Date of this Version
B. Santos, 2018. South Korean Nationalism and the Legacy of Park Chung Hee: How Nationalism Shaped Park’s Agendas and the Future Korean Sociopolitical Landscape. MA thesis, Chadron State College.
Park Chung Hee (presidential term: 1961-1979) is, arguably, the most significant leader in the Korean Peninsula’s modern history. His governance has many trademark elements that have been thoroughly analyzed. These include his economic plans and violent dealings against his political opposition. One often overlooked variable, however, is the significant traces of early Korean nationalism (1890s-1930s) that defined his regime. Park employed these ideas, although controversial, to completely change a nation that was teetering on the brink of destruction into what is now, one of the most well-known republics in the world – economically, technologically, and culturally. It is important, therefore, to investigate how early nationalism affected and shaped Park’s tenure, and more importantly, how it still affects South Korea today.
There are two main nationalist ideologies that affected Park’s rule. First are the teachings of early nineteenth century Korean nationalists, most prominently Sin Chaeho and Choe Namson. These philosophies gave Park the foundations to base his eventual regime upon. Specifically, Sin and Choe’s take on the Tan’gun creation myth promoted that the Korean people are entitled to a prosperous and homogenized land. This was also one element of their minjok tenet – minjok loosely translating to “the Korean people.” It is an ethnonationalist philosophy implying that all Koreans and the lands from where they originated are bound together by blood. Second, Park took those theories and mixed them with a Social Darwinist, Neo-Confucian ideology, one modeled after what he learned from his brief Imperial Japanese military career; this is otherwise known as bushido. When fused together, these elements created a unique institution that was evident throughout every aspect of a Park-era South Korea.
It was not until the 1980s onwards that an affluent South Korean citizenry sought a more advanced republican-like polity. From this time on they out grew their need for Park-styled autocracy and nationalism. Through intense and daily mass protests, many of which ended in bloodshed, South Koreans infused old minjok nationalist themes with dissent; this union was called minjung. Minjung loosely translates to “mass people”, however during the protests the term was solidified under the definition of “the will of the [Korean] masses.” Therefore, minjung is now synonymous with South Korean-styled democracy. As a result, the end of the decade finally saw the last relic of Park’s governance. His successor, Chun Doo-hwan, was ousted as South Korea ascended into the pantheon of highly developed democracies.