South Korea’s “Economic Miracle” Was Built on Murderous Repression

Today marks 60 years since Park Chung-hee’s coup installed military rule in South Korea. His regime is credited with bringing the country rapid economic growth — but its industrial success was built on the massacre of labor activists and the systematic suppression of workers’ basic rights. 

General Park Chung-hee and soldiers on May 16, 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

May 16, 2021, marks sixty years since the military coup by South Korean general Park Chung-hee, installing a regime credited with two decades of rapid economic growth and the birth of South Korea’s all-powerful chaebol industrial conglomerates. However, this so-called “Miracle on the Han River” was only possible due to the rampant exploitation of workers. In the 1960s and 1970s, Park Chung-hee’s “growth-first” economic policies relied on unbelievably long working hours, low wages, murderous workplace safety standards, the strict repression of workers’ rights, and rampant pollution and ecological devastation.

To understand the coup, we first need to look at the period that began with liberation from Japanese colonial forces. As a recent history of Korean capitalism by leftist scholar Park Seung-ho demonstrates, the events of May 16, 1961, were a key moment in an ongoing war waged by the South Korean ruling elite and American imperialism to crush the surge in socialist, worker-led movements in post-liberation Korea. For it was the annihilation of working-class power and leftist organizing by the post-1945 United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) and the vehemently anti-communist, anti-worker Syngman Rhee administration that created the conditions that made the coup possible.

The Left’s Rise After 1945

From 1910 to 1945, Korea had been a colony of the Japanese empire. The colonial regime brutally exploited Korean labor, extracting raw materials and crops to maintain low wages for industrial workers on the Japanese mainland. The limited industrial development that accompanied the colonial occupation gave birth to a labor movement closely allied with the fight against Japanese imperialism. The situation changed dramatically with the end of World War II and Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonialism by Allied forces. Now, Korean resentment over three decades of colonial rule fueled the growth of left-wing labor unions and peasant organizations, which demanded a more equitable distribution of wealth, the end of repressive police violence, and democratic land reform.

Pursuing a wartime cooperation policy among the Allies, the Soviet Union agreed not to advance beyond the 38th parallel, while the United States would occupy the South until a more permanent agreement could be reached over Korea’s political future. The Red Army began to occupy the North in August 1945, and the United States military took control of the South in September. However, in the power vacuum that emerged between the surrender of the Japanese and the arrival of US troops, communist labor organizers and leftists quickly emerged as the main popularly supported political force that could legitimately steer the future of Korean society. Leftists and communists, who had been repressed under colonialism, seized the opportunity to finally create an egalitarian and democratic Korea. Conservative, right-wing forces and business elites lacked legitimacy in the eyes of Koreans, as they were rightly seen as traitors who had collaborated with Japanese colonialism.

This was a boom period for leftist and labor organizing. In 1945, following the release of approximately thirty thousand prisoners who had been rounded up by Japanese authorities for being engaged in communist-affiliated unions, leftists and labor activists established the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence (CPKI). This body was supported by dozens of local People’s Committees throughout the country and industry-specific unions that had sprung up spontaneously across the peninsula before the arrival of US troops. In August 1945, 145 such committees already existed across the nation. By late 1945, the National Council of Labor Unions, which had its roots in the Communist Party of Korea, had grown to over half a million members, by some estimates.

Without the intervention of the Soviet Union and the United States, it is likely that autonomous, democratic control of Korean affairs would have resulted in the peaceful establishment of an independent Korean state. The following excerpt from the founding declaration of the National Council of Labor Unions on November 6, 1945, captures the determination of left-wing forces to realize the establishment of a democratic and independent Korean state free from outside meddling:

Worker–comrades across the nation! . . . We must oversee the expansion of a popular labor movement that all workers can participate in without hesitation. Indeed, to advance the struggle for improving the everyday lives of workers, we must formulate a strategy and integrate this struggle with the task of establishing Korea’s independence; this struggle must become the motive force behind the construction of the economy of our newly founded nation. It is paramount that the labor union take responsibility for the management of industrial production. The labor movement must expand popular participation in the control of production and contribute to the healthy development of Korean industry.

