and South, the
existence of an “enemy” regime claiming the right to rule the entire peninsula means
limited political freedom and enormous sacrifices. Precious resources are diverted into
unnecessary military expenditures. In both Pyongyang and Seoul, paranoia, hatred, and
fear run wild, and an elusive sense of national security poisons government decisions.
During the Cold War, as in West Berlin and Taiwan, massive US aid was distributed to
build South Korea into a model for the “superiority” of American capitalism (as opposed
to communism). In Korea, US benefactors maintained elite rule by promoting former
Japanese collaborators into high positions of power in the American imperial order. The
result was a harshly regulated system that strictly compelled millions of people to
decades of backbreaking toil in exchange for meager rewards. Aided by the US, the South
Korean economy grew at astonishing rates, with GNP increasing an average of 9% or
better from the 1960s into the mid-1990s. Millions of laborers paid for economic progress
through a world record-setting industrial accident rate, a six or even seven-day
workweek, and a centralized decision-making apparatus that restricted political inputs to
a few men’s ideas.
In this context, Syngman Rhee thrived, able to convince his supporters in the US to grant
him enormous sums of money and considerable leeway as the “frontline” of their Cold
War. In 1953, foreign assistance was well over 14% of GNP (reaching 22.9% in 1957).
Throughout all of Rhee’s tenure as President, foreign aid was a substantial portion of the
2 Published CIA data reported that until 1978, North Korea was ahead of South Korea in GDP per capita.
total government budget.3 Between 1953 and 1963, the ROK was the beneficiary of what
Alice Amsden called a “unique” amount of foreign aid as the US sustained three-fourths
of South Korea’s total investment.4 By the end of the 1950s, five-sixths of all economic
inputs were from direct US grants. Dependence on America meant that in 1961, more
than half of all consumer goods were provided by US aid.5 Even though the US annually
provided some $100/capita to the country, corruption was rampant, and thousands of
people scavenged daily meals in garbage dumps. Extreme poverty compelled many
others to work in dangerous and dirty jobs. US Army bases nightly brought in truckloads
of young Korean women to service the soldiers.
While Rhee relied on the US for his base of support, behind American largesse and
military might stood the ROK armed forces—at 600,000 men, the country’s most
powerful institution. Rhee had ceded sovereign control of the military to the US, but it
didn’t deter his machinations in power. Rhee increasingly ruled with an iron fist, and his
murderous grip on power turned thousands of patriotic citizens into victims of
persecution. Running on a platform of peaceful reunification of Korea, moderate
politician Cho Pong-am received two million votes in the 1956 election as the candidate
of the Progressive Party. Subsequently accused of being a North Korean spy, Cho was
arrested in 1958 and executed in 1959.
Rhee and his team of advisors directed industry to produce for the domestic market in
line with their policy of import-substitution. Using the model of Japanese zaibatsu, they
organized family-owned conglomerates (like Hyundai, Daewoo, and Samsung) at the
core of the country’s economy, a legacy still central to South Korea’s industrial and
financial organization. As economic development between 1948 and 1960 demanded
more off-line workers, the number of colleges in Korea doubled (from 31 to 62), and the
number of college students nearly trebled (from 24,000 to 97,819), with a great
proportion of students concentrated in Seoul. Although Korea’s GNP was less than one-
tenth of England’s, it had more college students per capita, and Seoul was “one of the
largest educational centers in the world.”6 The country’s secondary schools experienced a
similar surge in growth. In August 1959, an autonomous labor federation formed—the
Korea Trade Union Council—which explicitly opposed the yellow FKTU’s ties to
government. The new democratic union signed up more than 160,000 workers in its first
4.19: Students Overthrow Syngman Rhee
Rhee’s disdain for ordinary Koreans finally became his undoing. In elections on March
15, 1960, Rhee and his cronies shamelessly stuffed ballot boxes or stole them from
neighborhoods known to be opposition strongholds. When the official vote tally was
3 History of Korean Finance for 40 Years (Seoul: KDI, 1991) p. 157.
4 Alice H. Amsden, Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Later Industrialization (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989) p.43; Lars Lindstrom, Accumulation, Regulation, and Political Struggles:
Manufacturing Workers in South Korea (Stockholm: Stockholm Studies in Politics, 1993) p. 37.
