March Issue: Why Late SKorean Dictator Park Chung-hee Is The Most Popular President Ever

Dictator or Hero?

Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea with an iron fist for 18 years. Now, he is the most popular South Korean ex-president ever, and his daughter just won the presidency last December. How did that happen?


It starts, as it should, with a fight between my parents and me when discussing Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s longest-ruling autocrat. Korean politics run along strict generational lines, much more so than American politics, and feelings about Park, it would seem, follow that rule closely.

I was interviewing University of California, Berkeley, professor Elaine Kim, one of the grand dames of Asian American academia, and proudly left-wing when it comes to Korean politics. She once got a vanity license plate that read JUCHE, a “wonderful idea,” she said, of the eponymous philosophy of radical Korean self-reliance, introduced by North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in 1967, and later adopted by some far-left liberal South Koreans disenchanted with American meddling in local affairs. So perhaps it should come as little surprise when she said, “When I was a graduate student at Columbia [during the ’70s], there were people in the higher up that Park Chung-hee paid to watch what kinds of publications students were reading. They would report that [back to Park],” she said.

She told other stories: rough-looking Korean men suddenly appearing at community meetings in Oakland; the quick trial and execution of students in South Korea on trumped-up charges of being part of a Communist cell; Park’s personal flaws, including infidelity and domestic violence. She allowed that the nation did end up better off economically thanks to Park’s reforms, but she also emphasized the macro factors, especially the U.S. role in financing the South Korean economic miracle.

I asked my father for his thoughts. “She calls herself a professor? She doesn’t know anything,” he said. “She must be a communist.”

So began my parents’ spirited defense of Park. He essentially built the nation, they said. Without him, the country might never have gotten off its feet. Younger people don’t understand how hard it used to be. Even Park’s infelicitous domestic life was waved off with a casualness that shocked me: Who didn’t beat their wife back then? Human rights abuses did occur, they allowed, but the good far outweighed the bad. And then my parents urged me never to write about politics, and stick to safer topics, like music or restaurants.

U.S. President John Kennedy and Gen. Park Chung-hee of South Korea, at a conference in the chief executive’s White House office on Nov. 14, 1961. Between them are Lt. Col. Sanguk Han, Korean interpreter, and Dr. Paul Crane, the American interpreter. Gen. Park, who at the time was heading South Korea’s ruling military junta, was in Washington seeking economic and military assistance.

Given that the South Korean reward for critical political writing has traditionally been a round in a small room with a man wielding live electrical wire, I can understand my parents’ impromptu career advice. I let it drop. Our conversation about South Korean politics had already reached the inevitable end point of every conversation about South Korean politics: red-baiting, name calling and a dose of the you-just-don’t-understands.  There was nowhere else for the discussion to go, I thought.

Some version of this conversation doubtless occurred in households across Korea and the Korean diaspora with the election of Park Geun-hye, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, to the South Korean presidency last December. One of the narratives that has emerged from her victory is that the older generation voted for the heir of the man who turned the nation around, while the outnumbered younger generation flinched at the thought of nigh dynastic succession for the daughter of the dictator. The old called the young feckless, communistic, stupid, while the young called the old forgetful, nostalgic, stupid. Postelection despair among the under-40s is reported to have been uncharacteristically, and extremely, severe.

Generational gaps in South Korea are more like chasms, given how much the country has changed in the last 50 years. A person in his or her 80s saw Japanese occupation, Communist purges, two hot wars, one cold one and an industrial revolution.  Someone in his or her 20s probably plays Counter-Strike really, really well, and can effortlessly summon the particulars of K-pop choreography going back at least to the ’90s. Context for any conversation about Park Chung-hee isn’t just a prerequisite; it’s the entire conversation.

Park, an army general of short stature with an imperious mien, took the nation over in a bloodless coup on May 16, 1961. At the time, South Korea was one of the most impoverished nations in the world, even worse off than North Korea.  Park’s coup received tacit approval from the general populace and the U.S. military, in that there was little resistance to change following the autocratic, corrupt and ineffectual rule of the first South Korean president and U.S. puppet, Syngman Rhee. The Kennedy administration soon gave outright support to Park after catching wind of the economic reforms to come; they needed Japan and South Korea to be thriving, nominally democratic buffers against the Communist bloc. Europe got the Marshall Plan to buttress the postwar economy of Germany; Asia, another front in the Cold War, got an unnamed series of investments into Japan and South Korea.

