The myth of Park Chung-hee and Korea’s economic development

Seo Jung-seok

Seo Jung-seok, professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University, during his interview with the Hankyoreh in Seoul on Dec. 31, 2019. (Kim Jung-hyo, staff photographer)

The eighth volume in the 20-volume “Seo Jung-seok’s Contemporary Korean History,” which has now been published in its entirety, has a rather pugnacious subtitle: “Crediting Economic Growth to Park Chung-hee is a Dangerous Misunderstanding.” Considering that even critics of Park’s long dictatorship and his suppression of democracy tend to give him credit for economic growth, what grounds could there be for such remarks by Seo Jung-seok, professor emeritus at Sungkyunkwan University and a leading authority on Korea’s modern and contemporary history? Seo waxes eloquent on this topic for nearly 20 minutes, explaining that people need to take into account all the domestic factors and international conditions that made Korea’s explosive growth possible.

“Germany and Japan enjoyed incredible economic growth, beginning in Germany in 1945 and in Japan shortly after the Korean War and lasting until the early 1970s. Taiwan underwent rapid growth from the early 1960s until the 1980s, and the economies of Western Europe, including France, and even Spain under the Franco dictatorship, began growing in the 1960s. This was a good time for the global economy. Oil prices were extremely low, under US$2 a barrel.”

The boom in the global economy lasted until oil prices spiked in 1973, effectively proving the point about positive conditions overseas. Next, Seo turns to domestic factors. “The motto of the administration led by Prime Minister Chang Myon [after the April 1960 revolution] was ‘the economy first.’ The economy was the first, second, and third priority. The five-year economic development plan drafted by the Chang administration was adopted without revision by Park Chung-hee. Koreans had an incredible desire for economic development at the time, and the educational fervor was intense as well. During the presidency of Syngman Rhee, the percentage of Koreans entering elementary school had already exceeded 90%, which was even higher than in Taiwan. That’s the foundation of economic development. But the Rhee administration’s obsession with winning elections prevented it from achieving economic development.”

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Middle Eastern construction projects allowed chaebols to invest in heavy industry

According to Seo, therefore, the domestic factors were already mature enough. Another important factor for economic success was that Korea had implemented land reform (unlike countries in Central and South America), and removed the restrictions on mobility, which is a prerequisite for an industrial workforce. When advanced economies were rocked by the oil embargo, Koreans viewed it as an opportunity. Enriched by soaring oil prices, OPEC oil producers in the Middle East launched construction projects that were a perfect fit for Koreans’ temperament. Competitors couldn’t keep up with Koreans, given their knack for “building things in a flash to meet construction deadlines.”

“The Minister of Construction at the time was Kim Jae-gyu [who later assassinated Park Chung-hee], and we owe a lot to him. But Kim used to downplay his role and give credit to businesspeople. In reality, it was people like [Hyundai Group founder] Chung Ju-yung who made a huge impact. That had little to do with Park Chung-hee.”

Korea’s investment in heavy industry was also made possible by money flowing in from Middle East construction projects, Seo contends. Prior to that, no companies were willing to step up to the plate, despite benefits promised by the government. But once the chaebols, or family-run conglomerates, were flush with cash from the Middle East construction contracts, they eagerly jumped into heavy industry. Seo argues that the story of Park Chung-hee spearheading the country’s economic growth is no more than a myth. He marshaled numerous facts attesting to the economic mismanagement of the Park regime, including opposition parties’ victory in parliamentary elections on Dec. 12, 1978, despite the oppressive atmosphere created by Emergency Order No. 9, and the surge of popular opposition represented by democratic protests in Busan and Masan, which ultimately led to the downfall of Park’s Yushin regime.

“While Ludwig Erhard [who served as Germany’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Chancellor] played a big role in the ‘Miracle on the Rhine,’ people don’t say that the miracle was his doing. Nor do people say that Taiwan owes [its economic growth] to Chiang Kai-shek or his son Chiang Ching-guo. If anything, [the Chiangs] are criticized for being dictators. In Spain, there’s a stigma about Franco. I’m not saying that Park Chung-hee didn’t work hard. What I’m saying is that, if you take a close look at the domestic and international conditions, he didn’t accomplish everything on his own.”

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That’s why it’s important to look back at the comparatively recent past through the study of contemporary history. There are still many “facts” once taken for granted that should be reexamined, to see if they’re historically accurate. The reason the Korean public is largely uninformed about the democratic protests in Busan and Masan, which were designated a national memorial day this year, is because of the rigid control of the press during the Yushin regime. The protests were only covered by newspapers after martial law was declared.

Park admitted to exaggerating N. Korean threat to tighten political control

Another good example is the Park regime’s anti-Communist campaign and all-out national security campaign, which it waged simultaneously, emphasizing North Korea’s ambition of invading the South. But during a meeting with foreign correspondents, Park reportedly expressed skepticism about whether the North would actually attack. Seo stumbled upon that remark in a collection of Park’s speeches. Park exaggerated the North Korean threat for the purposes of domestic control even while knowing full well there was little chance of war. In South Korea, Park played up tunnels that the North Koreans had dug under the DMZ as evidence of preparations for an invasion, but then told Japanese reporters that, practically speaking, the tunnels couldn’t be used for a full-scale war.

The series took nearly five years to be published, following the release of the first volume, titled “Liberation, Division, and Collaborators: The Joy and Junctures of Contemporary History,” in March 2015. It the series were to have a main character, it would obviously be Park Chung-hee. A full 16 of its 20 volumes deal with the Park era, from Volume 5 (“The 2nd Republic and the May 16 Coup d’?at: Why Did the US Stand By?”) to Volume 15 (“Collapse of the Yushin Regime: Was Kim Jae-gyu a Traitor?”). Since Park held power for 18 of the 42 years covered in the series, from Korea’s liberation on Aug. 15, 1945, to 1987, so much attention might seem inevitable. Another factor is that Seo has already published a lot of books about post-liberation Korea and about the presidency of Syngman Rhee, including “Research on the Nationalist Movement in Contemporary Korea,” “Cho Bong-am and the 1950s,” and “The Political Ideology of Syngman Rhee.” Debunking the lies about the Park Chung-hee has always been on Seo’s to-do list, and this series makes the relevant records easily accessible to the general public.

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Unraveling the liars of South Korea’s democratization

The final three books in the series, now released, deal with the mass protests in June 1987 that led to Korea’s democratization: Volume 18 (“Background to the June Democracy Movement: Push for Constitutional Reform and Chun Doo-hwan’s Counterattack”), Volume 19 (“The June Democracy Movement Unfolds: Contemporary History Changed by Huge Simultaneous Demonstrations”), and Volume 20 (“The Wave of Democratization Runs High: Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo Surrender, and the Aftermath”). One of the strengths of the series is its eminent readability, organized in Q&A format. A generous assortment of photographs and newspaper articles keep the reader grounded, they don’t go adrift in a sea of facts.

“There’s been a marked decrease in our society’s interest in and excitement about our modern and contemporary history. It was just then that the New Right emerged and began working to distort history, taking the perspective of the collaborators. I don’t like the ‘history wars,’ but at the same time, I see it as my fate. There’s nothing that can teach us the value of democracy quite like contemporary Korean history. In that sense, I see this book as a textbook in democracy.”

By Lee Jae-sung, staff reporter

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