Today is the 48th anniversary of the April 19, 1960 student uprising which ended Syngman Rhee's 12 years of increasingly autocratic rule. I've written about the uprising before, visually comparing it to the Kwangju Uprising (here), but this time I thought I'd use contemporary Time magazine articles to look at the March 15 presidential election and the lead up to the uprising in Seoul.
After the death of Syngman Rhee’s only competitor in the upcoming election, Cho Byeong-ok, this article, from February 29 1960, looks at the tempestuous relationship between Cho and Rhee, which includes Rhee ordering assaults on Cho on several occasions. It ends with this comment:
Since the only presidential candidate is 84 years old, the real race is for vice president. Rhee once again is running ailing Assembly Speaker Lee Ki Poong, 63, as his candidate. The Democratic candidate is again Roman Catholic John Chang, 60, who got his education at New York City's Manhattan College.A March 21 article looks at Chang's prospects in the election.
Lee Ki Poong, 63, an ailing automaton so unpopular that he has not campaigned at all. Four years ago Lee Ki Poong lost by more than 200,000 votes to the Democratic candidate, Roman Catholic John Chang, 60.Be sure to read about how Rhee was using "practice voting with model ballot sheets", among other things, to guarantee a victory for himself. When this was criticized, he said it would be stopped, he he would play fair:
In an open and honest election, Chang might well win again. But the police and Rhee's administration have resources of their own. Chang found himself unable to hire public halls or athletic fields, and bus and taxi service was mysteriously "suspended" whenever Democrats tried to hold meetings. At Suwon, Chang had to hold his rally on a high, bare hilltop while white police Jeeps filled with black-uniformed cops circled the hill and held attendance down to 3,000.
At the southern port city of Yosu, the Democratic Party treasurer was beaten to death with iron bars. In Kwangju, a young Catholic leader was stabbed to death by the local chief of Rhee's green-shirted "AntiCommunist Youth League."
As an added inducement, the Home Ministry promised that on election day each polling place will be surrounded by the tough, pro-Syngman Rhee South Korean police "to guard against possible terrorism."Home Minister Choi In Kyu later admitted that
in accordance with a Cabinet decision, he had collected the written resignations of all Korea's mayors and police chiefs before the elections, and told them their resignations would be accepted unless "they secured victory for Rhee and Lee Ki Poong." But he credited the national police director with the plan for "stuffing ballot boxes beforehand with 40% Liberal votes."
A March 28 article looks at the unsurprising election results of the March 15 election. Though Rhee won the election (8% of voters voted for the dead candidate) the race for the vice-presidency, which Rhee’s running mate Lee Ki-poong won, was contested.
Election day brought many complaints of voter intimidation and open ballot-fixing, of six-foot high boards outside some polling places showing voters how to mark their ballots for Rhee and Lee. Green-shirted members of Rhee's Anti-Communist Youth League lounged outside the booths as voters arrived, often in organized teams of three (so that the man in the middle could make sure that the other two voted correctly). The result was a decisive victory (76%) for Invalid Lee over U.S.-educated (Manhattan College) John M. Chang who had beaten Lee easily in the last election.Protests against the results also took place in Seoul, as this photo of an April 6 protest shows:
Tension ran high in many areas, and in the normally peaceful town of Masan voting was still in progress when a disgruntled crowd raised the cry, "Dirty polls!" It was like a spark in dry straw. Suddenly, 200 angry citizens raced to a police station, set it afire, fled with captured weapons. Another mob, 2,500 strong, gathered before the town hall, stoned firemen, who vainly attempted to hook up their hoses to fight back. After tear gas failed, scores of police arrived from nearby Pusan. One lowered his carbine and fired into the screaming crowd, a signal that led other cops to do the same. When it was all over, at least ten were dead, some of them schoolchildren, scores were wounded and hundreds were pushed into police vans and hauled off to jail.
An April 25 article tells us that
Five weeks ago, in the midst of the rioting that gripped the quiet city of Masan during Korea's presidential elections, a 16-year-old student named Kim Chu Yul sortied out into Masan's streets and never returned. The police claimed they knew nothing about him. But last week [on April 11] a Masan angler, fishing in the city's harbor, brought up Kim Chu Yul's bloated body. Still protruding from the corpse's head was a fragment of one of the tear gas shells that Masan police had used in quelling the election-day riot.
