Park Chung-hee (Korean pronunciation: [pak̚.t͈ɕʌŋ.ɦi] or [pak̚] [tɕʌŋ.ɦi]; 14 November 1917 – 26 October 1979) was a South Korean dictator and military general who led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Park seized power through the May 16 coup, a military coup d’état that overthrew the Second Republic of South Korea in 1961 and ruled at the head of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction until his election and inauguration as the President of the Third Republic of South Korea in 1963. In 1972, Park declared martial law and recast the constitution into a highly authoritarian document, bringing in the Fourth Republic of South Korea.
After surviving several assassination attempts, including two operations associated with North Korea, Park was assassinated on 26 October 1979 by Kim Jae-gyu, the chief of his own security services. He had led South Korea for 18 years. Jae-gyu, who also fatally shot several others, was executed by hanging one year later in 1980, and Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, later served as the 18th President of South Korea from 2013 to 2017.
Park remains a controversial figure in modern South Korean political discourse and among the Korean populace in general; while some see him as a resolute leader who helped sustain the Miracle on the Han River, which reshaped and modernized Korea, others see him as an authoritarian dictator who squashed political opposition and dissent while prioritizing economic growth and contrived social order at the expense of civil liberties.
Early life and education
Park was born on 14 November 1917, in Gumi, North Gyeongsang in Korea under Japanese rule, to parents Park Sung-bin and Bek Nam-eui. He was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters in a poor Yangban family. As a youth, he won admission to a teaching school in Daegu and worked as a teacher in Mungyeong-eup after graduating with a teaching degree, but was reportedly a very mediocre student. Following the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the ambitious Park decided to enter the Changchun Military Academy of the Manchukuo Imperial Army, with help from Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Arikawa (a drill instructor at the teaching school in Daegu who was impressed by Park’s military ambitions). During this time, he adopted the Japanese name Takagi Masao (高木正雄). He graduated top of his class in 1942 (receiving a gold watch from Puyi himself) and was recognized as a talented officer by his Japanese instructors, who recommended him for further studies at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy in Japan.
After graduating third in the class of 1944, Park was commissioned as a lieutenant into the Manchukuo Imperial Army, and served during the final stages of World War II as aide-de-camp to a regimental commander. He changed his name again from Takagi Masao to Okamoto Minoru (岡本実) in order to engage in intelligence activities against Korean guerrillas operating in the region. The Japanese used Korean turncoats to suppress Korean armed resistance.
Return to Korea
Park returned to Korea after the war and enrolled at the Korea Military Academy. He graduated in the second class of 1946 (one of his classmates was Kim Jae-gyu, his close friend and later assassin) and became an officer in the constabulary army under the United States Army Military Government in South Korea. The newly established South Korean government, under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, arrested Park in November 1948 on charges that he led a communist cell in the Korean constabulary. Park was subsequently sentenced to death by a military court, but his sentence was commuted by Rhee at the urging of several high-ranking Korean military officers. While Park had been a member of the South Korean Workers Party, the allegations concerning his involvement in a military cell were never substantiated. Nevertheless, he was forced out of the army. While working in the Army as an unpaid civilian assistant, he came across the 8th class of the Korea Military Academy (graduated in 1950), among whom was Kim Jong-pil, and this particular class would later serve as the backbone of the May 16 coup. After the Korean War began and with help from Paik Sun-Yup, Park returned to active service as a major in the South Korean Army. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in September 1950 and to colonel in April 1951. As a colonel, Park was the deputy director of the Army Headquarters Intelligence Bureau in 1952 before switching to artillery and commanded the II and III Artillery Corps during the war. By the time the war ended in 1953, Park had risen to become a brigadier general. After the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, Park was selected for six-months training at Fort Sill in the United States.
After returning to Korea, Park rose rapidly in the military hierarchy. He was the head of the Army’s Artillery School and commanded the 5th and 7th Divisions of the South Korean army before his promotion to major general in 1958. Park was then appointed Chief of Staff of the First Army and made the head of the Korean 1st and 6th District Command, which gave him responsibility for the defense of Seoul. In 1960, Park became commander of the Pusan Logistics Command before becoming Chief of the Operations Staff of the South Korean Army and the deputy commander of the Second Army. As such, he was one of the most powerful and influential figures in the military.
