Park Chung-hee is a widely disputed leader in South Korean history, with opinions of him ranging anywhere from “horrible dictator” to “strict but well-meaning leader.” Undoubtedly, he lead Korean through one of the greatest times of economic prosperity in the country’s history, but at a high cost.
He was born on September 30th, 1917, to a poor village family in southeastern Korea. He was the seventh child in his family, born directly into the Japanese occupation of Korea that had started seven years prior to his birth. Park did well in school and went on to earn a teaching degree in 1937. He taught for a short two-year period before deciding to enroll in a Japanese military academy in their Manchurian puppet state, Manchukuo. Park performed extremely well in the academy, leading him to spend another two years in the Tokyo Military Academy before joining the Japanese Imperial Forces in 1944. Of course, he was discharged shortly after with the end of World War II.
He then joined the Korean police, and subsequently the Korean Military Academy, but was again discharged due to affiliation with a communist group. He was saved from execution with the advent of the Korean War in 1950, and continued to then work his way up the ranks of the military.
He quickly gained military power, and in May 1960 Park and some other officials took control of the government in a coup d’etat. He became the new leader of South Korea in an event that confused much of the outside world, and set right away at economic improvements of the country that we largely modeled after Meiji-era Japan and some of the economic opinions of the Japanese that he would have been around during his training in the late 1930s to early 1940s.
Park Chung-hee quickly asserted his economic dominance by arresting the CEOs of 24 large business in Korea under the guise of weeding out corruption in the industry, though many believe it was to assert the merchant’s status as lowest in the social hierarchy as per Confucianism’s teachings. He then set up three very important industries that were to oversee the economic development of South Korea: The Economic Planning Board (EPB), The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), and the Ministry of Finance (MoF). These ministries increased production of things such as steel, and helped build large highways.
Park was eventually assassinated on October 26, 1979 by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, who he had earlier criticized for not completely suppressing rebellions and uprisings throughout the country. Although his legacy is still disputed, his eldest daughter, Park Geun-hye, was elected as the country’s first female president in 2013, and is still currently in office.