Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye in the 1970s, when she served as her father's first lady, released December 2012.
Reuters

On Tuesday, South Koreans elected liberal candidate Moon Jae-in to the presidency. Moon’s victory brought an end to the prolonged period of uncertainty, following the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges in December, and her removal from office in March.

On one level, Park Geun-hye’s fall from grace, occasioned by an improper relationship with a longtime aide and family friend, can be seen as a sad—even tragic—personal tale, many details of which still remain unclear. It is also an important moment in the history of South Korean democracy—one in which new laws and institutions, put into place in the late 1980s to constrain presidential power, seemed to work as they had been designed. (The Constitutional Court, which legally removed Park from power in March, was established for just such a purpose in 1988.) 

But from an even deeper historical perspective, Park’s impeachment has probably ended the long nostalgia boom that surrounded her father, former President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea with an iron fist from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Park Geun-hye’s fate may even herald a fundamental rethinking of the system her father established, which has endured in various ways down to the present, nearly 40 years after his death. 

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN

Nostalgia for Park Chung-hee has been a mainstay in Korean political life since the 1990s. This could not have been foreseen in 1979, when he was assassinated by his own intelligence chief in the midst of widening popular demonstrations against his rule. Park Chung-hee, an army general who seized power in a military coup in 1961, had over time established an authoritarian political and economic system with a strong military cast. The state managed the economy in coordination with a small number of selected business conglomerates, or chaebol, and built an extensive disciplinary and surveillance apparatus to ensure popular participation in, or at least compliance with, state projects. At the center of this apparatus was the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), set up soon after the 1961 coup. The KCIA, with thousands of agents accountable ultimately only to Park himself, was ruthless in exposing and punishing perceived enemies of the state.

At the same time, however, Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian leadership transformed South Korea from an impoverished dependency of the United States into the economic powerhouse of today. Through the establishment of a bold government-led export economy, the regime successfully managed to shift South Korea from light to heavy industry in the 1970s, ushering in the growth of the country’s great automobile, electronics, shipbuilding, and steel industries, many of which remain globally competitive today. South Korea’s GDP-per-capita, which stood at less than $100 in 1961, jumped to around $2,000 in 1980—the first great leap in a process of development that freed millions of Koreans from abject poverty and brought their country to a new position of international pride and prominence.

In the decades since Park Chung-hee’s death, it has been this second legacy—that of developmentalism—that has, for most of the public, come to overshadow the oppressive politics of the 1970s. A few factors have contributed to this perception: to begin with, South Korea’s powerful conservative media has aggressively promoted a one-sided image of Park as a national savior. This image has been bolstered by an influential older generation of Koreans who supported Park for his economic achievements and strong stance against communism.

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye with her father, Park Chung-hee, in an undated photo released December 2012.
Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye with her father, Park Chung-hee, in an undated photo released December 2012.
Reuters

The former president’s image has been further enhanced by comparison with his immediate successors, Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, two military officers who took over in the aftermath of Park Chung-hee’s assassination. Unlike Park’s bloodless coup in 1961, their seizure of power in 1979-1980 involved a violent mutiny at army headquarters and the massacre of thousands of protesting civilians in the city of Kwangju. Chun and Roh also used their offices to accumulate vast personal fortunes, for which they were later tried and convicted. Park, by contrast, was famously frugal in his daily life, and as president, even had his own extended family monitored for financial irregularities. 

Economic trends also helped to boost the elder Park’s reputation. Lower growth levels from the 1990s as the country’s economy matured, combined with a major financial crisis in 1997-1998, tended to cast a favorable light on the glory days of double-digit growth under Park. Even before the turn of the millennium, he had emerged in opinion polls as the most admired president in South Korean history. Not surprisingly, politicians took note—the annual October 26 memorial services at Park’s gravesite, once attended only by family, increasingly became a required stop on the campaign trail for aspiring presidents, whatever their political affiliation. One candidate in 1997 went so far as to emphasize his facial resemblance to Park. Even the late President Kim Dae-jung, a former democracy activist who had been kidnapped and nearly murdered by the government in the 1970s, publicly supported the construction of a memorial hall to commemorate Park and his achievements. 

