Park Chung Hee (1917-1979) was South Korea's most enduring leader. He ruled the country for 18 years (1963-79) and the jury is still out on whether he was a mostly savior or a tyrant. On one hand, he is credited with launching the economic miracle in South Korea through his support of Korean enterprises and efficient use of millions of dollars of foreign aid. On the other hand, he has been sharply criticized for wielding dictatorial powers and brutally suppressing dissent.

A Former schoolteacher and army officer during the Japanese colonial period, Park became a general during the Korean War and took power in May 1961 in a military coup that ended more than a decade of civilian rule in South Korea. Presided over the economic development of South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. Park was an authoritarian ruler who lost patience with the democratic opposition and ended up ruling by decree. He was assassinated by one of his own deputies in October 1979, an event that opened the way to a further decade of military dictatorship in South Korea under General Chun Doo-hwan. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Park Chung Hee (Pak Chonghŭi) often appeared in Ray Ban sunglasses and was said to be such a miser that he chose to resole his old shoes rather than buy new ones. Lee In-hwa, the author of a biography on Park told the Korean Times, "Park was an agonized Machiavelli with a melancholic trait who led the dejected, poverty-ridden Korean people to prosperity." Park He liked to play golf. It is said he could be so intimidating that even U.S. presidents acted meekly in his presence.

Park once said that his primary goal as leader was to make South Korea “economically strong and militarily secure.” Although he was a close ally of the United States, he clearly had his own agenda, and the he put the needs of his own country first. He believed that discipline and hard work were needed o pull the country out of poverty and strong leader, in the mold of an ancient emperor, was needed to pull it off.

Harvard’s Ezra Vogel wrote in his book “The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea” that Park was one of only four ‘outstanding national leaders in the 20th century’ who had successfully modernized their country.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “He was a beloved president of South Korea; he was a hated dictator.He banned miniskirts from streets but held late-night parties with young women. He served in the army of his country's colonial ruler but dreamed of building atomic bombs to check neighboring superpowers. His 18-year rule was the best of times when South Korea cast off centuries-old poverty and roared as an "Asian tiger" economy; it was the worst of times when spies monitored classrooms and dissidents languished in prison. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 27, 2005]

“No South Korean political leader has inspired as much loyalty and fear as Park. Though dictatorial, he was popular. Though candid, he was inflexible. Though traditional, he was visionary. Park focused on economic success and mobilized South Koreans to achieve that goal, without allowing distractions. He used anti-Communist security laws to jail and torture dissidents, banned strikes, censored the press and subsidized conglomerates that thrived on cheap labor. Police officers carrying rulers stopped youngsters on the streets to measure boys' hair and girls' skirts.”

Park Chung Hee’s Life

Park Chung Hee was born on September 30, 1917 in Gumi (Kumi), an industrial town near Daegu (Taegu) in Gyeongsangbuk-do, a province in eastern South Korea. He was born into a poor family and was the youngest of seven children. It is said he did the homework of wealthy children in return for food from the their lunch boxes. As a child he read voraciously and was particularly fond of biographies of military leaders such as the Korean commander Yi Sun Sin, of turtle boat fame, and Napoleon Bonaparte. His house was destroyed in the Korean War. [Source: Toshiyuki Yoshida, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 2013]

Park worked for a while as a schoolteacher. Hejoined the Japanese Army as a junior lieutenant in Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state in northeastern China from 1932 to 1945. He became a military officer when Japan occupied Korea and was accused of being a chinilpa (collaborator for Imperial Japan).

Park graduated No. 1 in his class from the Japanese military academy in Manchuria at the age of 28 during World War II. Four years later, in 1948, Park was arrested on allegations that he joined a Communist organization. He was court marshaled and sentenced to death for his links with Communists but was saved with the help of other military officers and a senior general.

Park lost his military status but was allowed to rejoin when the Korean War began. He rose to a major general but was demoted under the administration of Prime Minister Chang Myon, who he later unseated in a military coup. Park was a major general when he took power in a coup in 1961.

Park was married to Kim Ho-nam. They had one daughter and were later divorced. Afterwards, he married Yuk Young-soo. The couple had two daughters and one son. Yuk was killed in the assassination attempt against Park in 1974. Park's eldest daughter from his second marriage with Yuk Young-soo, Park Geun-hye, was elected as South Korea's 18th and first female president in 2012 but was impeached in 2016 and removed from office in 2017 and then sentenced to 24 years in prison. .

Democratic Interlude After Syngman Rhee

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The Syngman Rhee (Yi Seungman, 1875-1965) government in South Korea, which had come to power in the late 1940s, was overthrown by a spring 1960 revolution led largely by students, who protested its corruption. Then, in May 1961, there was a second, military, coup, which brought to power General Pak Chonghŭi (Park Chung-Hee, 1917-1979), who ruled until his death (by assassination) in 1979. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ]

Syngman Rhee was the leader of South Korea when it was created after World War II and during the Korean War. He ran the government until 1960, when his authoritarian rule provoked the "April Revolution," the culmination of a series of increasingly violent student demonstrations that finally brought about his ouster. The Second Korean Republic, which followed Rhee, adopted a parliamentary system to replace the previous presidential system. The new government, however, was short-lived, lasting only 10 months before being overthrown in a military coup in May 1961.

