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Wed, Jan 19, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Park ready to wipe S Korean politics clean

South Korea's own `Iron Head' created a miracle at its largest steel firm, and will likely apply the same principles to the country now that he is the prime minister..

By Rick Chu

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

The founder of POSCO (Pohang Steel Corp, 浦項製鐵) Park Tae Joon

(朴泰俊) has been appointed Prime Minister of South Korea. Among all the political figures in post-war Korea, Park is the one I respect the most, and definitely deserves introduction to a wider audience.

Taiwanese often boast about how Chao Yao-tung (趙耀東) led China Steel Corp (中國鋼鐵股份有限公司) to establish a unique management model and corporate culture. Similarly, all Koreans know the details of the fascinating stories about Korea's "Iron head (鐵頭)" (a nickname that the Taiwanese have for Chao), especially the story about how he came up with his "bathing and quality-control theory" for the management of steel refineries.

Under Park's 24-year leadership, POSCO became the largest single steel refinery in the world, three times the size of China Steel Corp. The completion of POSCO's second refinery in 1988 gave wings to Korea's steel industry. With an annual steel production of 1,750 tons, it pushed Korea into fifth place in global steel production at the time.

In the past, Koreans would probably never have dared dream that POSCO would one day achieve so much. The planning and preparations for construction of the POSCO refinery experienced many setbacks. First, a syndicated loan group of banks from five countries pulled out at the last minute. Then, the project was boycotted by the World Bank. Finally, the project managed to make up for lost time after Japan offered a helping hand by providing a much-needed loan. The Koreans, hardworking by nature, pushed themselves to the limit and completed the first phase of the construction in 38 months, much to the astonishment and admiration of the Japanese consultants.

Park, who was in charge of the construction, set an outstanding example for others to follow. Allowing himself only three hours of sleep a day, Park created a miracle with his Spartan management style. With Japanese technology and funding, POSCO actually produced steel products superior to the Japanese. As a result, the leading Japanese producers became alarmed by this Korean newcomer, and boycotted the construction of a second POSCO refinery. It was too late, however, as POSCO was ready to stand on its own now that it had obtained the necessary technology.

In his early days, Park lived in Japan with his father, who was doing business there. He graduated from the School of Engineering at Japan's prestigious Waseda University. This experience helped shape his meticulous and detail-obsessed character. While studying in Japan, he was evacuated to the countryside to escape air raids during the war. While there, he saw how farm women would wash themselves after returning from the fields before proceeding to cook meals. The experience gave him a valuable lesson and inspired his "bathing and quality-control theory."

After World War II, Park returned to South Korea. Witnessing the chaos of Korea's domestic politics, he decided to join the military. In the military academy he met Park Chung Hee (朴正熙) who taught ballistics there. Park Tae Joon served as Park Chung Hee's personnel advisor during his 1961 military coup and played an important behind-the-scenes role in its success. Alleging that he was unsuited to politics, Park retired from the military with the rank of major-general. He then became involved in the management of state-owned businesses and began lobbying for the resumption of diplomatic ties with Japan.

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