Park Chung-Hee

By Cooper, Cameron | Business Asia, November 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Park Chung-Hee


Cooper, Cameron, Business Asia


The strongman of Korea

"Aloof, authoritarian and disdainful, Park Chung-hee demanded respect, not popularity. And that is what he got" -- Time, November 5, 1979.

The first accounts to emerge from an official Seoul dinner on October 26, 1979, were vague but ominous.

South Korea's strongman, President Park Chung-hee, had been "incapacitated", one report suggested, but the scene at the party -- the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) headquarters -- was shocking. Seven corpses lay around the compound. Six were of bodyguards. The other figure was unmistakable -- President Park.

Policy disputes and fears of dismissal led the KCIA chief, Kim Jae-kyu, to shoot his old friend, ending 16 years of harsh but productive rule that ensured Park's place in Korean history. The assassination followed massive anti-Park demonstrations, provoked by the expulsion from Parliament of an Opposition leader named Kim Young-sam, who much later became President.

Park once asserted, "Orientals possess a mysterious, unified and harmonious spiritual culture that can scarcely be understood completely by outsiders. It is clear that Oriental cultures have a certain gentle mild rhythm and harmony." The unity and mildness of which he spoke were contradicted by his life.

As South Korean President from 1963 to 1979, Park was a brilliant but ruthless leader. He dominated all aspects of Korean life, inspired an economic revolution and survived two earlier assassination attempts.

Park's regime transformed South Korea from war-shattered economic ruin in the 1950s to an emerging economic power in the 1970s. In 1961, when General Park seized power from a civilian government, the annual per-capita income in South Korea was about US$83. In those days, some South Koreans ate pine bark, and all 24 million of them used less electricity per year than the Ford Motor Company. By the time Park was gunned down in 1979, annual income had soared to US$3,000. By 1997, it was more than US$11,000.

Through his radical economic reforms, Park opened the way for the mighty chaebol, or conglomerates, to reinvent South Korea's industrial and economic structure.

Exports of ships, steel and textiles began to compete with Japanese products, new highways were built and high-rise apartments and offices sprang up. To assist the nation's rural poor, Park launched the New Village Movement, a programme designed to set up industries in small towns.

In keeping with his background, the General's methods were not subtle. They were more military than Presidential. Such a manner might have suited Koreans brought up on the fiery national dish, kimchi, an uncompromising combination of hot spices and pickled cabbage. The National Assembly became a "rubber stamp" dominated by Park's orders, with one third of its members appointed by him. Strict censorship controlled the media, while academics and lawyers had little liberty.

After his death, the New York Times commented that he "became one of the most durable figures of the East Asian political scene. He had the constitution changed twice to give him almost unlimited authority ... When trouble arose, he was not averse to jailing his opponents or using force to put down demonstrations."

There were also well-deserved tributes. The United States President Jimmy Carter praised Park as "a staunch ally and an able leader" whose role in South Korea's "remarkable economic development will not be forgotten". The Australian newspaper described Park as "the architect of the new Korea" who took "his country on perhaps history's fastest ride from backward near-bankruptcy to booming industrialisation".

Park had built the foundation for his country's revolution and rise from poverty to prosperity in a single generation.

Park Chung-hee's early life bore no hint of his later ascent to national and Asian significance. After graduating in 1937, he became a teacher but soon grew bored and turned to soldiering with a passion. …

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