Park Chung-hee: The "Pint-Sized Stalin"?
Obvious comparisons can be made between Josef Stalin’s system of rule and that of Park Chung-hee’s Yushin Order. Dig a little deeper, and one will realize that the comparisons to Stalin can really only go so far. The big distinctions should be clear, and one of the most important was that Park never did nationalize industry. The Korean president and his advisors were far too enamored with the Japanese model and the postwar “miracle” economy of West Germany; they had learned enough from these examples to know that any effective economic theory made use of the skills of the entrepreneur. In any case, even by Stalin’s time there were no serious economic theorists in the world who thought that a command economy could exist without a major provision for private enterprise.
A Second World War Soviet victory medal featuring Josef Stalin (left), and a presidential medal featuring Park Chung-hee (right) commemorating the Republic of Korea's eighth presidential inauguration in December 1972, two months after the adoption of the Yushin Constitution.
The core distinction is that Park’s rule never reached the level of control over business and society that would have made him as widely feared as Stalin, although horrible were Park’s methods and earnest were the attempts. It was Stalin who came closest to proving that a state could plan every detail of an economy only at the cost of terrorizing a large portion of the population who might have hoped to benefit from it. Park’s regime was just a bit more restrained than to take things as far as the Soviets had. Even when comparing the Yushin Order to similar right-wing autocratic regimes of the time —say for example, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile— an exact analogy falls short. Pinochet “disappeared” 119 dissidents in 1975 alone, and eventually murdered well over 2,000 by the time he was done. Park’s autocracy never approached that level of depravity. Instead, he mostly relied on a system of ordinances, and administrative and surveillance measures to keep a lid on all dissident activity and popular movements, justifying his repression by law wherever possible. The Yushin Order incentivized dissidents to lie still and say nothing. Under Stalin, boisterous praise of the regime would have been the only survivable posture.
Although he would never allow democratization to interfere with his grand economic plans, the South Korean president attempted to keep up the minimum appearances of a constitutional, representative government. There may be reasons for this: It cannot be forgotten that South Korea received great benefit from its position in the Cold War, not to mention being connected to the world market system, in which it took particular advantage of opportunities open to it in Asia and North America. If Park Chung-hee had really been another Stalin, it is unlikely in the extreme that the government and businesses of Japan, for example, would have continued to provide South Korea with economic assistance, which by the end of 1982 had totaled $4.4 billion USD, as well as to provide the Koreans with the second most important market for the sale of their products.
And no matter how convincing the arguments, one should be very careful in using comparisons to Stalin to explain away the success of the Park-era economy. Despite the valid descriptions of a ruthless, antidemocratic “success at all costs” business approach, the real achievements of Park’s model came mainly from Korean businesses’ fundamental competitiveness in world markets, due largely to a commitment to an “engineering approach,” as established under the guidance of Park’s technocrats. And then there was the hard work, long hours, and low pay of the nation's workers.
In other words, South Korean businesses just got good at outcompeting their rivals.
And then there is the Stalinist tendency of a leader to conflate his identity with that of the nation. Park is indeed guilty of this charge. His personal security chief was known to opine, “His Excellency IS the nation!” (in Korean, “각하가 곧 국가다!”) —A declaration His Excellency felt no need to correct. This ego-trip was driven by Park’s sense of mission and dedication to the nation, which unsurprisingly made him feel justifiably self-righteous, particularly in the face of the inevitable opposition to the Yushin Order.
Autocratic leaders like Park, who see themselves as “men of destiny,” often seem to have the virtue of never giving up until their dreams come true; but when the dreams do, the virtue tends to be offset by what happens next. The world never really got to find out what would have happened next for South Korea under Park. An assassin’s bullet intervened. It is probably the case that if he had lived into the 1980s the consensus of opinion would have judged the Man of Destiny much more harshly than if he had not died in 1979. And identifying himself with the nation would have been ridiculous if it had been made only by the man and a few of his friends, but a good number of his countrymen thought the same, and many still do. So while he may not have ended up as a “pint-sized Stalin,” it is probably lucky for Park Chung-hee’s legacy that we did not get to find out what his eventual response might have been to the growing opposition to his rule if he had lived.
It would have been a tragedy if he had made a move that might have made Uncle Joe proud.