Other Articles in this Series on Korean Coins
South Korea's hwan coinage (1959-1975)
Circulation Coins of the Republic of Korea
The 30th Anniversary of Liberation 100 Won Commemorative coin (1975)
The Fifth Republic Commemorative Coins (1981)
South Korean Pattern Coins (1965-1966)
Coin Shops in Seoul

The "Five Millennia History of Korea" Gold and Silver Commemorative Coins of 1970

South Korea's first commemorative coins
South Korea's first commemorative coins were issued in 1970.
In the early 1970s, coin enthusiasts around the world were introduced to the first legal tender gold and silver commemorative coins to be issued by a government on the Korean peninsula.   It was the Republic of Korea (South Korea) that was responsible for this "first" when it released twelve commemoratives that appeared as six gold proofs, and six silver proofs.   Collectors could purchase them individually, as a six-coin silver set, or even as an all-inclusive twelve-coin set, of which only 350 were made.   Known as "The Five Millennia History of Korea Commemorative Coins" (in Korean: 대한민국 반만년역사 기념주화 or 대한민국 오천년 영광사 기념주화), the story of these coins is representative of the times from which they emerged.   It all began with a former Korean diplomat´s trip to Europe in 1969.

As Seoul´s former ambassador to the United States in the Korean War era, and as a Washington D.C. resident, Yang Yu-chan had key contacts among foreign diplomats, Washington-based Korean embassy and intelligence staff, and other influential Koreans living in the United States.   As the reader will find out, the latter two groups would wangle their way into the deal that produced Korea´s first commemorative coins.

  It was in his capacity as South Korea´s unofficial ambassador-at-large that Yang Yu-chan made his trip to Europe in the Spring of 1969.   There, a friend tipped him off to a rumor that the North Koreans were making plans to introduce a set of gold and silver commemorative coins onto the world numismatic market.   Yang dutifully notified the government in Seoul, which at the highest levels quickly set in motion the actions that would allow South Korea to get a set of their own coins onto the market first.  

Ambassador at Large, Yang Yu-chan

Yang Yu-chan was South Korea's Ambassador at Large in the 1960s, and "Executive Vice President" of the Korean Cultural & Freedom Foundation in Washington D.C.

Unlike other decisions he made during his tenure, South Korean President Park Chung-hee paid attention not to the rationality or efficiency of his government being the first to issue these coins, but to the national, and in this case, political efficacy of doing so.   Park undoubtedly considered it abhorrent that foreign buyers of North Korean commemorative coins would start associating the country, "Korea," with the North´s version of history and politics, and particularly the chubby face of its leader, Kim Il-sung (whose image would undoubtedly be prominently featured in any North Korean coin set).   Park and his government were determined to get their preferred political and historical themes (and Park´s face) on a set of commemorative coins before the North Koreans could.   But to get the jump on their adversaries, the South would need to attend to a few issues.

In the late 1960s, coin-manufacturing capabilities in South Korea were a far cry from those that their Mint, KOMSCO, would possess four decades later.   Barely three years old in 1969, the coin mint near Busan simply did not have the capability to produce high-quality gold and silver proofs in quantity.   In order to get their commemoratives on the market first, the Seoul government wanted to order the coins from a preeminent foreign mint.   However, doing this posed domestic legal complications.   Although the gold and silver coins were to be non-circulating commemoratives, they would also be legal tender.   According to the central bank laws in South Korea, only the Bank of Korea had the authority to manufacture and issue currency.   To overcome this legal hurdle, the Korean government quickly amended its bank law with a series of seven additional articles that stipulated approval, reporting, and oversight processes that would allow for the overseas minting and sales of the commemoratives.


Two examples (left) of the pastel sketches that the Mint's design team received in August 1969.  It seems that these particular sketches were copies of images that appeared on previously-issued stamps (right).

Soon after the government began this legal push to produce the commemoratives, the South Korean Mint´s design team had its first look at the selected design requirements and specifications.   Sometime in August 1969, the government handed the design team a group of black-and-white pastel idea sketches that the designers were to simply work from, and improve.   Mint officials did not ask the team to draw up any tentative designs of their own, which was an unusual procedure.   Of mysterious origin, the idea sketches were rumored to have been sketched by Korean students studying overseas, but no one knew for sure.   On top of this, the team was given only one month to modify the design ideas to meet the specified requirements before being submitted for approval.  