When Rhee resigned the political void was filled by Ho Chong, whom Rhee had appointed foreign minister the day before he resigned. Although Ho was a lifelong friend of Rhee, he had maintained amicable relations with Democratic Party leaders and thus was acceptable to all concerned. Between April and July 1960, Ho's transitional government maintained order, exiled Rhee and his wife to Hawaii, and prepared for a new general election of the National Assembly in July. That body revised the constitution on June 15, instituting a parliamentary form of government with a bicameral legislature. In the July election, the Democratic Party won 175 of the 233 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. The second largest group, the independents, won forty-nine seats. The Liberal Party won only two seats. In the upper house, the Democratic Party won thirty-one of the fifty-eight seats. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The Democratic Party had been a coalition of two divergent elements that had merged in 1955 to oppose Rhee. When the common enemy — Rhee and his Liberal Party — had been removed from the scene and opportunities for power were presented, each group sought to obtain the spoils for itself.*

The Democratic Party candidate for the presidency in the March 1960 election, Cho Pyong-ok, died of illness shortly before the election, just as his predecessor, Sin Ik-hui, had in 1956. The two groups openly struggled against each other during the July elections for the National Assembly. Although they agreed on Yun Po-son as presidential candidate and Chang Myon (Dr. John M. Chang) as their choice for premier, neither had strong leadership qualities nor commanded the respect of the majority of the party elite. Yun and Chang could not agree on the composition of the cabinet. Chang attempted to hold the coalition together by reshuffling cabinet positions three times within a five-month period. In November 1960, the group led by Yun left the Democratic Party and formed the New Democratic Party (Simmindang).*

Park Chung Hee Comes to Power in a Military Coup

The government of Chang Myun was unable to deal with South Korea’s economic problems or maintain order. In May, 1961, the South Korean armed forces seized power in a bloodless coup. A military junta under Gen. Park Chung Hee was established.

The tasks confronting the new government were daunting. The economy suffered from mismanagement and corruption. The army and police needed to be purged of the political appointees who had buttressed the dictatorship. The students, to whom the Democratic Party owed its power, filled the streets almost daily, making numerous wide-ranging demands for political and economic reforms, but the Democratic Party had no ready-made programs. Law and order could not be maintained because the police, long an instrument of the Rhee government, were demoralized and totally discredited by the public. Continued factional wrangling caused the public to turn away from the party. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

This situation provided a fertile ground for a military coup. Whereas Rhee had been able to control the military because of his personal prestige, his skill in manipulating the generals, and the control mechanisms he had instituted, Chang lacked all these advantages. When the demands of the young army officers under Major General Park Chung Hee were rebuffed, and as political power appeared to be increasingly hanging in the balance with no one clearly in charge, the army carried out a coup d'état on May 16, 1961. Chang's own army chief of staff, Chang To-yong, joined the junta and Chang's fragile government was toppled. (The junta subsequently tried and convicted General Chang for attempting to take over the junta.) The young officers' initial complaint had been that Chang Myon had not kept a campaign pledge to weed out corrupt generals from the South Korean army, and some Korean sources attributed this failure to the intervention of highranking United States military officers, who feared the weakening of South Korea's national security.*

The coup was masterminded by Kim Jong Pil. Recalling the coup, Kim Dae Jung wrote, Park and Kim Jong Pil "moved into Seoul in the early morning darkness, took control of the radio stations, police stations and public buildings. It was over in a few hours."

Yun Po-son sided with the junta and persuaded the United States Eighth Army and the commanders of various South Korean army units not to interfere with the new rulers. Yun stayed on as president for ten months after the military junta took over power, thereby legitimizing the coup. A small number of young officers commanding 3,600 men had succeeded in toppling a government with authority over an army of 600,000.*