5 Christian Institute for the Study of Justice and Development, Lost Victory: An Overview of the Korean
People’s Struggle for Democracy in 1987 (Seoul: Minjungsa, 1988) p. 13.
6 Gregory Henderson, Korea: Politics of the Vortex (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968) p. 170.
7 Sunhyuk Kim, The Politics of Democratization in Korea: The Role of Civil Society (Pittsburgh: University
of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) p. 34.
announced, Rhee claimed an overwhelming mandate for himself and for his notoriously
corrupt vice-presidential candidate, Lee Ki-bung. Weeks before citizens went to the polls,
many people suspected that the results had already been decided. In Daegu on February
28, high schools students had gone into the streets to warn of Rhee’s plot to extend his
rule, and 120 people had been arrested. As soon as the election results were announced on
the evening of March 15, a contingent of 10,000 students led a huge march in Masan,
which converged on city hall and demanded fresh elections. Police immediately attacked,
killing 8 students and wounding 123 more. As he always did, Rhee called the protests
“communist inspired.” Before the situation spiraled out of control, US commanding
General Carter Magruder approved Rhee’s request to send elite Korean marines to quiet
the citizenry. Undeterred by the army, similar outbursts occurred in Pohang, Daejon,
Suwon, Osan, and Jeonju. Organized groups of professors, journalists, and lawyers made
public statements in support of protesting students.
On April 11, a fisherman discovered the bloated body of 16-year-old Kim Ju-yol in the
sea near Masan. The young teenager from Namwon, a freshman at a Masan commercial
high school, had been hit in the eye by a tear gas canister. Police claimed he was a
communist, a charge “proven” by papers linking him to North Korea found in his pockets
(which many people believed had been planted). Both the murder and the cover-up
detonated a new explosion of protests. Immediately, 40,000 protesters gathered to view
Kim’s corpse, and by evening, an estimated 140,000 people had arrived.8 As people
refused to remain quiet, once again police resorted to force and killed many
demonstrators. Sporadic mobilizations by high school students in several provinces
refused to let the Rhee regime continue its unreasonable use of violence to impose its
In his arrogance, Rhee continued to believe unbridled force would convince Koreans to
submit. On April 18, gangsters in Seoul attacked a protest by Korea University students
near Dongdaemun. Using chains and metal rods, members of the Anti-Communist Youth
Corps mercilessly beat unarmed students. Police witnessed the beating of students but did
nothing to stop it. The chief of presidential security had summoned the goons to stop the
protests.9 In response to the attack, students from seven Seoul universities called for an
all-out mobilization the next day. On April 19, thousands of students took to the streets of
Seoul. By the time they approached the presidential palace, their ranks had swelled to as
many as 100,000 people.10 For the first time, students found massive support for their
demonstrations among the general public. During the march, some students chanted, “Let
us destroy communism by getting our democracy right!”11 Here was an early indication
of what would become the global New Left’s opposition to dictatorships of both the
8 Interview with Paik Han-gi, Masan, October 29, 2009.
9 Sungjoo Han, The Failure of Democracy in South Korea (Berkeley: UC Press, 1974) p. 29; Henderson, p.
10 Ingeborg Göthel, Geschichte Südkoreas (Berlin: Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1988) p. 73, and
Mi Park, Democracy and Social Change: A History of South Korean Student Movements, 1980-2000 (Bern:
Peter Lang, 2008) p. 65.
11 Namhee Lee, The Making of Minjung: Democracy and the Politics of Representation in South Korea
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007) p. 106.
communist and capitalist variety, of a gut-oriented intuition of freedom that cared little
for the ideology of governments that unnecessarily limited it.12
At the presidential palace, the massive crowd demanded to see Rhee. They were
answered when palace guards opened fire, killing at least 20 people in the first volley.
