Four Salient Martial Orientations: A Review of Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea

By | December 16, 2016 | No Comments

South Korea’s Military Revolutionary Committee four days after the May 16 Coup. Park Chung-hee is on the right, at the shoulder of the nominal head of the committee, ROK Army Chief-of-Staff Chang Do-yong. | Image: Wikicommons

Sino-NK is delighted to publish an exclusive review by Clark Sorensen (professor and chair of the Korea Studies Program at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington) of Carter J. Eckert’s Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2016). The leadership and legacy of Park Chung-hee is a subject about which Professor Sorensen has already offered a wealth of keen insights alongside co-author Hyung-A Kim.

Here, Sorensen elucidates the work Eckert has done to show the complex and complicated international roots of militarism that influenced South Korea’s controversial leader, as well as challenging future scholars to look at other stories to emerge from the Manchukuo experience besides that of the future South Korean dictator. Sino-NK’s companion roundtable review of the book is here. — Darcie Draudt, Director of Research

Four Salient Martial Orientations: A Review of Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945

by Clark Sorenson

The group of senior scholars working on South Korea today that includes Professor Eckert had the good fortune to first encounter Korea during the 1960s and 1970s, a period of unprecedentedly rapid change during which the country transformed itself from a poor agrarian country into an industrial powerhouse within a single generation. This experience has influenced their work in a variety of ways. In his previous book, Offspring of Empire (University of Washington Press, 1991) Professor Eckert (Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History at Harvard University) explored the colonial origins of Korean capitalism. While that book displays, perhaps, the young man’s glee exposing the sins of the fathers, the present volume shows mature understanding of the difficulties colonials faced fitting into the total institutions established by the Japanese Empire.

The first of two volumes, Eckert here begins addressing what he calls the “enormous elephant in the room,” the influence of the South Korean military under the leadership of Park Chung-hee from 1961 to 1979 in creating and sustaining a “developmental state” single-mindedly devoted to “modernization” (geundaehwa; 근대화). Eckert organizes his argument around “four salient martial orientations” that he sees constituting a “technology of nation building and economic development:” (1) that the military has a right and duty to intervene in the political system, (2) that capitalism must be planned and controlled for the sake of increasing national wealth and power, (3) that bold action combined with willpower and confidence can bring results, and (4) that the state must discipline society so that the two can work in tandem. (pp. 2-3)

In his postscript, “Sources and Acknowledgments,” Carter relates that this work began twenty years ago with a simple question about how Park Chung-hee’s military background shaped his thinking and approach to South Korean development. Confronted with a paucity of documentary evidence for Park’s early years, Eckert makes a virtue out of limited sources. Rather than write a conventional biographical narrative focusing only on Park Chung-hee, Eckert has focused on the context and milieu out of which Park emerged. Despite the title promising extensive engagement with Park Chung-hee the man, in this first volume Eckert mentions Park just enough to whet our curiosity about his formative experiences and to suggest that what Park learned in his training at the Manchurian Military Academy and Japan Military Academy 1940-1944 stayed with him right through his presidency of South Korea.

The bulk of the book is, thus, actually about the historical forces that led a Korea that during the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) had held the military in disdain to begin militarizing—a process that was taking place contemporaneously in both China and Japan—and then how Japan’s military culture during the Colonial Period (1910-1945) was inculcated into a critical mass of Korean cadets who later joined the South Korean military and became the core of Park Chung-hee’s military/developmental state. As the book ends with 1945 a second volume will presumably be dedicated to Park’s post-World War II activities.

The present volume is divided into two parts. In the three chapters of “Part I: Contexts,” Eckert argues that Korean militarization proceeded in waves beginning with self-strengthening of the 1860s as Korean leaders realized that their hitherto placid part of the world was entering a “new Warring States Period.” (p. 20) This attempt was cut off when the Japanese disbanded the Korean army in 1907 during the Protectorate, but was followed by Imperial militarization in the 1930s and 1940s as the Japanese Empire moved toward continental war. The Korean War (1950-1953) led to a third round of militarization in South Korea that is not covered in this volume. Part I ends by zeroing in on Park Chung-hee’s experience at Taegu Normal School from 1932-1936, an institution that had already become highly militarized under the leadership of Arikawa Shuichi, and Park’s subsequent writing of an application letter in his own blood to the Manchurian Military Academy.

The five chapters and conclusion in Part Two: Academy Culture and Practice, however, is the real core of the book. Using an amazing variety of sources including personal interviews with as many surviving Korean, Chinese, and Japanese classmates of Park at the Manchurian Military Academy as he could find, personal diaries of cadets, published school histories, training manuals, published memoirs, documents from the Yasukuni Archives as well as captured Japanese military documents in the United States archives, and published sources in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and English, Eckert paints a detailed ethnographic portrait of the Manchurian Military Academy, its ethos, its students, social relations between cadets, and social relations and between instructors and cadets. This “deep description” explains and illuminates the values and attitudes from which the “four salient martial orientations” must have been stitched.

Park Chung-hee seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid fully and deeply. Eckert’s interviews with classmates reveal Park to have been a “crazy-serious” (baka majime) cadet, avid kendo fighter, and the kind of man who would make the cadets march double-time between duties when he was placed in charge. In the context of his ethnography of the Manchurian Military Academy Eckert easily makes the case for a connection between the 1940s and the 1960s with a few telling anecdotes showing attitudes and phraseology learned in the military academy being applied in Post–World War II South Korea. Eckert’s work, thus, puts flesh on the bones of the theory of the Kwangtung Army’s distinctive Manchurian developmental state suggested by Bruce Cumings, Louise Young, and Meredith Woo-Cumings, and the influence of this state on South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s.

One waits with bated breath for the second volume that will show fully and in detail how the martial orientations imbibed by Park and his close associates in the Manchurian and Tokyo military academies in the 1940s were applied to South Korea in the 1960s. The book as it stands, however, is an impressive achievement, and not simply a prehistory of the military authoritarian regimes of the 1960s and 1970s in South Korea. Part II on Academy Culture and Practice is at least as big a contribution to Japanese history as it is to Korean history. More Japanese and Chinese went through these institutions than Koreans, and it must have been a formative influence on them, too. Have these cadets left no historical marks on Japan, China, or Taiwan? And some of the practices of the Manchurian Military Academy are eerily reminiscent of attitudes found in contemporary North Korea. Could there be a connection there? Professor Eckert tells his story about Park and South Korea very well, but clearly there are also other stories waiting to be told.