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Of Snake and Rice Republic*

2021.03.25 14:25 93 0 0


* Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) – a cool title format.

*With its 1954 military coup (and being a main supplier of banana to US), Guatemala is often referred to as a “banana republic.”  

*Only (an attempt at) humor but no Asian stereotype is intended by the use of the term “Rice.” 

I happened to hear a Korean gentleman praise Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) as the economic miracle-man and crediting him with taking South Korea from rags to riches during his rule (1963-1979) as president. This person cited rapid economic growth in South Korea as an excuse for Park having trampled on workers’ rights and committing human rights abuses.  

This upset me and brought back childhood memories of adults being so afraid of saying anything against Park and his policies. Rather than engage in a shouting match with this gentleman, I felt a strong urge to write this, even if no one reads it. 

I guess one could have a favorable view of Park if all one was exposed to and believes the stuff in the media that he and his friends controlled – maybe even by his daughter and her friends some years later, to some extent. Given that Park was a control-freak dictator who intimidated, coerced, imprisoned, tortured and killed his own people in the name of opposing communism, it might be a good idea to look for information elsewhere and do some independent research to get a more accurate picture of what really went on. 

Park Chung-hee’s problematic career began with the fact that he (i) wrote a blood oath of his service and dedicated his life to the Emperor of Japan and (ii) was an officer in the Japanese Army fighting and killing Korean independence fighters based in Manchuria (then a territory of the Empire of Japan).

After his master (i.e., Japan) surrendered, Park joined the South Korean military but was also a member of Namrodang (a secrete communist organization within the South Korean military) working to overthrow the democratically elected South Korean government. He was a communist looking to get into position of power! But for reasons that are not clear, when the overthrow plot was uncovered, his life (and only his life) was spared in 1948. He was reinstated in the South Korean military and then led the 5.16 military coup and took power in 1961.  After that, he supposedly became a staunch capitalist.

One can’t help but to get a feeling that Park Chung-hee’s motto was, “Any which way the wind blows.” Jack Kennedy (JFK) and his administration referred to him as “Snake” Park; but dare we say that the CIA higher-ups may have said, “That’s our guy!”? 

With his colorful background in mind, the economic miracle that is attributed to him requires a closer look. 

Some of Park’s domestic policies included land reform, price and wage control. The land reform initially appeased the left-leaning people. It gave off an impression of a social progress (what socialists were asking for). It also allowed rural folks to move to city for factory jobs. His price control (e.g., low food cost) allowed the wages to be kept low and deprived the workers of their rights. It was as if, ‘Get the country folks to move to cities and get them to work in factories for 3 bowls of rice a day.’ One can’t help but to wonder how Park’s policies differed from the North. For a working person, was there any meaningful difference between the communist vs. capitalist dictatorship?  

As the ghost of Bill (William) would say: A dictator by any other name would smell as FOUL! (“A rose by any other name…”)  

As for the world situation, with low oil price ($2/barrel) and a brisk global economic activity, the period of Park’s reign was generally a very good period of global economic growth. Consider the residual positive economic effects of the postwar (i) Marshall Plan [US money given away to help Europe and to move European countries away from USSR] and (ii) billions in US aid starting to pour into South Korea.

Given the global strategic importance of South Korea as a buffer state to contain the communist influence in the region, it was paramount for US to ensure that South Korea does not fail by giving billions in aid and economic coaching, especially because North Korea was starting to prosper with the Soviet aid. 

The Vietnam War was a huge economic boost for South Korea. In the early 70’s, the US forces in Vietnam ordered goods from South Korea - about 20 % of all South Korean exports. Japan also gave economic aid to the amount of USD 500 million, 300 of which was in the form of grants.   

In the 70’s when advanced economies were rocked by the oil embargo and sudden rising of oil prices, Korean businesses saw an opportunity. Enriched by soaring oil prices, OPEC oil producers in the Middle East launched construction projects that were a perfect fit for Koreans’ temperament. Competitors couldn’t keep up with Koreans known for building things in a flash and meeting construction deadlines. The credit goes to the business people and the workers’ blood, sweat and tears, and had nothing to do with President Park. However, Park did pose for pictures with the workers often.

South Korea’s investment in heavy industry was also made possible (not by Park’s magic but) by money flowing in from Middle East construction projects. The story of President Park spearheading the country’s economic growth is a carefully manufactured myth. On the contrary, Park made a number of crippling mistakes, e.g., currency devaluation in trying to promote export economy while hurting the import side of the economy. US had to promise more aid (in food) and encouraged him to fix the problem before it really got out of hand.

South Korea’s economic success was due to the global economic trend, geopolitics of the time and Korean business acumen and worker’s blood, sweat and tears. President Park showing up for pictures at work sites or posing with workers was just propaganda that kept associating him with economic progress, so as to create the myth of the economic miracle man of South Korea.    

In order for the people of South Korea to have a clearer picture of our recent history, it is paramount that the true legacy of Park Chung-hee must be revealed and discussed, free of the ever-present fear among adults during Park’s reign that I sensed as a child. The generations to come should be encouraged to carefully navigate through the existing pro-Park propaganda, do their own research, see for themselves what really went on, and see what the people of South Korea had to go through to get to where they so proudly stand today.

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