Author: Apoorv Agarwal
Park Chung Hee is worldwide known for his economic policy that uplifted the Republic of Korea from one of the poorest in the world to one of the fastest developing nations. Park changed the way South Korea was looked at; from a country dependent on International Aid to a self-reliant exporting economy that was one of the few success stories of its time, especially given the conditions it had faced previously.
He was revered at some places and cursed at others. So, what is it about him that divided the public opinion? Some people say he was a dictator who oppressed and repressed his own citizens. Others think of him as a visionary, a man who transformed South Korea into one of the economic powerhouses of Asia, creating a self-reliant economy, and a person who also thwarted the spread of Communism.
Rise to Power and Power Consolidation
The military seized power in a coup d’état it staged on May 16th, 1961. It is said that the incumbent President Yun Bo-seon and the ordinary citizens supported the coup. There was little resistance. It has been suggested that the public favoured the coup and that some of the citizens were happy that it had been staged.
South Korea or Republic of Korea had been in a fragile state ever since it was founded on August 15th, 1948. Korean Peninsula had been divided between the Soviet zone of influence and the American zone of influence in 1945 after the defeat of Imperial Japan. Japan had officially annexed Korean Peninsula in 1910. Following the Korean War (1950 – 1953), the two different governments were entrenched in the two Koreas. North Korea or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea became a communist state under dictatorship while South Korea followed a capitalist model that included democracy.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, North Korea had one of the world’s fastest economic growth rates . The country was moving towards industrialisation with support from Mao Zedong’s China. This resulted in an imbalance of power. North Korea became economically superior to South Korea. Its military prowess outmatched and outgunned South’s armed forces .
There was little work and little capital in South Korea. In 1961, the annual exports were a meagre 100 Million USD . There was widespread unemployment and little hope. The unstable political scenario of the country was also not helping the people’s fears. The North Korean aggression threat was omnipresent.
In 1962, Park Chung Hee officially became the acting President after President Yun resigned. He faced pressure from Kennedy government and promised to return to a civilian rule . In 1963, elections were held in which he managed to fend off threat from former President Yun. A new constitution was also in place. According to the new constitution, a maximum of two consecutive terms of four years each were allowed for Presidency.
Park was re-elected in the 1967 elections where he again managed to score more votes than the former President Yun. He also promised that as per constitution, this would be his last term as President. He later backtracked on his promises while he changed the constitution that would allow him three terms instead of two, making him eligible to stand for elections in 1971.
He won the tightly fought 1971 elections against Kim Dae-Jung, amid allegations of fraud . After his swearing in ceremony, Park declared a state of emergency and suspended the 1963 constitution in what is termed as a self-coup. In 1972, South Korea had a new constitution called Yushin Constitution. This constitution gave Park autocratic powers, increasing Presidential tenure from 4 years to 6 years and removing limits on re-election. Scholars are of the opinion that this constitution made it impossible for all but one candidate to stand for elections .
Park was indirectly re-elected unopposed in the 1972 and 1978 elections. He was assassinated on October 26th, 1979.
The major focus of Park Chung Hee’s Presidency was economic growth. He believed that if the state of economy was better, the military would certainly benefit from it . When he took power in 1961, North Korea was the dominant power on the peninsula supported by People’s Republic of China and Soviet Union. South Korea’s economy was weak and its armed forces were supported and supplemented by those of United States.
A major challenge for Park was creating a strong economy for South Korea. While Japan had to rejuvenate its economy, South Korea had to start anew.
One of the first projects undertaken by Park was the construction of Seoul-Busan Highway. The project was initially ridiculed by international community as there were few cars in South Korea but Park believed it was necessary to link the capital with the country’s largest port .
He supported the South Korean Chaebols or family conglomerates, helped them grow. Park created an environment that resulted in increased domestic competition. For the chaebols, the government set up targets. If the targets were not met as a result of poor management, they were left to die but if they failed by honestly trying to meet their targets, they were supported by the government, and were given other chances .
As already mentioned before, when Park Chung Hee came to power, South Korea’s exports totalled 100 Million USD, while in 1977, exports totalled 10 Billion USD .
Park helped the economy grow, he nationalised some industries while also promoting private companies. He created a competitive environment. After the establishment of domestic sector, he opened the market to foreign companies for business.
Park also created special trade and industrial zones, which were precursors to modern Special Economic Zones model that China came up with .
