Park Chung-hee: A Retrospective

According to historian Niall Ferguson the Cold War was not won along the Berlin Wall in Europe but in Asia where a decade after American defeat in Vietnam even Maoist China was adopting market reforms to trade with its prosperous neighbors who were busy building skyscrapers while other communist nations still struggled with food production.  Singapore, whose skyline equals that of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s has been a prominent symbol of the triumph of capitalism in the Cold War, but also of the global shift of power and wealth towards Asia in the 21st century. Under the rule of Lee Kuan Yew the city went from a colonial port on the cross roads of the Pacific and Indian Oceans to sprawling city state with one of the highest GDPs in the world.   Lee Kuan Yew’s passing this week at age 91 brought condolences even from nations who were critical of his human rights record,  Yew’s crimes seem to pale in the miraculous rise in living standards that happened under his rule of an Island state with no natural resources in a single generation, especially when compared to other Post-colonial leaders like Mugabe.   Singapore’s miracle of development has been touted as an anomaly, however there is one other figure, one with a far darker past and bloodier record who accomplished the same feat in a generation, but was assassinated before he could see the fruits of his harvest. His name was Park Chung-hee, and it was he who was most responsible for forging  South Korea.

When Park gained power under a coup in 1961 South Korea was actually less developed than her Northern rival, its GDP was equal to that of many post-colonial African nations. Anyone betting on which Korea would be stronger by the end of the century would have probably placed money on the communist North, even after heavy America bombing it still had a stronger Industrial infrastructure and a more educated populace. North Korean’s advantage’s made its ascendancy almost assured, most of the nations in the Soviet camp were still rebuilding from the devastation of the Second World War.  In the 1950s South Korea was very similar to South Vietnam a decade later, much of its leadership lacked legitimacy because many had held positions in Colonial Japanese Manchuria. The threat of monolithic communism and lack of legitimacy made many educated people suspect that South would collapse quickly if the North Invaded.  The armistice of 1953 brought an end to the fighting but not an official end to the war, both sides claimed victory and their commitment to controlling a unified Korean Peninsula.

Park was a product of Japanese rule, born in 1917 to into an impoverished family he attended the Japanese military academies in Manchuria which offered a way to rise. Park was different from his Northern Rival Kim Il Sung. Kim was a product of Stalin’s Russia, chosen because of his commitment to its ideology and groomed to be a puppet freedom fighter while Park according to many was social climbing opportunist with his finger always out in the political wind. Park had adopted a Japanese name when he fought for the Emperor during WWII, and two years before the outbreak of the Korean War he was accused of being connected to a communist cell that planned to launch a coup in the South on behalf of the stronger North. Park however did inherit from his Japanese teachers a disdain for democratic institutions, the Japanese Parliament in the 1930s had been shaken to insignificance by numerous assassinations and attempted coups by young hyper nationalists in the Japanese Military. In 1961, barley a decade after a war that brought uneasy stalemate and an unpopular government with democratic trappings, Kim who was by then a Major General launched a coup and made himself head of Korea with US blessing.

Yew’s human rights record in Singapore has brought much criticism, but Yew who relied on censorship, overzealous libel litigation, house arrest and police tear gas to deal with rivals seems soft compared to Gen. Park who was even more ruthless than his contemporary Pinochet. Park was willing to imprison and kill anyone who could potentially undermine his regime, be that communist spies or prodemocracy student groups. Park understood that his legitimacy was based not only on keeping order within a society that was be infiltrated and undermined much like Southern Vietnam but also on real economic progress. While Kim Il Sung’s ideas of political economy were borrowed form Stalin and Mao, Park a closet Japonophile took note of the thriving post war Japanese economy.  The conglomerate structure of the Japanese Zaibutsu was copied in Korea as an institution becoming the Chaebol, whose names like Samsung, and Hyundai are today equal to their Japanese counterparts Honda, and Sony. The South Korean economy had stagnated with a culture of corruption and patronage under the Rhee Government and Park made an example of the worst offenders who also happened to be too close to the previous regime while making it clear to industrialists that only economic performance would be rewarded, and to foreign investors that South Korea was a place you could business with when at the time most of Asian was run by socialist states. Park also gave generous subsidies to heavy industry over consumer goods, all this occurred during Vietnam War which lead to rapid grow as Park generously supplied his American Allies fighting Communism in Southeast Asia.