Remarkably, students fought back, refusing to be intimidated by clubs and guns. They
regrouped and spontaneously formed small action teams that destroyed the headquarters
building of Rhee’s Liberal Party as well as that of the Anticommunist Youth League, the
editorial offices of the government newspaper, and five police substations.13 Protesters
burned houses belonging to Rhee’s high-ranking subordinates, wrecked City Hall, and
attacked dozens of other buildings linked to Rhee and his party.
Throughout the country, thousands of high school students mobilized, especially in
Incheon, Jeonju, Mokpo, and Daegu. In Gwangju on April 19, high school students
demanding new elections surged downtown. Organizers sent runners to visit every school
in the city, and as soon as the initial protests occurred, the number of people swelled to
15,000—1,500 of whom were from Chosun High School.14 Police and firemen fired
water laced with red dye but failed to disperse demonstrators. Unpaved roads provided
plenty of rocks for ammunition to fight back. Throughout the night, battles continued as
protesters controlled the streets. In Busan, protesters set fire to many government
Before the violence ended, gunfire on “Bloody Tuesday” had claimed dozens of lives.15
In Seoul alone, more than 100 people were killed and over 1,000 wounded. Ultimately,
martial law was declared, the army was called out, and a 10 p.m. curfew was strictly
enforced. Remarkably, the army did not open fire. General Song Yo-chan ordered his
troops not to shoot, and soldiers and students reportedly shouted to each other, “We are
The next day college students again massively mobilized. For seven consecutive days,
there were major demonstrations in Seoul. On April 24, as the entire country appeared to
reject the “honesty” of the elections, Vice-President elect Lee Ki-bung publicly declared
he would not accept office. He and his family subsequently committed suicide. On April
25, some 258 university professors gathered at Seoul National University and issued a
message proclaiming that, “Student Demonstrations are the Expression of Justice!” They
marched through the city to demand Rhee’s resignation as well as those of the nation’s
Chief Justice and speaker of the National Assembly. By the time they arrived at the
National Assembly, more than 100,000 people were with them, and people listened
intently as professors announced a 15-point declaration. This event was significant for
many reasons, not least because it marked the first time in Korean history that professors
as a group had entered the struggle against tyranny. The spontaneous gathering of so
12 See my book, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston: South End Press,
1987), especially Chapter 2.
13 Ingeborg Göthel, p. 73.
14 Interview with Kim Ye-Hyan, 4.19 Institute, Seoul, December 13, 2001.
15 Sungjoo Han, “Student Activism: A Comparison Between the 1960 Uprising and the 1971 Protest
Movement,” in Chong Lim Kim (ed.), Political Participation in Korea: Democracy, Mobilization, and
Stability (Santa Barbara: Clio Books, 1980) p. 145.
many people was unprecedented in a society where dictatorships had ruled for so long.
Higher education in Korea had expanded, but there were fewer than 100,000 college
students in the entire country and scarcely more than a quarter million in high schools,
numbers that fail to account for central role of universities and high schools in
overthrowing the government.16 Positioned centrally in the cities and afforded great
respect in the world’s most Confucian society, students and teachers detonated a
widespread social explosion.
People took full advantage of their newly found freedom to act—space created by the
sacrifice of so many lives. After the gathering at the National Assembly, some 50,000
protesters attacked Vice-President Lee Ki-bung’s house. Placing his elaborate furnishings
on the street to be photographed, people proceeded to burn them before demolishing the
house.17 Their message was clear: not only must Rhee go, so must his entire
administration. Evidently, the massive outpouring of anti-government sentiment and the
capacity of people to act despite deadly police violence convinced the US to support
Rhee’s departure. A note delivered to the ROK embassy in Washington made clear his
American handlers thought it was time for him to go. Rhee would never have been able
to become President without US backing, nor was he able to remain in power without
American support. On Friday, April 26, the US ambassador and General Magruder
personally paid Rhee a visit to insure that he would to step down. They offered him the
same means of transportation back to the US that had been provided him in 1945 to bring
him to Korea: a US military aircraft. Shortly after the American officials had left, Rhee
announced his resignation and boarded a US military plane bound for Hawaii.