Park Chung Hee Consolidates Power with a Military Constitution

The junta under Park Chung Hee quickly consolidated its power, removed those it considered corrupt and unqualified from government and army positions, and laid plans for the future. The thirty-two-member Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR) became all-powerful. The junta established tight control over civil freedoms, the press, and the economy. Restrictions were somewhat relaxed as power was firmed up. Park's government was remarkably successful in fighting corruption and reviving the economy.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “The military junta dissolved the National Assembly, placed the nation under martial law, established the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) as a means of detecting and suppressing potential enemies, and ruled by decree until late 1963 through the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction. General Park created a well-organized political party — the Democratic-Republican Party (DRP) — designed to serve as a vehicle for the transition from military to civilian rule, and in October 1963, under a new constitution, he easily won election as president of the Third Republic. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The new constitution drawn up by the junta was put it before a popular referendum in December 1962, receiving 78.8 percent of the vote. Under the new constitution, the president was to be elected by direct popular vote and have strong powers — including the authority to appoint the premier and cabinet members without legislative consent and to order emergency financial and economic measures. Under United States pressure, Park, who had held the position of acting president following Yun's resignation in March 1962, retired from the army as a four-star general and ran as the DRP candidate in the October 1963 presidential election. He was elected by a narrow margin, winning 46.6 percent of the vote, as compared with 45.1 percent for Yun Po-son, the New Democratic Party candidate. In the subsequent election for the unicameral legislature, held in November 1963, the government won 110 of the 175 seats. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Until 1971 South Korea operated under the political framework it adopted in 1963. Even though Park imposed some restrictions on members of the press, intellectuals, and opposition politicians, these groups were permitted considerable latitude to criticize the government and to engage in organizational activities. Although there were numerous student demonstrations, particularly in 1965 when the government normalized its relations with Japan and sent 45,000 combat troops to support the Republic of Vietnam in response to a request from the United States, the students were controlled and there were no casualties in confrontations with the police. The presidential and National Assembly elections in 1967 and 1971 were closely contested but won by Park. In order to succeed himself for the third time in 1971, Park amended the constitution in 1969.*

Park Chung Hee as the Leader of South Korea

Park Chung Hee was a general when he seized power in a 1961 coup d'etat known as the May 16 Revolution after an attempt at parliamentary democracy ended in chaos. When he came to power Park was almost unknown by the United States, who viewed him with suspicion because of alleged links to leftists.

Pressured by the U.S. to establish a democratic government Park resigned his position as the head of a military junta and restored civilian rule in 1962. A national referendum restored the presidential system. Park won national presidential elections in 1963. He was elected to a second term in May 1967, defeating his chief opponent, Yun Po-sun, and Park’s DRP won a large majority in the National Assembly. In 1969, Park pushed through the National Assembly a constitutional amendment permitting him to run for a third term.He narrowly defeated Kim Dae Jung, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), in the elections of April 1971, but Kim's NDP made significant gains in the National Assembly elections that May.

The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) was created in June 1961 to prevent a countercoup and to suppress all potential enemies. It was to have not only investigative power, but also the power to arrest and detain anyone suspected of wrongdoing or harboring antijunta sentiments. The KCIA extended its power to economic and foreign affairs under its first director, Colonel (retired) Kim Jong Pil, a relative of Park, and one of the original planners of the coup against Chang.*

In May 1961, the junta pledged to make an all-out effort to build a self-reliant economy and to carry out a "great human revolution" by wiping out all corruption and evil practices in the government and by introducing a "fresh and clean morality." The National Assembly was dissolved and high-level civilian officials were replaced by military officers. By 1963 the junta's economic policies had not produced any favorable results.*

The KCIA under Kim Jong Pil was involved in a number of scandals that considerably tarnished the junta's image. The military leaders had worked actively to establish a political party, later known as the Democratic Republican Party (DRP), which existed from 1963 to 1980, preparation for the return of politics to the civilians — but former politicians were prohibited from engaging in organizational activities. Park announced in February 1963 that he would not participate in civilian politics. The following month, however, he announced a popular referendum to decide whether the junta should extend its rule for another four years. Facing stiff opposition from both the South Korean public and the United States, the plan for a referendum was canceled.*

Korean Society and Hard Work under Park Chung Hee

With good salaries Park recruited the best and brightest into the government and they planned the countries development. Park once said a "a fire burns inside me." He was famous for his 18-hour work days and "vise-like" handshake. The economy seemed to follow his example. During the Park era, the South Korean economy grew in some years at the phenomenal rate of 14 percent, with exports increasing by as much as 40 percent annually. Under what became known as Korean capitalism, the Korean labor force worked hard under harsh conditions for little money.

The rapid pace of industrialization not only changed much of the South Korean landscape, as farmlands were converted into highways and factory sites, but also profoundly modified the social structure, social values, and behavior. As late as 1965, some 58.7 percent of the labor force was engaged in agriculture and fishery, but the percentage declined to 50.4 percent in 1970 and 38.4 percent in 1978. The percentage of workers engaged in secondary industries, including mining and manufacturing, rose from 10.3 percent in 1965 to 35.2 percent in 1970 and 38.4 percent in 1978. Industrialization led to a rapid increase in South Korea's urban population, which rose from 28.3 percent of the total in 1960 to 54.9 percent in 1979. Rapid urbanization compounded the problems of housing, transportation, sanitation, and pollution, and exacerbated other social problems. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Improved living standards and ever-increasing job opportunities accelerated the desire among South Koreans for education, particularly at secondary schools and institutions of higher learning. In 1960 about one-third of children between twelve and fourteen years of age attended middle schools; that proportion increased to 53.3 percent in 1970 and 74.0 percent in 1975. In 1960 some 19.9 percent of the population between fifteen and seventeen years of age attended high schools; that proportion increased to 29.3 percent in 1970 and 40.5 percent in 1975. By 1970 about 9.3 percent of college-age youths attended colleges and universities and the number of university graduates exceeded 30,000 a year. Eight years later, 41,680 students graduated from four-year institutions of higher learning.*

