Editions : April-June 2017

JOURNAL | BOOK REVIEWS By: Sang-young Rhyu


Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945 
By Carter J Eckert                         
(Belknap Pres: Harvard University, 2016. 512 pp)

Reviewed by
Sang-young Rhyu

This review first appeared in Global Asia, a journal of the East Asia Foundation, with which Strategic Review has a content- sharing agreement.

This book is the culmination of 20 years of diligent labor by Professor Carter J Eckert, related to Park Chung Hee and the roots of modern South Korea’s militarism. Committed and meticulous in his research, the author goes back to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, the history of Park Chung Hee and South Korean militarism. His study also links this work to the related, concurrent histories of Europe and East Asia.

Park was the central, dominant figure in South Korea’s developmental state, “the spider that wove the web of Korean modernization. That web was interlaced with the battle slogans and language borrowed from an earlier militarism and armies past.” From this recognition, Eckert proceeds. He points to Park’s education at the Manchurian Military Academy (MMA) and the Japanese Military Academy (JMA) as the formative experiences that shaped his character and intentions. The author also argues that Park chose to stage the military coup d’état of May 16, 1961, and establish an authoritarian political system and a development state in order to modernize South Korea. Park was heavily influenced by the ideas and strategies for modernization promoted by leaders of the Meiji Restoration and Showa Restoration, and the samurai culture and philosophy that were manifested in the attempted military coup in Japan on Feb. 26, 1936. The Japanese military’s discipline, order, victories and concept of total war were all injected into the mind and body of Park, deeply rooting themselves in his DNA.

As the first of a planned two-volume history, this first volume devotes more attention to the roots of militarism in Japan’s modernization, the cultural pattern that evolved in Manchukuo and at the MMA, Park’s way of life, education, discipline and combat training, and Chosŏn military institutions and history, than to the story of Park himself. Through very specific stories, the author also analyzes the perceptions held by students at the MMA and JMA on such topics as politics, power and race; he considers their conception of the relationship between state and society; their ideology and tactics of revolution and reform; and their unique perceptions of capitalism, socialism and chaebols, South Korea’s large conglomerates.

There are two dominant features of this book. The first, as Eckert states himself, is a thick description of historical facts. The author tracked down classmates from the MMA who remembered Park Chung Hee, and he is also meticulous in identifying sources scattered throughout Japan, South Korea and China, describing each with as much detail as possible. He also collected and analyzed diaries, memoirs and curricula from the MMA. Through the use of imagination and a vivid description of the past, the author takes the reader back to the formative period of Park’s life to uncover what he was thinking and why. This book could also serve as an academic wake-up call for South Korean society, which is obsessed with the political evaluation of Park, based not on accurate historical facts, but on political interests. In historical debates, we must first describe what happened before we attempt to explain it.

Second, the author, in keeping with his motto that “in history, context is everything,” attempts to put Park into context. It seems that Eckert is trying to capture the “butterfly effect,” or contingent flux in history, on the premise that a small event or meeting could have significantly impacted Park and the modernization of South Korea. The book attempts to find the roots of the first wave of South Korea’s militarization in 1866. It also seeks to attribute the roots of the Meiji Restoration and Japanese militarist culture in Manchukuo to the “absolute obedience” promoted by Maj. Klemens Wilhelm Jacob Meckel of the Prussian Army during the training of Japan’s Meiji military at the end of the 19th century, and to the later “lightning strikes” of Adolf Hitler.

What also attracts me about this book is that the author attempts to include much linguistic context in his work. Readers who have no knowledge of Korean, Japanese or Chinese are likely to miss much of this linguistic context. Emphasizing the pernicious effects of the market dominance of the chaebols, Eckert, for example, employs the expression “monstrous power” and includes the Korean phrase “musi musihan” in phonetic English to provide a more accurate translation. Additionally, Eckert’s use of the Japanese concept of the “majime ideal” in depicting the apparent devotion, discipline and seriousness of Park as a cadet is a reflection of his approach to writing, which places emphasis on linguistic context.

Eckert also uses extensive endnotes to introduce many additional resources and supplementary information. Although a careful reading of such copious notes requires patience, I would advise readers not to neglect the endnotes if they desire to fully comprehend this book.

In East Asian history and political economy, the theoretical debate as to where we can find the origins of economic growth and developmental states in East Asia has been ongoing. In particular, the question of whether or not the economic growth of South Korea should be viewed as a continuation of the Japanese colonial experience has been a major issue. However, the fact that Park Chung Hee, who so admired the patriotic leaders (shishi) of the Meiji Restoration, received a Japanese-style education, and that his experiences at the MMA and JMA had a great impact on South Korean economic growth, are largely uncontested. As Eckert confirms, Park was deeply influenced by Japanese militarism.

