There was a history of unarmed resistance by the Koreans to Japanese occupation during the first half of the 20th century. After the division of Korea in 1945, the death and destruction of the Korean War 1950-53, and Korea’s continuing role as a front line in the Cold War, with US troops guarding the armistice line, South Korea was subject to the dictatorship of the western-backed Syngman Rhee until 1960. The popular desire for democracy, demonstrated in mass protests in which students were prominent, brought down the dictatorship. However, it was replaced by a new military regime under Park Chung Hee from 1961-1979.
There were renewed student protests in 1979, and a 1980 student revolt in Kwangju was brutally repressed by the army, which killed up to 2,000 people and arrested thousands more. General Chun Doo Hwan won the 1981 elections, and students continued to protest, often resorting to firebombing government buildings and fighting the police. But in 1986 students began to mobilize worker and rural support and a dozen students set fire to themselves (an act of traditional remonstrance to unjust rulers). Widespread opposition persuaded Chun not to stand for a second term in 1987, and led to gradual democratization of the previously authoritarian regime.