A Roundtable Review of Carter Eckert’s Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945

By | December 16, 2016 | No Comments

The Manchukuo State Council in Xinjing/Changchun. | Image: Wikicommons/Sino-NK

Carter Eckert’s Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2016) is set to enter the canon on modern Korean history. Though the controversial South Korean leader forms the bedrock of the title, the book focuses primarily on the formative institutions of militarism in modern Korea, namely the military academies of the Japanese empire that many eager young Korean men of the time took as their pathway to advancement.

As Eckert acknowledges, treatment of the controversial figure of Park can certainly turn into “an apology or a polemic.” (p. 7) Indeed, the discussions of Park’s multiple ties to the legacy of Japanese imperialism inherently risk contention and politicization. But rather than focusing on the life of Park, which Eckert suggests risks overpersonalizing history, the Harvard historian weaves a complex, macroscopic history comprised of myriad cultural, institutional, and individual micro-stories. 

Drawing from a variety of disciplines outside of history — from the comparative historical analysis employed by political sociologist Barrington Moore to the social theory of Foucault and Sewell — Eckert seeks a more holistic story of the roots of militarism and its impact on modernization in South Korea, a topic often discussed but rarely given the care of rigorous, scientific treatment.1)There are of course notable exceptions, including Seungsook Moon’s feminist critique of militarized modernity in South Korea. See: Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005). Professor Eckert eschews falling into any teleological or evolutionary traps by using these terms in context and unpacking the cultural and political complexity of the many historical institutions and figures of Park’s time.

The result is a magisterial first volume that explores the deep structures and ideational roots of Korean modernization. The book will be be of interest to students of contemporary Korean politics and society as well as those interested in comparative military institutions and their relationships with politics. It is with great anticipation that Sino-NK presents its roundtable review of Eckert’s first volume. We will all be eager for volume two, on militarism and modernization, which is slated for publication in fall 2020. – Darcie Draudt, Director of Research

A Roundtable Review of Carter Eckert’s Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945

by Sino-NK

Eckert, Carter. Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea: The Roots of Militarism, 1866-1945Harvard University Press, 2016. 512 pp. ISBN: 9780674659865


Table of Contents

I. Christopher Green, “Responding to Structures of Difference in the Manchurian Military Academy

II. Steven Denney, “The Roots of Militarism and the Origins of the Developmental State”

III. Clint Work, “Beyond Good and Evil: Korean Nationalism within the Japanese Imperial Cocoon

Responding to Structures of Difference in the Manchurian Military Academy

by Christopher Green

In our generation, the most acute rivalry [between Chinese, Russian, and Western types of civilization] is in Manchuria, and the chief protagonist of the Western civilization is Japan… on it turns to a great extent the choice which other nations have yet to make between their own indigenous cultures and the rival conquering cultures of Russia and the West.2)Owen Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict (New York: Macmillan, 1932), vii.

Hsin-king (or Xinjing) Station in what is now Changchun. This city was the capital of Manchukuo during the period of Japanese occupation. | Image: Wikicommons

Owen Lattimore’s apt depiction of Manchuria as a “storm-center of the world”3)Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict, 4 applies widely, but nowhere more so than in the region’s influence on modern Korean politics and society. The notion that Korean control of Manchuria might by itself be sufficient to decide the nation’s fate is of course absurd4)Sin Chae-ho, Hangukkwa Manju [Korea and Manchuria], cited in Andre Schmid, “Rediscovering Manchuria: Sin Ch’aeho and the Politics of Territorial History in Korea,” The Journal of Asian Studies 56 no. 1 (1997), 30., but it remains no coincidence that Lattimore’s “cradle of conflict” was where Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee, two men whose combined influence over modern Korean life can scarcely be overestimated, cut their teeth.

Carter Eckert’s new book focuses our attention on the militarism of the puppet state Manchukuo, which occupied Manchuria from 1932 to 1945, and specifically its military officer training school at Xinjing, the capital. As the first of two volumes, this book lays the groundwork for study of the role that Manchukuo and Japanese militarism played in the identity formation and actions of Park Chung-hee once he migrated south to Seoul in the post-World War II period.

