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Perspectives of the April Revolution

December 4, 2019

On March 15, 1960, Syngman Rhee, the First President of South Korea, was re-elected into office. He was not well-liked by the general public, but this result came as no surprise to anyone. A month before, on February 28, in Daegu, many high school students marched on the streets, alerting people of Rhee’s plan to lengthen his rule, resulting in the arrest of 120 students.  Rhee, using deceitful tactics, was able to swiftly imprison opposing politicians during his campaign. In addition, the sudden death of his main competitor, Chough Pyung-ok, before the election seemed too convenient to be just a coincidence. Rhee was also able to guarantee the election of his partner, Lee Ki-poong, as Vice President through the use of fraudulent and corrupt methods. Enraged, the citizens of South Korea began a mass revolt. On the day of the electoral results, 10,000 young democratic citizens in Masan protested, fueled by their anger of the results of the unfair election (Infobase - Facts on File). This sparked a clash between the police and the protesters, leaving 8 students dead and 123 others injured (A history of Korea: from antiquity to the present). Rhee’s call for elite marines to subdue the revolts was fulfilled by US General Carter Magruder. In spite of the danger, other outbursts followed in Pohang, Daejon, Suwon, Osan, and Jeonju. On April 11, 1960, the body of Kim Ju-yul, a high school student who participated in the Masan riot, was discovered by a fisherman (The Korea Times). The cause of death was identified as drowning, but demonstrators broke into the hospital where his body was located. There, they found that he had been shot by a tear-gas grenade, leaving fatal injuries. When a photograph of his body was released to the public, many were horrified and shocked. Rhee’s supporters attempted to censor information regarding the incident, blaming communist agents instead (ResearchGate). On April 18, students from Korea University led a non-violent riot near Dongdaemun, but were assaulted by members of the Anti-Communist Youth Corps (Korea: Tradition & Transformation). The demonstrations ultimately led to the April Revolution, carried out by students from several schools. The next day, on April 19, around 100,000 students from across the country flooded the capital, making their way to the Blue House (A Brief History of Korea, Marxists Archive). They demanded that Rhee step down from office, but the police began to fire at the riot in response. As seen by these chaotic series of events, South Korea’s government was extremely unstable and lacked a level-headed leader.

 

The April Revolution changed the South Korean public’s perception of justice. In the past, many seemed afraid to oppose the government, even if they did not support the decisions made by their leaders. They had adopted from Korea’s Confucian past a belief that it is an intellect’s responsibility to keep observing the virtue of the government (A Brief History of Korea). Eventually, the citizens realized that their “trusted” President and his administration were taking advantage of their sustained silence. Lee Ki-poong was a distant relative, but the childless Rhee considered him a son. Although Lee became disreputable, during the voting of the March 1960 election, the margin between the votes of the two parties for the vice-presidential candidates was abnormally large. It was discovered that hundreds of pre-marked ballots were filled into ballots on election day. However, Rhee had already built a reputation for being a corrupt dictator and frequently abused his rights. He also maintained cronyism, which provided advantages to his colleagues (A Brief History of Korea). Ultimately, President Rhee failed to develop South Korea, both socially and economically, but instead, he amended the constitution to keep him in power (Britannica). Initially, South Korean citizens remained quiet, but their anger and discontent with their greed-blinded ruler grew. My grandfather participated in the following protests. Many students were willing to sacrifice their lives in order to bring justice to the country which they cherished so dearly. Even when many began to fall, the protestors marched onwards. However, they did not stand alone in this struggle. Professors, journalists, lawyers entered the battle against tyranny. In a society where dictatorships were considered as standard, the spontaneous assembly of so many outraged people was unheard of. Together, the students took up the cry, “Let us destroy communism by getting our democracy right!” The young Koreans proved that they would no longer tolerate abiding by the unjust laws of their corrupt government. Rhee lost his grip on the reigns of power, realizing too late that the society he controlled would no longer acquiesce. By the end of the April Revolution, Rhee’s army no longer wished to protect such a disreputable government. In support of the protesters, the troops put down their weapons. Ultimately, their protests led to the resignation of Rhee and the apparent suicides of Lee and his family. These demonstrations inspired other students across the world. In Turkey, student protesters bowed their heads as a sign of acknowledgment and respect for their admirable Korean peers (ResearchGate). In order to achieve justice for the Korean citizens, students of the April Revolution spoke out against their leaders.

