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When did South Korea become a democracy?


South Korea has come a long way since the end of World War II. It struggled under Japanese colonial rule, then went through a Korean War, and later experienced significant economic growth. However, it wasn’t until 1987 that South Korea became a democracy.

Prior to 1987

Before 1987, South Korea was ruled by military regimes for over three decades. The country’s first president, Syngman Rhee, was ousted in a public uprising in 1960. General Park Chung-hee took control of the country in a military coup in 1961 and held onto power until he was assassinated in 1979.

Gwangju Uprising

The Gwangju Uprising, which took place in May 1980, was a turning point for South Korea’s democracy movement. After General Chun Doo-hwan seized power in a military coup, student protests erupted in Gwangju, the country’s southwestern city. The government responded with brutal force, killing hundreds of civilians.

Democracy Movement

The Gwangju Uprising galvanized the democracy movement in South Korea. A series of protests and demonstrations followed, demanding democratic reforms and an end to military rule. The movement gained momentum throughout the 1980s, culminating in the June Democracy Struggle of 1987.

June Democracy Struggle

The June Democracy Struggle began on June 10, 1987, when a young man named Park Jong-chul died while being interrogated by police. His death sparked a nationwide movement that brought millions of people onto the streets, demanding democratic reforms and an end to police brutality.

Government Response

The government responded to the protests by declaring martial law and cracking down on dissidents. However, the protests continued to grow, with labor unions and religious groups joining the movement.


On June 29, 1987, the government agreed to hold free and fair elections for the first time in over a decade. The elections were held on December 16, 1987, and were a resounding success, with a record turnout of over 80 percent. Roh Tae-woo was elected president, marking the beginning of South Korea’s democratization process.


The impact of South Korea’s democratization has been significant. It has become one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies and a leader in technological innovation. Its economy has grown exponentially, and it has become an important player on the world stage.


However, South Korea still faces challenges in its democratic journey. Corruption remains a problem, and there are concerns about freedom of speech and press. The country also faces external threats from North Korea.


South Korea’s democratization has been a remarkable achievement, one that the country can be proud of. While there are challenges ahead, South Korea has shown that it is capable of overcoming them and continuing to grow as a democratic nation.


1. “South Korean Democracy: Legacy of Struggle”. The Diplomat.
2. “South Korea: A Fragile Democracy”. Council on Foreign Relations.
3. “South Korea’s Gwangju Uprising: A legacy of democratic struggle”. Al Jazeera.
4. “1987 Democracy Movement”. National Museum of Korean Contemporary History.
5. “South Korea Marks 30 Years Since Democratic Revolution”. Voice of America.

When did South Korea end its dictatorship?

After the election, the process of democracy continued to progress. In 1992, Kim Young-sam, a former democracy activist and opposition party leader who had joined the ruling party, was elected president, marking the end of almost 30 years of military rule.

Is South Korea a democracy or dictatorship?

In 2022, South Korea was classified as a “full democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Has South Korea always been a democracy?

At its start, the First Republic was considered democratic, despite the elimination of communist and socialist groups. However, it became more autocratic over time and eventually collapsed in 1960. The Second Republic was founded upon democratic principles but was quickly overthrown and replaced by an authoritarian military regime.

Was South Korea ruled by communism?

The Communist movement arose in Korea in the beginning of the 1900s as a political force. Despite having limited prominence in pre-war politics, the divide between North Korea, which was communist, and South Korea, which was anti-communist, became the dominant issue in Korean politics after World War II.

When did South Korea stop being poor?

According to Choo, Park and Yoon, Korea experienced a decrease in both absolute and relative poverty between 1965 and 1990, thanks to the rapid economic growth that occurred during this period. This growth helped to significantly alleviate poverty in the country.

Is Korea a capitalist country?

South Korea has embraced an open-market capitalist economy and is currently in talks with other nations to promote the signing of additional free trade agreements (FTAs). The country also welcomes foreign investment and encourages domestic companies to invest in overseas markets with equal freedom.

Continued Challenges

Despite the significant progress made in democratization, South Korea still faces challenges in ensuring that its democratic institutions remain strong and effective. For example, there have been concerns about the independence of the judiciary, with allegations that judges are sometimes influenced by political pressure. The country also struggles with issues of social inequality, particularly when it comes to gender and minority rights.

Civil Society

One of the key factors that helped drive South Korea’s democratization was the strength of its civil society. A wide range of groups and organizations, including labor unions, student groups, and religious organizations, were involved in the democracy movement. Today, civil society continues to play a crucial role in holding the government accountable and pushing for further reforms.

Regional Implications

South Korea’s democratization has had significant implications beyond its own borders. It has inspired other countries in the region to pursue democratic reforms, and has helped to promote a more stable and peaceful East Asia. At the same time, however, South Korea’s democratic success has also generated some tensions with neighboring authoritarian regimes, particularly North Korea and China.


Overall, South Korea’s journey towards democracy has been a remarkable one. From its early struggles under Japanese colonial rule to its emergence as a vibrant democracy in the late 20th century, South Korea has shown that it is capable of overcoming difficult challenges and achieving great success. While there are still many challenges ahead, South Korea’s commitment to democracy remains strong, and it is poised to continue playing an important role on the global stage in the years to come.

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