Together with the design team´s resulting rough pencil sketches of the final obverse and reverse designs, the Bank of Korea submitted an approval application to the Ministry of Finance on September 25, 1969.   The application detailed the proposed weight, diameter, denominations, and designs for each coin.

Soon after, the Ministry of Finance approved the application, but with modifications to some of the coins´ designs on October 20th (see table below)   The approval ordered the Bank of Korea to abide by a few other stipulations:

-First, the Bank should proceed by eliciting bids from different private mints for the work of manufacturing the coins.

-Second, a percentage of the profit derived from the sale of the commemoratives would go directly to the Washington-based Korean Cultural & Freedom Foundation (of which ambassador-at-large Yang Yu-chan was the Executive Vice-President) for the purpose of supporting "anti-communism."

-Third, once the terms of a contract with a foreign mint have been drawn up, the Bank should report to the Ministry of Finance on the progress of the coins´ manufacture, and the quantities being minted.


With government approval in place, Bank of Korea director, Suh Jin-soo and the director of the banknote-issuing authority, Yi Myeon-seok, traveled around Europe in November and December of 1969.   Their charge was to meet with the heads of reputable private mints that could fulfill the dual roles of both manufacturer and sales authority for the commemoratives.   The two top choices were the De La Rue Company, Ltd in Britain, and the Caracas-based

President Park affixed his consent to the proposed image of himself that would appear on the 10,000 Won gold coin and the 250 Won silver coin.

Italcambio.   The Koreans had prior experience in dealing with De La Rue when that company printed an entire series of banknotes for the Bank of Korea after their government´s third currency reform in 1962.   However, De La Rue was not specialized in minting gold and silver proofs in quantity, nor were they associated with a sales network.   Italcambio, on the other hand, had a record of performance as a contract mint for over forty different countries´ commemorative proof sets, and equally important, they possessed an extensive sales network.   At the end of their discussions with Italcambio, the officials from the Bank of Korea were still undecided as to whether they should enter into a tentative agreement with the company, or to just keep looking.   It was then that the people at Italcambio dropped the ultimate hint:   While the Bank of Korea sat on its hands contemplating the deal, nothing necessarily precluded Italcambio from finalizing a contract to mint the North Korean´s commemorative coin set.   Considering the imperative from President Park, the Korean representatives conceded to Italcambio´s less-than-subtle incentive.


With Italcambio lined up for the minting contract, President Park gave his approval to the deal, and on January 29, 1970, the Ministry of Finance issued an order for the overseas minting and sale of Korea´s first gold and silver commemorative coins, with an expected issue date on the South Korean holiday, Liberation Day: August 15th of that year.   On March 19, 1970 the Monetary Administration Committee gave its approval to the previous modifications of the coins, and soon the engraving process of the coin designs commenced at the Korean Mint.   The Committee also offered its own opinion on the rationale behind the issuing of the commemorative coins, stating that the coins would "Enhance national prestige, lure tourism to Korea, advance an anti-communist agenda…" and provide the added bonus of beating the North Koreans to the chase.

The Minting Contract

On April 23, 1970 a Korean delegation signed the contract with Italcambio in Italy.   The meeting took place at the Korean embassy in Rome and was attended by Yi Myeon-seok (in place of the Director of the Bank of Korea, Suh Jin-soo), Mario Pizzorni, the President and founder of Italcambio, Yu Jae-heung, the Korean ambassador to Italy, and Pak Bo-Hee, head of the Korean Cultural & Freedom Foundation (KCFF).   The contract that these men entered into that day stipulated an unusual, reciprocal scheme between the Bank of Korea, the KCFF, and Italcambio.

The parties agreed that the Bank of Korea was to be the official contracting authority with Italcambio;  However, the KCFF was to play the role of the Bank of Korea´s proxy as the "distribution authority," while Italcambio would fulfill its dual role as the manufacturer and as the "exclusive world agent" for the sale of the commemorative coins.   The roles and responsibilities of each party are detailed in the diagram on the right.



The contract with Italcambio further stipulated that:

1)   Twenty percent of all profits from the sales of these commemorative coins were to go directly from Italcambio to the KCFF (and not to the Bank of Korea).