Rise to power
On 25 April 1960, Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian inaugural President of South Korea, was forced out of office and into exile following the April 19 Movement, a student-led uprising. A new democratic government took office on 13 August 1960. However, this was a short-lived period of parliamentary rule in South Korea. Yun Bo-seon was a figurehead president, with the real power vested in Prime Minister Chang Myon. Problems arose immediately because neither man could command loyalty from any majority of the Democratic Party or reach agreement on the composition of the cabinet. Prime Minister Chang attempted to hold the tenuous coalition together by reshuffling cabinet positions three times within five months.
Meanwhile, the new government was caught between an economy that was suffering from a decade of mismanagement and corruption under the Rhee presidency and the students who had instigated Rhee’s ousting. Protesters regularly filled the streets making numerous and wide-ranging demands for political and economic reforms. Law and order could not be maintained because the police, long an instrument of the Rhee government, were demoralized and had been completely discredited by the public. Continued factional wrangling caused the public to turn away from the ruling Democratic Party.
Against this backdrop of social instability and division, Major General Park formed the Military Revolutionary Committee. When he found out that he was going to be retired within the next few months, he sped up the Committee’s plans. It led a military coup on 16 May 1961, which was nominally led by Army Chief of Staff Chang Do-yong after his defection on the day it started. The military takeover rendered powerless the democratically elected government of President Yun, ending the Second Republic.
Initially, a new administration was formed from among those military officers who supported Park. The reformist military Supreme Council for National Reconstruction was nominally led by General Chang. Following Chang’s arrest in July 1961, Park took overall control of the council. The coup was largely welcomed by a general populace exhausted by political chaos. Although Prime Minister Chang and United States Army General Carter Magruder resisted the coup efforts, President Yun sided with the military and persuaded the United States Eighth Army and the commanders of various ROK army units not to interfere with the new government. Soon after the coup, Park was promoted to Lieutenant General.
On 19 June 1961, the military council created the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in order to prevent counter-coups and to suppress all potential enemies, both foreign and domestic. Along with being given investigative powers, the KCIA was also given the authority to arrest and detain anyone suspected of wrongdoing or harboring anti-government sentiments. The KCIA would extend its power to economic and foreign affairs under its first director, retired Brigadier General Kim Jong-pil; a relative of Park and one of the original planners of the coup.
President Yun remained in office, giving the military regime legitimacy. After Yun resigned on 24 March 1962, Lt. General Park, who remained chairman of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction, consolidated his power by becoming acting president; he was also promoted to full general. Park agreed to restore civilian rule following pressure from the Kennedy administration.
In 1963, he was elected president in his own right as the candidate of the newly created Democratic Republican Party. He appointed Park Myung-keun, the Vice Leader of the party as the chief of the President’s Office. He narrowly defeated former President Yun, the candidate of the Civil Rule Party, by just over 156,000 votes—a margin of 1.5 percent. Park would be re-elected president in 1967, defeating Yun with somewhat less difficulty.
Leader of South Korea
In June 1965 Park signed a treaty normalizing relations with Japan, which included payment of reparations and the making of soft-loans from Japan, and led to increased trade and investment between South Korea and Japan. In July 1966 South Korea and the United States signed a Status of Forces Agreement establishing a more equal relationship between the two countries. With its growing economic strength and the security guarantee of the United States, the threat of a conventional invasion from North Korea seemed increasingly remote. Following the escalation of the Vietnam War with the deployment of ground combat troops in March 1965, South Korea sent the Capital Division and the 2nd Marine Brigade to South Vietnam in September 1965, followed by the White Horse Division in September 1966. Throughout the 1960s, Park made speeches in which he blamed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and the British Empire generally for Japan’s takeover of Korea.
At the request of the United States, Park sent approximately 320,000 South Korean troops to fight alongside the United States and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War; a commitment second only to that of the United States. The stated reasons for this were to help maintain good relations with the United States, prevent the further advance of communism in East Asia and to enhance the Republic’s international standing. In January 1965, on the day when a bill mandating a major deployment passed the National Assembly (with 106 votes for and 11 against), Park announced that it was “time for South Korea to wean itself from a passive position of receiving help or suffering intervention, and to assume a proactive role of taking responsibility on major international issues. “
Although primarily to strengthen the military alliance with the United States, there were also financial incentives for South Korea’s participation in the war. South Korean military personnel were paid by the United States federal government and their salaries were remitted directly to the South Korean government. Park was eager to send South Korean troops to Vietnam and vigorously campaigned to extend the war. In return for troop commitments, South Korea received tens of billions of dollars in grants, loans, subsidies, technology transfers, and preferential markets, all provided by the Johnson and Nixon administrations.