However, the theoretical controversy arises from what is considered continuous or discontinuous, according to the flow of the times and what main factors determine such historical path dependence. Aside from the political interpretation of Park, the continuity controversy is still an important historical issue. This book, by reorganizing many historical facts in a new and original way, provides clues to new interpretations of the roots and operating mechanisms of the “Park Chung Hee model” – and its relationship to the so-called Japanese 1940 system.

Does the age make the hero? Or does the hero make the age? These are classical questions posed in history and historical sociology. Even as Eckert asserts that “there is no inevitable cultural or historical path from Lalatun to Seoul between 1940 and 1961,” he recognizes the continuity of historical phenomenon. Furthermore, he prefers to understand Park as “a product of his times.”

I personally wonder how we are to explain the era that influenced Park before he left for the MMA in 1940: the frustration of poverty and “han” (a Korean cultural expression denoting a host of emotions, including resentment, rancor, sorrow, hope and joy – all within South Korea’s modern historical context) that he bitterly experienced; the anger and nationalistic feelings engendered in him from the discrimination that he must have endured as a teacher at the Mun’gyŏng Elementary School; the socialist ideas that he was directly and indirectly exposed to at Taegu Normal School; and the yearning for Japanese militarism and the idea of “national democracy” influenced by schoolmates there, including Hwang Yong-joo.

Such elements constituted the age that Park experienced before his departure for Manchuria. In order to overcome this in his own way, Park Chung Hee chose Manchuria as the “land of opportunity,” marking the start of a new era. Although his political drive and military discipline combined with the militarism of Manchuria and Japan, it cannot be denied that such elements had also begun to form in Korea before his departure.

It is also true that the elite youth in South Korea’s colonial era shared a nationalist sentiment regardless of their different paths and modes of expression. It is known that there was a willingness among the forcibly drafted students (haktobyŏng) and the soldiers of the Korean Liberation Army (kwangbokkun) to use war and army life as an opportunity to strengthen their own capacities ultimately for the liberation of their homeland and future nation-building.

In this book, Eckert expounds on militarism as “a form of nationalism that privileges the military, especially in politics, and seeks to organize the nation on the basis of military ideals and models,” translating the term into Korean as kun’gukchÇ”ui (the Chinese character for which is identical in Japanese and Korean). However, it would be useful to explore other terms for militarism used in Korea. In addition, militarism, or militarization, is often translated as kunsajuÅ­i or kunsahwa (both terms have different Chinese characters). Although it is correct to characterize the training that Park received as one of militarism, clarification is needed. In modern South Korea, we describe the Park Chung Hee model as based on military ideology or militarization (kunsajuÅ­i or kunsahwa), but it is difficult to characterize it as militarism (kun’gukchuÅ­i). Before the 1972 Yusin Constitution, the Park regime had at least respected formal democratic procedures; moreover, the Yusin system, which also stems from the military culture of Park, had many features that differed from those of Manchurian and Japanese militarism (kun’gukchuÅ­i).

The scene of the encounter between Park Chung Hee and Kishi Nobusuke, the wartime era Japanese politician and former prime minister, in 1961, which is introduced on the last page of chapter eight before the book’s conclusion, presents a very symbolic and interesting introduction to Eckert’s forthcoming second volume. Nobusuke, the grandfather of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is portrayed as having felt a tinge of embarrassment when he met Park, who on his first visit to Japan after the military coup d’état had emphasized the “Japanese spirit” that had been instilled in him at the MMA. This exchange clearly supports the theory of historical continuity. The era that ended with the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 was restarted and rebuilt by Park, something that even Nobusuke (who was known as the “monster of the Showa era”) could not have foreseen.

Each chapter in this book begins with a famous verse from William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” followed by a remark from a Japanese leader or from the media, and then a quotation from Park Chung Hee. Indeed, Caesar and Park can be viewed as sharing similar fates. Since Eckert’s second volume has yet to be published, I am keen to know whom he will cast as the Brutus and Mark Antony of Park’s era, and how he will describe their political roles.

In historical debates, the answer to the question of what is right and what is wrong is not always black and white. However, the debate over Park’s virtues and vices has not only intensified, but has become progressively polarized in South Korea. Moreover, it is also true that the range of historical narratives has narrowed in the studies of post-liberation Park Chung Hee. Given the fierce political confrontation and stifling academic environment that prefers extreme opinions over diversity and critical debates, I very much look forward to reading the second volume of Eckert’s study.




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