The April Revolution, sometimes called the April 19 Revolution or April 19 Movement, was a popular uprising in April 1960, led by labor and student groups, which overthrew the autocratic First Republic of South Korea under Syngman Rhee. It led to the resignation of Rhee and the transition to the Second Republic. The events were touched off by the discovery in Masan Harbor of the body of a student killed by a tear-gas shell in demonstrations against the elections of March 1960.
President Rhee had been in office since 1948, but faced increasing domestic discontent as his rule had delivered limited economic and social development, while being perceived as corrupt with Rhee amending the constitution to prolong his stay in power. The U.S. had reduced its economic aid from a high of $382,893,000 in 1957 to $222,204,000 in 1959. Rhee was shocked and threatened by this reduced American support and he began taking increasingly desperate measures to ensure his political survival. In December 1958 he forced through the National Assembly an amendment to the National Security Law giving the government broad new powers to curtail freedom of the press which was to prevent members of the opposition from voting.
For the 1960 presidential election, two main parties were running against Rhee. The small Progressive Party which received one million votes in the 1956 presidential election was represented by Cho Pong-am, while the Democratic Party was represented by Cho Pyong-ok. In July 1959 Rhee slandered Cho Pong-am as a Communist, he was imprisoned and swiftly executed. Cho Pyong-ok went to America for a stomach operation but died there of a heart attack. The death of these two competitors seemed too much of a coincidence to the Korean public and they assumed that the deaths were the result of corruption.
For the election of the vice president, which was done separately in Korea, Rhee was determined to see his protege Lee Ki-poong elected. Lee ran against Chang Myon of the Democratic Party, who was the former ambassador to the United States during the Korean War. On March 15 Lee, who was mostly bedridden, won the elections with an abnormally wide margin, winning 8,225,000 votes, while Myon received just 1,850,000 votes. It became clear to the people that the vote was fraudulent. According to the Korean Report, Democratic rallies were prohibited throughout the nation and hundreds of pre-marked ballots were stuffed into ballots on election day.
Masan protests and the death of Kim Ju-Yul
On March 15, 1960, a protest against electoral corruption took place in Masan. The protest, sparked by Democratic Party members' exposure of electoral corruption, led to about a thousand residents of Masan gathering in front of the Democratic Party Headquarters in Masan around 7:30 in the evening. As the citizens faced off against the police, the city was blacked out. The police started shooting at the people and the people responded by throwing rocks at the police.
On April 11, Kim Ju-yul's body was found in the harbor at Masan by a fisherman. Kim had been a student at Masan Commercial High School who had disappeared during the Masan rioting of March 15. Authorities announced that an autopsy confirmed that the cause of his death was drowning, but many rejected this explanation. Some protesters forced their way into the hospital. They found that Kim's skull had been split by a 20 centimeter-long tear-gas grenade which had penetrated from Kim's eyes to the back of his head, which indicated that the police had shot the tear gas to an angle less than 45 degrees, which could be fatal if shot directly at a person's face. Rhee’s regime tried to censor news of this incident, however the story was reported by the Korean press along with a picture of Kim when his body was first found, and delivered to the world through AP. This incident shocked the nation and became the basis of a national movement against electoral corruption on April 19. Masan erupted into three days of spontaneous mass protests which led to further violent clashes.
President Rhee claimed that the Communist Party of North Korea had been behind the Masan protests trying to shift the focus. Later a National Assembly investigating committee found that the firing into the crowd by the police had not been intended to disperse the crowds, but rather to kill protesters. It was later revealed at a criminal trial that Park Jong-pyo, the Chief of Public Security who ordered firing against protesters, tied rocks on Kim Ju-yul's dead body and threw him away into the Masan shore to prevent him floating up on the shore.
On April 18, students from Korea University launched a non-violent protest at the National Assembly against police violence and demanding new elections, however they were attacked by gangs funded by Rhee's supporters as they returned to their campus.
On April 19 thousands of students marched from Korea University to the Blue House, as they marched past other high schools and universities, their numbers grew to over 100,000. Arriving at the Blue House, the protesters called for Rhee's resignation. Police opened fire on protestors killing approximately 180 and wounding thousands. That day the Rhee government proclaimed martial law in order to suppress the demonstrations.
On April 25, 1960, professors joined students and citizens in large-scale protests outnumbering soldiers and police who refused to attack the protestors.
Resignation of Syngman Rhee
On April 26, President Rhee stepped down from power. Lee Ki-poong, Rhee's handpicked running mate for the vice presidency, was blamed for most of the corruption in the government. On 27 April Lee Ki-Poong and his entire family committed suicide. On April 28, Minister of Interior Choi In-Kyu and the Chief of Security resigned taking responsibility for the Masan incident.
After the resignation of Rhee and the death of Lee Ki-poong, the rule of the Liberal Party government came to an end. South Korea adopted a parliamentary system to remove power from the office of the president and so while Yun Bo-seon was elected President on 13 August 1960, real power was vested in the prime minister, Chang Myon. Following months of political instability, on 19 May 1961 General Park Chung-hee launched a coup d'état overthrowing the short-lived Second Republic of South Korea and replacing it with a military junta and later the autocratic Third Republic of South Korea.
The students who had led the April Revolution represented their actions as an effort to replace authoritarianism with democracy. South Korea need to halt and reverse the trend to a totalitarian regime and bring about fair and free election. In terms of looking at the April Revolution as a process of democratisation, it was not a class conflict of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat but a people's rights revolution. Students were at the center of calling for better rights of the citizen and demolishing authoritarianism into South Korea. South Korea was opening its eyes into democracy and began its history of developmental autocracy. The revolution showed the power of citizens to remove the president from office and call for clean politics and fair in South Korea for the first time.
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