In the decades since Park Chung-hee’s death, the legacy of developmentalism has come to overshadow the oppressive politics of the 1970s.

WON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN

Ultimately, of course, it was Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, who benefitted most from the nostalgia boom. She rode her father’s popularity to victory in successive parliamentary elections and finally, in 2012, to the presidency itself. Many older Koreans still remembered her fondly from the 1970s, when she served for five years as a surrogate first lady in the wake of her mother’s death from a bullet meant for her father; even younger Koreans, who had grown up with a largely positive image of Park Chung-hee, tended to read that image into his daughter. Park Geun-hye did everything possible to encourage such thinking, often mentioning or quoting her father in her campaigns and emphasizing her years of experience at her father’s side. For her supporters, she was the heiress to a royal political family and legacy—the Ttanim, or “Honored Daughter,” of the country’s most venerated leader.

It is surely one of the greatest ironies in South Korean history, then, that as president, Park Geun-hye’s singular achievement was to deflate, if not destroy, the very nostalgia that helped elevate her to power. Precisely because of her close association with her father, her unpopular presidency was a reminder of many of the worst aspects of his rule, especially the use of government power to control or stifle dissent. One of the current allegations against her, for example, is that she ordered the compilation of a blacklist, which featured as many as 9,000 cultural figures to be controlled or disciplined for perceived opposition to her government. Other charges, including bribery and extortion from major chaebol such as Samsung, have put on full display the hazards of the symbiotic relationship between South Korean government and big business, which her father had deliberately forged as part of his developmental strategy. And finally, the relationship at the heart of the scandal that led to Park Geun-hye’s impeachment—that between her and her friend, Choi Soon-sil—has also been traced back to the Park Chung-hee period. Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, had begun serving as a mentor to Park Geun-hye in the 1970s, which is when he and his family first began their attempts to influence government policy for their own enrichment. 

Protestors shoot fireworks to celebrate the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, March 2017.
Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

Despite the failure of his daughter’s presidency, Park Chung-hee will continue to be regarded as a pivotal figure in modern Korean history. And as was abundantly clear from the pro-Park Geun-hye demonstrations that followed her impeachment, there is still a dedicated and vocal minority, comprising mainly older Koreans, who continue to revere the father and, by extension, the daughter. Indeed the new president Moon acknowledged this fact by paying a respectful public visit to Park Chung-hee’s grave early last month, shortly after securing his party’s nomination.

But even given her father’s historical importance—and the reverence in which a dedicated minority of Koreans continues to hold him—it  seems likely that Park Geun-hye’s presidency has put a significant dent in the Park Chung-hee nostalgia boom that carried her to the Blue House, thereby limiting its ability to influence politics in the future. For younger Koreans especially, who came of age at the height of the boom, disillusionment with the daughter may well bring with it a more critical and balanced reappraisal of the father.

Today, given the overwhelming popular consensus for change that propelled the impeachment and informed the recent election, it is difficult to imagine that the new president will not make a serious attempt to reform the entrenched system of corrupt government-business relations that grew out of the 1970s. Moon is also likely to center his North Korean policy more on engagement than confrontation, a practice that Park Chung-hee honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Furthermore, this change comes at a time when South Korea’s most capable economists and government planners—at the prestigious Korea Development Institute and elsewhere—are  struggling to devise a new strategy for economic growth to meet the challenges of a very different international environment from that of the 1970s. They now face a global economy in which services and information technologies prevail, and which may in fact require a serious revamping or abandonment of South Korea’s older industrial export-based economy. All things considered, it may well be that the long Park Chung-hee period is finally drawing to a close.