Park oversaw transitional changes between the two Koreas from conflict to consolidation. Beginning in October 1964, North Korea increased the infiltration of its intelligence-gatherers and propagandists into the South. More than 30 South Korean soldiers and at least 10 civilians had been killed in clashes with North Korean infiltrators by October 1966.
In October 1966, Park ordered the ROK Army to stage a retaliatory attack without seeking the approval of General Charles Bonesteel. This action, which was in retaliation for ongoing South Korean losses, caused tension between Park’s government and the U.S. command in Korea, which wished to avoid violations of the armistice.
Between 1966 and 1969 the clashes escalated as Park’s armed forces were involved in firefights along the Korean DMZ. The fighting, sometimes referred to as the Second Korean War, was related to a speech given by Kim Il-sung on 5 October 1966 in which the North Korean leader challenged the legitimacy of the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Kim stated that irregular warfare could now succeed in a way conventional warfare could not because the South Korean military was now involved with the ever-growing Vietnam War. He believed Park’s administration could be undermined if armed provocation by North Korea was directed against U.S. troops. This would force America to reconsider its worldwide commitments. Any splits would give the North an opportunity to incite an insurgency in the South against Park.
On 21 January 1968, the 31-man Unit 124 of North Korean People’s Army special forces commandos attempted to assassinate Park and nearly succeeded. They were stopped just 800 metres from the Blue House by a police patrol. A fire fight broke out and all but two of the North Koreans were killed or captured. In response to the assassination attempt, Park organized Unit 684, a group intended to assassinate Kim Il-Sung. It was disbanded in 1971.
Despite the hostility, negotiations were conducted between the North and South regarding reunification. On 4 July 1972 both countries released a joint statement specifying that reunification must be achieved internally with no reliance on external forces or outside interference, that the process must be achieved peacefully without the use of military force, and that all parties must promote national unity as a united people over any differences of ideological and political systems. The United States Department of State was not happy with these proposals and, following Park’s assassination in 1979, they were quietly buried.
On 15 August 1974, Park was delivering a speech in the National Theater in Seoul at the ceremony to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the ending of colonial rule when a man named Mun Se-gwang fired a gun at Park from the front row. The would-be assassin, who was a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer, missed Park but a stray bullet struck his wife Yuk Young-soo (who died later that day) and others on the stage. Park continued his speech as his dying wife was carried off the stage. Mun was hanged in a Seoul prison four months later. On the first anniversary of his wife’s death, Park wrote in his diary “I felt as though I had lost everything in the world. All things became a burden and I lost my courage and will. A year has passed since then. And during that year I have cried alone in secret too many times to count.”
Park is credited with playing a pivotal role in the development of South Korea’s tiger economy by shifting its focus to export-oriented industrialisation. When he came to power in 1961, South Korea’s per capita income was only US$72.00. North Korea was the greater economic and military power on the peninsula due to the North’s history of heavy industries such as the power and chemical plants, and the large amounts of economic, technical and financial aid it received from other communist bloc countries such as the Soviet Union, East Germany and China. South Korean industry saw remarkable development under Park’s leadership. Government-corporate cooperation on expanding South Korean exports helped lead to the growth of some South Korean companies into today’s giant Korean conglomerates, the chaebols. Park also created economic development agencies:
- Economic Planning Board (EPB)
- Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI)
- Ministry of Finance (MoF)
The economic development of South Korea continues at the cost of major sacrifices for the working class: the government does not recognize a minimum wage or weekly leave, imposes periods of free work for its benefit and working days are of a duration of twelve hours. In addition, trade unions and collective labor actions are prohibited.
Park’s economic policy was highlighted by South Korea’s relationship with West Germany. Park had an affinity for Germany due to its history of having strong leadership like that of Bismarck and Hitler, and wanted to create ties with West Germany to deal with the problems of increasing population growth and economic hardships and to receive an inflow of foreign capital for domestic development. Upon an agreement in 1961, South Korea sent labor forces to Germany, including more than 8,000 mine workers and 10,000 nurses, which continued until 1977.
