Hall of Fame Inaugural Class

Park Tae-joon

Park Tae-joon, armed only with a vision and high-powered arsenal of savvy and management skills, almost single-handedly turned South Korea into one of the most industrialized nations on earth.

A colonel in the Army of the Republic of Korea in 1961, he was one of a group of junior officers who helped overthrow the civilian government of South Korea. The group placed General Park Chung-Hee in power, and the new president asked the 34-year-old colonel—who was not related—to serve as his secretary and administrative assistant. Colonel Park soon emerged as the government’s chief economic problem solver, and President Park gave his young aide more and more responsibility.

In 1968, Park Tae-joon was running Korea’s only tungsten plant when President Park asked him to submit ideas for building a state-owned steel mill in South Korea. Park Tae-joon made several trips to America and visited executives from U.S. Steel Corp., Bethlehem Steel Corp., Armco Steel Corp. and other steelmakers to ascertain the best model for a South Korean mill.

Finding financing for the planned Korean steel complex, however, proved far more difficult. Park Tae-joon spent much of 1969 and 1970 talking to bankers, foreign government officials and international development agencies in a fruitless search to raise the capital needed to construct a greenfield mill on Korea’s south coast.

Park Tae-joon finally turned to Japan, where he had grown up. Japan had occupied Korea for 36 years and Park Tae-joon spent the war years attending college in Tokyo. When Korea regained its independence in 1945, he had returned to the Land of the Morning Calm and joined the Army. He argued eloquently that Japan, which had already created a successful postwar steel industry, had a moral responsibility to help its former colony.

Japan agreed to divert about $500 million in reparations it was paying South Korea to fund the planned steel mill. Park Tae-joon selected a site near Pohang on the country’s southeastern coast, and construction work began in 1970. By 1973, the first blast furnaces at what was known as Pohang Iron & Steel Co. Ltd. (Posco) were making hot iron to feed a complex of casters and rolling mills.

Over the next quarter-century, Posco would help lead the rapid industrialization of the Korean economy, which was still struggling in 1970 to recover from the ravages of World War II and the Korean War. In 1988, the company completed its second phase mill at Gwangyang, and Posco’s third-phase mill began commercial operations four years later.

Park Tae-joon proved to be one of the most astute steel executives in Asia, with Posco showing a profit within six months of shipping its first ton of steel in 1973. By 1998, the company was producing more than 25 million tonnes of steel annually and ranked as the largest steelmaker in the world.

Posco’s rise was mirrored by the emergence of other industrial companies—such as Hyundai and Kia in the automotive sector—that relied on a home-grown steel industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, Korea’s shipbuilding industry became one of the most efficient in the world.

Park Tae-joon became embroiled in South Korean politics after President Kim Young-Sam forced him to resign his post as president and chief executive officer of Posco. He fled to Japan after being accused of embezzlement but returned to Korea once his name was cleared.

Park Tae-joon was a South Korean legislator during the 1980s and headed the country’s Democratic Justice Party in 1988. He was a member of the Supreme Council for the Democratic Liberal Party in 1990 before being forced from his position as the head of Posco. In 1997, he helped former President Kim Dae-Jung win election as South Korea’s president and served as Kim’s prime minister for four months in 2000.

Park Tae-joon was named honorary chairman of Posco in 2002.

He died in a Seoul hospital in December 2011 at the age of 84. Eulogies flooded in from around the world. The Federation of Korean Industries pointed out that South Korea’s $1-trillion economy in the 21st Century owes a great deal to Park Tae-joon.

One story that Koreans still enjoy telling involved Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 visit to Nippon Steel Corp. in Japan. The Chinese Communist leader was in the midst of opening up the Chinese economy, and he asked Nippon Steel chairman Yoshihiro Inayama what he needed to do to build a steel plant in China similar to Posco’s Pohang mill. The Nippon Steel chairman reportedly told Deng that “it won’t do you any good unless China has a manager as good as Park Tae-joon to run it.”

Posco, the company he founded, noted that “while America’s Andrew Carnegie achieved annual steel production capacity of 10 million tons within 35 years, honorary chairman Park achieved 21 million tons annually in his 25 years (1968~1992). With no technology or capital, he achieved more than twice the scale in less time.”

Andrew Carnegie
Elbert Gary
Henry Bessemer
Charles Schwab
Willy Korf
Ken Iverson
Yoshihiro Inayama