Chung Hee Park (1917-1979) was a soldier, revolutionary leader, and president of South Korea from 1963 to 1979. He led the military coup of May 16, 1961, which toppled the Korean Second Republic and President Syngman Rhee.
Pak Chông-húi (who Westernized his name to Chung Hee Park) was born into a poor farming family in a tiny village named Sangmo-ri in Kyôngsang-pukdo, a southeastern province of Korea, on Sept. 30, 1917. The youngest among five sons and two daughters of Pak (Park) Sông-bin, he was shorter and slighter than the other children. Though a loner, he excelled in his work and was recommended by the grammar school to enter a normal school in Taegu, the provincial capital. Normal schools gave inexpensive, terminal, vocational training to bright but poor students, most of whom were satisfied to build a career as grammar school teachers.
Park taught at the grammar school of Mungyng, a small town in Kyngsang-pukdo. After two years of teaching in a sleepy provincial town, he entered the military academy of Manchukuo, the puppet state of militarist Japan, in 1940. Training at the academy was a path for some ambitious young Koreans to become members of the officer corps of the imperial Japanese army. Upon graduation from the military academy in Tokyo in 1944, Park was assigned to the Japanese army in Manchuria (the Kwantung army) as a second lieutenant until the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.
When Park was discharged from the defeated army, he returned to his home village and spent a year of quiet desperation. It was predictable that he would join the newly organized South Korean constabulary, as did many of his contemporaries with similar military backgrounds. When he entered the Korean Military Academy in September 1946, he resumed the military career that he had started earlier. Upon graduation in December of the same year, he had earned the rank of captain. South Korea's constitution was adopted on July 17, 1948, making it an independent nation separated from the communist-controlled north.
Park was forced out of the army in 1948, over charges that he had collaborated with communists. He was recalled when North Korea invaded the south in June of 1950. Park's career was marked by a steady rise through the ranks of the new army that was rapidly expanding—particularly during the Korean War.
By 1953, the last year of the Korean War, Park had advanced to the rank of brigadier general; he was 36, a relatively young age even in the Korean army, noted for the youth of its generals. As an artillerist, Park attended the advanced course of the U.S. Army Artillery School at Fort Sill, OK., returning to Korea for assignment as commandant of the artillery school of the Korean army. From this post he was transferred to the 5th Infantry Division as commanding general, which post he held until 1957, when he attended the Command and General Staff College of the Korean Army. Later, he was made the deputy commander of the entire Korean Second Army.
Throughout his military career Park had been known for his almost total absence from the social functions attended by most high-ranking government and military officers, their American counterparts, and American military advisers. Although many young Korean army generals conspicuously enjoyed their newly won social positions following the Korean War, Park was an exception.
Politics was directly affecting the lives of many high-ranking army officers, including Park. When President Syngman Rhee's Liberal party extensively "rigged" the 1960 presidential election, numerous commanders of military units were suspected of having collaborated with the seemingly omnipotent ruling party in delivering army votes in support of Rhee. It was widely believed at about this time that the Liberal party chieftains had powerful influence over the promotions and assignments of high level military officers.
According to data revealed after 1961, a military coup d'etat was being planned in February 1960, when President Rhee and his Liberal party were preoccupied with ensuring victory at any cost in the scheduled March 15, 1960 elections. Park, then logistics base commander in Pusan, was the mastermind of the clandestine plan. Then came the student uprising of April 19, 1960, which cracked the thin veneer of order covering the nation's profound socioeconomic and political disarray. President Rhee declared martial law, but the army under the martial law commander, Lt. Gen. Song Yo-ch'an, evidently decided not to block the demonstrating students and citizenry, as some policemen attempted to do.
At the most critical juncture, when the very survival of the Rhee regime was at stake, the army command's political decision to be "neutral" in the situation was undoubtedly one of the most decisive forces which persuaded Rhee to step down. The significance of this inaction by the military in bringing about the ouster of the Rhee regime was not lost on the officer corps, and this realization was but a step removed from a conviction that an action by the military would definitely produce spectacular results.
The time shortly after the student uprising, however, was not propitious for the Korean military to take drastic political action, because the majority of the people had great expectations that political and economic conditions were going to improve rapidly under the new government of the Democrats. The military group that had planned a coup for May 1960 now decided to wait and see. The Cabinet of the Second Republic of Korea, headed by Premier Chang Myn (John M. Chang), had been in office for less than nine months when the military officers, headed by Park, executed a carefully planned coup d'etat in the chilly pre-dawn hours of May 16, 1961.
