The developmental state literature emphasises the importance of state autonomy and capacity, with a particular focus on a Weberian type of meritocratic bureaucracy. Existing studies of South Korea's economic development generally credit Park Chung-hee for establishing such a state. This article questions this assessment with careful process tracing of the development of a meritocratic bureaucracy in the country. The findings suggest that the contrast between the predatory Rhee regime (1948-1960) and the developmental Park regime (1961-1979) has been exaggerated. Meritocracy in South Korea's bureaucratic recruitment and promotion systems developed gradually over several decades, including during Rhee's regime as well as the short democratic episode (1960-1961). What then explains the evolution of a developmental state in Korea? This article suggests that land reform contributed to not only creating social structural conditions favourable to state autonomy but also promoting the development of a meritocratic bureaucracy by propelling rapid expansion of education and by mitigating the extent of political clientelism.