Park Chung Hee

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In late November 1974, President Park Chung Hee presided over a dinner at his favorite golf course north of Seoul. U.S. President Gerald Ford had just completed a successful visit to South Korea, and Park was feeling expansive. His golfing guests included U.S. Ambassador Richard Sneider and General Richard Stilwell, the United Nations Forces commander. Koreans at the dinner--the defense minister, the intelligence director and others--sat like plebes at West Point, never speaking unless addressed by their President. At the end of a long silence, I asked Park if he ever compared himself to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The President shifted his heavy gaze to the questioner, contemplating him as a rattlesnake might look upon a mouse. After a pause, he replied, I do not know much about Kemal Pasha, but I would like to do for Korea what he did for Turkey--make it economically strong and militarily secure. Park added that he did not intend to serve indefinitely as President and that he often thought that had he not chosen to stand for another term in 1972, his wife might still be alive. She had died in a 1974 assassination attempt against her husband. Five years later Park himself was assassinated. By that time, after 18 years at the helm, he had become increasingly isolated from his people and his regime had grown markedly more repressive. These trends, combined with an economic downturn, caused many Koreans to feel that he had stayed too long as President. The U.S. never found it easy to deal with Park, whose agenda was shaped by his country's immediate needs, not broader issues such as human rights or free trade. Park was a patriot, with a deeply ingrained skepticism toward foreigners. When he seized power in 1961, he was virtually unknown to American officials. Trained in the Japanese Army and later suspected of leftist connections, he was not the man the U.S. would have chosen to lead the new Korea. As it turned out, he was just the man Korea needed. In 1961, per-capita income in South Korea was less than $100 a year. North Korea, with mineral resources and an industrial base, was regarded as the stronger power on the peninsula. Park moved quickly to correct this imbalance. Within weeks of his coup, he had established a body to provide central government direction to economic development. A five-year plan was developed, and Park put knowledgeable economists in charge of implementing it. Recognizing the need for large infusions of foreign capital, Park took the vital but highly unpopular step of normalizing diplomatic relations with Japan. This sparked campus demonstrations in Seoul in 1964, and Park responded by imposing martial law until quiet was restored. Normalization with Japan was achieved in 1965, bringing with it $800 million in economic aid. Park agreed that year to send two Korean divisions to fight alongside U.S. forces in Vietnam, for which Korea was richly rewarded by Washington. In the mid-'60s, revenues from the Vietnam War were the largest single source of foreign-exchange earnings for Korea. These funds helped launch the country's transformation over the next two decades from economic basket case to world leader in iron and steel production, shipbuilding, chemicals, consumer electronics and other commodities. Korea's per-capita income increased tenfold during Park's tenure. On the political front, Park gradually yielded to pressure from the Kennedy Administration and re-established civilian rule. In 1962, a national referendum restored a presidential system, under which Park was elected President in the following year. Easily re-elected in 1967, he had a hard time beating Kim Dae Jung in 1971. The validity of Park's narrow election victory is still questioned. In 1972, fearing Kim's political potency, Park changed the election system, allowing indirect voting that could be controlled by the incumbent. In 1972 and again in 1978 he was easily elected for six-year terms. The early 1970s were a pivotal period in U.S. relations with Korea. From Park's perspective, America's failure in Vietnam made it a less reliable ally and increased the need for South Korean strength and self-reliance. The 1972 yushin (revitalizing reforms) system was a swing back to authoritarianism. Many political leaders were arbitrarily arrested, and the security apparatus entered its most draconian period, putting down dissent and becoming infamous for its use of torture. (Kim Dae Jung escaped arrest only because he was out of the country.) Park was fortifying his political base in preparation for an attempt to establish a dialogue with North Korea. In May 1972, Park secretly sent a trusted ally, intelligence chief Lee Hu Rak, to Pyongyang to meet with Kim Il Sung. Lee admiringly voiced his impressions of Kim: Quite a guy, very strong, one-man rule! In fact South Korea's yushin system was in many ways a reflection of North Korea's policy of juche (self-reliance). The 1974 assassination of Park's wife by an agent who had been aided and instructed by North Korea ended North-South dialogue for some time. But Park must be given credit for beginning the process. One day in August 1973, Kim Dae Jung, who had loudly and courageously been criticizing the yushin system, was kidnapped from a hotel in Tokyo. U.S. Ambassador Philip Habib immediately ordered his aides to find out where the opposition leader was being hidden. Informed the next morning that South Korean agents had seized Kim, Habib rushed to Blue House, the presidential mansion, to tell Park. The result was that Kim, on a small boat, tied hand-and-foot and waiting to be thrown into the East Sea, was returned safely to Seoul. Not long afterward, Park fired Lee Hu Rak after learning of strong American opposition to his agency's actions against South Korean citizens who opposed the yushin system. The intelligence chief's replacement was a former justice minister who did much to curtail the use of torture. Park's final years in office were not his finest. He missed his wife deeply and withdrew into the inner recesses of his presidency. Koreans became restive under his overly long rule. Rivalries simmered among his staff. U.S.-Korea relations soured under the pall of a Korean-led Congressional bribery scandal in Washington and President Jimmy Carter's obsessive desire to pull American troops out of Korea. The costs of staying in office too long were lethal to Park. His assassination, by his latest intelligence director, was followed by at least a decade of public discredit. Slowly, however, his economic achievements, patriotism, frugal lifestyle and strength of character have reasserted themselves in the public mind. Even President Kim Dae Jung has spoken of him in positive terms, citing his role in transforming Korea from an underdeveloped country into an industrial power. Today in South Korea, Park is recognized and respected as his country's most effective leader. South Korea is full of monuments to Park Chung Hee, from the giant steel mills, shipyards and factories he built, to the superhighway system he launched. All are reminders of the man who, more than any other, made South Korea what it is today in economic terms. Had Park followed the advice he gave to himself in 1974, at the golf dinner, he might still be alive to enjoy the national affection he so richly deserves. Donald Gregg served as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea from 1989 to 1993 and now heads the Korea Society in New York