Stirring up debate on a Korean Caesar
April-June 2017
By: Sang-young Rhyu

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.

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