Park Chung-hee Admired for Making Something Out of Nothing
In the fall of 1974, then President Park Chung-hee, who later became the country's most admired former president in polls for his pivotal role in modernizing the nation, invited three Americans to the presidential office for golf.
Donald Gregg, then a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency official in Seoul, was one of the three who got an invitation from the Army general-turned-president.
"Over dinner, the President mused that perhaps he had stayed too long in the presidency. I took this to mean that he would not run for the presidency again, but I was wrong," Gregg told The Korea Times.
The two others invited were then-U.S. Ambassador to Korea Richard. L. Sneider and Commander Robert Stilwell of the U.S. Forces in Korea.
Gregg, who met the President on numerous occasions while serving in Seoul from 1973 to 1975, recalled that President Park had a sense of humor and displayed it often on the golf course.
"It was tragic that Park ran for President that one final time. Had he not done so, he might still be alive today, as Korea's most distinguished elder statesman," the former U.S. ambassador to Korea (1989-1993) lamented.
Four years after the golf meeting, Park was assassinated by one of his closest aides, Kim Jae-gyu, then chief of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, on Oct. 26. Today is the 30th anniversary of his passing.
Secret of Posthumous Popularity
President Park passed away 30 years ago, but surveys say he is by far the most popular former president of our time.
Pollster Yoon Hee-woong of the Korea Society Opinion Institute offered a clue as to why Park is still so popular among Koreans.
Yoon pointed to the unique characteristics of economic growth the former President achieved during his leadership, saying it was very different from that of other presidents.
"It is as simple as that everybody won as a result of economic growth during the industrialization period. All socio-economic classes experienced their living standards going up. So there was no such thing as a winner-or-loser debate at the time," he said.
Under Park's leadership, global economists echoed, Korea achieved rapid economic growth with relatively equitable income distribution, compared with other nations.
Gini coefficient ratios ― a measure of income or wealth disparity ― in Korea were 0.362 and 0.414 in 1970 and 1976, respectively, while those of the United States in 1972 and 1978 were 0.428 and 0.478.
This indicates that South Korea achieved more equitable growth than the United States during the period, given that a low Gini coefficient rate indicates a more equal distribution.
Unlike Park, his followers made choices in policy priority between redistribution and growth, and according to the pollster, this caused other former presidents to earn lower scores.
Besides the mantra of growth for all, former President Park came to be known as the "The Unforgettable" among Koreans because of his strong managerial skills that enabled people to "make something out of nothing."
"His supporters, as well as those who criticized him, shared the view that the former president helped his people live without worries of the so-called 'barley hump,' which is the yearly period between May and June when people had to suffer for food shortages," said Prof. Hahm Sung-deuk of Korea University in Seoul.
Crops that farmers had harvested ran out around May but barley was not ripe enough to harvest, so peasants and people in the poverty-stricken regions had to go hungry during the period.
'A Rose Blossoms in a Garbage Can'
Inder Sud, adjunct professor of Duke University and George Washington University, told The Korea Times that the president was perhaps the leader who deserves the most credit for setting Korea on the path to growth and prosperity.
Sud, a former World Bank director, met President Park twice in the 1970s when he visited Korea for policy consultation meetings with government officials on the building of infrastructure.
"(When visiting Korea), I recall seeing a billboard in the Korean language (near the airport) that was roughly translated to me by my taxi driver as 'export or die.'... President Park drilled the message to the Korean public that export is the future," said Sud.
"I heard from the bureaucrats that the president would never cancel a meeting with the business community to receive a visiting dignitary. He knew early on that Korean success would depend on unleashing the potential of the private sector."
Park's extensive leadership and global experience in the military in part contributed to his strong managerial and organization skills. The former president trained in Manchuria in 1940, and went to the Japanese military academy in Tokyo in 1942 to continue his training.
Eleven years later, Park, then 37 years old, went to the United States to undertake an advanced course at the U.S. army artillery school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and returned to Korea one year later.
The former president's devotion to achieving a self-reliant economy made it possible for the nation to achieve exports of $10 billion in 1977 and 15 billion in 1979. The country's average growth of gross domestic product stood at 8 percent between 1970 and 1979.
In his book "The Korean Presidents," political scientist Kim Choong-nam observed that the president's personal involvement in the economy partially contributed to the high growth rate during his rule.
President Park chaired monthly export meetings and economic reviews, and quarterly science and technology promotion meetings. The president also had a regular system for visiting ministries.
"His background as the commanding general of the Logistics Base Command gave him the confidence and organizational abilities needed to manage a small economy like South Korea's," Kim said.
Architect of Modern Korea
Political observers say a self-reliant economy and defense were goals that Park sought while modernizing the country.
In 1965, reporters were invited to the presidential office for a tea meeting with the President.
"The reporters were surprised to find that the walls were covered with diagrams and statistics, including the trends of trade, tax collection and the status of the construction of industrial facilities," said Kim.
"The president picked up a pointer and from memory explained the economic statistics to the reporters without making a mistake. He asserted confidently that if current trends continued, by the late 1970s Korea would have a self-sufficient economy, free from American dominance."
On May 31, 1961, shortly before the Park-led coup took place, an editorial in the Hankook Ilbo, a sister paper of The Korea Times, described "the streets being filled with the unemployed and beggars while farmers and laborers are suffering from starvation and privation."
Eighteen years later, the landscape was totally different. The poverty-stricken country had transformed into one of the model economies that many developing nations wanted to benchmark.
Economist Inder Sud was often asked to explain the secret of Korea achieving its "miracle on the Han River."
"My answer was 'clear vision by a leader.' To this day, I feel that this is the single most important lesson of successful development. And this is the legacy of President Park," he said.
Observers, however, say the miraculous economic growth came at the expense of democracy during the industrialization period.
Prof. Hahm of Korea University said the former president has left the legacies of prosperity and dictatorship, and revisiting his accomplishments will require historians to look at both sides for a balanced evaluation.
Sud said, "Whether economic growth in Korea could have been achieved at that time with a more open and democratic system will remain open to debate among economic historians.
"As someone who was a witness to the Korean and East Asian miracle, I am ambivalent."