2)   In its capacity as "distribution authority," the KCFF would be responsible for overseeing the manufacture of the coining dies, the handling of the coins, and quality control.

3)   The Bank of Korea would not issue other gold and silver coins during the contract period (at the request of Italcambio).

4)   Italcambio, for its part, would not enter into a minting contract with the North Koreans.

5)   The contract to mint and sell the coins would last four years from the date of signing (April 23, 1970).

The ostensible reasoning behind this three-party arrangement was because the Koreans wanted to sell the gold and silver coins overseas to non-Koreans in an effort to promote South Korea (using the external entities of the KCFF in Washington, and Italcambio with its branches worldwide).   Also, selling the coins outside of Korea through Italcambio´s sales network would circumvent some legal issues involving their importation and sale in Korea.   Although a full explanation of the KCFF´s involvement (and the performance of its supposed duties) in this sales scheme does not exist in the available literature on this subject, an equally important consideration was the effort to fund the KCFF:  A US government investigation uncovered documents that the KCFF called this the "Coin Project."  Pak Bo-hee and Yang Yu-chan had obviously wangled their twenty-percent cut from the contract after Yang was the first to warn the Korean president of the supposed impending release of the North Korean commemorative coins.  The veracity of Yang´s claim about the North Korean coins has never been proven.  Permission for the KCFF to skim the profits from the coin contract came from Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) director Kim Kye-won (who was later one of the only four witnesses to President Park Chung-hee´s assassination in October 1979).

The Korean Cultural & Freedom Foundation in the 1970s

The KCFF was a Washington D.C.-based tax-exempt organization established by leading figures in the Unification Church under the pretext of promoting Korean-American relations.   In addition to the twenty-percent royalty paid directly to the KCFF from the sales of the commemorative coins, the foundation received a much greater amount of funding from generous American donors who supported its cause of "anti-communism," all the while its connection to the Unification Church was intentionally obscured.   In any event, the KCFF´s true raison d'etre was revealed by a US House of Representatives committee, which investigated the KCFF´s role as a funding source for the Unification Church and its efforts in the Korean influence-peddling scandal that erupted in Washington in the mid-1970s.   The scandal is commonly referred to as "Koreagate."   So, in addition to enhancing South Korea´s prestige, luring tourists to Korea, and besting the North Koreans, the sale of South Korea´s first commemorative gold and silver coins helped to fund the bribing of American congressmen and business leaders for the benefit of both the Park Chung-hee regime and the Unification Church.

Manufacturing the Coins

These markings were struck onto the 25,000 Won gold coin and the 1,000 Won silver coin.  Each of these coins were numbered, progressively, with a counter-stamp as they were minted (left).  In the image on the right, the mark seen on the bottom, "1 AR", is the mint mark of the Gori & Zucchi Mint.  Above that, is the number "1000" that indicates that the coin was struck in sterling silver.



Italcambio subcontracted the majority of the manufacturing of the coins out to the Gori & Zucchi Mint, based in Arezzo, Italy.   A remaining amount were minted at the Staatliche Münze (State Mint) in Karlsruhe, Germany, and an even smaller amount of the gold proofs were minted by the Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint).   As Germany and France were included in the list of 23 countries where Italcambio planned to sell the commemoratives, the minting of the coins in Germany and France was probably a way to get around importation restrictions in those countries.   In their case, the Gori &Zucchi Mint provided the German and French mints with the coin blanks and working dies with which the coins were made.   These coins were then sold locally.  However, enthusiasts of the rarer Paris Mint gold coins have noticed that they have a deeper, "redder" gold color than the Gori & Zucchi Mint strikes, implying that the Paris Mint may have used different coin blanks.  As for quality control, the Koreans had wanted to hire third-party inspectors from Germany to oversee Gori & Zucchi´s operations, but after encountering difficulties with this arrangement, the Koreans simply resorted to local oversight by Gori & Zucchi.

The Bank of Korea had planned the number of pieces to be struck for each denomination, but the actual mintages were to be based on the popularity of the coins and coin sets during the four-year contract and sales period (1970-1974).   Sales must have been lower than had been expected, for as it turned out, the actual number of coins actually made fell far short of what was planned. (see table)



Many of the gold coins in this commemorative series were sold individually.   However, these gold coins also appeared in rare, all-inclusive twelve-coin gold and silver sets that were presented in hard, white display cases with red velvet-lined interiors (left).

