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South Korea

Society under Rhee

The transformation of South Korean society during the Rhee era was of revolutionary proportions because of the convergence of a number of forces. A major impetus for social change was the greatly enhanced opportunity for education. Although Japan had introduced a modern education system to Korea, opportunities for Koreans were purposely limited, particularly at the secondary and university levels. Educational opportunities were greatly expanded immediately after the Japanese defeat, and the trend continued through the Korean War and afterwards. Higher education provided more opportunities for upward mobility to a large number of young people. This opening also meant greater political awakening among the young, particularly in view of the strong emphasis placed on democratic values and ideas by teachers and intellectuals. For the first time, Korean youths were provided open access to democratic ideas both at school and through the mass media. These Western ideas became the norm against which to judge the government in power when the exigencies of the war period were removed.

A land reform law enacted in June 1949 also had a leveling effect on Korean society. Under this law, nearly 1 million sharecroppers, or approximately 40 percent of total farm households, became small landowners. The reform also brought about the decline of the landlord class that had formed the backbone of traditional Korean society for centuries. Because big business and industrial groups did not emerge until the late 1950s and early 1960s, almost everyone in society was placed on an equal footing.

The Korean War had the most significant effect on the social system. The movement of large armies up and down the length of the peninsula was accompanied by civilian refugees. People of diverse backgrounds intermingled for prolonged periods, deeply affecting everyone's way of life. The indiscriminate destruction of property during the war also had the effect of homogenizing Korean society.

The war caused hundreds of thousands of young men from rural areas to enlist in the army, exposing them to modern organization, technologies, and a new world outlook. The war also gave rise to a large officer corps that later developed into an increasingly significant social group.

Better education and the government's postwar economic policies contributed to accelerated urbanization. Reconstruction projects created jobs in the cities, while the government's effort to control the prices of farm products made it unprofitable to till small farm plots. The urban population increased rapidly from 11.6 percent in 1940 to 24.4 percent in 1955 and 28.3 percent in 1960. These changes had a direct impact on politics because the better-educated and urbanized elements became increasingly vocal and more independent in their political judgments.

Data as of June 1990