Park moved quickly to integrate South Korea with international sources of funding. He normalized relations with Japan, to the chagrin of many South Koreans. The treaty opened the door for hundreds of millions of dollars in investment from Japan and the U.S. (they supported the deal), and created a Japanese market for cheap South Korean goods. Park also sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight alongside the Americans in Vietnam—for a price, of course—which in turn allowed South Korean contractors to take the lead in rebuilding the country after the war. Much of this money went into infrastructure.  Earlier projects included industry-friendly projects like a highway to connect Seoul to the ports in Busan. Later projects raised the standard of living in rural areas, which had seen fewer of the benefits than the urban areas, through projects like the popular Saemaeul Undong, or New Village Movement.

“I remember taking a tour of [New Village Movement] in 1975 to see the steady transformation of the tradition-bound Korean countryside—village roads being paved, replacement of thatched roof with corrugated iron roofing, the kitchen innovation that brought stainless steel kitchen sinks to Koreanajummas to cook and wash standing, not squatted on the floor. To them, Park indeed was a savior, a revolutionary chasing poverty away,” wrote Shim Jae-hoon, a columnist in South Korea, in 2010.

Park’s government also transformed the South Korean economy into an export-oriented dynamo by heavily influencing the direction of some familiar companies: Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo. To great success, Park staffed his government with technocrats, and rewarded only those companies that met high export quotas. His economic council incentivized the development of industries familiar as Korean wheelhouses: textiles, wig-making and footwear. It was free market capitalism in name only; an irony, given what was going on above the 38th Parallel. But South Korea’s economy started to boom.

“It was a grand success and a declaration of Korean independence.  Ever since, Koreans have straightened their backs and walked with confidence,” wrote historian Bruce Cumings in Korea’s Place in the Sunan account of modern Korean history.

The way Park went about these changes, of course, is what mars his record. Park’s relationship with business was cozy—some say too cozy. Park also had little patience for dissidents, jailing, torturing and even executing those who got in his way.  Spies were everywhere. Anyone who disagreed was a communist.  He engaged in bizarre cultural battles, like outlawing miniskirts and rock and roll (a move that, according to the South Korean guitar god Shin Joong-hyun, set back the cause of Korean rock, and opened up the way for the electronic pop music that still dominates today). He even bribed U.S. officials through the Unification Church — better known as the Moonies.

Park Geun-hye uses a writing brush to write calligraphy as her father, the late South Korean President Park Chung-hee, looks on in Seoul in this August 31, 1977, picture obtained by Reuters. Park Geun-hye was inaugurated South Korea’s President last month.

As Park’s rule entered its second decade, he declared himself president for life under the so-called Yushin constitution (a reference to Japan’s Meiji restoration, a touchstone for the Japanophile Park), and his reign grew more repressive. He had nearly lost an election to opposition leader Kim Dae-jung, whom Park subsequently tried to have killed. Some speculate Park also anticipated a downshifting of U.S. support; the Cold War in Asia was winding down, with the end of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s visit to China.

Park started to force government subsidies into heavy industries.  Though his economic council urged continued investment in industries like textiles, which require smaller investments, Park had long equated national strength with steel production, and he wanted to get South Korea into industries like shipbuilding, machinery, electronics, chemicals and automobiles. The economy kept growing, albeit more slowly, and the large conglomerates, or chaebol, started to resemble their current forms, as the economist Edward Graham wrote in his 2003 book, Reforming Korea’s Industrial Conglomerates.“Because this was also the period during which the largest of the chaebol began to take shape, there exists in Korea to this day an association of the rise of these firms with repressive aspects of the last years of Park’s rule,” he wrote.

This sense — that you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs—is at the core of many Koreans’ positive view of Park today. But at the time, Park’s popularity plummeted because of a slowing economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the increasing repressiveness of his regime. In 1974, an assassination attempt led to the death of his wife, after which his daughter and current president, Park Geun-hye, assumed the duties of the first lady. In 1979, his own chief of security would successfully assassinate him.

Park had a long shadow that loomed over the next four presidents. His immediate successors, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, were two more military men who pulled off a coup of their own after Park’s death. In some ways, they oversaw a South Korea where Park’s chickens came home to roost.  Egregious labor conditions under Park led to a fervent protest movement, which gained power through the ’80s. Frenzied protestors whipped up popular support, some even committing suicide for reform. The Gwangju massacre, sometimes likened to the one to come in Tiananmen Square, radicalized even the merely self-interested South Koreans into sign-toting, headband-sporting activists. A generation grew up knowing constant protest in the name of democracy.

