Vietnam War and “Reform”
Park’s next major challenge came from Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War had been raging since 1956; in 1964 the United States formally entered the conflict. It was a conflict with both open and unacknowl-edged similarities to the war that Koreans themselves had endured.
The similarities were even geographical, for the Communists (who, as in Korea, had the best nationalist credentials and the support of the Soviet Union) were based in the North, while the anti-Communists (as in Korea, a group dominated by big landowners and former collabora-tors and supported by the United States) were in the South. Guerrilla warfare and a confusion between combatant and noncombatant would lead to widespread slaughter of civilians and the systematic burning of villages.
Plus, the United States would conduct a massive bombing campaign in an attempt to break the enemy’s will. A loyal ally of the United States, Park sent soldiers to Vietnam in fall 1965, the Tiger and the Blue Dragon Divisions. The next year South Korea sent a third com-bat division, the White Horse, and a logistics division, the Peace Dove. In all, South Korea sent a total of around 300,000 troops to Vietnam between 1965 and 1973.
The Vietnam War provided an economic boost for South Korea in the late 1960s. In exchange for South Korea’s support, the United States purchased much of its supplies, services, and equipment from South Korea. South Korean contractors were favored for participa-tion in South Korean construction projects. In 1966 the Vietnam War accounted for 40 percent of Korea’s foreign exchange.
As the Korean War had jump-started the Japanese economy of the early 1950s—for the boost it gave the economy, Japanese prime minister Yoshida Shigeru called the Korean War a “gift from the gods”—so the Vietnam War jump-started Korea’s economy in the late 1960s. Koreans’ construction experience in Vietnam became the springboard for the next phase of economic development for South Korea, construction work in the oil-rich countries of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
As a result of this development, many cities have major landmarks built by Koreans. Among these are the world’s tallest buildings from 1996 to 2003, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lampur: One of the towers was built by a Korean construction company, the other by a Japanese company. However, the Vietnam War would have other consequences for South Korea as well.
South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War helped keep Park Chung Hee in power. It put an end to criticism of his regime from the United States. While South Korea was a key U.S. ally in Vietnam, there was no chance that the United States would draw down its foreign aid to Park Chung Hee’s regime or make serious demands for reform.
The boost the war gave to the South Korean economy helped make the regime almost popular, and it gave Park powerful incentives to distrib-ute to important supporters.
Those South Koreans who looked to the United States as a friendly older brother were proud to be on the win-ning side of the cold war, participating in a victory over communism, which would have strong resonance for South Korean’s who remem-bered their own war with the North and continued to fear attack from Kim Il Sung’s DPRK.