It is part regional history and part the story of a man forging his future out of a singular Manchurian experience. Accordingly, we learn of the routine of the Manchurian Military Academy (MMA) and its counterpart institution in Japan, plus the way the two hewed what were intended to be future military leaders. Also, somewhat contradictorily, we read of the way that Marxist ideas infiltrated the rank and file, and moreover were tolerated to great extent. (pp. 188-193; 197; 199) We are also taught of Park’s own place within the Japanese imperial military structure.

The picture painted is of a diligent cadet with a rugged determination to get to the top. It is above all Park’s rational drive for self-development that emerges. It was always too simple to declare someone as complex as Park a pro-Japanese collaborator, a claim routinely evidenced by the blood pledge to Japan that he wrote in attempting to gain entry to the MMA at a comparatively advanced age (pp. 97-98). That overtly political ruse is demolished in this book. Park internalized the modernity that Japan represented – and the strength that such a program of modernization brought – but his does not come across as having been a naive vision.

Correctly, Eckert does not shy away from reminding the reader that Park was attracted to the trappings of Japanese culture, had a Japanese name, and spoke and wrote flawless Japanese. He also, in the more colloquial words of Professor Clark Sorenson, had drunk deeply from the Japanese militarist Kool-Aid. However, Eckert also notes that the structuring of difference between groups within the MMA and JMA was performed on racial grounds. The institution’s constitution and the way Koreans were positioned in a racialized hierarchy meant that the rhetoric of integration espoused from the center was constantly undermined. (pp. 90-93) Park was a leading majime (“serious-minded”) Korean in the institution and moreover fiercely intelligent; he could scarcely have been unaware of this. It was his, and his Korean contemporaries’, entirely rational decision to respond to their racialized inferiority by training harder and being better than their Japanese peers.

In South Korea, Park Chung-hee’s legacy is not – and perhaps cannot be – treated with anything approaching equanimity. Situated somewhat on the periphery of all that politicking, Eckert sets himself the challenge, per Paik Nak-chung, of giving Park “no more and no less than his due.” (p. 7) It is too early to declare such a laudable plan a success, but the opening salvo is splendid enough.

The Roots of Militarism and the Origins of the Developmental State

by Steven Denney

When a state substitutes itself for society and legitimates itself through some political project such as social revolution or economic development, we have a strong state and a weak society, as in Japan after the Meiji era. Asian economic success, pioneered in Japan but duplicated in various different ways in South Korea, et al, is based on the activities of what [Chalmers Johnson calls a] ‘capitalist developmental state.’5)Chalmers Johnson, Japan: Who Governs? The Rise of the Developmental State (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 66.

The Shōwa Steel Works (昭和製鋼所), a government-sponsored steel mill built in Manchukuo and an early example of state-led capitalist development that would come to define the developmental states of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Following its dismantlement by the Soviets, it was rebuilt by the Chinese as Anshan Iron & Steel Works. | Image: Wikipedia

Chalmers Johnson was the first to write about the historical origins of the “developmental state,” a term he conceptualized in his definitive work on the colonial origins and postwar role of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), that powerful bureaucratic agency which oversaw Japan’s industrial policy. Johnson wasn’t a historian, disciplinarily speaking, but he would likely agree that the role of the historian is the search for origins.

Volume I of Carter Eckert’s biography on Park Chung-hee is a careful examination of the ideational origins of Park’s developmental state and, as the title indicates, “the roots of militarism” in modern Korea. In Eckert’s book one finds the source of the idea that a strong state backed by a supportive military not only could but should revolutionize society and guide economic development.

Eckert goes to great descriptive lengths to underscore the importance of Park Chung-hee’s formative experiences, first in the Manchukuo Military Academy (MMA; 1940-1942), then in the Japanese Military Academy (JMA: 1942-1944) and the Manchurian Army (1944-1945). A “serious-minded” (majime) cadet, Park is portrayed as being particularly well suited for Japanese military life and as a man made for an era marked by upheaval, mutiny, and restoration(s). (pp. 93-96)

As a cadet in the MMA and JMA, Park Chung-hee was taught to revere the “men of high purpose” (shishi), a group of young military men who led the rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate in order to restore the emperor Meiji. (p. 147) This “restoration,” which hastened the transformation of Japan’s political and social systems and greatly accelerated the pace of industrialization, constituted a revolution from above. More than that, it redefined – some might say “modernized” – Japan’s national identity and propelled the military to the forefront of national affairs, where it would stay until its dissolution in 1945.