Immediately, joyful gatherings suddenly cropped up everywhere. Thousands of arrested
students were released, and police withdrew from public view. Students now directed
traffic on city streets and took over many police stations. All over the country, as they
swept the cities clean of the debris left behind from their hard-won victory, young people
proudly stepped into positions of authority amid public acclaim. With the army in the
streets, raucous celebrations transpired—spontaneous and joyful expressions of hope for
the future of democracy. The success of the uprising in winning power surprised
everyone—most of all those who had been at the center of organizing it.
16 Kang Man-gil, A History of Contemporary Korea (Kent, UK: Global Oriental, 2005) p. 318.
17 Mi Park, p. 65.
Decades of pent-up grievances were suddenly possible to discuss in public. As one
observer described it: “The April revolution was a giant social revolt…The students…
touched off a general revolt in society. The people revolted against the government. The
young revolted against the old. In many schools, students revolted against their teachers.
In some government ministries, junior civil servants revolted against senior civil servants.
In a more serious vein, some eight lieutenant colonels revolted against some generals,
requesting that the army be cleared of corrupt elements.”18
When the dead were identified and totaled, they numbered 186.19 At least 46 of those
people were high school students (7th to 12th grades), and the vast majority of those
killed were less than 30 years old. An additional 6,000 people had been injured.
18 H.B. Lee, Korea: Time, Change, and Administration (Hawaii: East-West Center, 1968) p. 119, as quoted
in Alice H. Amsden, Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Later Industrialization (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989) p.42.
19 See Sungjoo Han, “Student Activism” p. 159; Interview with Kim Ye-Hyan, 419 Institute, Seoul,
December 13, 2001. Other reports provide a variety of figures: Lee Chae-Jin reports 115 killed and 730
injured p. 43; Wickham claims 142 students were killed, p. 231; Gleysteen asserts that when students
marched on Rhee’s residence to protest the rigged elections, some 200 were killed by his guards, p. 9;
Ingeborg Göthel reports 183 dead and 6,259 wounded, Geschichte Südkoreas, p. 76; finally a church source
tells us 185 students or citizens were killed. See Lost Victory, p. 14.
Table 7: Age of People Killed in the April Uprising, 1960
15 or younger 11
30 or over 17
Source: So Baek O (editor), Uriga koroon kil (The Path of Our Life) (Seoul: 1962) p. 341 from Han,
“Student Activism,” p. 159.
Evidently, a new generation had moved to the center of Korean political life. In 1960,
more than half of all South Koreans were 19 years old or younger. In a highly literate
society, youth’s newly found powers derived from more than their numbers: Confucian
ethics accorded students great respect as well as a felt need among ordinary citizens to
protect them. Concentrated on campuses with room to reflect amid the idealism of youth,
students’ passionate involvement in politics would soon sweep the world in the global
revolt of 1968.
The 1960 victory won by Korean students inspired others around the world. Newspapers
reported that protesting students in Turkey bowed their heads to show respect to their
Korean counterparts. US activist Tom Hayden, one of the main authors of the Port Huron
Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS),
remembered his feelings when he first heard the news from Seoul: “I was exhilarated
when I saw young people our age overthrow the dictator Syngman Rhee. Through that
movement, I learned the history of the Cold War for the first time. Those events
challenged our naïve belief that our parents were fighting for a free world. I can tell you
that movement helped inspire SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]
and the black movement in the South. Two days after Syngman Rhee’s forced
resignation, SDS held its first meeting.”20
Japanese colonialism and the Korean War had destroyed much of the traditional Left. The
419 Movement was spontaneously democratic and anti-dictatorial. Korean students
clearly expressed political affinity with the global New Left when they articulated their
aspirations by chanting, “Democracy in Politics, Equality in Economy.” The professors
who led the April 25 demonstration were also harbingers of new social forces that would
appear globally in struggles during the 1960s. Dubbed the “new working class” by Serge
Mallet, proletarianized professionals and white-collar employees increasingly played a
significant role in social movements. As an especially privileged sector, professors were
easily co-opted by being handed plum positions and held in high status.21 Significantly,
farmers, industrial workers, and rural dwellers were marginal to the national movement
that overthrew Rhee. Indications of the new social landscape constructed after the Korean
War’s devastation also included the increased capacity of ordinary people to organize
20 Tom Hayden made these remarks in Gwangju during a speech at the International Conference
Commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising in May 2010.