Much more common were the six-coin silver sets (right) that were presented in the typical vinyl cases in which Italcambio sold other world-coin commemorative sets.   The English-language literature that advertised these silver sets claimed that 22,500 sets were to be assembled for sale.   As it turned out, only just over 4,000 of each silver coin were actually minted.   Italcambio was the "exclusive world agent" for the sale of these coins.

In May 1970, the Bank of Korea announced the issuance of the gold and silver commemoratives to ten major central banks around the world.   All of the gold coins were each minted in 90% gold, 10% copper (Au 900/1000, Cu 100/1000) and each of the silver coins were minted in sterling silver (Ag 1000/1000).   Upon release, each six-coin silver set sold for $52 USD in the USA in 1971, and two years later, for $63 USD.   Italcambio sold the coins based on weekly precious-metals market prices, and advertised them in newspapers and numismatic journals.   Of the 350 twelve-coin sets, only thirty were imported into Korea, where ten of the thirty sets ended up in the hands of the Presidential Secretary´s staff.   The amount of gold and silver coins released was to total ₩995,000,000 Won, the contemporary equivalent of $3,902,000 USD.




The gold coins minted by the Paris Mint have the Mint's "cornucopia"( corne d'abondance ) privy mark ( differént ), on their reverses in the 8 o'clock position.  These Paris Mint gold coins number only 402 pieces total.

As the end of the contract drew near in 1974, Italcambio suggested to the Korean government that they might want to consider producing another series of commemoratives.   Italcambio envisioned a larger-scale minting contract, but for gold and silver coins of a smaller weight and diameter.   The Korean government declined the offer, and the contract officially came to a close on April 23, 1974.   The Koreans later learned that the Gori & Zucchi Mint had made an additional 300 of the gold commemorative pieces after the end of the contract period, without the Bank of Korea´s knowledge or permission.   After having learned this, the Bank ordered the Italians to collect and secure all of the coining dies and bronze plates for the reducing lathes in November 1975.   Over two years later, in January 1978, the Bank of Korea´s currency-issuing director traveled to the Italian mint where he made a final tally of the number of coins from the counters on the machine presses, gathered up all of the dies and bronze plates, and disposed of them.

In the years since the introduction of these commemorative coins, the popularity and prices for them have steadily increased.   As they were initially not meant to be sold in Korea, the rarity of these coins in Korea makes them especially prized among collectors of numismatics there.  The gold coins manufactured by the Paris Mint are the rarest of all South Korean coins.  In 2011, the King Sejong the Great [KM#19] gold coin sold for ₩12,000,000 KRW, and the Silla Dyansty gold crown [KM#18] gold coin sold for ₩7,200,00 KRW.   Around the same time, the six-coin silver sets were commonly sold for about $1,500 USD at online auction sites.


Collectors of the gold coins will notice that third party coin grading services have written "VALCAMBI" on the information tags for some of the gold coins from this commemorative series.   Valcambi is a precious-metals refiner and private mint based in Switzerland.   Although this mint's involvement in manufacturing these coins is NOT mentioned in the Korean-language sources available on this subject, Valcambi IS mentioned in the Krause Publications' Standard Catalog of World Coins as a maker of these gold coins.   According to Krause, the only mints involved in making these gold coins were Valcambi and the Paris Mint.



A contemporary account of the first release of the 1970 Korean Commemoratives


The following are the recollections of a person who has commented about this webpage:

"From 1969 to 1971, I worked part-time for a London coin retailer who specialised in modern issues.   There was very little marketing of these coins in England and we only found out about them by accident when a regular client asked about them.   Even then, my boss would not buy them.   The fact that they were to be individually numbered, made them medals not coins (in his view).   He felt that Italcambio was a shady outfit, issuing some collectibles for places that did not exist and according to his US friends, possible links to the mafia.   He decided not to risk his capital on the Korean 'coins' and not to risk his reputation on his client's behalf. 
I think this highlights Italcambio's lack of marketing in England since I later met people in Europe who had no qualms about buying their products.   It's a pity because they were stunning designs for the 1970s.
"



The KCFF
Pak Bo-hee giving Moon a squeeze (left), and Pak giving an emotional performance after having just called Representative Donald Frasier (D-Minnesota) the "devil" for daring to question the activities of the Moonie organization, the KCFF.