It matters that Park received his military training in Manchukuo and was commissioned as an officer in the Manchurian Army. Manchukuo, Eckert makes clear, was a militarized state and a hotbed of Shōwa Restorationism. Led intellectually by political philosopher Kita Ikki and supported by aspiring young military officers in the Imperial Japanese Army and, especially, the Manchukuo Imperial Army, the Shōwa Restorationist movement sought to empower the Emperor Hirohito at the expense of the Taishō democracy, who Shōwa supporters thought had abdicated the principles of the Meiji Restoration.

Founded following the Mukden Incident in 1931, a shady event that Eckert thinks was probably closer to a mutiny than anything else — “in large part because of its ‘success,’ [the incident] fell slightly short of being regarded as actual mutiny,” he writes. (p. 150) Unshackled by the interests of capital or checks by parliament, in Manchukuo ideas of Shōwa Restorationism flourished.

Central to the Shōwa movement Showa Steelwas the idea of an uncorrupted and incorruptible military, an entity which can and indeed should “purify the political world,” as was attempted in two separated coup attempts — the May 15 Incident, when naval officers and army cadets assassinated the prime minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi, and the February 26 Incident, when a group of officers occupied the capital for a brief time, assassinating two former prime ministers in the process.

Though crucial, Eckert shows how military restoration was about more than mutiny. It was about the reformation of the state, society, and the economy in a way fundamentally different from ways advocated in orthodox Marxism or democratic liberalism. “Capitalism, not the existence of private ownership per se, was the problem [to Shōwa Restorationists], because in its glorification of the pursuit of individual profit the capitalist system allowed the bulk of the nation’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a small group of businessmen who used it to further their own private interests, rather than for the benefit of the society and nation as a whole.” (pp. 204-205) Something akin to “socialism of the right,” Eckert describes it as “similar though far from identical to the national socialist and fascist economies” in Germany and Italy.

The young military officers supportive of a Shōwa Restoration “all sought national salvation and unity through a largely command economy that restrained but did not entirely eliminate private enterprise.” Citing Asaichi Isobe, one of the leaders of the February 26 coup attempt, Eckert describes Shōwa as embodying “an ideology of high statism and high nationalism” (p. 205) making the most of “the trope of ‘awakening’… where people are described as blind, dancing their lives away, following a path of delusion as ‘the individual prospers and the nation falls,’ and ‘as order and chaos rise and fall as in a dream.’” (p. 207)

As world war loomed, Shōwa Restorationism would take on an explicitly imperial character, if it didn’t have one already, serving as the foundation of “a comprehensive denunciation of Western capitalism with all its perceived accompanying social, political, and intellectual evils.” (p. 210) Park Chung-hee would never attempt imperium as president of South Korea, but Shōwa Restorationism’s influence on his rule is unequivocal. It is no coincidence that Park saw his 1961 military coup as a righteous “uprising” meant to “purify the political world,” language used by Shōwa Restorationists to justify mutiny and usurpation of state control by the military in order to “restore” the nation. There is a strong connection between militarism and the developmental state, the former paving the way for the latter. The idea which embodies the Meiji Restoration – “rich nation, strong army” (fukoku kyōhe) – highlights the strong link.

Eckert does not explicitly entertain the connection between Shōwa Restoration ideals and the developmental state. This perhaps explains the scant attention given Kishi Nobusuke, the “monster of the Shōwa era” (p. 310) who, as Deputy Minister of Industrial Development, oversaw the rapid industrialization of Manchukuo and coordinated developmental plans between the de facto military government and Japan’s large conglomerates, the zaibatsu. But Eckert has his reasons, and his focus on militarism – not developmentalism – certainly influenced which characters, besides Park Chung-hee, he chose to highlight (namely, military officers). Eckert has, after all, a second volume to write, and one can expect it to focus on the manifestation of ideas and ideals internalized during Park’s formative years as a military cadet.

