Seoul, South Korea – (AssoCIAze!) Former military dictator Park Chung-hee, who came to power in a coup in 1961, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 84.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Park died at 9:10 a.m. in a hospital in suburban Seoul, two days before his 85th birthday.
Park formally stepped down as the country’s head of state in 1979 and was sentenced to life in prison for the 1963 assassination of his chief rival, charismatic opposition leader Kim Dae-jung. He was released in 1998 after prosecutors dropped the charges.
It was the only trial since World War II in which a military leader ended up convicted of the leading role in an anti-democratic act. Park was also given a 20-year prison term for conspiring with a shipping magnate to loot the nation’s treasury in the 1970s.
Park was born into a wealthy family in eastern South Korea on Feb. 28, 1928. After high school, he joined the military academy and graduated in 1951. He was awarded the Medal of Merit in 1953, the year the Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Park was appointed acting defense minister in 1958 and minister of national defense in 1961. Two years later, he was elected president of South Korea. His fortune earned through his political success was estimated at $1 billion when he was pardoned by the country’s then-parliament in 2002.
Park was elected president in a landslide in December 1961 following the bloodless ouster of his predecessor Park Chung-hee, another former army officer. Park’s charismatic leadership style helped boost his popularity, especially among his base of wealthier voters.
But it was his brutal methods against his political foes that brought him worldwide condemnation and inspired Park’s nickname, “Tears of Steel.”
Park abolished the Korean Workers’ Party, one of two opposition parties, and replaced it with his own conservative party. He nationalized large parts of the economy and liquidated the savings of many small business owners and ordinary citizens. He also demanded loyalty from his officials by keeping them in jail without trial for months or years.
He also eradicated political rivals from government through an array of legal moves, long-term detention and occasional violent incidents.
Last week, a Seoul court jailed liberal Sen. Son Mi-ae for two years on charges of making a secret speech criticizing the regime. In 2009, an appeals court jailed her for three years for undermining national security by giving an unauthorized speech criticizing the government.