Corps Values

Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945 BY Carter J. Eckert. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 512 pages. $39.

The cover of Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945

How did South Korea grow from one of the poorest countries in the world circa 1960 into the one that has the eleventh-largest economy today? The "Miracle on the Han" has been studied by economists in search of the secret sauce to apply to other impoverished and war-torn nations. Most agree that Korea's success stemmed from the authoritarian policies of Park Chung Hee, the general who came to power via a military coup in 1961 and was president until 1979, when he was assassinated. His playbook has been emulated by regimes around the world: an anticommunist government that keeps tight control of the economy, encourages exports, protects and subsidizes select domestic industries, and tolerates little dissent or labor unrest. The historian Chalmers Johnson has dubbed this the "developmental state."

Depending on your politics, Park is remembered as either a hero who dragged his country out of poverty or the tyrant who quashed civil rights while ruling with an iron fist. His authoritarian policies continued until 1987, when protesters forced elections and democratic reforms.

The most recent democratically elected president is General Park's daughter, Park Geun-hye, who was recently impeached. As Harvard historian Carter J. Eckert notes in Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea, the first of a projected two-volume history, judgments about Park's legacy "continue to serve as major fault lines in South Korean politics." The book is less a standard biography than an analysis, through the figure of Park Chung Hee, of Korea's authoritarian past. Park's formative experiences took place during the period Korea was colonized by Japan (1910–45), and the book is a work of historical ethnography demonstrating how Japan's militarist ideas helped form modern Korea.

Methodologically, it follows Eckert's Offspring of Empire: The Koch'ang Kims and the Colonial Origins of Korean Capitalism, 1876–1945 (1991), in which he explored the "deep shadows and Faustian ironies" of Japanese colonialism. Eckert's perspective is radical in the (mostly left-leaning) world of Korean studies, where it is taboo to credit Japan with having brought anything other than misery to Korea. "The Japanese in Korea were actually both agents of socioeconomic change and oppressors at one and the same time," he writes, "and it is therefore quite reasonable to talk of economic modernization within the context of imperialism." Korean nationalists bristle at this view, but Eckert grounds his argument about the rise of the Korean bourgeoisie in the story of a successful family-owned textile firm. "By 1919 the Kims had thus become one of the wealthiest families in the country. For them, as for many other Korean landlords, the four decades of Japanese imperialism after 1876 had indeed been a time of untold opportunity," he writes.

Born in 1917, Park trained at the Japanese Military Academy, serving as a lieutenant in the Japanese protectorate of Manchukuo. He was an exemplary soldier, and Eckert attributes Park's success to the discipline and training he received from the Japanese military. Park spoke fluent Japanese, and Eckert argues that he drew his most important ideas—economic, social, military—from Korea's erstwhile oppressor. Park's Japanese ties are one source of his ambiguous legacy. "That a Korean young man in the 1940s could find his 'true self' in the IJA [Imperial Japanese Army] or Manchurian officer corps does not rest well today with a Korean nationalist sentiment that often tends to equate being true to one's Korean self at that time with being anti-Japanese," Eckert writes.

It is difficult to convey the depth of Korea's anti-Japanese sentiments. South Korea didn't establish diplomatic relations with Japan until twenty years after the end of World War II, and North Korea and Japan still don't recognize each other. Only in 1998 did South Korea begin lifting its ban on Japanese cultural products (movies, music, books, magazines), and it wasn't until 2004 that they could be imported legally.

One reason for this enduring animosity is the way Japan colonized Asia. Imperial Japan presented itself as a unifier protecting Asia from the West, dismissing Western imperialists as interlopers driven solely by a desire for power and money. Many Koreans had watched jealously as Japan modernized itself during the Meiji era (1868–1912), and the synthesis of modern and colonial rhetoric made it difficult for even the most nationalist Koreans to reject every aspect of Japanese rule. "Much of what the Koreans came to consider 'modern' between 1876 and 1919 was actually to a large extent Japanese in origin—Western civilization filtered through a Meiji or Taishō prism," Eckert writes in Offspring. Japan set the terms for acceptable civic, political, and cultural activities, and Koreans found themselves in the position of "collaborating" simply by living their lives.

A small bourgeois class of Koreans emerged, proof that it was possible, though still difficult, to better oneself under Japanese rule. Koreans like Park "simply accepted Japanese rule as a fait accompli, at least for the foreseeable future, and . . . followed their personal ambitions as best they could," writes Eckert. Opportunities for upward mobility increased as Japan mobilized for war. By 1943, one-third of Korea's police force was composed of Korean officers, and 240,000 Koreans fought in the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. The brother of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, was an interpreter for Japanese troops in China, and Park took a blood oath that he was "physically and spiritually ready to be a Japanese subject and . . . willing to give my life for the emperor."

Eckert concludes that Park drew on a militarized genre of Japanese nationalism that "placed military officers at the center of the nation-building effort" when he came to power in 1961. Although South Korea has exorcised Park's military legacy, this biography uncovers strands of modern identity that continue to bedevil the country.

Robert S. Boynton is the author of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).