Most workers with higher education qualifications were absorbed by the rapidly growing industrial and commercial sectors, joining the ranks of the growing middle class. Demands and rewards for people in the more prestigious fields — doctors, lawyers, economists, scientists, and managers — were increasing. The number of white-collar workers in commerce, industry, banking, civil service, and the teaching profession also rose, as did the number of small entrepreneurs and retailers.*

A high proportion of those people who regarded themselves as middle class resided in Seoul, the locale for much of the nation's wealth, talent, and many of its cultural resources. As beneficiaries of the rapidly expanding economy, much of the middle class either was content with its situation or indifferent to politics. Many highly educated persons in this group who found themselves in less well-paid positions than they would have liked remained dissatisfied, and together with students and intellectuals they formed the core of opposition to the Park regime.*

Rural villages also underwent changes of revolutionary proportions, particularly after 1971. As the government had emphasized industrial growth and slighted the agrarian sector, agricultural production lagged; its annual rate of growth during the 1967-72 period was only about 2.5 percent. With overall GNP growing at over 10 percent a year during the same period, the rural economy steadily lost ground, until by 1969 farm income was only a little more than half that earned by urban workers. This situation contributed to the high rate of migration to the cities and eroded political support for the president.*

This situation led the government to take active measures to increase farm productivity and income in 1971. Government subsidies to farmers were increased by setting relatively high prices for grains. Higher-yield rice varieties were introduced. Advanced agricultural technology was made more widely available through extension services and more fertilizers and credits were provided. As a result of these measures, farm productivity and farm income increased very rapidly during the ensuing years, and the rate of emigration to the cities tapered off.*

To Build a Nation (1971) by Park Chung Hee

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Park’s years in power were marked by both rapid economic development and authoritarian government under which civil rights were repeatedly suspended. In this passage from his 1971 book To Build a Nation, Park reflected back on the early 1960s. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ]

Park Chung Hee wrote in “To Build a Nation”: “When I took over power as the leader of the revolutionary group on 16 May 1961, I felt, honestly speaking, as if I had been given a pilfered household or a bankrupt firm to manage. Around me I could find little hope or encouragement. The outlook was bleak. But I had to rise above this pessimism to rehabilitate the household. I had to break, once and for all, the vicious circle of poverty and economic stagnation. Only by curing the abnormal economic structure could we lay the foundation for decent living standards. But I soon came to realize the difficulty of simultaneously achieving our goals of social stability and economic development and the goal of efficient government. I was also aware of the fact that economic development in the capitalist manner requires not only an immense investment of money and materials but also a stable political situation and competent administrators. [Source: from “To Build a Nation” (1971) By Pak Chonghŭi (Park Chung Hee), pp. 101.114; “Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 396-398]

“Before May 16 the Korean economy was in disorder. Accumulated political blunders and misguided economic policy had utterly disarranged it. The postwar rehabilitation of the nation was at a near.standstill, while the amount of grant-type foreign aid was lessening. Economic stagnation aggravated poverty and unemployment. Farmers’ debts rose sharply … With growth at a standstill at the turn of the 1960s, Korea found itself one of the lowest income countries in the world. The industrial structure was not solid. Due to a huge gravitation toward them of a huge amount of foreign aid, the secondary and tertiary industries seemed excessively swollen in comparison with primary industry...

“The institutional and moral aspects of the society were no better. People fatalistically took poverty and reliance on foreign aid as unavoidable facts of life. Businessmen and industrialists failed to fulfill their important role in economic development. Many corrupt government officials and parvenus worked together to amass illegal fortunes. The market, suffering from its small scale and lack of vigorous competition, did not function normally. The underdeveloped agricultural system was unable to meet the demand for food — we were forced to rely on the farm products of advanced countries. The whole economy was afflicted by inexperience, inefficiency, and wasteful management.

To achieve this stability, the military revolutionary government temporarily suspended political activities of students, the press, labor unions, and other social and political organizations, which had caused political crises and social unrest during the rule of the Democratic Party regime. We also made it clear that civilian government would be restored in 1963.

Meanwhile, we organized a planning committee of college professors and experts with specialized knowledge in many fields. By mobilizing the maximum available expertise for government administration and policy making, we intended to hold in check the arbitrariness and rashness of the military officers. The establishment of this committee served as a turning point. Korean professors began to show positive interest in the realities of the country and to present policy recommendations on the basis of scientific analyses of the country’s situation. Even though not all of these recommendations could be justified in terms of efficiency and rationality, their advice was of great help to the revolutionary government. Thus the Confucian tradition of Yi Korea, in which scholars played a positive part in government affairs, seems to have been revived.

The key to improving a backward economy is the way one uses human resources, for economic development is a human undertaking, impossible without combining the people’s potential into a dynamic driving force. This task requires not only strong national willpower but also the ability to translate willpower into achievement. Blueprints must be drawn and explained. If people have a sympathetic understanding of a task, they will voluntarily participate in it.