Among Park’s first actions upon assuming control of South Korea in 1961 was to pass strict legislation metrifying the country and banning the use of traditional Korean measurements like the li and pyeong. Despite its strict wording, the law’s enforcement was so spotty as to be considered a failure, with the government abandoning prosecution under its terms by 1970. In the end, South Korea’s traditional units continued until June 2001.
After taking office for his second term in 1967, Park promised that, in accordance with the 1963 Constitution which limited the president to two consecutive terms, he would step down in 1971. However, soon after his 1967 victory, the Democratic Republican-dominated National Assembly successfully pushed through an amendment allowing the incumbent president —himself— to run for three consecutive terms.
In the meantime, Park grew anxious of the shift in US policy towards communism under Richard Nixon’s Guam Doctrine. His entire government depended on anti-communism, and any change of that policy from South Korea’s allies (including the US) threatened the very basis of his rule. Park began to seek options to further cement his hold on the country.
In 1971, Park won another close election against his rival, Kim Dae-jung. He then declared a state of emergency shortly after being sworn in “based on the dangerous realities of the international situation”. In October 1972, Park dissolved the legislature and suspended the 1963 constitution in a self-coup. Work then began on drafting a new constitution. Park had drawn inspiration for his self-coup from Ferdinand Marcos, President of the Philippines, who had orchestrated a similar coup a few weeks earlier.
The so-called Yushin Constitution was approved in a heavily rigged plebiscite in November 1972. Meaning “rejuvenation” or “renewal” (as well as “restoration” in some contexts), scholars see the term’s usage as Park alluding to himself as a self-perpetuating and highly-autocratic leader (an “imperial president”).
The new Yushin constitution was a highly authoritarian document. It transferred the presidential election process to an electoral college, the National Conference for Unification. It also dramatically expanded the president’s powers. Notably, he was given sweeping powers to rule by decree and suspend constitutional freedoms. The presidential term was increased from four to six years, with no limits on re-election. For all intents and purposes, Park’s presidency was now a legal dictatorship. In the elections of 1972 and 1978 he was re-elected unopposed.
In 1975, Park ordered homeless people to be removed from the streets of Seoul. Thousands of people were captured by the police and sent to thirty-six camps. The detainees were then used as free labor by the authorities and subjected to degrading treatment. Many died under torture.
Park abolished the usage of Hanja, or Chinese character, and established Hangul exclusivity in Korean language in the 1960s and 1970s. After “Five-Year Hangul Exclusivity Plan” (한글종양오년계획) is accomplished through legislative and executive means, since 1970, using Hanja becomes illegal in all grades of public school and in military. This leads to stronger national identity and less illiteracy in South Korea. 
Although the growth of the South Korean economy had secured a high level of support for Park’s presidency in the 1960s, that support began to fade after economic growth started slowing in the early 1970s. Many South Koreans were becoming unhappy with his autocratic rule, his security services and the restrictions placed on personal freedoms. While Park had legitimised his administration, using the provisions laid down in the state of emergency laws dating back to the Korean War, he also failed to address the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the press. Furthermore, the security service, the KCIA, retained broad powers of arrest and detention; many of Park’s opponents were held without trial and frequently tortured. Eventually demonstrations against the Yushin system erupted throughout the country as Park’s unpopularity began to rise.
These demonstrations came to a decisive moment on 16 October 1979, when a student group calling for the end of dictatorship and the Yushin system began at Busan National University. The action, which was part of the “Pu-Ma” struggle (named for the Pusan and Masan areas), soon moved into the streets of the city where students and riot police fought all day. By evening, up to 50,000 people had gathered in front of Busan city hall. Over the next two days several public offices were attacked and around 400 protesters were arrested. On 18 October, Park’s government declared martial law in Busan. On the same day protests spread to Kyungnam University in Masan. Up to 10,000 people, mostly students and workers, joined the demonstrations against Park’s Yushin System. Violence quickly escalated with attacks being launched at police stations and city offices of the ruling party. By night fall a citywide curfew was put into place in Masan.
