Park Chung Hee

(1917–1979) South Korean president

Park Chung Hee became president of South Korea after leading a military junta that instigated a coup in 1963. He held this position until his death in 1979.

Born Pak Chong-hui in 1917 in the farming village of Sonsan in southeastern Korea, Park was the youngest of seven children of a poor farmer. His teachers recommended he continue his education at a normal school in the provincial capital, where he trained to become a grammar school teacher.

After teaching for only two years Park enrolled in a Japanese military academy, in spite of being a Korean. During the last years of World War II, Park served as a second lieutenant in the Japanese army. He returned to South Korea after the end of World War II, received further military training, and became a captain in the army of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Under suspicion of having cooperated with the communist forces in the north, Park resigned from the army, but was quickly called back into service.

As soon as U.S. and Soviet troops withdrew from Korea in 1949, the Democratic People’s Republic (North Korea), under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, invaded the south in an attempt to reunite the nation. The resulting Korean conflict lasted until 1953 and involved not only the two Koreas but also troops from the United States, China, the USSR, and a number of other nations. At the close of the conflict a “demilitarized zone” was established roughly along the 38th parallel between the two countries. Park had continued to rise in the South Korean army to the rank of brigadier general.

The combined effects of long years of brutal Japanese occupation and two wars left South Korea in severe distress. Its problems were exacerbated by the corrupt administration of President Syngman Rhee. On April 19, 1960, after Korean students rebelled against the government, President Rhee declared martial law, but the army did not support him. Rhee resigned, making way for an ineffective new government. After nine months, a military coup led by Park Chung Hee overthrew the new government and established the Military Revolutionary Committee as the nation’s governing body.

The Revolutionary Committee was later renamed the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction (SCNR), which was invested with legislative, executive, and judicial powers. This military regime was tightly controlled by a few leaders with Park as chairman. A few months later the Political Activities Purification Law was passed, making it illegal for civilian leaders who had served in the First and Second Republics to engage in political activity. President Yun Po-Sun resigned in protest in March 1962, enabling Park to become acting president. Park and the Supreme Council undertook a drastic revision of Korea’s constitution, giving the president control of the National Assembly and giving him broad emergency powers. In August 1963 Park resigned from the military and joined the Democratic Republican Party. He easily won the fol- lowing election and served as president of the Third Republic of Korea beginning in 1963.

Although Park was no longer a member of the military, there was no doubt that the military upheld his regime. In the following years Park promoted an extensive industrialization program, instituted educational reform, and extended diplomatic relations, but his regime became increasingly authoritarian and repressive.

Park Chung Hee was easily reelected president in 1967, and in 1969 he again instituted constitutional changes. This time he had the constitution amended to allow him to run for a third term, which he won in 1971. Student demonstrations and increasing dissatisfaction among the general public at the beginning of his third term led Park again to change the constitution, creating a stronger centralized power in the new Fourth Republic. Park called this the Yushin Honpop, or Revitalizing Reforms Constitution. When protests against his increased powers erupted they were quickly and violently quelled.

Park Chung Hee was shot to death by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency on October 26, 1979, allegedly accidentally as he was arguing with another dinner guest, but questions remain.

See also Korean War (1950–1953).


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