In 1961 the revolutionary government announced the first Five.Year Economic Development Plan (to start in 1962), the first such overall development program ever prepared for Korea. To prepare it, the revolutionary government mobilized all the wisdom and knowledge available and set clear goals, the primary goal being to establish a self.supporting industrial economy. The principle of free enterprise and respect for the creativity of private industry was adopted, for in this way we believed that the private sector would be encouraged to act voluntarily. Under the plan, however, the economy was not entirely free, since development of basic industries was directed by the government.

Taking into consideration the structural characteristics of the Korean economy, the five.year plan gave priority to the following things:
1) Development of energy industries such as coal production and electric power;
2) Expansion of agricultural production aimed at increasing farm income and correcting the structural imbalance of the national economy;
3) Development of basic industries and the economic infrastructure;
4) Maximum utilization of idle resources; increased employment; conservation and utilization of land;
5) Improvement of the balance of payments through export promotion;
6) Promotion of science and technology.

Saemaul Movement

The dominant theme of the Park government in the 1970s was Saemaul ("the New Community Movement"). Schoolbooks were smothered in Saemaul sentiments and every South Korean was expected to sing the "Saemaul Song" with religious devotion every morning. One-and-a-half-minute propaganda films shown before feature films at theaters featured the song as well as Park standing before he Korean flag while the national anthem was played.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: The Saemaul Movement was “an initiative to raise the standard of living in rural South Korea begun by the military-led government of President Park Chung-hee in the 1970s and continuing in the 1980s. Largely successful, it brought better agricultural yields and important improvements in infrastructure such as electric power, irrigation, communications, and transportation.: [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

The Saemaul Movement was instituted with great fanfare by Park in the fall of 1971. The movement was envisioned as a highly organized, intensively administered campaign to improve the "environment" quality of rural life through projects undertaken by the villagers themselves with government assistance. The bureaucracy, particularly at the regional and local levels, was mobilized on a massive scale to ensure that the program would be carried through to completion in all 36,000 villages. The initial emphasis was on improving village roads and bridges and replacing thatch with tile or composition roofs. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

The momentum was maintained and increased in subsequent years as the Saemaul Movement evolved into a major ideological campaign aimed at the psychological mobilization of the entire country in support of "nation building." During the first two or three years, emphasis continued to be on improving the village environment, but later focus was shifted toward projects designed to raise agricultural productivity and farm income.*

As local government officials were jolted out of their traditional lethargy by the continuing insistence of higher authorities that essential services be delivered to farmers, the farmers began to have ready access to agricultural extension services, rural credit, and market information. The result of improved services and increased resource allocation was that farmers became more confident of their ability to improve the village environment through their own cooperative efforts and became more convinced of the usefulness of outside official help. As a result of the Saemaul Movement, about 85 percent of villages had electricity, and about 60 percent of farm households had television sets by the late 1970s. Some 85 percent of rural children continued from free, obligatory primary schooling to middle school, and over 50 percent of these middle school pupils were entering high schools. Many farmers also acquired modern amenities that had been available only to city dwellers just a decade earlier, such as sewing machines, radios, irons, and wall clocks.

The Archives of Saemaul Undong was placed on UNESCO Memory of World Register in 2013. According to UNESCO: The movement laid the foundation for Korea to grow into a major economy from one of the world's poorest countries. Saemaul Undong marked the first step in this remarkable journey. The experience of the Korean people in this process is a valuable asset for humankind. Between 1970 and 2011, some 53,000 public officials and village leaders from 129 nations visited Korea to learn about Saemaul Undong.

According to the South Korean government: “Korea today is one of the world's highly developed countries as well as a benchmarking model for many developing nations as it achieved rapid economic growth, much thanks to the Saemaul Undong Movement. This helped the country to step out from the list of the world’s poorest to a major player in the world economy in the present day. Laying a significant foundation, the world has also acknowledged this remarkable journey, introducing the process as a valuable asset for humankind to learn. The archives include presidential speeches, government papers, village documents, letters, manuals, photographs and video clips related to the movement conducted from 1970 to 1979. The Saemaul Movement has been emulated by countries in Asia and Africa. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Saemaul Movement Comes to Kongnam-ni

On life in a Korean village, Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The most revolutionary influence in the life of Kongnam-ni in the 1970s was the success of the government's Saemaul (or "New Community") Movement. The Saemaul Movement was President Park Chung-hee's response to the criticism that his administration was paying too much attention to industrialization at the expense of the farm sector, which was continuing to languish in poverty. The Saemaul Movement therefore was a national push to improve living standards at the village level. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Under the slogan "Diligence, Self-Help, and Cooperation" the government targeted many areas at once. For example, after having developed a national cement industry in the 1960s, the Park administration was able to give 300 bags of cement to each of more than 35,000 villages on the condition that it be used for community purposes such as irrigation, sanitation, and construction of buildings for common use.

