Bernardo M. Villegas
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Role of Military in Development

           The military played a leading role in the success story of South Korea.  Dr. Djun Kil Kim, Visiting Professor in Korean Studies at the University of Asia and the Pacific, has given me, the faculty and students of our university some very valuable insights into on important factor that explained the stunning success of South Korea to leapfrog from a very poor country to First World status in record time, a feat that many of the so-called emerging markets of today would want to emulate.  In his lectures and in the book he has written, The History of Korea (Westport, Conn:  The Greenwood Press, 2009), he explained the role of the military in the economic development of South Korea.  In contrast with the majority of military dictatorships in Latin America and Africa, South Korea was fortunate to have benefited economically from the authoritarian government under the leadership of General Park Chung Hee (1961 to 1979).

          General Park Chung Hee launched a successful military coup against the elected Prime Minister Chang Myon of the Second Republic in 1961. Although  Park was a graduate of the Japanese-run Manchukuo Military Academy as well as the Japanese Cadet School in Tokyo,  he was a leader of the younger generation of South Korean military officers indoctrinated into American functionalism.  During and after the Korean War, South Korea's National Army officers were trained at the U.S. military institutions in varied short-term courses.  They were schooled in the American system of military operation and administration, which was based on empirical studies of the social sciences, such as economics, social psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology.   The social sciences developed in the academic world of the U.S. were introduced to the young generation of military officers who were trained with short-term courses in the military schools in the United States  in the early fifties.  Then, in the late 1950s and the 1960s, a few elite students went to the United States to deepen their understanding of the social sciences, especially economics.

          The Park Chung Hee Administration was a product of this specific type of American-influenced military education.  His role in leading the military coup is often compared to that of the Buddhist general Yi Songgye in the late 14th-century Korean history.   General Yi staged a coup that was supported by reform-minded young scholar-officials equipped with neo-confucianism, the new doctrine of that period.  In pre-modern history, neo-confucianism transformed Korea into the most integrated yangban state under the sun during the 15th to 18th centuries.  In twentieth century, it was American functionalism based on the empirical social sciences that transformed the backward, highly agrarian South Korea into the advanced,  industrialized, democratic nation-state in the 21st century.

          The nation building accomplished by the authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee during the second half of the twentieth century has been compared by political economists to some historical models.  The most recent model cited was the Manchukuo nation building accomplished by the Japanese military leaders when the Kanto Army occupied Manchuria.  These military officers in turn followed the advice of technocrats who were graduates of the Tokyo Imperial University.  It is presumed that Park Chung Hee was inspired by the Manchukuo model when he trained in the Manchukuo Military Academy.   When he took over the reins of the authoritarian regime after the military coup, he had a vision of building a nation by transforming the agrarian South Korea into a  modern industrial state.  When he was at the Manchukou Military Academy in 1940, he was impressed with how efficient the Japanese military created a nation and industrialized it with the help of Japan's elite technocrats.

          President Park was committed to building an efficiency-oriented government system.  Working with technocrats, he started to implement a series of Five-Year Economic Development plans. He created the Economic Planning Board, headed by the Deputy Prime Minister who was given the command of all economy-related ministries.  Most of the military elites who joined the government gradually handed their respective posts over to the more knowledgeable and efficient technocrats who were recruited both at home and abroad.   There was a good number of U.S.-educated economists who returned to help in building a modern South Korea.  The military officers eventually limited their role to controlling powerful security organs such as the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).    The foundation of modern South Korea in the twenty-first century was laid during the eighteen years when Park Chung Hee led the country.  The move towards democracy during the last twenty years of the last century would have been even more turbulent without the strong economic base that Park left after he was assassinated in 1979 by his own security chief.  For comments, my email address is