Park Geun-hye’s impeachment as South Korea’s president and her fall from power probably marked not only the end of her political career but also the end of the political legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee.
Almost 38 years after his death, the former military strongman still commands respect, nostalgia and even gratitude from many South Koreans.
In fact, it would be difficult to grasp the full significance of the scandal surrounding Park Geun-hye without looking at the presidency of her father and the political legacy he left behind.
General Park Chung-hee was born at a time when the Korean peninsula was still under Japanese rule. He rose to prominence as a highly capable military leader during the Korean War.
In 1961 he seized power through a coup, and led the country for the following 18 years, until he was assassinated by his own secret intelligence service in 1979.
Although General Park was a military dictator by all standards, a kind of “Park complex” still prevails among many South Koreans, particularly the older generation.
Today many of them are still nostalgic about the “good old days” under Park’s rule.
According to a survey conducted by the National University of Seoul two years ago, 74.3 percent of Koreans had a positive evaluation of General Park’s presidency.
Figures provided by Gallup Korea in that year also suggested that 44 percent of Koreans regarded Park as the most responsible of all the presidents who had ruled the country since the end of the Second World War.
General Park remains highly popular among South Koreans even to this day because it was during his reign that the country underwent rapid modernization and industrialization, and finally became one of the “Four Asian Tigers”.
South Korea’s exports, which stood at US$100 million in 1964, jumped 100 times to US$10 billion by 1977, while GDP per capita saw an almost equally astounding growth during the period.
The country’s economic miracle, often referred to as the “Han River miracle”, would not have been possible without General Park’s unrelenting efforts.
And that explains why today many Koreans remain grateful to him for what he delivered during his presidency.
However, the rapid economic growth under General Park came with high social costs.
In order to modernize the country’s manufacturing industry as quickly as possible, Park’s administration took a short cut by showing favor to several leading industrial conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai in order to boost their productivity and competitiveness in the global market.
The government, for example, acted as guarantor for these companies so that they could take out loans from foreign banks more easily and use the money to acquire new technologies to upgrade their production lines.
And thanks to the government’s full support, these companies were able to expand rapidly and form the pillars of the South Korean economy, with their business activities touching on basically every aspect of the daily life of the average South Korean.
By playing favorites with these companies, however, Park also gave rise to chaebol, industrial oligarchs who became so rich and powerful that they literally were able to hijack the entire national economy.
They were able to swing government policies and legislation in their favor by bribing officials and politicians at the expense of public interest, leading to widespread dismay and discontent among the people.
As a result, public grievances over the unholy alliance between big businesses and politicians continued to mount and finally reached a tipping point last year when the political scandal involving Park Geun-hye came to light.
Park Geun-hye is now out of power, but the economic hegemony of the chaebol remains.
These oligarchs will certainly go to any lengths to protect their vested interests and maintain their firm grip on the economy.
However, public opinion is increasingly turning against the chaebol.
And if the adverse effects of Park Geun-hye’s downfall on the economy linger on, it is not entirely impossible that South Koreans might once again look to another strongman like General Park to set things aright in the country, and this could lead to the resurrection of political dictatorship in Seoul.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 21
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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