As the news spread through Masan, 10,000 infuriated citizens, many of them high school students, flocked to the building where Kim's corpse lay and demanded the body "so we can take it to Seoul and show it to the National Assembly." When the authorities refused, the crowd ran amuck. Raging through the streets, shouting demands for the resignation of President Syngman Rhee, the rioters sacked Masan's city hall, the local offices of Rhee's Liberal Party, the home of Masan's mayor and a brewery that a local pol allegedly received as a bribe for switching his support to Rhee in the elections.The article goes on to look at how this incident led opposition party members to begin denouncing Rhee, which, I suppose, did get some results.
From the brewery—where they found stacks of leftover ballots marked for Rhee's running mate, 63-year-old Vice President-elect Lee Ki Poong—the rioters moved on to Masan's police headquarters, smashed through a police cordon and wrecked the station. When Masan's police chief came driving up, infuriated women set fire to his Jeep and beat him so badly that at week's end he was still in a coma. For the next two days, the students of Masan paraded ceaselessly through town bearing placards that read "Down with Fraudulent Elections" and "Can Freedom Gained Through Blood Be Taken Away by Bayonets?"
Masan has long been a stronghold of opposition to Rhee's Liberals. In 1956 the people of Masan gave Rhee only half as many votes as Progressive Party Candidate Cho Bong Am (later hanged by Rhee's police for treason). Masan's voters flatly refused to believe that this time they had voted Liberal by nearly 3 to 1.
In the National Assembly, Home Minister Hong Chin Ki solemnly declared: "I promise to see to it that the police do not secretly dispose of bodies in the future." Instructions were also sent to the Masan police not to fire on demonstrators, particularly schoolchildren, "except when absolutely necessary."Just to make clear, schoolchildren most certainly took part in the demonstrations that would take place in Seoul.
Rhee himself came up with the predictable conclusion that the Masan riots were the work of Communist agents. The Masan police arrested so many violators that the city jail overflowed and some prisoners had to be held in railroad freight cars.AP correspondent K.C. Hwang, in the book Korea Witness, describes the results of another protest in Seoul, on April 18:
Several hundred students of Korea University were brutally attacked by unidentified youths on their peaceful return to the campus from a demostration in front of the national assembly on April 18. Using steel bars and clubs, the several dozen youths knocked down dozens of unarmed students on a broad daylight street in the busy center of Seoul. Citizens watching the bloody scene rushed to the rescue of the victims, taking the bleeding and unconscious youth to nearby hospitals, while those on their feet marched back to the school marching angry slogans.reported by Time correspondent Alexander Campbell:
The enormous crowds lining Seoul's sidewalks clapped good-humoredly as rank upon rank of boys and girls marched along the city's main thoroughfares, sturdily swing ing their briefcases and singing patriotic songs. Not far from the presidential pal ace of Kyungmudae (which means man sion of courage and beauty), the students were halted by determined, heavily armed police. The students demanded that Rhee receive a delegation of three or four of their leaders to discuss new elections and to promise no more police intervention on university campuses. When the request was refused, the crowd again pushed forward. A tear-gas shell fell near the front rank of students and failed to explode. When a student moved forward to toss it back, a policeman shot him.K.C. Hwang remembered this confrontation as being much more intense:
Alarmed by the increasing number of demonstrators in the capital, the government declared martial law as of 1 pm, but this did not deter protests. [...] Part of the street was excavated for drainage work, with small rocks and sewer pipes alongside. As in any violent demonstration, some of the students picked up rocks and started throwing them toward the police columns. [...] The usually quiet area was resounding with patriotic songs and chanting of slogan while the rock throwing intensified. It was then I heard shooting and screaming from the advance group. It was not sporadic shooting.
The Time reporter continues:
"At that, the whole mass charged forward—and ran into a hail of bullets that left several dead and dying. At this point, Seoul's 30,000 demonstrating students became partly an improvised army seeking weapons and partly a mob bent on destruction. While commandeered Jeeps and vans carried the wounded off to city hospitals, regiments of students, most of them still unbelievably clinging to their satchels full of books, continued to advance on the palace.