Living standards conditions visibly improved Park’s rule, so much so that most Koreans that had been sympathetic to the North quickly realized that the North’s Marxist Materialism couldn’t live up to its promises and that there was nothing to be envious of. However Park did not ease the grip of his Iron fist as the threat of Northern invasion waned, through numerous attempts on his life had been made by communists including the  famous raid on the presidential palace by North Korean commandos in 68, it was his own head of security Kim Jae-gyu,  one of his closest friends who ended up killing the tyrant, either as an act of vengeance for Park’s murder of Kim’s friends in the Democracy movement or an impulsive act fueled by personal jealousy and ignited by alcohol.  Democracy would not come to South Korea until 1987 when mas popular protests brought down General Chun Doo-hwan.

Singapore has been described  by author William Gibson “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”. Though possessing high material wealth it has a bland G-rated society held together by a strict law enforcement that fines people for gum chewing and executes them for drug possession. Singapore is a skyline, but it is not nation.  Yew’s independent Singapore is younger than Disneyland, and the ethnic Chinese who run the city state have had difficulty integrating the other minorities when they have made it plainly evident that they are suspicious of sharing meaningful political power with them, especially the Muslim Malays who make up Singapore’s more populous neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia. The racial tensions that manifested in racial riots under the early years of Yew’s Rule still linger and are kept in check not by the emergence of an encompassing and inclusive Singaporean identity but by a system of carrots and canings. Singapore noted for its lack of corruption and professional bureaucracy depends too much on them, its lack of civic virtue and identity could mean that city of Singapore could eventually share the fate of another international city that was known for its diversity and wealth, Beirut, whose splendor was destroyed by a violent civil war that rocked Lebanon in the late 1970s and may yet be retriggered as conflict spills in from neighboring Syria.

South Korea the other hand will continue to ascending, though it faces a similar ageing crisis as its neighbor Japan, it is facing a far less catastrophic debt crisis than the land of the Rising Sun whose debt to GDP is a staggering 226% compared with South Koreas 35%! Unlike Japan, South Korea has far more amicable relations with its neighbors, while Tokyo and Beijing raddle sabers over sea rocks China has become South Korea’s number one trading partner and even though approximately 60% of North Korean trade is conducted with China it amounts to less than $6 billion compared to $145 billion worth of trade conducted between China and the South. China is North Korea’s only ally in the region and even they have grown visibly impatient with the Stalinist basket case which has forced Pyongyang into desperately courting Putin’s Russia for protection and patronage. South Korea has geopolitical support not only from the United States but China, it is in a very secure position.

Even among my friends who are familiar with the history of the Cold War Park Chung-hee is a relatively unknown figure outside of Korea.  He lacks the personality cult of his rival Kim Il-sung and his legacy is a highly contested in modern day South Korea where nearly 40% of the population view him negatively as a dictator. But his name is still associated with a hardline stance to the communist aggression, which helped his daughter win election as its current President.  Many find it ironic that the current elected president is the daughter of a military dictator who a generation ago ruthlessly went after those who called for democratic reform. But Park Geun-hye does not run form the legacy of her father, rather she embraces him as a stern figure who prevented Seoul from collapsing like Saigon. A fate which would have made South Korea’s current prosperity and democratic institutions impossible. An argument which carries some weight when seeing the other side of the DMZ, a separate Korea which started out with more advantages but has regressed into an Orwellian fiefdom that in the near future may collapse from a famine induced uprising or a desperate power struggle among it elites. In fact the greatest coming obstacle for South Korea will come if the Kim dynasty was to suddenly collapse and the North attempted to reunify with the South.  Sixty years of separation have created two entirely different cultures, even languages. The lack of interest and even outright hostility toward North Korean refugees currently residing in the South can be taken as a strong indication that the South’s population will want nothing to do with North Korea when it collapses. The South Koreans could hardly care about being a united peninsula  on a map, they have a lot more going for them and will probably have a more visible role in the unfolding Asian century. Park Chung-hee, created more than another neoliberal enclave with a nice skyline, he created a nation that is now strong enough to be ruled without an autocrat.

Works Cited

Gibbson, W. (1993, Sept/Oct). Disneyland with the Death Penalty . Retrieved from

Heo, U., Jeon, H., Kim, H., & Kim, O. (2008). The Political Economy of South Korea: Economic Growth, Democratization, and Financial Crisis. Issue 2 of Maryland series in Contemporary Asian studies .

Nam, W. W. (2014, April 18). Tensions behind the façade of ethnic harmony. Retrieved from

Perlez, J. (2014, Decemeber 20). Chinese Annoyance With North Korea Bubbles to the Surface. Retrieved from the New York Times:

South Korea Goverment Debt to GDP. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Taylor, G. (2014, March 4). U.S., China, South Korea should prepare for North Korea’s collapse, ex-envoy says. Retrieved from