The young liberals, full of utopian ideas about their country that have been formulated over decades of peace and prosperity, wail with rage at the election results. The older generation, which once knew poverty and conflict in such a way that it became imbedded in their bone marrow, smiled and whipped the sweat from their brow over their country’s close call with a socialist future
No, this is not a synopsis of the 2016 presidential election in America. It is rather a rundown of the 2013 election in South Korea. The person who made liberals howl and conservatives cheer was the new president, Park Geun-hye.
A member of the Liberty Korea Party, the main right-wing party in South Korea, Park came into office promising a new economy for Seoul. Rather than continue to follow a more planning-centric economy based around support for exports, Park instead pushed for more privatization. The government would undergo restructuring, Park insisted, in order to create a more liberal (or at least libertarian) state.
One would think that South Korea’s left-wing would support at least some of these measures. After all, if they somehow managed to stop navel-gazing, they would see that in the United States, South Korea’s biggest ally, the Left has successfully co-opted the reigns of capitalism in order further push its socio-political agenda. In Sharyl Attkisson’s new book, “The Smear,” the pervasive role of Wall Street and other neoliberal interests in the mainstream media is uncovered. Indeed, Attkisson warns all Americans to consider why the news wants them to believe certain things, given that all reported “facts” have first been washed and reshaped by Democratic Party operatives, trans-national corporations, and professional consulting agencies.
However, despite President Park’s proposed plan to slightly dismantle the power of the South Korean state, the country’s Left could not and would never embrace her for one simple reason—her father. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman who ruled South Korea from 1963 until 1979. While the elder Park was removed from power by an assassin’s bullet, the younger Park stepped down after a wave of protests in South Korea demanded her head. President Park’s crime, according to many observers on the Right, was her intransigence towards North Korea, the Communist dictatorship that many young South Koreans hope to reunite with sometime in the near future. Officially, Park was arrested for multiple charges of bribery and corruption. The media especially jumped on her close relationship with Choi Soon-sil, a sort of Korean Rasputin connected with the cultish Church of Eternal Life.
Unlike her father, President Park Geun-hye showed very little in the way of autocratic tendencies. Her accusers were not tortured or murdered. No protestors received withering fire from the South Korean Army. In many ways, Park Geun-hye did not resort to her father’s tactics because her South Korea does not need them anymore.
The South Korea of Park Chung-hee was a different story. Nowadays, Seoul is a high-tech metropolis where rents are high and the cars on the street are mostly fashionable. The South Korean economy is one of the largest and most dynamic in the world. The country’s unemployment rate is a minuscule 3.7-percent, while the GDP was listed at 1.378 trillion in 2015. The only dark stain to this success story is South Korea’s high suicide rate (the second highest in the world) and its low birth rate. Even Japan, where many twentsomethings have seemingly given up on sex altogether, has 1.42 births per woman. South Korean women can only manage 1.20 births (both figures are taken from 2014 statistics). Still, South Korea and Japan both show the West that immigrants are not needed to keep the capitalist economy booming, as both countries have some of the soundest and most patriotic immigration policies on the books.
Back in 1961, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Even despotic North Korea had a better standard of living. Much of South Korea’s pitiful condition could be chalked up to the war that was mostly fought within its borders and the kleptocracy run by Syngman Rhee. A corrupt toady for Washington, Rhee made sure his cronies were paid, while the average South Korean citizen subsisted on starvation wages.
Following a student revolution that broke out on April 19, 1960, the First Republic of South Korea was replaced by the Second Republic of South Korea. This new government would barely last a full year, however. In their enthusiasm to overthrow the repressive speech and anti- demonstration laws of the Rhee regime, the liberals of the Second Republic decided to target the military and the intelligence services, both of which contained many Rhee loyalists. According to Andrew Nahm, author of “Korea: A History of the Korean People,” the Second Republic purged over 6,000 government and police officials in order to uproot all remaining traces of the authoritarian First Republic.