21 Recent evidence indicates the possibility of collaboration between protesting professors and the US
themselves without central control, to rise up against entrenched power and overthrow it.
The absence of entrenched opposition leadership may have facilitated the movement’s
success. As Sungjoo Han understood:
“…the demonstrating students and masses did not have an organized leadership of their
own. Although leaders of the Democratic Party later claimed that they were largely
responsible for touching off the protest movements, their actual leadership within the
demonstrating masses was not present. Ironically, this absence of clearly definable
leadership may have contributed to the early abdication of Syngman Rhee.”22
Outside his coterie of pro-American Koreans, Rhee had no real base of support. When the
time came to rally around him, no one did, not even the US—which repeatedly sacrifices
discredited regimes (Trujillo, Diem, and Pinochet) to install new government that
continue to defend American interests while dissipating revolutionary upsurges.
Social Movements in the Second Republic
On July 29, 1960, a few scant months after the student revolution, elections swept the
Democratic Party into the leadership of the Second Republic. Emboldened by their
newfound power, students grew increasingly visionary and militant. Student power was
so strong, they even organized talks aimed at reunification with North Korean students at
Panmunjom. Alongside demands like lower tuition and a cultural break with their elders,
students continued to lead the entire society.
The uprising’s success led to an upsurge of movements among many different sectors of
the population and ushered in a vibrant new realm of possibilities. After April 19,
students and ordinary citizens were energized as never before. Decades later, activist Kim
Gun-tae explained that, “Since 1960, street protests became a tradition in Korea
politics.”23 Street mobilizations remain to this day significant vehicles of political
participation in South Korea. In the first year after Rhee was sent home to the US, some
2,000 demonstrations involved around a million persons. The military would later release
an estimate that an average of 3,900 people took to Seoul’s streets every day. Many
protests demanded stiffer penalties for ex-Rhee officials, reunification of the country, and
a declaration of permanent neutrality.24
Hundreds of labor disputes suddenly occurred, involving 340,000 workers. Wage
increases of 15% to 50% were won, and 315 new unions created, including among
teachers, bank employees, and journalists.25 On June 14, 1960, about 400 Samsung
workers went on a hunger strike, demanding the reinstatement of 152 fired colleagues, an
end to an illegal lockout by Samsung, and for the company to respect existing law.26 On
July 4, police were called in to evict the sit-in, and the struggle ended without success. To
22 Han, The Failure of Democracy in South Korea, p. 32.
23 Interview with Kim Gun-tae, Seoul, August 2, 2008.
24 Wonmo Dong, “University Students in South Korean Politics: Patterns of Radicalization in the 1980's,”
Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 40 No. 2 (Winter 1987) p. 234; Henderson, p. 179.
25 Koo, p. 135; Han, The Failure of Democracy in South Korea, pp. 178-193; Ingeborg Göthel counted 485
disputes with 340,000 participants. See p. 77.
26 Dae-oup Chang, editor, Labor in Globalising Asian Corporations: A Portrait of Struggle (Hong Kong:
Asia Monitor Resource Center, 2006) p. 11.
this day, Samsung still has no union. The country’s unemployment rate stood at 28%, a
major problem for 51,000 demobilized soldiers and tens of thousands of college students
who finished their studies at the end of 1960.
Buoyed by their newly found powers, students organized themselves into a force that
sought to alter Korea’s division into two states. The Student Federation for National
Unification and left-wing trade unions together demanded immediate reunification.