“The democracy movement was a defining moment. It was deeply divisive,” said David Kang, who directs the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California. “It is like Vietnam for America.”

Then came the two Kims, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, both former opponents of Park’s. The first Kim had to deal with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the subsequent bailout of the country by the IMF. Some of the blame can reasonably be placed on unsustainable rates of borrowing by the chaebol, a strategy that began under Park. But Kim Young-sam got the blame, and it was then that popular assessment of Park started to shift, according to Seungsook Moon, professor of sociology at Vassar University.

“Deeply disillusioned by Kim’s incompetent rule … the public became increasingly nostalgic about Park as the revolutionary leader who developed the Korean economy,” she wrote in her 2008 article in theHarvard Asia Quarterly, “Cultural Politics of Remembering Park Chung Hee.” Popular accounts of Park started to attain a mythic quality to emphasize his frugality and his patriotism. He preferred makgeolliover highpriced Western liquor. He rarely used air conditioning, to save electricity. He placed a brick in his toilet tank to save water.  The doctor who saw him just after his assassination didn’t recognize him because of his worn-out belt. Surely, the doctor is imagined to have thought, this could not be the belt of the ruler of a nation.

The national conversation about Park’s legacy continued and intensified, literally reaching the front page during Park’s daughter’s first run at the Blue House, in 2007. She lost in the primaries to Lee Myung-bak, who went on to win that year.

“In the same way we [re-]fought the Vietnam War in the 2000 elections between Kerry and [Bush], Park [Geun-hye] was that for Koreans,” said USC’s Kang. But much in the way that Vietnam doesn’t stir the pot the way it used to, Kang said Park Chung-hee’s divisiveness “has now largely begun to fade.”

Few embody this change as much as the dissident poet Kim Ji-ha. Under Park, Kim suffered imprisonment, forced confession of Communist collusion, a death sentence that was commuted to a life sentence, then was released, re-arrested and sentenced to life again. He became an international symbol, with luminaries from Noam Chomsky to Jean-Paul Sartre advocating for his release. But in 2012, Kim voted for the daughter of the man who had jailed and tortured him, even urging the unmarried, childless Park to be a mother for the country when the two met.

Even attitudes among the generation younger than Kim, the democracy generation, have shifted. “I met a lot of people in their 50s who used to hate [Park] with a passion, but supported Park Geun-hye in this election,” said author, historian and translator John Cha. “Because they have seen what real dictators do, a la Hussein, Qaddafi, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, Assad, etc. And [Park] was nowhere near these dictators. Calling [Park] a dictator in the same vein as these dictators is not fair.  We should ask ourselves whether [Park] was as insane as these evil dictators before we call him a dictator.”

The core question regarding Park, then, is not the old one, as phrased by the columnist Shim, “… which comes first: the food or freedom of dissent.” It’s the question of how a nation can go from despising a leader to lionizing him, with the charge being led by those who had been among his most passionate critics. Some of the shift may just be the mellowing that comes with age. Perhaps in a country where the strictures of mere survival forged so many, outlasting Park by 34 years seems victory enough. Still, my mother, who had passionately defended Park in our argument, said the next day, “So many suffered, so many died. And there are probably so many more we don’t know about.” It was as if the old feelings emerged, unbidden.

Modern science no longer sees memory as static, but as something fluid, constantly rewritten by ensuing events. And there have been a lot of ensuing events. South Korea in the 1970s, for many, resembled South Korea in the 1870s. Now, South Koreans can read about Park’s atrocities on handheld devices made by South Korean companies. After having seen such change in one lifetime, what can one do but shrug and think it was for the best? It’s as if the older generations of South Koreans have come to an uneasy peace with their past.  He may have been a dictator, they seem to say, but he was our dictator, and it worked out in the end. The swing is a wild one, and perhaps appropriate for a people whose lives had known only unceasing tumult.

Park isn’t the first to benefit from the long view of history, of course, but to have it happen in one lifetime, and for someone as reviled as he was, speaks to how far the country has come.  The distance the country has traveled is further than merely counting the ensuing 34 years would suggest. It’s more than enough distance to recast the legacy of an autocrat, and to deliver his daughter into the seat he once held.

This article was published in the March 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).