On the morning of May 16, 1961, a fleet of tanks and soldiers loyal to General Park Chung-hee crossed the Han River Bridge in order to take control of the government in Seoul. A likely fictional story claims that when a sleepy guard saw the column moving towards his military outpost, he jumped up and proclaimed: “Long live the Korean People’s Army!” Alas, this coup did not come from Pyongyang and the terrified guard was probably beaten for his indiscretion.
Initially, the Kennedy administration did not know what to make of this military coup. In their minds, Park’s former membership in a communist cell within the Korean military, which resulted in his arrest by the Rhee government in 1948, was proof enough that the 1961 coup had its origins in neither Moscow or Beijing. The America press dubbed him “Parkov.”
In truth, Park’s regime, which became the Third Republic of South Korea in 1963, was neither communist nor liberal capitalist. Park proved to be a technocratic corporatist with a penchant for centralized planning. In his government, which oversaw what became known as the “Miracle on the Han River,” a type of top-heavy mercantilism reigned wherein South Korea’s economy was ruled by three government bureaus—the Economic Planning Board, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Finance. All economic decisions became centralized as the country focused on infrastructure projects like the Seoul-Pusan highway, heavy industries like steel, and the growth of the export industry. Thanks to “Chaebol,” or large business conglomerates that were loyal to Park’s government, South Korea began to pull itself out of economic backwardness by the early 1970s.
Park’s successes came as the result of several factors. First, Park promoted a type of economic populism whereby the government punished “illicit profiteers” who cared more about making the Americans happy than helping the South Korean economy. Similarly, all capital was seized in the country by the nationalization of the banking industry. In Park’s society, merchants were relegated to the bottom of the caste system in accordance with Confucian social teaching.
For years, Park received unflattering comparisons to Stalin. Although a committed anti-communist who sent South Korean troops to Vietnam in order to aid the American war effort, Park nevertheless did not support the capitalist dogma of free markets. His country’s economy was directed by the hand of the elites, many of whom, like Park, made them their bones while serving in the Japanese Army stationed in the puppet state of Manchukuo. Park’s affinity for Japanese militarism and “Zaibatsu,” along with the fact that he took a Japanese name (Okamoto Minoru), frequently earned the condemnation of Korean nationalists on the Left.
Ultimately, it was Park’s no-nonsense approach to crowd control that proved to be his undoing. Like the rest of the developed world, South Korea experienced an uptick in student violence during the 1970s. Frequently, these riots and demonstrations were put down with the full force of the state—the very same state that did not hesitate to use torture against liberal journalists and political activists. When Park demanded that the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) put down a protest “even if it cost 30,000 lives,” KCIA head and a close friend of Park, Kim Jae-kyu, retrieved a pistol from the bathroom and shot the president dead. Kim then turned the gun on others assembled at the meeting for agreeing with Park’s call for violent suppression.
After Park’s assassination, martial law was declared by the South Korean military on December 12, 1979. Chun Doo-hwan took control of the country and formed the de-facto military dictatorship of the Fifth Republic of South Korea. This republic would exist until 1987, when the Sixth Republic of South Korea was formed. This is the republican government that controls the country today.
Opinions over Park’s dictatorship typically break down along generational lines. Older Koreans see him as the fasces-wielding caesar who brought their country into the 20th century and paved the way for a flourishing future. Furthermore, many of them believe that Park saved South Korea from becoming a communist puppet of the North. The younger generation mostly sees Park as a petty tyrant who brutalized his opponents. Both sides are right in many ways.
Much like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Park established a regime that embraced illiberal means and tactics to essentially create a liberal capitalist state. Without Park’s corporatist technocracy, South Korea may never have developed any type of economy whatsoever. Like its long-time rival Japan, postwar South Korea recognized that in a country lacking natural resources and cursed with limited land, an aggressive central state that supports national industries is the only viable way towards prosperity.