Tuesday, November 29, 2005

November 5, 1979 archives: A Very Tough Peasant

As part of the coverage of the assassination of Park Chunghee in 1979, TIME included this bio. Of interest to some might be Park's chosen Japanese name when he entered Imperial military academies in Manchuria and Tokyo: he was Masao Takagi. Note also that they were referring to South Korea as "a model of economic development" even in the 1970s.

A Very Tough Peasant

''Remember, he was tough. Very, very tough. Even the opposition respected him and understood this.'' So said former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Richard Sneider last week about the man who made his poverty-afflicted country a model of economic development. Aloof, authoritarian and disdainful, Park Chung Hee demanded respect, not popularity. And that is what he got.

Park was born into a poor peasant family in 1917 near the city of Taegu.

After attending a village primary school and later a government-run teachers college, he became a smalltown teacher in 1937. Tiring of academic life, Park enrolled in military academies in Manchuria and Tokyo.

From 1910 until the end of World War II, Korea was a Japanese colony. Park, like other Korean officer candidates, was required to take a Japanese name (Masao Takagi) and an oath of loyalty to the Emperor.

After World War II and the division of his country, Park joined the new South Korean army. His rapid rise was briefly interrupted in 1948 when he was arrested on charges of being a Communist agent. Park was acquitted—after turning state's evidence against several of his fellow officers. During the Korean War, his aloofness set him apart from other generals of his country's army, who were known familiarly to their American colleagues by anglicized nicknames. Park, a puritanical loner, was always ''General Park.'' In 1961, a year after the ouster of Strongman Syngman Rhee, Park and four other generals seized power in a coup; two years later Park won the presidency by a narrow margin in a surprisingly free and fair election.

Park's main goal in office was to turn South Korea into a dynamic capitalist society on the Asian mainland, using Japan as a model. In this he succeeded. Since 1961, South Korea's per capita income has risen from $85 a year to around $1,500. South Korea now has a gross national product of some $50 billion (four times that of North Korea), and is a hard-bargaining rival to Japan in exports of steel, ships and textiles. New superhighways cut through the countryside; high-rise offices and apartments form towering sky lines in Korean cities. Rare among developing societies, South Korea has steered development capital to the countryside, so that rural Koreans live marginally better than their city cousins. In this, at least, Park Chung Hee did not forget the lessons of his childhood.

The country, however, paid a high price for economic progress: wages remained low, hours were long and factory workers had little, if any, union protection. Park brooked no opposition, either from his colleagues or his citizenry; he even altered the constitution with three "revitalizing" amendments that in effect turned the presidency into a near dictatorship. But not even the efficiency of his omnipresent Korean Central Intelligence Agency could prevent the growth of an opposition that included Christian church leaders as well as restless students. Park's repression proved embarrassing to Washington, especially after the election of Jimmy Carter and his emphasis on human rights.

A small man (5 ft. 4 in.), Park kept himself in military trim. He was a devout Buddhist, and reputed to be a moderate drinker who detested the Korean equivalent of geisha parties. Always austere and humorless, he grew even more introspective when his wife Yook Young Soo was killed during an assassination attempt on his own life in 1974. After the nine-day period of national mourning in South Korea, his body will probably be buried next to her grave, in Seoul's National Cemetery.

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