The Korean Cultural & Freedom Foundation


The Korean Cultural & Freedom Foundation (KCFF) was established in Washington D.C. in 1964 by the leader of the Unification Church, Moon Seon-myeong, but was the brainchild of his right-hand man and former Korean Army Lieutenant Colonel and KCIA agent, Pak Bo-hee.  Pak hit upon the idea of raising money for Moon (tax-free) by creating a foundation in Washington that would appeal to conservative American sensibilities, all the while hiding its connection to the church from donors and even the American notables who were to grace the KCFF´s letterhead with their famous names.  To appear as a worthy cause to American donors, the KCFF fronted as a foundation that promoted Korean-American relations and anti-communism.  As in most multi-purpose Moon ventures, the KCFF aggressively pursued endorsements and photo-ops with distinguished American figures.  This was the key to successful fundraising, as Pak knew how to translate the illusion of fame into lucrative donations.  South Korea´s ambassador-at-large in Washington, Yang Yu-chan was one of the figureheads that Pak involved in the Foundation, giving him the title of Executive Vice-President.  Yang was important because with his background as a respected diplomat during the Korean War, he was able to persuade former admiral Arleigh Burke to accept the title of President of the KCFF.  Together, Pak, Burke and Yang were able to add former presidents Truman and Eisenhower as honorary presidents of the KCFF, while the Foundation´s list of advisors included Richard Nixon and General Matthew Ridgeway.

Because the money the KCFF raised was funneled to Moon, it did not take long before people starting asking questions.  Arleigh Burke resigned his position in the KCFF in 1965 due to Pak´s unconvincing explanations about how the Foundation´s money was being spent.  Burke had also discovered Moon´s connection to the KCFF and the Little Angels dance troupe, another Moon venture with hidden purposes (one of which was getting huge amounts of cash from Japan past US Customs).  Three years before Yang Yu-chan secured for the KCFF the profits from the sale of South Korea´s first commemorative coins, Pak Bo-hee put together a new scheme:  Old radio transmitters already fully-funded and belonging to the Korean government were set up to broadcast anti-communist propaganda throughout Asia from Seoul, with help from the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).  Feigning an urgent need for donations to purchase and run the transmitters, Pak appealed to Americans through mass-mailings over several years to send in cash for the KCFF´s new venture, "Radio of Free Asia" (ROFA).  The US Embassy in Seoul was getting wind of some of these shenanigans involving Pak Bo-hee, and Ambassador Winthrop Brown was suspicious of Pak and the fact that the prominent Americans on the KCFF´s board were being used to raise money for Moon, without their knowledge.  Yet, the donations kept coming in to the KCFF, even when the Americans involved in ROFA figured out what was happening and pulled out.

There is also the connection between the KCIA and the KCFF.  The founder of the KCIA, Kim Jong-pil (later to become one of the "three Kims" that were fixtures of the South Korean political landscape for decades) decided to sponsor Moon Seon-myeong´s obscure, anti-communist religious sect in 1962.  Utilizing loyal civilians to front some of the operations of the KCIA was potentially useful.  When the concerted South Korean effort to influence the US Congress began at a meeting presided by the Korean president in 1970, four parties, based in Washington, were used as the agents to implement the influence campaign:  The Korean ambassador, the Korean Embassy´s KCIA chief in the USA, a Korean Svengali-figure named Park Dong-seon, and, of course, Pak Bo-hee and the KCFF.

The influence-peddling scheme seemed to be President Park Chung-hee´s attempt to circumvent foreign policy decisions by US presidents that lowered commitments to South Korea.  The Korean president was also shocked by the attacks on Nixon during the Watergate investigations, fueling his fears that his government might not be able to rely on the US executive branch for unconditional support.  However, the real reason why Park wanted to influence congress was because he knew that his growing autocratic rule would not sit well with the US government, and he needed to improve South Korea´s image somehow among others in the US government who could influence Korea policy.  The methods of influence took the form of appealing directly to US congressmen, big-name dignitaries, businessmen and journalists by providing free trips to Seoul, cash in envelopes, campaign contributions, pretty female staffers and other kinds of perks.