By now, the building of the pro-government newspaper, Seoul Shinmun, was burning, and so was the headquarters of Rhee's bullyboy Anti-Communist Youth League. From behind the heavy gates of Lee Ki Poong's home, police guards were firing into the crowd. Outside the city hall, students were beating two policemen to death with lead pipes."This May 9 article looks at the end and aftermath of the uprising, heaping praise on army chief of staff Song Yo Chan, who said that "I myself believed the students' demands were just." After three interviews with Rhee where he unsuccessfully tried to convince him to step down, he decided to make it clear the army backed the protesters.
By afternoon, Rhee called in Army Chief of Staff Lieut. General Song Yo Chan and placed Seoul under martial law. Rumbling into town with old Sherman tanks, the 15th ROK Infantry Division took over from the hated police. Genial, able General Song was firm, but his sympathies clearly lay with the students. "Call on me any time," he told a student delegation. As for the police, he warned bluntly: "Policemen found beating, torturing or abusing anyone will be dealt with under martial law."
Slowly, the recognition dawned that Song's army was not going to hurt them. By the time the 7 p.m. curfew hour came, the crowd had swelled to monster proportions. Suddenly, some of the bolder demonstrators clambered onto passing tanks shouting: "Long live our soldiers." Doffing their helmets, the young tank crewmen joined the crowd in tribute to the students killed in earlier rioting by singing a Korean war song […]My how things have changed, when it comes to perceptions of the US. Of course, it was perceptions of US action (or inaction) during the Kwangju Uprising which have fueled this change. I couldn't help but be reminded of the behavior of Kwangju's citizens during the five days of citizen rule after the army was driven out when reading this paragraph:
Secure in the knowledge the army was with them, a million citizens of Seoul swung into a half riot, half parade that lasted all night and far into the next day. The crowd broke into the home of the hated Lee Ki Poong, hauled its contents into the street and vengefully burned them; one of the few things spared was an American flag, which the demonstrators carefully folded and turned over to a U.S. reporter "for safekeeping." Amid the crackle of gunfire from panicky cops, the rioters burned down a police station and the houses of two members of Rhee's graft-ridden Liberal Party. With chaos threatening, U.S. Ambassador Walter McConaughy issued a stiff public statement warning Rhee that "this is no time for temporizing."
Song sent a loudspeaker Jeep into the streets with a suggestion: let student leaders come forward to form a delegation to see Rhee. Fourteen responded. Song chose five and personally escorted them to the presidential mansion. There, as Song stood by beaming paternally, the students told Rhee: "The only way to solve the problem is to hold new elections—and also for you to offer to resign."
Rhee hesitated, then replied: "If the people wish it, I will resign." At that moment, twelve years of Korean history —years when the words "Syngman Rhee" and "South Korea" had been virtually synonymous—came to an end, and the students burst into tears.
The student delegation emerged from the presidential palace shouting, "We have won!" Seoul's streets erupted into a spontaneous expression of joy. Song's tank drivers were all but submerged under swarms of Seoul moppets, good-naturedly let the kids try out the controls. A small regiment of kindergartners marched up to the U.S. embassy chanting: "Thank you, America." A jubilant crowd decorated a statue of General Douglas MacArthur with a scroll that read: "Long life to him who saved us from Communism."
Suddenly finding themselves the victors, Seoul's students showed extraordinary discipline. With virtually all the city's police force in frightened hiding, students ran the police stations, directed traffic, even commandeered city trash trucks and laboriously cleaned up the riot debris. When a group of rowdy schoolboys knocked a statue of Rhee off its pedestal and started to drag it away, older students restored it to place with the reproving reminder: "After all, he is part of our history."As for the last two sentences, well, things have certainly changed. The rest of the article looks at Rhee’s departure from office, how vice-president elect Lee Ki-Poong, seeking refuge at the presidential mansion, killed his family and then himself, and how the assembly voted for new elections and temporary president Huh Chung’s efforts to clean up the government.
The above photo is of a memorial for the dead held on May 19. The next year, the monument seen below would be unveiled.
Herein certainly lies a large difference between the 1960 and 1980. While the events of 1960 seemed a victory and were championed, a year later things were not so rosy. 1980 seemed a failure and it took years before there was any recognition of those who died (or were injured), but the fact that it happened left the taint of illegitimacy over Chun's entire presidency, and perhaps the example of resistance that others followed.
There are some great photographs of the 4.19 Cemetery in Gangbuk-gu here.