Few modern world leaders have left behind such conflicting accounts and impressions as South Korea's Park Chung Hee. Some biographers describe him as a typically ruthless and repressive dictator, while others portray a strict but gentle man who loved living things. Was he a despot? A communist? An economic modernizer? Who was the real Park Chung Hee?
Early Life and Education:
Park Chung-hee was born on September 30, 1917, the seventh child of poor farming family in the village of Sangmo-ri, near the town of Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, in southeastern South Korea. At that time, the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese occupation.
A small, thin boy, and a bit of a loner, young Park did well in elementary school. His teachers recommended him for the normal school in Daegu, a teaching college for poor but bright students who wished to become elementary school instructors. Park studied at the college for five years, graduating with his teaching degree on March 25, 1937.
After graduation, Park Chung Hee taught for two years in a grammar school in the town of Mungyeong, Gyeongsangbuk-do. However, the Second Sino-Japanese War (actually the opening round of the Second World War in Asia) had broken out in 1937. Bored with teaching in a small town, Park decided to enroll in the Japanese military academy in Machukuo, Japan's puppet state in Manchuria.
Graduating at the top of his class after the two-year program, he was selected for two years' additional training at the Tokyo Military Academy. He left the military academy as a second lieutenant, with the Japanese name "Okamoto Minoru," in 1944.
It was not the most auspicious time to join the Japanese Imperial Army. When the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945, Second Lt. Park was discharged. He returned to Sangmo-ri for the first chaotic year after the war, and joined the Korean police. In September of 1946, he enrolled in a four-month program at the Korean Military Academy, graduating in December as a captain. Park would serve for little more than a year before being discharged once again, this time under a serious cloud.
North and South:
In July of 1948, the "temporary" line of demarcation between North Korea and South Korea was formalized. As a result, Park Chung Hee was dismissed from the South Korean army that year and sentenced to death, on allegations that he was a communist collaborator. Park was a member of the South Korean Workers Party, which would later merge with Kim Il Sung's Workers' Party of North Korea in 1949. He was not a communist ideologue, but was sympathetic to many of the tenets of communism.
When North Korea invaded South Korea at the end of June, 1950, Park Chung Hee was pardoned and the South Korean Army quickly reinstated him into its officer corps. Over the course of the Korean War, he rose to the rank of brigadier general despite his young age. He had the opportunity to train for a year in artillery and and logistics at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as well.
By 1957, Park Chung Hee was commanding general of the South Korean 5th Infantry Division. A short time later, he became deputy commander of the entire Second Army.
In March of 1960, South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee, rigged the presidential election to give himself another term. The following month, Rhee was forced from power by a massive student uprising. The people were upset about rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, and Rhee's increasing autocracy.
The military held back from participating in Rhee's overthrow, and did not interfere with the new, democratically-elected government for almost a year. On May 16, 1961, however, a group of military officers led by Park Chung Hee overthrew the democratic government, and established a Military Revolutionary Committee. Three days later, Park announced that the Committee would be renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR), and that he was the head of the Supreme Council.
On March 16, 1962, the Supreme Council passed the Political Activities Purification Law, which essentially barred political participation by any civilians associated with the two previous governments. In protest, the SCNR's puppet president resigned, and Park Chung Hee named himself acting president. Before the shocked civilian politicians could respond, the SCNR amended the constitution to give the president sweeping new powers.
Elections supposedly intended to restore the presidency to a civilian leader were set for October 15, 1963. General Park resigned from the military in August of that year, and announced his candidacy. He and the Democratic Republican Party won the elections, signalling the start of South Korea's Third Republic.
South Korea's Third Republic:
The Third Republic under President Park lasted from 1963 to 1971. Under Park's firm but stable leadership, the South Korean economy recovered remarkably quickly from the devastation of the Korean War. His government emphasized industrialization for the export market, and encouraged the growth of large, family-run financial conglomerates known as chaebol.
Park Chung Hee took many of his ideas about economic development from his observations of Japanese policy in Manchukuo (Manchuria) prior to World War II. He also wanted Japanese economic aid, so he normalized relations with Korea's former colonizer in 1965 despite wide-spread protests from the South Korean people. Under the terms of the June, 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, Japan agreed to pay war reparations and to provide low-interest development loans to South Korea in return for renewed diplomatic ties between the two countries.