“To improve transportation the government built more than 65,000 small bridges to make weather roads out of the tracks that flooded like the one leading from Poksu to Taejon. The layers of rice straw that thatched millions of Korean farmhouses were economically replaced with roofs made of cement tiles that did not rot in the rainy season, house innumerable rats and insects, and require laborious re-thatching every autumn. The movement also augmented the nation's rudimentary public health program by assigning government-paid doctors to small towns and villages, building health centers in places like Kongnam-ni, extending health education classes to villagers, and increasing the number of family planning and communicable disease control workers. Since much of the countryside was afflicted by waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, the government pushed the construction of safe water supplies.

Agriculture Improvements and Training Brought by Saemaul Movement

Clark wrote: “The Saemaul Movement funded the digging of new wells that were away from the polluted water tables of the villages themselves and ran pipes to communal faucets and, eventually, into individual homes. Partly as a public health measure but mostly to boost production, the government invested in the production of two kinds of farm chemicals: pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer. Though the pesticides created pollution problems of their own, they cut down on the crop losses that were due to insects and rodents. The fertilizer, which was distributed at subsidized rates through the National Agricultural Cooperative system, replaced the manure that had been used through the 1960s and enabled farmers to continue growing two crops a year safely in many fields without completely depleting the nutrients in the soil. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“The country's industrial development also spun off new products that proved essential for rising living standards in the countryside. The new plastics industry made vinyl sheeting available to farmers to use in two ways. They spread the vinyl on fields to hold in moisture and control pests while the plants themselves grew up through holes punched in the plastic, and they built greenhouses to grow high-profit vegetables during the colder weeks of early spring and late autumn.

“Another type of industrial product was the small gasoline engine that was adapted for use as a "mechanical ox," a gas tractor that could be hooked up to a plow, or hitched to a wagon, or connected to a pump, performing a variety of tasks more cheaply and efficiently than animal power. The mechanization process also led to the spread of more sophisticated machines to harvest and thresh the grain crops. One machine even took trays of new rice seedlings and transplanted them in wet rice paddies row by row, ending the ordeal of having the villagers line up in water up to their calves and bend over to push the seedlings into the mud one by one. But the most important agricultural innovation of all was the development of a new kind of high-yield rice that dramatically increased the country's annual grain output and enabled the growing population to retain rice as its staple food. Increased production meant rising farm income without a rise in prices in the market. The new rice strain was accompanied by increased efficiency as Saemaul Movement workers showed farmers how to share resources through coordinated planning and cooperative work.

“The government set up training institutes and cycled thousands of farmers through classes on organization and leadership. The central training institute in Suwon started training in 1972 with 150 village leaders from across the country and by 1988 was training more than 20,000 a year. Koreans regard the Saemaul Movement as a great success. The cooperative elements of the movement were translated into urban projects as well. Though critics complained that the training institutes were dispensing a kind of government propaganda that limited the vision of Korea's future to one industrial-style model, the exposure of professors, businessmen, judges, and religious leaders to the cooperative ethic of the Saemaul Movement seems to have contributed something to an evident national determination to work together to overcome long odds. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“Without the government-led development of community spirit, one wonders, for example, if Korea's spectacular success in reforestation would have been possible. On a daily basis one notices improvements in community consideration: respect for people ahead in a line for tickets or taxis, an end to spitting on the sidewalk, less shoving, less littering, and slightly better driving. High in the mountains of central Korea, the economic modernization of South Korea and the Saemaul Movement brought revolutionary changes to Kongnam-ni. The roads that fork in the center of the hamlet were paved, and more than a few households own private cars, a thing that could not have been imagined in the 1970s.

Build Up of the South Korean Military Under Park Chung Hee

Park Chung Hee and the other military leaders who participated in the May 1961 coup d'état that brought down the Second Republic (1960-61) were motivated largely by dissatisfaction with their corrupt and ineffective military and civilian superiors. They believed that South Korea's survival as a nation depended on the reestablishment of social and economic stability. They viewed the strength of the armed forces and the reinstitution of the National Security Act of 1960 and other laws intended to reduce civil disturbances as necessary means to restore order and promote sound economic development. By 1963 when Park won election to the presidency of the Third Republic (1963-72) as a civilian, he already had placed other former military leaders, mostly members of the eighth class of the Officer Candidate School who had graduated in 1949, in key government positions. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

In the 1960s, Pyongyang began a sustained expansion of its armed forces that continued without interruption through the 1980s. Two of Park's major objectives during the Third Republic were to improve defense cooperation with the United States and to modernize the armed forces In pursuit of these goals, Park devoted onethird of all government spending to defense in 1965.