When the Koreagate scandal broke, the KCFF´s connection to the Unification Church and KCIA was blown wide open.  The investigations by Representative Donald Fraser, and those of the Justice Department, almost led to an investigation of Moon himself as a foreign agent, but this never happened.  However, the damage was done:   President Park´s efforts to change his regime´s image actually backfired, resulting in unwanted negative press attention to the Korea-linked scandal in the USA.  In the aftermath, the Moon organization and the KCFF were scrutinized by the US press in earnest, really for the first time.  The investigations revealed that a New York State audit discovered that the KCFF raised $1.3 million in fiscal 1975, but spent only 8% ($123,000) of that amount for charitable purposes.  After news-stories like this appeared in the press, the KCFF´s star certainly began to wane, and it effectively disappeared as an active organization.  Pak Bo-hee, however, was never charged with a crime.


Park Chung-hee

Park Chung-hee

  (b. November 14, 1917,  d. October 26, 1979)

Park was military junta leader, and then President of the Republic of Korea from 1961 to 1979.  To get a sense of this Korean leader is to learn how he emerged as a person during Japan´s rule of Korea in the first half of the 20th Century.  Like many young Korean boys and men of his generation, he spent his youthful years in the depressed Korean countryside, steeped in the tragedies of poverty (one historian described his family as “vagabonds”), with a megalomaniac Japanese nationalism hammered into his head at school and work, while at the same time nursing an equally ardent, but wounded, Korean pride.  In this sense, the personal struggle that would define Park Chung-hee´s early life might just fit Albert Memmi´s description of the “colonized man,” who attempts to “re-conquer all the dimensions which colonization tore away from him.”  Indeed, this is what he might have been trying to do when he made the dramatic change in career from anonymous countryside school teacher to that of officer in the Japanese Army when Park entered into the Manchukuo Military Academy in Xinjing, China, ranking fifteenth of the 240 successful applicants in 1939.  He went there at the invitation of Colonel Arikawa Hiroshi, an elite radical militarist in the Japanese Army who Park met at Taegu Teachers College, and who Park immensely admired.  As president, Park would painstakingly suppress information about this part of his life, as it would not exactly jibe well with the anti-Japanese bombast that came from his, and every other regime in South Korea after 1945.

After graduation from the Japanese Imperial Military Academy in Tokyo in 1944, he was stationed near the Great Wall of China in Jehol Province, assigned as an intelligence officer in the 8th Corps of the Japanese Kwangtung Army, which conducted counter-insurgency operations against anti-Japanese Korean fighters (one of whom went by the name of Kim Il-sung).  Park´s Japan-centric world collapsed when the Emperor of Japan announced the surrender, and like many other Koreans who had been scattered throughout Asia by the Japanese Empire, Park returned to Korea aboard an American LST in 1946.  Knowing only military life, Park enrolled in the second class of the new American-sponsored South Korean military academy that same year, where he re-established ties with former comrades from the Japanese military.  Like many other of his comrades, he also joined the South Korean Communist Party while at the academy, but avoided death or serious prison time when the purge came in 1948 by using his good connections in the army, and by exposing his friends in the communist network.

The Korean War came along to save his career after his prosecution, and again with strong personal connections in the army, he moved up the ranks in the Korean intelligence corps, and made the rank of Major-General by the time South Korea´s President Syngman Rhee was ousted in 1960.  The new government of Chang Myon was viewed by many in Korea as weak, and one that had corrupted itself with business leaders.  This view was particularly rife among the younger officers in the Korean Army, who particularly distrusted the marketplace of ideas that had sprung up in the more liberal political environment after Rhee´s ouster.  When Park and his cabal took over the government in May 1961, he depicted his coup as the only means to save the nation and people.  Park and his army friends saw themselves as members of the only really disciplined and responsible institution in the country, and with this kind of idea in mind, the military embedded itself into the politics of South Korea for the next 32 years.  Park´s nationalist rhetoric was used by many other world leaders at the time:   His Junta-era leadership mirrored Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his later administration would mirror Sukarno´s "Guided Democracy," but Park himself claimed the Meiji Reform in Japan as a touchstone.  Park justified his take-over as an effort to eradicate three evils:   1. Pro-communism and anti-state opportunism;  2. The mushrooming of political parties and newspapers;  and, 3. The open acceptance of foreign culture.