Simultaneously, a coalition of 17 parties and organizations campaigned against the US-
Korea economic accord. Seeking to initiate direct discussions with their counterparts in
North Korea aimed at reunifying the country, students set a date for a joint meeting, and a
large rally in Seoul called on the government to support the talks. On October 8, 1960,
after many defendants charged with the April shootings were found not guilty in the
absence of a special law, students who had been wounded during the uprising occupied
the empty National Assembly building.27
Led by the Democratic Party after the July 29 general elections, the new Chang Myon
government had immediately instituted freedom of the press. The second republic’s
bicameral legislature functioned with greatly reduced presidential powers. Under the new
regime, hundreds of police officials who had remained since the days of Japanese
occupation were fired, and police chiefs who had ordered their men to open fire of
unarmed protesters were punished. Nonetheless, most of Rhee’s mid-level officials
remained, and Chang showed little interest in qualitatively changing the institutions.
Although he initiated an investigation of the massacre on Jeju, Chang closely consulted
the US, especially CIA station chief Peer de Silva, on nearly all major decisions.28 At the
same time as protesters continued to call for even more extensive punishment of
politicians and police authorities responsible for the use of violence against the
movement, the new government came under increasing pressure to clamp down.
People continued to struggle for democracy. On November 28, sixty members of the
Student Christian Federation were arrested in the Christian Broadcast System building.
When a new repressive law was proposed, a significant all night protest remained in the
streets on March 22, 1961. Uprisings are crucibles that temper activists, hardening them
to lead the next phase of struggles. The 1960 revolution transformed Christians from
ardent supporters of the regime—as they had been under Rhee—to some of the most
important opponents of dictatorship. As one Christian publication put it, “The April 19th
Student Revolution was the moment of repentance for the Korean Church.”29 The
National Council of Churches was even more explicit: “The church finally opened its
eyes to see what was going on, and opened windows to see the dawn of a new day…The
nation has achieved a revolution, fought against tyranny…The Christian papers which
were so eloquent until the eve of the revolution have suddenly turned into silence.”30
Students’ euphoric belief in their autonomous power after they had overthrown Rhee led
them to intensify their initiative to reunify the country. They proposed a joint North-
27 Kang Man-gil, p. 202. Also see Martin Hart-Landsberg, The Rush to Development: Economic Change
and Political Struggle in South Korea (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993) p. 135.
28 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p. 344.
29 Democratization Movement and the Christian Church in Korea during the 1970s (Seoul: 1985) p. 23.
30 Korean Church: History and Activities (Seoul: National Council of Churches in Korea, 1990) p. 32.
South conference that would create a confederation whose highest body would be
composed of an equal number of representatives from North and South, an idea
personally considered by Kim Il-sung. For Koreans, with tens of thousands of families
divided by the nation’s partition, reunification was a heaven-sent prospect, but not for the
US, whose next war against communism, this time in Vietnam, was just beginning.
Four days before the scheduled conference in Panmunjom, a small coterie of US-backed
officers, with leading roles played by Park Chung-hee and other former members of the
Japanese army, seized control of the government.31 As the coup d’etat unfolded at
midnight on May 16, 1961, the army moved into cities with force. At 3:30 a.m., Chung
Myon telephoned Magruder for US troops to put down the coup, but the US refused the
government’s request. The next day, although the US retained operational control of
South Korea’s military, Park moved two full divisions into Seoul without Magruder’s
formal approval. Defenders of the US maintain there is no known evidence of prior US
knowledge of the coup, but recently released CIA documents indicate that the United
States had advance knowledge of Park Chung-hee’s coup d’état.32 Moreover, James
Hausman (leader of the US campaign to suppress the Yeosun Insurrection in 1948 and
self-described “father of the South Korean Army”) claimed to have had advance
knowledge.33 Professor Carlos Muñoz of UC Berkeley, who worked in the Intelligence
(G2) section of the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) in 1961, also told me he
had advance knowledge of the coup. Twenty years after the coup, Hausman was honored
by US military commander General John Wickham with a “Meritorious Civilian Service
Award.” The citation carried the following words: “Through his close personal
relationship with President Park, he was able to persuade the military junta to take actions
which eased the apprehensions of US officials, and his comprehensive understanding of
the background and aspirations of newly emerged military leadership enabled him to
convince US officials at a national level that under this leadership, the Republic of Korea
would move forward in a manner that would enhance the United States position in
Asia.”34 Remembering that Hausman had personally intervened with Rhee to save Park’s
life in 1948, we can only guess how much Park was indebted to him in 1961.
