Park Tae-joon (1927–2011) was a South Korean general, businessman, and politician. Working closely with Park Chung Hee (no relation) in the 1960s and 1970s, he succeeded in founding the steel manufacturing company POSCO and developing it into one of the world’s leading producers.
A native of Pusan, Park grew up in Japan and was studying engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo when World War II ended. He returned to Seoul after Liberation, and enrolled at the Korea Military Academy. He spent over a decade in the military, serving with distinction during the Korean War.
Both Park’s military background and knowledge of Japan proved to be critical to his subsequent business career. Park developed close ties to the future president while the two served as officers in the South Korean Army. Although Park did not directly participate in the May 16 military coup in 1961, he was soon appointed a member of the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction and involved in implementing the First Five-Year Economic Development Plan (1962-1966). Based on his success in managing a tungsten company, Park was appointed head of Pohang Iron and Steel in 1968.
The Park administration, which was staking its legitimacy on Korean economic development, considered self-sufficiency in steel as critical to its plan. However, as Korea’s economy was considered “backward” or underdeveloped, and possessed no apparent competitive advantage for heavy industrialization, foreign lenders refused to commit and economists advised against moving forward. Park had the inspired idea to turn to the Japanese government, with whom Seoul had normalized relations in 1965. Japanese sources ultimately provided significant funding in the form of grants and loans as part of the treaty terms; credit from the Export-Import Bank of Japan; and technical assistance from Nippon Steel. Within a decade, the company had transformed a sleepy port on the southeast coast into an industrial hub.
In an oft-repeated anecdote, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping is said to have asked Nippon Steel in the late 1970s to replicate POSCO’s mills in China, only to be told that it would still need a manager like Park to achieve similar output. By 1998, according to World Steel, the industry’s global trade association, POSCO was ranked first internationally, producing 25.6 million metric tons. In 2015, POSCO was listed fourth with 42 million metric tons, behind ArcelorMittal, Hesteel (China), and Nippon Steel.
While still head of POSCO, Mr. Park entered politics in 1980, serving four terms in Parliament. After his resignation from the company in 1992, officials in government accused him of embezzlement and he fled to Japan. Cleared of the allegations, Mr. Park later returned and, for several months in 2000, served a brief term as prime minister in the administration of President Kim Dae-jung.
Alice H. Amsden, Asia’s Next Giant: South Korea and Late Industrialization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Mark L. Clifford, Troubled Tiger: Businessmen, Bureaucrats and Generals in South Korea (New York: East Gate Book, 1998).
Sang-Young Rhyu and Seok-Jin Lew, “Pohang Iron and Steel Company,” in The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea, Byung-kook Kim and Ezra F. Vogel, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 322-44.