The problem of accepting foreign culture obviously did not include the adoption of Japanese culture, to which Park was an (thinly-veiled) adherent.   On the night of his own assassination in 1979, Park enjoyed the music of Shim Soo-bong, a Korean singer known for her talent in singing Japanese enka songs.  As national leader, Park used Imperial Japanese values of the 1930s to make a single, government-controlled "labor union" for the Korean workplace, and to deactivate South Korea´s legislature in order to bring about “organic cooperation” between the executive and lawmakers.  But before he made these moves, a limited pluralism did emerge in the mid- to late 1960s, and Park was elected in 1963 and was reelected in 1967.  He rejected American free-market principles, and American economic advice, which envisioned his country to be nothing more than a supplier of wigs and light-textiles to the USA.  Park had a much grander vision for his country, wanting instead to use state-guided economic planning to implement heavy and chemical industrialization, along with strong state supports for business.  Park would make this vision a reality in the early 1970s, when he would push in the direction of autocratic leadership due to changing world, and local, events.

The Korean president began to worry about changing US foreign policy, and its withdrawal from the Vietnam War (in which South Korea participated as a belligerent, as well as an economic beneficiary).  Nixon began cozying up to Communist China at the expense of Seoul´s ideological ally, Taiwan, and Park´s fears were certainly not lessened when the Nixon Doctrine was applied to South Korea as well, when 20,000 American soldiers left in 1971.  Feeling that his government might not be able to rely on the USA in the future, Park pushed hard towards independence in economics (towards heavy industry), politics (towards authoritarianism), and national security (towards an independent arms industry, and even nuclear weapons).

Adding to Park´s fears was his narrow victory in the 1971 presidential election against opposition candidate, Kim Dae-jung, who many in the Korean military considered a national traitor and covert communist.  Also, the big push in industry meant the need for Korean companies to take out huge foreign loans, which the government guaranteed.  When these businesses started going bankrupt, they demanded a massive bailout, which Park provided by placing a moratorium on all payments of corporate debt to private Korean investors.  This was the tipping point for Park.  He felt the need to place a tight grip on any potential opposition to this decision and others that he had made, or would make.  Historian Bruce Cumings writes that, still, "it came as a surprise when Park decided to batten down all the hatches in 1971-72, let the KCIA loose everywhere, and declare himself president for life.  That decision killed him seven years later."

In 1972, the government codified Park´s new powers in a re-written constitution that gave him supreme executive powers, and the power to issue decrees for whatever other actions he seemed fit to take.  And many decrees were issued, including Emergency Measure 9, which made any criticism of the government a violation of national security.  The new political system was called "Yushin" (Revitalization), and its name implied a revitalization of the nation´s economics through decisive executive power, and a revitalization of politics through anti-communism.  The remainder of Park´s rule in the 1970s was simply a maintenance of this system.


Veteran Korean journalist and poet, Yi Heung-woo, described Park´s presidency in sympathetic terms:

"He seized power by the drastic measure of a military coup d’état which, according to the principles of liberal democracy, was evil.  He created unprecedented economic construction within a very short term in a poor country with no capital, resources, technology or infrastructure.  Making less sacrifices in comparison with the communists, he achieved extraordinarily high-speed growth.  That was good for both the nation and its people."


Bill Gleysteen, former US Ambassador to South Korea from 1978 to 1981, wrote:

"…there is no question in my mind that Park Chung Hee´s assassination stripped Korea of an extraordinary leader.  Park came to power illegally by coup d’état.  In his public personality, he was dour and utterly lacking in charisma.  At his best, he was an enlightened autocrat;  At his worst, he was a heavy-handed ruler who was out of touch with political change.  Yet Park was a brilliant man with strategic vision.  He not only understood what Korea could become but also had the intelligence, skill, and drive to achieve his country´s modernization with stunning speed.  For all his sins as a tough authoritarian leader, he lived simply, empathized with the common man, and hewed closely to the priorities and values of most Koreans.  Unfortunately, these qualities were overshadowed by faulty judgment and paranoia in his final years.  When historians strike the balance, I suspect that they will rate Park as the most important Korean leader of modern times."




Article by Mark Lovmo (2012)

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