Park Chung Hee normalised relations with Japan, a move that caused huge public resentment. Korean Peninsula had been under Japanese control from 1910 to 1945. There are allegations that Korean women were used by Japanese military as comfort women. Some of the provisions of Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and Republic of Korea were that the Japanese pay reparations to South Korea for the Colonial Rule between 1910 and 1945. It also stated that Republic of Korea would not demand further compensation after the amount that was agreed and paid by Japan .
He also started negotiations with North Korea. On July 4th 1972, a joint statement was released by both countries that specified “Firstly, reunification should be achieved independently, without reliance upon outside force or its interference; Secondly, reunification should be achieved by peaceful means, without recourse to the use of arms against the other side; Thirdly, great national unity should be promoted first of all as one nation, transcending the differences of ideology, ideal and system” .
Park also sent about 320,000 South Korean troops to fight in the Vietnam War with South Vietnam. It has been suggested that the major reason for doing so was the fact that United States was providing reimbursement to South Korea personnel. The money was diverted by Park towards economic development of South Korea .
In this period, US – South Korea relations were both sweet and sour. It is believed that under Park Chung Hee, South Korea had plans to develop nuclear weapons. Washington opposed nuclear proliferation in North-East Asia as it feared an arms race in the region .
During his time at the helm, there had been many assassination attempts. One of the most daring of these attempts on his life was by North Korean Commandos who were sent to Seoul to assassinate Park. A team of 31 commandos infiltrated South Korea through the De-Militarized Zone and reached the Blue House where a fire-fight ensued. Of the 31, 28 were killed, 2 were captured, out of which one managed to commit suicide and last man escaped.
Park Chung Hee, in return formed a Special Unit 684 whose only task was to kill Kim Il-Sung. The unit was disbanded in 1971 after it mutinied. The unit consisted of 31 members.
Another attempt on his life was in 1974. On August 15th, 1974, while delivering a speech at National Theatre in Seoul, he was shot at by Japanese born North Korean agent. While the assassin narrowly missed Park, the stray bullet hit his wife, who died of his injuries.
After a series of near misses, Park Chung Hee was finally killed on October 26th, 1979 by the Director of Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Jae-kyu. KCIA was created by Park after he took power. One of the main aims of KCIA was to quell dissent among the populace.
One of the most defining aspects of Park Chung Hee’s Presidency was his oppression and repression. Park stated to the Director of KCIA once that he did not care even if 30,000 lives were lost while suppressing riots and protests, he wanted it done. Such was the brutality of Park’s regime.
KCIA was the agency set up to put down protests and dissent. There were widespread Human rights abuses including torture, arbitrary detention, and summary executions. Park believed that modernisation and self-reliance were the first priorities and that Democracy and Human Rights came later.
According to polls, Park Chung Hee is the most trustworthy South Korean President ever; yet, we must not forget the sacrifices people made for his vision. His oppression and use of torture leaves a big mark on his legacy. Even though much has not been discussed about his repression, this question needs to be answered: Park Chung Hee: Another Dictator or a Saviour?
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- William H. Overholt, “Park Chung Hee’s International Legacy”, p. 2. File can be accessed at http://www.ash.harvard.edu/extension/ash/docs/parkjunghee.pdf. Last accessed on March 19th, 2013.
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- Aurel Croissant, “Electoral Politics in South Korea”, p. 4. File can be accessed at http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/01361008.pdf. Last accessed on March 19th, 2013.
- See Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yushin_Constitution#Yushin_Constitution. Page last accessed on March 20th, 2013.
- Ibid. 2, at p. 1.
- Ibid. 3
- Ibid. 2, at p. 4.
- Ibid. 3
- Ibid. 2, at p. 4.
- Full text of the agreement can be accessed at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Agreement_Between_Japan_and_the_Republic_of_Korea_Concerning_the_Settlement_of_Problems_in_Regard_to_Property_and_Claims_and_Economic_Cooperation. Page last accessed on March 20th, 2013.
- Full Text of the joint statement can be accessed here: http://www1.korea-np.co.jp/pk/011th_issue/97100103.htm.
- Ibid. 4.
- Peter Hayes, Chung-in Moon and Scott Bruce, “Park Chung Hee, the US-ROK Strategic Relationship, and the Bomb”,The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Analysis can be accessed at http://japanfocus.org/-scott-bruce/3630. Last accessed on March 19th, 2013.