I must admit that before reading this book, I knew basically nothing about Park Chung-Hee or frankly about Korean History more generally.
Park is credited with leading South Korea’s economic advancement in the latter part of the 20th Century. As is so often the case with a leader who turns a poor country into a rich country, he is also vilified for restricting the freedom of the citizens of the newly-wealthy country. The economic advancement of South Korea shouldn’t be underestimated. The country went from being behind Nigeria into being on the G20. Or as the book puts it, within the lifetime of many Koreans now living, the per capita GDP in South Korea went from $100 to $20,000.
Park grew up in a Korea that was part of the Japanese Empire (for roughly 40 years Korea was part of Japan, that obviously ended in 1945). He eventually overthrew a South Korean government that was installed after WWII. The US had decided that Korea would be “freed” following WWII, but none of the allies (besides perhaps the Chinese and the Russians) were paying much attention to Korea. The result was rather confused, as should be from the ensuing weirdly managed Korean War. Park eventually created some kind of order from the chaos of the post-war plans and the Korean War. Park was assassinated at the end of 1979.
In the interim Park had to recreate a sense of nationhood that the Japanese had tried to wipe out for 40 years and to create a new sense of nationhood for South Korea. For quite some time, South Korean policy was so focused on reunification with the North, that it didn’t really bother building its own economy.
Park seems largely to have followed the Japanese model for economic growth, which favored an export-heavy economy that is dominated by large conglomerates.
The book is, honestly, pretty boring. It would be interesting if more was focused on Park’s time leading the government of South Korea, and less was spent on Park’s early life. Hopefully, someone will at some point rescue Korean history from the Dryasdust.