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."