February 15th 1960. Just one month from the presidential and vice presidential election day, fate took another tragic twist. Dr. Cho Byeong-ok, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate who had gone to Washington D.C. for surgery, passed away.
On January 19, at the peak of the campaign, Dr. Cho stated in a press interview: “I have no intention of going into a hospital. I assure you that I am mentally and physically capable of speaking for an hour and a half in any campaign rally. It is true that I have some problems with my intestines but I am not going to be hospitalized. The need for surgery is news to me; my doctor has never told me any such thing.” However, his doctor told the reporters on January 22 that X-rays showed Dr. Cho needed immediate surgery. Dr. Cho departed for the U.S. on January 29 with the words, “I’m going to come back in good health.”
He underwent surgery on January 30 at the Walter Reed Military Hospital. We were told that his prognosis was favorable and that he would be able to leave the hospital around February 22 and be on his way home at the end of the month. But he died suddenly on February 15.
To have been destined to lose a running mate twice! I lost my presidential running mate, Shin Ik-hee, in 1956 only ten days prior to the elections for the third president and vice president of the country. And now Dr. Cho was not to return from the U.S. Mine was the oddest fate.
As for Dr. Rhee, on the other hand, it was a boon for him to be elected without effort. His success for the fourth consecutive time became an established fact as there was no time for the Democratic Party to nominate another candidate. Relieved from the qualms over the presidential election, the Liberal Party set out to get Yi Ki-bung, their vice presidential candidate, elected by any means, fair or foul. They vowed not to repeat the defeat of the previous election.
With the beginning of March, we began to get clues that the Liberal Party was earnestly plotting against us. Not all of the police were tools of the ruling party. There were many officers who informed us about the instructions they had received to support the Liberal Party’s illicit schemes.
The opposition party was ready to reveal all the dark schemes of the Liberal Party. Equipped with evidence, we released new information to newspapers, which ran them under banner headlines. We also raised the issue in the National Assembly. We knew that the ruling party and the government had worked out detailed illegal and unethical strategies and sent instructions out with a stern admonition “not to spare anyone’s life” in order to remove any obstruction in their way. They were willing to go to the extreme.
On February 28, while I was heading to a rally in Daegu, high school students erupted in protest against the government’s heavy-handedness. Afraid, with good, reasons that the students would crowd into the rally, government officials instructed schools to keep them in class although it was a Sunday; that only ignited the anger of the students. Their demonstration that day was the starting point of the nationwide student demonstrations, which kindled the April 19 Revolution. My heart leaps even today when I think of the rally by the Suseong River where I spoke over the shouts of the Taegu students from afar. We had the wholehearted support of the people. There was nothing that could overpower the power of the people.
However, trouble was brewing from, of all places, the inside of our party. Some of the old faction members, having lost their zeal with the death of their leader, Dr. Cho, suggested we give up the elections because the election of a vice president alone would be meaningless. Most of them became passive spectators or, at worse, uncooperative. They probably saw no advantage in electing a man of the new faction as vice president.
In the meantime, the Liberal Party, now that their success in the presidential election was firmly secured, proposed that the president and the vice president be elected from the same political party. As the elections approached, election fraud became even more rampant, each new act more outrageous than the previous one. As a last resort, they printed a fake photo of the Democratic candidate. One morning near election day, I woke up to find the whole country plastered with a photograph of myself standing beside a Japanese soldier. A close look revealed that it was a composite picture of someone else with my face, the work of a professional photographer to create the impression that I was a Japanese sympathizer. The fact that it was plastered all over the country overnight, during curfew, plainly betrayed that it was done under the supervision of some government agency. Much too crude and vulgar to be convincing, the effort had the opposite effect of earning the Liberal Party derision and scorn.
From the dawn of election day, desperate reports poured in from everywhere, “There is nothing we can do. We should give up the election.” Ballot boxes were found that were already filled with ballots, and the poll watchers of the Democratic Party were barred from the polling stations. Gloomy reports notwithstanding, officers of the Democratic Party and I were determined to stay in the election. We agreed that we should bear witness to all the horrendous malpractices of the Liberal Party before we gave up and do so only when it was worth it. It would have meant nothing if we had given up at that point.
The atmosphere continued to get more and more depressing. Around 4:30 in the afternoon, a half hour before the ballot closing time, we finally decided to declare that we were withdrawing. The day had been marred with countless incidents of beatings and terror across the country and a great number of Democrats were severely injured.
In the evening of the most heinous election fraud in our history that usurped the sovereignty of the people, angry citizens in Masan took to the streets in protest against election fraud and stormed into the local police headquarters. It was a spontaneous outburst of people power, a violent eruption of pent-up discontent.
It should be pointed out that the day’s uprising was the public’s united response to the opposition Democratic Party’s steadfast struggle against corruption and dictatorship. The courageous uprising of the students that brought on the April 19 Revolution was made possible because the Democratic Party had already laid the foundation for resistance against the regime. Over the years, numerous Democrats had risked their lives and lost all their family fortune in resisting the suppression by the Liberal regime. Some were beaten to death or maimed. Kim Yong-ho, a financial officer of the Yeosu chapter, for example, was attacked by mobsters during the campaign and died on January 9, 1960.
Koreans owe the Democratic Party acknowledgement of its long struggle. It is not fair to condemn it as having been power-thirsty or to say that it had had a free-ride to power on the tail of the April 19 Revolution. It is true that the April 19 Revolution was directly responsible for the downfall of the dictatorship. There is no doubt that the students dedicated their own blood to the development of democracy. But the contribution of the Democratic Party in laying the groundwork for it through years of enduring persecution should not be underestimated.
On March 16, the opposition lawmakers declared in the National Assembly the invalidity of the presidential and vice presidential elections. On April 11, the Democratic Party filed a lawsuit to invalidate the elections. The next day, April 12, a massive street demonstration erupted in Masan for the second time.
I discussed the Masan situation with party officers and dispatched a number of doctors and lawyers together with party representatives. Local doctors dared not give medical care to the injured citizens for fear of retaliation by the Liberal Party. Lawyers were also needed because civil rights were being brutally trampled on and Masan people were reduced to a helpless state. As soon as they arrived in Masan, our doctors got busy taking care of the injured with medicines they had taken with them, while our lawyers started to work to protect the rights of the citizenry. Although belated, the opposition members endeavored their best to do their work. Masan in those days was a sweltering cauldron of frenzy and excitement. The deafening cheers that shook the streets whenever a jeep with a Democratic Party insignia drove by were the heartfelt shouts of people power.
The Democratic Party also did its best to locate the body of Kim Ju-yeol, a high school student who had been lost during the first Masan riot. We even hired haenyo, the women divers of fishing villages, to look for him underwater. Kim’s body floated up on April 11, a tear-gas canister lodged in his eye.
The roar of the people that started in Masan reverberated among the students of Korea University who started the student demonstration in Seoul on April 18. Several days before, opposition assemblymen had already staged a massive demonstration and some started a sit-in protest, locking themselves in the National Assembly.
“Down with the Syngman Rhee regime!” was the slogan that appeared at this stage. First heard in the demonstration by the Korea University students, it lit a fuse under students nationwide and erupted into a demand for the resignation of the President.