Updated: Dec 4, 2020
by Nate Kang November 2020
History is full of many polarizing and controversial figures whose legacies are significantly more complicated than of those who merely check the boxes of “black & white” or “good & bad.” Oftentimes, these men and women leave behind somewhat murky acts that are worth examining on a deeper level. Many have become the subject of frequent debate over how we should evaluate them today. One such figure is the former President of the Republic of Korea, Park Chung-hee (Hangul: 박정희). He ruled South Korea with an iron fist for 17 years while lifting his fallen country out of the ashes of the Korean War. Park’s administration has been characterized as a ruthless military dictatorship, where opposing voices were drowned out and the violation of human rights were not uncommon. However, it is undeniable that Park was instrumental in guiding the once poverty-stricken nation towards economic prosperity and a far greater prominence on the world stage than South Korea could have imagined.
Park Chung-hee was born in the village of Sonsangun during a time when the Korean peninsula was under Japanese occupation. His father served as a magistrate for the Japanese colonizers. Park won admission to high school through a competitive examination and, later, admission to a two-year training program in Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria. He graduated at the top of his class and entered the Japanese army after completing another two years of training at the Tokyo Military Academy. His experience with the Japanese government's program of economic development in Manchukuo strongly influenced his future rule over South Korea.
After the end of World War II, Park participated in a communist cell organized within the South Korean army and was sentenced to death for this crime. Before he could be punished, he received a reprieve as a result of his cooperation with the authorities. Later, Park served with distinction in the South Korean Army during the Korean War and became an expert in logistics.
In May of 1960, Park and a group of other officers of the South Korean army took
control of the government. The U.S. government was uncertain of what had taken place in South Korea. There were strong suspicions that Park was a crypto-communist. As a result, the media sometimes referred to him as "Parkov," a Russianized version of his name. Although Park did not have affiliations with the communist movement, his thinking and ideological orientation were decidedly Stalinist. It was most likely his experiences in the Japanese government that explained his predilection for central planning and autocratic control. For example, the Japanese army had no sympathy for notions of free markets, and Manchukuo undertook a Stalinist-style development program. Thus, Park's program for economic development was modeled more on Meiji-era Japan than the Soviet Union.
Park’s time in office came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated on October 26, 1979 by his own intelligence chief, Kim Jae-gyu (Hangul: 김재규), who was subsequently hanged for his crime. The reasons behind the killing remain muddled in ambiguity –– although recently surfaced audio recordings seem to suggest that the killing was premeditated, rather than an act of impulse.
Overall, the most lasting impact of Park’s presidency was his contributions to South Korea as an emergent economic powerhouse of East Asia that is comparable to Taiwan, Japan, and even the People’s Republic of China.
Sources: https://www.piie.com/publications/chapters_preview/341/2iie3373.pdf https://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/park.htm https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/resource/modern-korean-history-portal/park-chung-hee