During his first two terms, Park also cultivated even closer ties with the United States. He contributed a total of about 320,000 South Korea troops to the US-led effort to support South Vietnam in the Vietnam War; South Korea had the second-largest contingent there, following the US. Obviously, President Park and South Koreans generally had an interest in the containment of communism, but they also sought to assert Korea's place as an active participant in international affairs.
Even as Park re-established ties with Japan and strengthened those with the US, South Korea's relationship with North Korea deteriorated once more. Between 1966 and 1969, an increasing number of border raids and skirmishes broke out along the DMZ; Kim Il-Sung declared this a new form of irregular warfare aimed at reuniting Korea under his rule.
To further this plan, Kim sent a unit of thirty-one North Korean commandos into Seoul with plans to assassinate Park Chung Hee. The North Koreans were less than a kilometer away from South Korea's presidential residence, the Blue House, when they were intercepted by a police patrol. Twenty-nine of the commandos died or were captured, but two escaped.
In 1969, Park threatened to resign as president if he was not allowed to run for a third term in 1971. The South Korean Constitution limited presidents to two terms, but the legislature amended the constitution to allow Park to run again. The voters approved the amendment in October 1969, and Park won a third term in the 1971 presidential elections. His opponent was Kim Dae Jung, who would become president in 1998.
The Fourth Republic:
Park Chung Hee's third term was marked by increasing student protests, as he grew ever more repressive and autocratic. Park declared a state of emergency as soon as he was elected, and dissolved the parliament. Inspired by Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, he also suspended the constitution and drafted a new one, called the Yushin Honpop or "Revitalizing Reforms Constitution." In November of 1972, the public voted in a referendum to approve the new constitution.
The stated goal of this document was to further strengthen the economy by providing more central leadership; in other words, it sought economic growth by expressly giving the president dictatorial powers. The term in office for presidents was increased from four years to six, and all limits on the number of terms were abolished. In 1975, Park decreed that it was illegal to criticize the president or the government. He used this decree to arrest and imprison any of his political opponents who spoke against him. Unsurprisingly, this move caused a massive backlash by student protest groups, particularly in the cities of the south coast such as Masan and Busan.
During a speech at Seoul's National Theater on August 15, 1974, Park faced an attempted assassination by a North Korean sympathizer named Mun Se Gwang. Although Park was uninjured, his wife, Yuk Young Soo, was hit and died later that same day.
In 1978, Park ran for president unopposed. When future South Korean president Kim Young Sam called Park a dictator during a 1979 speech in the US, his comment sparked further protests in the southern cities. Park sent the army into Busan and Masan to put down the demonstrations.
Assassination of Park Chung Hee:
On October 26, 1979, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), Kim Jae Kyu, shot Park Chung Hee and four of his bodyguards dead at a banquet inside a safe-house. Theories on Kim's motivation vary. Some think that President Park tried to intervene in a personal dispute between the KCIA director and another banquet attendant. Others believe that Kim was troubled by Park's earlier statement that the protests rocking South Korea had to be put down "even if it cost 30,000 lives."
Whatever the case, the assassination ended Park's reign after 18 years of increasingly dictatorial rule.
Park Chung Hee's reputation among the South Korean people suffered significantly for decades due to the repression he ordered during his third term in office. In recent years, however, he has grown more popular thanks to his key role in the country's economic miracle. After the complete devastation of the Korean War, and earlier decades of Japanese colonial exploitation, South Korea recovered quickly and to a remarkable degree. Despite its relatively small population of about 50 million, today South Korea is the world's number 15 economy, ranking with Mexico (population 113 million) and Indonesia (238 million).
Park Chung Hee's legacy took an interesting turn late in 2012. His eldest daughter, Park Geun Hye, was elected the eleventh President of South Korea, taking office on February 25, 2013.
Gregg, Donald. "Park Chung Hee," Time World Magazine,
Kleiner, Jurgen. Korea: A Century of Change, London: World Scientific, 2001.
Watkins, Thayer. "The Park Chung Hee Regime in South Korea," San Jose State University, Department of Economics, accessed January 7, 2013.
Yi, Pyong-chon. Dictatorship for National Development and the Park Chung Hee Era: The Socioeconomic Origin of Modern Korea, Paramus, NJ: Homa & Sekey Books, 2006.