However, once American troops arrived, this window of opportunity for the Left quickly closed. Fearing that Korea may evolve into a communist-friendly state, the USAMGIK acted quickly to suppress all revolutionary actors. The US military government placed colonial-era bureaucrats, the former colonial police, and Japanese collaborators in positions of power within the military government. American authorities supported the conservative Korea Democratic Party — which lacked any meaningful popular support — and refused to recognize the People’s Republic, which had been established in Seoul on September 6, 1945, following the surge of leftist organizing after liberation. The USAMGIK also forcibly disbanded local autonomous governing bodies, such as the People’s Committees located throughout the country. As Park Seung-ho succinctly writes, “From the beginning, the USAMGIK rigorously repressed national building efforts led by socialist forces and the people, and instead groomed the bureaucratic class that had facilitated Japanese colonialism and the conservative political class as its allies.”

At the Moscow Conference in December 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to a trusteeship of up to five years, after which the question of unification would again be addressed. However, following the solidification of the border at the 38th parallel, the repression of leftist organizing intensified in the South — leading to a general strike in September 1946. The USAMGIK deployed armed police to forcibly break up strikes, causing deaths and injuries to strikers and hundreds of arrests. Large numbers of peasants rioted in the countryside, unleashing their dissatisfaction on police and landlords. Estimates place the number of participants at 250,000 to 1 million people.

In response, the USAMGIK unleashed an all-out assault, mobilizing right-wing forces and the remaining colonial police infrastructure in order to put down the popular uprising. To prevent the resurrection of the movement, the US military banned the National Council of Korean Labor Unions and backed the formation of the General Confederation of Korean Labor Unions, allowing for greater control over unions and wildcat strikes. The violent suppression of the uprising greatly diminished the power of peasants and worker organizations, led to the breakup of People’s Committees, and crushed the organizing power of socialists and labor union activists. This deliberately created power vacuum was filled by US-backed conservative forces.

Massacring Leftists

Amid deepening Cold War confrontations, the United States pushed for the establishment of a separate government in South Korea via a general election. The election was opposed by students, leftists, farmers, and labor organizers, who led general strikes and protests. Nearly 1.5 million participated; the USAMGIK’s response resulted in fifty-seven deaths and 10,584 arrests. In the eyes of most Koreans, the election was illegitimate. Among the 425 registered political parties and civic groups existing at the time, only forty-three participated in the election that resulted in Syngman Rhee being elected the first president of South Korea — closing a door on the revolutionary possibility of a worker-led transition to democracy and solidifying the supremacy of the pro-American, anti-democratic, ruling-class elite.

In a previous Jacobin article, Owen Miller described how the Syngman Rhee administration oversaw the wholesale massacre of leftists on the peninsula. In response to a series of popular rebellions by soldiers in South Jeolla Province and the popular uprising on Jeju Island in 1949, Syngman Rhee’s government resurrected a colonial-era national security law as a tool for repressing opposition.

As Park Seung-ho writes,

The Korean war annihilated the capacity of the people’s movement within South Korea, and anti-communism, which was used to strike fear into workers and the people, became the governing ideology of the ruling class. The centrality of the National Security Law and anti-communist ideology, which were solidified by the Korean War, were not just powerful tools of the ruling class, they also obstructed the development of popular movements.

Members of labor unions and leftist organizations were forced to join the National Guidance League, which facilitated the surveillance and repression of leftists. At least thirty thousand of them were executed by the South Korean military during the Korean War for being suspected North Korean sympathizers. Also after the war, prisoners and those awaiting trial across the country were massacred by South Korean soldiers, resulting in an estimated twenty thousand further deaths.