In the early 1970s, the Park administration, with United States assistance through its Foreign Military Sales program, promoted the establishment of an indigenous defense industry. Park's military advisers were concerned that Kim Il Sung already had built a North Korean arms industry. The Nixon administration was calling for Washington's allies to assume more responsibility for their own defense. Nixon's national security advisors also feared that Seoul might be too weak to deter a North Korean invasion unless it began to manufacture some of its own weapons.*

A Defense Industry Bureau was established in the Ministry of National Defense and planning, for a defense industry was incorporated into South Korea's first Force Improvement Plan (1971-76). Some of the weapons were assembled in government-owned plants. Licensed production of the United States-designed Colt M16 rifle was initiated in 1971, with select South Korean companies supplying the government assembly plant with most of the parts for the weapon. In other cases, coproduction responsibility was entirely delegated to civilian-managed companies, many of which already had produced nonmilitary items with technical assistance from various United States firms. The Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, for example, assisted a South Korean shipbuilding company based in Chinhae in constructing several classes of patrol boats, including the Paegu-class derived from the Asheville-class, which was equipped with Harpoon antiship missiles.*

South Korea in the Vietnam War

As a sign of support for United States policies in Southeast Asia and in exchange for the substantial financial and material contributions for modernizing the army, Park Chung Hee deployed units of the South Korean army and marine corps to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Some 320,000 South Koreans fought in Vietnam, with 50,000 stationed there at one time, the largest foreign contingent fighting alongside the Americans. South Korean journalist Ku Su-Jeong told Reuters that during the Vietnam War, Seoul wholeheartedly supported U.S.-backed South Vietnam, afraid that Washington might withdraw American troops stationed in South Korea. The Korean troops who fought in the Vietnam War, had a fearsome reputation among ordinary Vietnamese. [Source: Reuters, January 10, 2000]

Demonstrations erupted in 1966, when the ROK's decision to send 45,000 combat troops to Vietnam became known. The South Koreans were accused of committing atrocities in Vietnam. They reportedly rounded up villagers and placed them in barbed-wire-enclosed enclaves called New Life Villages and gunned them down and killed them with grenades. By some accounts South Korea soldiers killed 8,000 civilians in this way in Vietnam. One South Korean soldier told Newsweek, "Searching a village we found a young guy—with his daughter. My company commander ordered me to kill him right there next to his girl, who looked 7 or 8. My heart was broken. I couldn’t do it. So my commander killed them both."

Reuters reported: In central Vietnam's Binh Dinh province stands a large gravestone with 1,004 names etched in the granite — victims, local officials say, of a killing spree by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War. The locals say 1,000 people, mainly civilians, died in the six-week rampage in early 1966 — including 380 in one day. Ku Su-Jeong, who works part-time for South Korea's Hankyoreh21 magazine and researched the massacre at Binh Dinh, said, "South Koreans must know about these massacres. They cast shame on us and we have a duty to apologise,'' Ku said. [Source: Reuters, January 10, 2000 ^^^]

In January 2006, a South Korean court ordered Dow and Monsanto chemical companies to US$62 million in compensation to about 6,800 people said to have suffered from exposure to the defoliate Agent Orange.

South Korean "Economic Miracle"

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Park created a central Economic Planning Board (EPB) and used his power to open doors to foreign money, borrowing capital and negotiating for aid from the United States and Japan. Beginning with this, the EPB mapped out a series of five-year plans that set ambitious targets for production. Using the slogan "Production, Exports, Construction!" the government made the Korean economy produce goods that could be sold abroad, earning foreign exchange that could be used to buy imported raw materials, machines, and advanced equipment for further production. The Park government also sent Korean workers abroad to Europe and the Middle East to earn money in places where labor was scarce. In the 1960s Korean troops also fought in Vietnam, their expenses being paid by the United States. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“These multiple sources of revenue from outside Korea "primed the pump" of the Korean economy and made it possible to exceed the Five Year Plan targets time after time. The government also stressed rural development through a program called the "New Community Movement." Aimed at increasing agricultural productivity and raising the standard of living in the countryside, the New Community Movement made credit available to farmers, supplied them with seed, fertilizers, and pesticides, installed electricity and safe water, promoted public health, paved roads, built schools, and improved transportation and communications. These improvements, together with the trend toward urbanization, dramatically increased per capita production in the provinces and narrowed the gap in living standards between Koreans who lived in the cities and rural villages.

“The enormous sacrifices required to accomplish these things were not evenly distributed despite the government's best efforts. Many Koreans suffered under brutal working conditions. The rate of injuries and accidents among those who did "3-D" kinds of work (difficult, dirty, and dangerous), workers such as miners and those who worked in urban sweatshops, was very high. One type of worker was especially exploited: the teenage girls fresh from middle school whose good health and quick reflexes made them excellent factory hands. These girls normally worked long hours for low pay and often were expected to send their wages home to their families, sometimes to finance their brothers' educations, until they quit work to get married. Korean workers were discouraged from organizing unions or engaging in any kind of collective bargaining. Indeed, their low wages were a key to South Korea's economic progress.

