Park Chung Hee has been cited as the 20th century’s most influential figure in South Korean politics. He ruled the Republic of Korea for 18 years–from 1961 to 1979–leading the southern part of the Korean Peninsula through a period of rapid economic development. After the 1963 presidential election, Park embarked upon a series of unpopular measures, which included normalising Korea-Japan relations, in order to promote economic growth.

The chaebol family-controlled conglomerates that Park fostered–such as Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo–were modelled on Japan’s pre-war zaibatsu business enterprises. Under Park’s leadership, South Korea developed an export-driven model of economic growth where special incentives in the form of preferential loans were awarded to the chaebŏl to manufacture goods for export. South Korea’s economy took off and by the mid-1960s, it had begun to achieve double-digit growth rates.

Park’s legacy, however, remains a highly contested, in part due to the manner in which he governed. Despite Park’s economic achievements for the country, South Korea was racked by growing protests by the late 1970s. The turning point came with the constitutional revision of 1969, which was executed despite considerable resistance from both the ruling party and the opposition as well as students and intellectuals. Called the Yushin system, the constitutional revision allowed Park a third term as president.

It was in the midst of violent protests against the Yusin system that Park was assassinated in 1979. During a dinner at the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) safehouse, Park was assassinated by longtime friend and KCIA Director, Kim Jae-gyu. There are conflicting reports for the reasons behind his assassination and no consensus has been reached regarding what motivated it.

The Park Family Legacy

The Park Family Legacy is a multi-faceted one. In South Korea, the left has remained critical of the former president; arguing that the Yusin system was repressive and significantly impeded the democratisation of the country. Park, however, continues to be admired by many South Koreans for his role in creating the Miracle on the Han.

Park’s daughter, Park Geun Hye, went on to launch a highly successful political career and was elected as South Korea’s first female president, in part by drawing on her father’s enduring legacy for being the man who pulled South Korea out of poverty. Although she kept a low profile for nearly two decades, Park made a successful 1998 bid to become a lawmaker as the South Korea reeled from the fallout of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Her popularity was widespread among the older conservative Koreans who fondly remembered her family for helping pull a war-ravaged nation out of poverty. Tapping into sentiments of nostalgia and ancestral memory, she frequently drew upon her parents’ tragic assassination during her campaign speeches. Park quickly rose up the political ladder due to the unwavering loyalty of older conservative voters.

In 2012, Park became South Korea’s first female president, winning the highest vote share of any candidate in the democratic era. The debate about the Park family legacy revealed a generational rift. Unlike Park, Moon–the opposition leader–garnered votes from those in their 20s and 30s. The two fought over the middle–those in their 40s who remember the student protests for democracy in the 1980s–but who were more concerned about the soaring costs of educating their children, as well as the shrinking job market their children will face after they graduate.

Image Credit: Republic of Korea The 18th Presidential Inaugural Ceremony

Park, however, would go on to make history not once, but twice. Firstly as the nation’s first female president, and later in the way she left office. In 2012, she was forcibly removed after an impeachment proceeding. Park was convicted of colluding with her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, to take millions of dollars in bribes and extortion from some of the country’s largest business groups–which included Samsung. Her ouster marked a fall from grace for the country’s first female president and conservative icon.

On 24 December 2021, just a day before Christmas, the South Korean government granted a special pardon to former President Park, who was then serving a lengthy prison term for bribery and other crimes. Her release comes after spending nearly five years behind bars of a 22-year sentence for corruption.

The move to pardon Park comes as current President Moon Jae-in winds down his single five-year term, which concludes in May 2022. It could drive a wedge in Moon’s progressive camp ahead of a presidential election in March between those who view former President Park as undeserving of mercy; and liberals who view pardons of past political rivals as congruent with the spirit of democratic progress.

“We must overcome the pain of the past and move forward into the new era,” Moon said in a statement. “National unity and humble inclusion are desperately needed above all else.”

Park’s health condition, which included undergoing shoulder surgery, was cited as one of the major factors for the decision. The Justice Ministry said that Park’s pardon is aimed at overcoming national divisions and promoting unity in the face of the difficulties caused by the pandemic.

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