South Korea's Break With the Past

The End of the Long Park Chung-hee Era

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. 


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 (

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