On 26 October 1979, Park was shot dead by Kim Jae-gyu, the director of the KCIA, after a banquet at a safehouse in Gungjeong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul. Kim also killed Park’s chief bodyguard, Cha Ji-Chul. Other KCIA officers then went to other parts of the building shooting dead four more presidential guards. Kim and his group were later arrested by soldiers under South Korea’s Army Chief of Staff. They were tortured and later executed. It’s unclear whether this was a spontaneous act of passion by an individual or part of a pre-arranged attempted coup by the intelligence service. Kim claimed that Park was an obstacle to democracy and that his act was one of patriotism. The investigation’s head, Chun Doo-Hwan, rejected his claims and concluded that Kim acted to preserve his own power.
Park, who was said to be a devout Buddhist, was accorded the first South Korean interfaith state funeral on 3 November in Seoul. He was buried with full military honors at the National Cemetery. Kim Jae-gyu, whose motive for murdering Park remains unclear, was hanged on 24 May 1980.
Park was married to Kim Ho-nam (having one daughter with her) and the two later divorced. Afterwards, he married Yuk Young-soo, and the couple had two daughters and one son. Yuk was killed in the assassination attempt against Park in 1974.
Park’s eldest daughter, Park Geun-hye, was elected the chairperson of the conservative Grand National Party in 2004. She was elected as South Korea’s 11th and first female president in 2012 and took office in February 2013. Park Geun-hye’s association to her father’s legacy has served as a double-edged sword. She has previously been labeled as the daughter of a dictator, however she has been quoted as saying “I want to be judged on my own merits.” Her presidency ended in her impeachment in 2016 and removal from office in 2017.
Park led the Miracle on the Han River, a period of rapid economic growth in South Korea, until 1979. However, his authoritarian rule saw numerous human rights abuses. Opinion is thus split regarding his legacy between those who credit Park for his reforms and those who condemn his authoritarian way of ruling the country (especially after 1971). Older generations who spent their adulthood during Park’s rule tend to credit Park for building the economic foundation of the country and protecting the country from North Korea, as well as leading Korea to economic and global prominence. Although Park was listed as one of the top ten “Asians of the Century” by Time magazine in 1999, the newer generations of Koreans and those who fought for democratization tend to believe his authoritarian rule was unjustified, and that he hindered South Korea’s transition to democracy. He is also believed to be one of the main causes of regionalism which is a serious problem in Korea today.
Park Chung-hee remains a controversial figure in South Korea. The eighteen-year Park era is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, controversial topics for the Korean public, politicians, and scholars both at home and abroad. A large number of South Koreans, especially those from Park’s native Yeongnam region, consider Park to be one of the greatest leaders in the country’s history and thus continue to hold Park in high regard in great part due to the industrial and economic growth experienced by South Korea under his regime. Park was accused of having pro-Japanese tendencies by some, but it is widely agreed that Park is responsible for the beginning of a normalized relationship with Japan and today Japan is one of South Korea’s top trading partners, surpassed only by the People’s Republic of China and the United States. He is often credited as being one of the major people responsible for bringing economic growth and development to South Korea. Park has been recognized and respected by many South Koreans as his country’s most efficient leader, credited with making South Korea economically what it is today. However, Park is also regarded as a highly repressive dictator who restricted personal freedoms and was isolated from the people. At the very least, his actions put United States and South Korea foreign relations at risk, at least under Carter. Dissolving the constitution to allow him unopposed rule and a third term, blackmail, arresting, jailing and murdering opposition figures are well documented. The new constitution President Park implemented after declaring the state of emergency in 1971, gave him the power to appoint one third of the members of the National Assembly and even outlawed criticism of the constitution and of the president. There were also many economic feats established during Park’s regime, including the Gyeongbu Expressway, POSCO, the famous Five-Year Plans of South Korea, and the New Community Movement.
On 24 October 2007, following an internal inquiry, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) admitted that its precursor, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), undertook the kidnapping of opposition leader and future President Kim Dae-jung, saying it had at least tacit backing from then-leader Park Chung-hee.
In a 2015 Korean Gallup poll on the greatest president in Korean history, Park topped the chart with an approval rating of 44%.
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Takagi Masao was Park’s Japanese name at the Tokyo military academy, but he used the name Okamoto Minoru while serving in Manchuria. This suggests he was involved in intelligence activities against Korean guerrillas operating in the region. The Japanese used Korean turncoats to suppress Korean armed resistance.
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However the Yushin Constitution may have merely formalised rather than directly established the “imperial presidency
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