The Collapse of Syngman Rhee’s Aid Economy

The Korean War of 1950–53, as well as domestic land reforms, resulted in a massive transformation of South Korean society. Removing the unproductive landowning class enabled a new regime of capital accumulation under the rule of Syngman Rhee. However, the establishment of an efficient regime of capital accumulation was stymied by the political corruption and obscene profiteering of the new administration. Awash with US aid, the Rhee government failed to harness the power of the state to spur economic growth and develop more capital-intensive industries. Rather, the administration was content to pillage US aid surpluses and maintain elite allegiance by soliciting political campaign contributions in exchange for aid entitlements.

During this decade, the Rhee administration saw the transfer of state-owned enterprises expropriated from Japanese colonizers to a few privileged capitalists. Combined with the uneven distribution of US aid as well as privileged access to currency for buying material that could then be resold at inflated prices on the domestic market, this decade saw the birth of Korea’s chaebols. Indeed, through corrupt dealings between the state and a few large corporations, as well as the forced political reeducation, surveillance of students and leftists, and acts of outright suppression and terror, the Rhee regime strengthened the class relations that had been established via the Korean War and exacerbated social polarization on the peninsula.

The government’s corrupt practices in collaboration with business allowed for the birth of monopoly enterprise on the peninsula. But this did little to improve the living conditions of normal Koreans. Moreover, the supply of cheap foodstuffs in the form of US aid sharply drove down prices for locally grown crops, bankrupting small farmers.

Coup leaders Chang Do-hong and Park Chung-hee (right) on May 20, 1961. (Wikimedia Commons)

By the late 1950s, the entire system began to collapse. As aid from the United States began to decrease, the Rhee administration could no longer ensure allegiance from capital via kickbacks and other forms of preferential treatment. Indeed, the South Korean ruling class doubted the sustainability of the Rhee regime, as it had failed to efficiently allocate resources and establish a rational plan for future capital accumulation. The crony capitalism of the Rhee regime also failed to improve the lives of everyday Koreans. After peaking in 1957, economic growth continued to decline. Upset with the corruption, ineffectiveness, and violent political repression of the Rhee government, mass protests of students and workers filled the streets, bringing an end to the Rhee government in what is known as the April Revolution of 1960.

Restoring Ruling-Class Power

The April Revolution opened a small window during which the Left regained some of its losses, with large increases in the number of labor unions and union members. Labor disputes increased from 95 in 1959 to 227 in 1960. However, before labor, students, and leftists had a chance to grab power back from the ruling-class elite, labor and democracy activists were labeled as agents of “social agitation and political instability.” General Park Chung-hee led a coup on May 16, 1961, putting an immediate end to movements for unification, democratic governance, and worker control over factories. The United States judged Park to be an anti-communist dictator who would be friendly to American interests, and therefore did not act to stop the coup.

A former lieutenant in the Japanese-controlled Manchukuo Army, Park Chung-hee oversaw the swift militarization of South Korean life. If he was something of an outsider to the existing political and business elite, this allowed him to implement sweeping economic reforms and political rearrangements that were not possible during the Rhee administration. Through the formation of the Economic Planning Board, Park centralized the distributed functions of the state and took nominal control of private corporations, utilizing foreign loans and the environment of a globalizing economy to pursue export-oriented industrialization based on capital-intensive industries. The decimation and demoralization of the Left guaranteed low wages and a docile workforce as the base of this new capital accumulation regime.

As Park Seung-ho writes,

Viewed from the perspective of history, the May 16 coup and the rise of Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship can be seen as the reactionary response of the ruling class to the April Revolution, which erupted over people’s anger at the America-friendly Syngman Rhee dictatorship, and the subsequent revival of the labor and unification movements.

The Park Chung-hee coup was a product of the collaboration between the right-wing Korean ruling class and American imperialism — which saw Korea as an anti-communist outpost during the Cold War. In this context, the coup can be seen as a single event in an ongoing class war on the Korean peninsula.