 

However, the April Revolution promoted the use of violence in order to resist political opposition. It grew apparent that the people in power had no empathy for their citizens. The President, along with his protégés, appeared as selfish people who only cared about maintaining their rule. In his arrogance, Rhee continued to resort to inflicting physical harm to convince the Koreans to give in. My grandfather was in the 11th grade at the time of the April Revolution. As a high school student, he felt motivated to join others in the rebellion. He seemed to vividly recall the violence of the policemen. He described himself hiding in an underground cafe, desperately trying to remain unseen. Suddenly, the police broke in, firing tear-gas and beating young students with metal batons. However, there was only one exit, which was blocked by the soldiers, leaving no way of escape. For a few days, my grandfather was arrested and imprisoned. Afterward, my grandfather became permanently claustrophobic and traumatized. The police had the intent to kill these unarmed protesters. However, the students chose to fight fire with fire. When the massive mob of students reached the Blue House, demanding Rhee’s presence, they were met with gunshots, killing at least 20 people. Strategically, the students broke up into smaller squads that demolished the central building of Rhee’s Liberal Party, in addition to the Anti-Communist Youth Corps structure, the editorial headquarters of the government newspaper, and five police stations (ResearchGate). Hungry for revenge, the students also burned the homes of Rhee’s outspoken supporters, destroyed City Hall, and raided other buildings associated with Rhee and his administration, especially in Busan. Similar movements followed in Incheon, Jeonju, Mokpo, and Daegu. In Gwangju, students began to raise up a commotion, demanding new elections. Police and firemen blasted water blended with red dye but to no avail. The students fought back, taking advantage of the abundance of rocks on the unpaved streets (ResearchGate). Korea was up in flames. “Bloody Tuesday” had inflicted death upon the young. Initially, the students had the right intentions, but their fury had gotten the best of them. Both the protesters and authorities fought for their own version of justice. These violent bouts exposed the Koreans to what would turn into their new reality, scarring the young minds of children in particular. The citizens of Korea ended up waging war with their leaders. Although they wanted to make a point, they got caught up in a frenzy, far past the breaking point. Typically, the term student government alludes to student participation in school and student body projects. However, in Korea in 1960, student government literally referred to students managing the government. They took over police stations, City Hall, and government headquarters after the April Revolution (A Brief History of Korea). Once again, there was an imbalance in power. By the end of the April Revolution, the students were no longer defending their ideals, but rather wrecking the country they once sought to liberate from corruption using violence.

 

Although the April Revolution appeared to be a movement for justice, it evolved into a brutal power struggle between the citizens and authorities of South Korea. According to a journal article by JSTOR, “The April Revolution was the inevitable result of the tension between rapid social development (change) and growing unrest.” The Korean students no longer tolerated Rhee imposing his will through brutality and retaliated. Eventually, both sides realized the suffering they were inflicting upon each other. On April 19, Rhee had ordered martial law. The military had full control, administering a 10 P.M. curfew (Korea’s Quiet Revolution). However, General Song Yo-chan told his soldiers not to fire any bullets (ResearchGate). Coming to an understanding, according to ResearchGate, the students and troops reminded each other, “We are brothers!” Blinded by their own understanding of justice, each side failed to consider fairness and care, which require understanding between multiple perspectives to reach a holistic resolution. Instead, they chose to take the bloody route, which made no long-lasting impact on South Korea’s government. The April Revolution seemed to change the public’s perception of justice, supposedly leading to the formation of the current South Korean democracy. However, it actually promoted the widespread use of violence against political opposition, leaving authority figures less empathetic to the brutality against the innocent. The April Revolution freed South Korea from Rhee’s corruption, but it also jeopardized the safety of the citizens.

 

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