The day after the coup, a “revolutionary committee” of 30 generals and colonels pledged
to return power to civilians. But in their first acts, coup leaders arrested 2,000 political
leaders, including Chang Myon. They quickly purged more than 13,000 government
officials and armed forces officers, and closed 49 of Seoul’s 64 newspapers.35 Cracking
down on freewheeling urban youth culture, they used stiff penalties, corporeal
punishment, haircuts, and imprisonment to impose cultural conformity. The day after
Park’s coup, the investigators of the 1948 Jeju massacre were arrested. The dictatorship
clamped down on all investigations of past atrocities, so any public hint of the Jeju
massacre would have to wait until 1978 when Hyun Ki-Young published his short story,
31 Cumings, 1-175.
32 In 2010, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the coup (as well as to
Park’s 1979 assassination). On August 19, 2016, the CIA released documents that were only partially
redacted. Unredacted portions clearly indicate advance US knowledge of both the coup and assassination.
Researcher An Chi Yong’s web site also contains such information: http://andocu.tistory.com/
33 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p. 349.
34 Harvard University Yenching Institute, Hausman archive, Box 7, p. 3 of the citation.
35 Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun, p. 351.
“Aunt Suni.”36 Only in 1999 would the US slaughter of hundreds of unarmed refugees at
No Gun Ri in 1950 first be reported. Nearly half a century would pass before dozens of
such massacres would become publicly known.
Looking Back at the April 19 Revolution: Significance of the UNESCO Archive
Korean culture continually returns to yin and yang, to the dialectical unity of opposites.
In its early history, three consecutive dynasties lasted nearly half a millennium each, yet
in the 20th century, Korea has an unmatched and unique history of grassroots social
movements, uprisings and social upheavals.
Indigenous Korean political developments in the first half of the twentieth century were
stunted by Japanese colonialism, after which the Korean War uprooted and destroyed
long-standing social relationships. The modern culture that emerged from colonialism
and war contains one of the world's most robustly civil societies, a resource that makes
possible political transformations with a minimum of bloodshed. The April 19 revolution
created a lasting legacy. It bequeathed to Koreans a means of expressing the people's will
through massive and militant protests that subsequently helped to make possible the 1980
Gwangju People’s Uprising, the 1987 June Uprising and workers’ rebellion, the 1997
strike against neoliberalism, the 2008 candlelight protests against a lopsided American
beef treaty. Most recently, massive protests against the Park Gun-hye presidency led to
her impeachment by the National Assembly.
By preserving essential documents and artifacts from the 1960 revolution, this archive
will help to ensure that future generations will be able to look back upon the social
conditions, popular ideas and emotions that produced one of the world's first examples of
what is today called People Power. The important new ground broken by the April 19
revolution is significant not only for Koreans but for all the peoples of the world.
In the 21st century, social media make possible unprecedented opportunities for citizens
whose voices have often gone unheard to make public their needs and desires. No one
should overestimate the world-historical possibilities opened by procedures for
translating grassroots aspirations into political change without military force. For far too
long, humanity has suffered murder, torture and abuse at the hands of those who would
maintain unjust power. For generations to come, this archive will help insure that Korea’s
April 19 revolution will remain a shining beacon of people’s enduring need for freedom.
36 Hyun Ki-Young, Aunt Suni (Seoul: Kak Press, 2008) translated by Song Jong Do.