Beyond Good and Evil: Korean Nationalism within the Japanese Imperial Cocoon

by Clint Work

Xinjing city planning map from 1932, the birth of Manchukuo. The city was radically redesigned to reflect Japanese ideas of modernity under a plan drawn up by Sano Toshikata and the South Manchurian Railway. | Image: Wikicommons

In the field of Korean Studies, it is well known that modernization and militarism were inextricably bound up within South Korea’s rapid socioeconomic development. Moreover, scholars have long identified Park Chung-hee as the central figure in the Korean modernization state, and have directly cited Park’s formative years and the models he adopted as a cadet and later lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). However, despite its obvious importance, no book has systematically unwoven the foundations and role of the military (with Park as its head) in South Korea’s development. Carter’s effort in volume one of his biographic study of the former developmental dictator is a masterful first step.

At the outset, Eckert rightly notes that in most extant literature Park is either lionized or condemned and that these assessments “continue to serve as major fault lines in South Korean politics.” (pp. 6-7) Instead, with Marx’s famous dictum in mind (that while men make their own history, they do so under circumstances not of their choosing), Eckert provides a more balanced portrayal of Park as a determined actor, yet one deeply influenced by the historical time and space within which his thinking formed. Reading Eckert’s “thick description” and analysis of the culture and practices of the Japanese imperial military academies of which Park was a part, one question in particular stands out: namely, the question of nationalism. (pp. 87-93)

Simply put: how could someone such as Park be considered a true Korean nationalist when to “serve the Japanese army or its subsidiaries was in a very real sense to serve an institution that was literally and physically suppressing Korean nationalist aspirations”? Eckert’s discussion of ethnic Korean nationalism among Park and his fellow Korean cadets provides a compelling answer, and reveals the stark yet ultimately productive contradiction inherent to their experience. In part, the answer lies in the mundane but no less important observation that colonial life was full of “gray areas,” and nationalism “came in different forms and degrees.” (p. 87) Park and his fellows basically “followed their personal ambitions as best they could given the conditions under which they lived.” (p. 87) Serving in the military empowered Korean men in a manner few other avenues could.

Not only did they experience “the empowering, masculinizing effect” of donning the uniform and insignia of the Japanese military at a time when the military was ascendant in all spheres of life, but also within the military itself (despite persistent discrimination) rank and merit took precedence over all else, including ethnicity. (p. 84) In fact, it was the pairing of a deeply ingrained competitive striving for excellence alongside ongoing discrimination and differential treatment towards Mankei (non-Japanese) cadets, which fostered ethnic Korean nationalism at the MMA and JMA. As Eckert writes, “So deeply rooted was the Korean drive to outperform the Japanese in this quintessentially Japanese world that it might well be said that far from erasing or diminishing a sense of Korean identity, the experience of academy life may actually have strengthened it for most Korean cadets.” (pp. 92-93) Eckert shows how Park, more than most others, both eagerly sought and was profoundly influenced by this milieu.

Since his earlier days at the Taegu Normal Academy (TNS) and teaching thereafter, Park spoke incessantly of becoming a soldier, signed his own blood oath to the Japanese authorities in order to gain entry to the academy, and, once there, was not just a gomin (a model cadet) but “a gomin among the gomin.” (pp. 99-100) In later years, he would remark: “I have sought to pursue my philosophy of life solely through the military.” (p. 94) In a sense, Park so resolutely embraced his constraints that he transcended them. And while his later ascendance to the head of the South Korean military and state was in no way predetermined (and would occur within an American-led Cold War context), Park would purposefully transfer his militarist “philosophy of life” into a truly Korean nation-building effort. For this part of the story, we impatiently await Eckert’s second volume.


1 There are of course notable exceptions, including Seungsook Moon’s feminist critique of militarized modernity in South Korea. See: Militarized Modernity and Gendered Citizenship in South Korea (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
2 Owen Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict (New York: Macmillan, 1932), vii.
3 Lattimore, Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict, 4
4 Sin Chae-ho, Hangukkwa Manju [Korea and Manchuria], cited in Andre Schmid, “Rediscovering Manchuria: Sin Ch’aeho and the Politics of Territorial History in Korea,” The Journal of Asian Studies 56 no. 1 (1997), 30.
5 Chalmers Johnson, Japan: Who Governs? The Rise of the Developmental State (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 66.

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