“On the other hand, the Park government tried to engineer the success of Korea's biggest companies by having government-controlled banks make them government-guaranteed loans. These companies quickly became conglomerates called chaebol, which were made up of families of companies. The Hyundai chaebol, for example, included automobile, construction, shipbuilding, and retailing components. Samsung, which started out in textiles, developed an electronics manufacturing specialty that became known around the world, first for televisions and microwave ovens, and then for semiconductors and other high-tech computer components. Demand for Korean products overseas helped free Korea from foreign aid and then enriched the chaebol, enabling them to buy up smaller companies and grow big enough to control a significant part of the national economy. When workers saw the wealth that was accumulating in the chaebol they demanded higher wages. The Park government, however, resisted any loosening of control over the workforce. It argued that worker unrest was a threat to national security that would destabilize the country and invite intervention by Communist North Korea.”

No Miniskirts, Long Haired Men and International Sports in Park Chung-hee Era

The Park Chung Hee government banned miniskirts. Kang Hyun-kyung wrote in the Korea Times: In 1973, the Park government introduced the Minor Offenses Act that mandated limits on men's hair length and women's miniskirt length. Police who caught men with long hair took them to a police station to have their hair cut against their will. While there was no specific definition of long hair, the Minor Offenses Act stipulated that men who have hair "long enough to make it harder for others to distinguish whether they were men or women" were subject to the measure. In 1973 alone, some 12,000 men were taken to police stations for violations of the act. The same law also banned women from wearing skirts that ended 17 centimeters or higher above their knees. If found, the women were taken to a police station and required to change into a "modest" costume.” [Source: Kang Hyun-kyung, Korea Times, February 22, 2019; Book: "Memories of Yushin Dictatorship" by Pyo Hak-ryul]

In "Memories of Yushin Dictatorship," Pyo Hak-ryul “sheds light on a set of repressive, abusive policies, from October 1972 when the controversial constitutional reform allowed President Park to remain in power, to October 1979 when he was assassinated by his key aid Kim Jae-kyu. Pyo says dictatorships are bad because political leaders try to flex their muscles to control citizens' lives. The author cites the government's crackdown on men with long hair and women wearing short skirts as two cases showing how ridiculous the Park Chung-hee era was.

“Pyo claims the double-digit economic growth of the 1970s came at the expense of human rights, as young girls went without secondary education to work long hours in sweatshops to feed their poor families and send their brothers to school. The young workers were portrayed as the heroes of industrialization but those who actually benefited from Korea's miraculous economic growth were upper-class people, he observes.

“The author says the repressive Park Chung-hee era had an impact on sports stars, too. Football legend Cha Bum-kun and baseball pitcher Choi Dong-won, two of the country's greatest sports stars in the 1970s, hit a ceiling in their careers as they were encouraged to play for their country at the expense of opportunities overseas. Cha, then Asia's unrivaled striker, was lured to Germany's premier football league Bundesliga in the early 1970s as several clubs showed deep interest in him. Due to popular opinion that he should represent only his country, Cha stuck with the national football team through the 1970s until the 1978 Bangkok Asian Games. The next year, he joined the German Bundesliga.

“Legendary pitcher Choi, meanwhile, missed the opportunity to join Major League Baseball. In 1981, he and the Toronto Blue Jays neared signing a contract. But the world baseball championship slated for the next year held back his career. Choi could have been the first Korean-born Major Leaguer but his dream shattered as he followed calls to pitch for the national team.

Legacy of Park Chung Hee

It could be argued that Park had created his own dilemma by instituting the yusin constitution and by assuming unlimited powers. If he had loosened control, however, the demand for reforms might have spread, proving impossible to contain. The system had provided for neither a pressure-release valve nor an escape hatch. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

In his eighteen years in power, Park had been obsessed with ushering the country into the ranks of developed nations, had pursued his goal relentlessly, and had achieved considerable results. Having been trained under the Japanese, he closely patterned his development strategies after Japan's, where a feudal society had been turned into a modern nation between the 1860s and 1930s.*

The Japanese leaders of the Meiji era (1868-1912), however, possessed two advantages over Park. First, they had operated in a period when the masses were less politically conscious and authoritarian control was more easily accepted. This was not the situation in South Korea, where students had already toppled a government in 1960. Second, the Japanese also had a built-in system of checks and balances, because the top-echelon leaders operated in a council where different leaders interacted among themselves as equals. Park, by contrast, operated on a one-man- rule basis, unchecked by constraints on his own decision-making powers.*

In 2003, Park Chung Hee’s daughter Park Geun-hyeemerged as a major political force. Jack Kim and David Chance of Reuters wrote: Park Geun-hye “has at times invoked her father's legacy of rapid growth that propelled South Korea into the league of industrialized nations. At other times, she has apologized for his suppression of protests and the execution of people suspected of sympathizing with the North.” [Source: Jack Kim and David Chance, Reuters, Dec 19, 2012]

Families of those who were executed under her father's rule believe Park has not apologized enough and that she has sought to sweep her past under the carpet.The most notorious executions under Park's rule were of eight men aged 30 to 52 who were dubbed the "People's Revolutionary Party". They were hanged 24 hours after being sentenced for treason, leaving scant time for review. The eight represented a broad section of South Korean society, comprising a bee keeper, a brewery owner, an acupuncturist and teachers. They were exonerated posthumously by the Supreme Court in 2007.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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