The Death of Park Chung-hee

Military dictator was a foundational figure for South Korea's conservatives.

The Death of Park Chung-hee

Photo: Kim Jae-gyu re-enacts the assassination of Park Chung-hee.  Credit: National Archives.

On October 26, 1979, the head of Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) Kim Jae-gyu 김재규 중앙정보부장 shot and killed Park Chung-hee 박정희, ending Park’s 17 year dictatorship. Kim assassinated Park because he was alarmed by Park’s increasing bloodthirstiness. Having awarded himself the fifth term of presidency in 1978 under the authoritarian Yusin Constitution 유신헌법, Park was facing stronger demands for democratization from activists such as Kim Young-sam 김영삼, as well as from the United States under the Jimmy Carter administration. Although Kim Jae-gyu as the head of the KCIA was among the most powerful members of the Park regime, he was frustrated that Park sided more with Blue House Security Chief Cha Ji-cheol 차지철 청와대 경호실장, who pressed for a draconian response.

Kim was with Park and Cha in a safe house in Gungjeong-dong 궁정동, in the Jongno 종로 district of Seoul on October 26. Days earlier, massive pro-democracy protests had broken out in the southern cities of Busan 부산 and Masan 마산, in what came to be known as the Bu-Ma Democracy Protests 부마민주화항쟁. Park had declared martial law and sent paratroopers to crush the protests. As the key members of the Park regime gathered to drink, according to Kim, Park Chung-hee said if another protest broke out, he would personally give orders to fire at the protesters. Cha egged Park on, saying: “They killed 3m in Cambodia and they were fine. We will be fine too even if we killed about a million or two.” Kim shot Park and Cha, then attempted to persuade then-Prime Minister Choi Gyu-ha 최규하 국무총리 to declare martial law. Kim failed, however, and was executed on May 24, 1980. Meanwhile, South Korea’s brief hope for democracy was quickly dashed as General Chun Doo-hwan 전두환 seized power in a military coup on December 12, 1979.

Park Chung-hee left behind a complex legacy, as his military rule was also the period when the South Korean economy grew dramatically. The older generation largely recalls Park as the hero who lifted Korea from dire poverty; the younger generation, less so. In the Korean internet, October 26 - now also the day when another right wing general-turned-president, Roh Tae-woo 노태우 died - is celebrated as the Bang Bang Day 탕탕절, mocking the death of Park by referencing the items he was consuming when he was shot: a glass of Chivas Regal (which Park was drinking as he was shot) and food with the syllable “tang” 탕 (“bang”), such as sweet and sour pork 탕수육 (“tangsuyuk”).

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