99 years ago today, South Korean strongman and father of today’s president Park Chung-hee was born.
Born the seventh, and youngest, child of a fallen scholar-official (Yangban) family in the years of Japanese colonialism, Park had dreams of leadership and military exploits from a young age. While attending a progressive “new-style” school, he became class captain and figured out how to get his classmates to “submit unconditionally to whatever I said.”
Interested in war heroes and military history, including that of Japan, he quickly developed the dream of becoming a soldier. When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, with the Japanese pushing south of Beijing and taking Tianjin and Shanghai, Park enrolled in Japanese military academy. Upon graduating as one of the best students, he was made a lieutenant in the Manchukuo Imperial Army in 1944 and served Japan in its last gasps of World War II. Though forced out of the military upon returning to Korea, he got back in when North Korea invaded the South. He rose quickly, and by 1960 he found himself Chief of the Operations Staff of the South Korean Army.
That same year, the Korean public rose up in protest after years of authoritarianism by Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, who presided over the young nation’s defense in the Korean War but didn’t open up room for democracy. With the success of the April Revolution, Rhee was forced out of office and a parliamentary system replaced him. But with the economy ailing and protests continuing to rack the country, and fearing that he would soon be retired, Park and his allies took initiative and launched a coup on May 16, 1961.
Initially Park’s regime, the Third Republic, was semi-democratic. He won presidential elections in 1963 and ’67. Facing a constitutional term limits, he forced a change through the legislature and won again in ’71, defeating Kim Dae-jung, one of the leading democratic activists of his day and future president.
The next year, Park announced Yushin, a policy that dispensed with any pretenses of democracy and gave Park absolute, unchecked power. An electoral college would elect him president every six years. He could promulgate emergency measures without legislation. Criticism of the government and of the Yushin Constitution was banned. Government monitors embedded in media organizations enforced press restrictions. Fierce reporters were fired en masse from outlets like Dong A Il Bo. Torture techniques, including electrical torture, water torture, beatings, and sleep deprivation, were described by Amnesty International in testimony to U.S. Congress in 1975.
The economy boomed during Park’s reign. The economy grew from US$1,100 per capita (in constant 2000 dollars) to over $4,000, growing at over 8 percent per year almost every year. Park’s policy of “guided capitalism” built up the nation’s industry with the help of chaebols, megaconglomerates like Samsung and LG.
But Park’s power and economic growth could only shield him from the trends of history for so long. Protests began taking place more frequently in his final years, and they couldn’t be contained. In October 1979, student protests in Busan and Masan in the South (“the Bu-Ma Democratic Protests”) spread throughout the country. Park declared martial law on October 18. On October 26, 1979, Park was shot during a private meeting by Kim Jae-gyu, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. Having survived two assassination attempts by North Korea before, he was brought down by one of his own longtime allies. (Kim would be executed, and Chun Doo-Hwan would leverage his position as leader of the investigation in order to lead a coup himself.)
Today Park’s legacy in Korea is complicated. Many still think of him as a patriotic leader who modernized Korea at a time when it was weak and threatened by a northern neighbor that was then more advanced. In the 2000’s, 74 percent of Koreans gave Park positive ratings on his handling of politics and 93 percent on economics. 44 percent called him Korea’s best leader in a Gallup poll. But there can be no denying the great pain his rule caused many who merely yearned for the truth, for the same freedoms their parents fought for and their children fought for and ultimately won in 1988. By the time of the Yushin regime Park’s excesses had far exceeded anything that could have been justified by the need for national stability and actually pushed his country into a period of dangerous instability that ended his life.
“Korea’s Development Under Park Chung Hee”, Hyung-A Kim
“Why Late South Korean Dictator Park Chung-hee Is The Most Popular President Ever”, Eugene Yi
“The Mixed Legacy of a South Korean Dictator”, Steven Denney
“The Cultural Politics of Remembering Park Chung Hee”, Seungsook Moon
“How South Korea and Vietnam whitewash their history,” Mitchell Blatt