After the Coup
The entire political structure of the Second Republic was overthrown, and the Military Revolutionary Committee, led by Park, took over all state organizations. Despite some attempts by the highest-ranking American officials to restore the constitutional government, opposition to the military dissipated by the evening of May 17. As the takeover became a firmly established fact, the Military Revolutionary Committee was renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR). It was announced on May 19 that the council, led by Park, was now the nation's "supreme governing organ, " with both executive and legislative powers, plus administrative control over the judiciary. Park became the chairman of the Supreme Council on July 3.
Within two months of the coup, the political and governmental structure had undergone fundamental upheavals. The democratic polity of the Second Republic—at least in terms of theory—was now completely discredited and discarded. The representative superstructure had been decreed out of existence. A highly centralized, tightly regimented, and almost omnipotent military regime emerged under the undisputed leadership of Park. Having boosted the prestige of Park through his visit to the United States and Japan in November 1961, the military government promulgated on March 16, 1962, the sweeping Political Activities Purification Law, banning political activities by civilian politicians who were closely associated with the First and Second Republics under President Syngman Rhee and Premier Chang Myn.
When President Yun Po-sn resigned on March 22, 1962, in protest against the political "purge, " Park became the acting president. While civilian politicians were stunned and paralyzed by the "purge, " the Supreme Council proceeded to amend the constitution extensively. The result was a document that institutionalized a strong presidential rule with readily available emergency powers, particularly since the president controlled a majority in the National Assembly. Park resigned from active military service on August 30, 1963, and on the same day joined the Democratic Republican party. On the very next day, he accepted the presidential nomination from the party that had carefully prepared for the move under the direction of Kim Chongp'il. The presidential election "to restore the government to civilians" was to be held on October 15. Park won, defeating Yun Po-sn, and the Third Republic of Korea was officially born on Dec. 17, 1963, with Park inaugurated as president.
As the political situation stabilized, the Park administration turned its attention to the economic development of South Korea. In a few years the administration was able to claim unprecedented gains in gross national product. The Park government also normalized diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan and decided on an active participation by Korean forces in the Vietnamese conflict.
President Park won his second term on May 3, 1967, by a plurality vote against his opponent, once again Yun Po-sn. In September 1969 the National Assembly, dominated by the Democratic Republican party, again amended the constitution. Park had threatened to resign as president in 1969 if the constitution was not amended to allow him to run for another term. After fierce debate in the assembly, a 1969 amendment permitted a third presidential term of four years for Park. When a referendum on the constitutional amendments was held in October 1969, voters approved the tenure amendment and in 1971 Park won his third term as president of South Korea.
Park's third term had brought him increasingly autocratic and repressive powers, which led to numerous student demonstrations. But rapid social and economic change, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon's February 1972 trip to China, and the opening of South-North dialogue led Park to strengthen the central government and his position even more. The constitution was amended by referendum in November 1972, creating the Fourth Republic.
The new constitution, called the Yushin Honpop (Revitalizing Reforms Constitution), was aimed at insuring political stability and creating an even stronger economy through strong presidential leadership. Park was given dictatorial powers, sparking unrest, which was violently repressed.
There were many in Korea who did not like the new constitution expressly because it gave Park dictatorial powers. Among other orders, Park issued a decree in 1975 making it illegal to criticize the government. He rigidly enforced this decree against his political enemies, insuring that his place in Korean politics was kept secure. In 1979, Kim Young Sam (future South Korea president), speaking in the U.S., called Park a dictator and said that the U.S. should encourage political reforms in Korea to insure democracy. His comments touched off more demonstrations by citizens and students in the southern towns of Pusan and Masan, forcing Park to send troops to quell the disturbances.
On October 26, 1979, Park was assassinated by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Kyu, at a private dinner. Kyu became entangled in an argument with another man at the dinner and shot him. When Park attempted to intervene, he was shot twice by Kyu, one bullet severing his spine. Park's four bodyguards were also shot and killed. How Kyu was able to kill six men—shooting Park twice—with a six-round .45 semi-automatic handgun remains a mystery. This act effectively brought an end to the Yushin Honpop and the Fourth Republic.
Park traveled to the U.S. several times throughout his career and met with presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter to cement good relations and create economic ties between the two governments. He also worked effectively in establishing economic ties with Japan (a former enemy) and Western European nations. Park's efforts in these areas helped to strengthen South Korea's economy, making it a powerhouse in the late 20th century.
Further Reading on Chung Hee Park
There is no biography of Park in English. Booklets originally published in Korean bearing Park's name as author do not give much biographical information. There is a brief section entitled "General Park: The Man and His Ideas" in John Kiechiang Oh, Korea: Democracy on Trial (1968).
There is information available on Park and South Korea's government, history and economy accessible on-line at the Republic of South Korea's Website located at korea.emb. washington.dc.us.