History & AngerFormer President Park Chung Hee is a figure either revered or reviled, depending on who you talk to. Many admire him for leading Korea out of poverty and helping to create one of Asia’s biggest economies. To others, he was a military dictator who suppressed dissent and set back the country’s democracy movement for years.
Now his role in history is being debated again. Some of his biggest critics are hoping to find out more about his role under Japanese colonial rule when he was an officer in Japan’s army.
A special bill passed in March by the last National Assembly will create a commission to look into Korean collaboration with the Japanese, especially Korean military officials at the rank of lieutenant colonel and higher. The commission would document its findings, the first-ever such recordings.
The effort is to target some 3,000 to 4,000, most of whom are already dead, said Kim Min-chul of the Institute for Research in Collaborators’ Activities.
Yet the governing Uri Party isn’t satisfied with the scope of the legislation, instead hoping to pass a bipartisan amendment bill that was presented July 14. The proposed revisions include allowing the president to name the nine commission members with consent from the National Assembly. The revision would give President Roh Moo-hyun free rein in naming commission members. Other revisions would lengthen the commission’s term from three years to five and permit the commission to disclose interim results.
The amendment bill does not name Park Chung Hee, but some of the changes make it clear he is one of the targets of the investigation, such as increasing the scope of investigations to include officers in the Japanese imperial military.
Mr. Kim says that the amendment restores the legislation to what it was before it was heavily tinkered with by the Legislation and Judiciary Committee at the last Assembly.
During the original vetting of the bill, Grand National Party Representative Kim Yong-kyun proposed the changes on shortening the commission’s tenure and which military ranks would be covered under the commission. Lawmakers, such as Representative Cho Jae-hwan of the Millennium Democratic Party, said the changes were intended to protect Park Chung Hee.
Mr. Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, leader of the opposition Grand National Party, challenged the Uri Party to find anything incriminating about her father.
“Go ahead and investigate,” she said. I know my father better than the governing party knows him.”
Various books on Mr. Park showed that he became a student in the Manchurian Imperial Academy in April 1940. He was one of the 11 Koreans who were enrolled with 229 Manchurians and 240 Japanese. Graduating at the top of his class, he was allowed to transfer to the Japanese Military Academy. Known also by his Japanese name, Takaki Masao, he went to serve in the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria. Mr. Park was a lieutenant at that time.
Today, his daughter’s aides said that documents will prove that Mr. Park did not collaborate with the Japanese, and that the chairwoman has welcomed any inquiry into her father’s past. Still, she is not happy with the process.
“There are many problems with the amendment bill, such as giving the president powers to name commission members and disclose interim, meaning unconfirmed, allegations,” said one of Ms. Park’s aides.
The revision bill is expected to be voted on next month.
It’s not the first time that Korea has tried to examine its past, but the first and only effort came to nothing. In 1949, the country’s first National Assembly created a commission to purge such collaborators, many of whom were thought to have roles in the administration of Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first president. But Mr. Rhee was more concerned about fighting communism and dissolved the commission several months after it was formed.
Kim In-shik, the last surviving member of the first National Assembly, recalls the 1948 effort. “At that time, we needed to fight the communists. Also, in a way, we were all pro-Japanese,” Mr. Kim said.
Toward the end of the colonial rule, many leading intellectuals, writers and two major dailies, the Dong-a and Chosun Ilbo, remained decidedly pro-Japanese which meant there was little opposition to scuttling the first effort to weigh the role of Koreans in the colonial occupation.
Descendants of anti-Japanese independence fighters asked for an inquiry, but to no avail. “Pro-Japanese forces were at the crux of the power. Who would challenge them?” said Mr. Kim.
After the Korean War, South Korea was preoccupied with economic growth, thus the issue of collaboration was far from being a priority.
In 2001, then Millennium Democratic Party Representative Kim Hee-sun, whose grandfather was an independence fighter, saw a television report about a famous collaborator who was laid to rest at the National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong, Seoul, a government cemetery that honors veterans and others who served their county.
Ms. Kim, now with the Uri Party, vowed to set history right and formed a study group in the National Assembly called “Legislators to Uphold the National Spirit.”
She and likeminded legislators finally proposed the special legislation creating the investigative commission last August. The legislation was backed by 151 legislators
“Some may say that we are acting with the freedom of a generation that did not live during the colonial regime,” said Mr. Kim of the research institute on collaboration. “This inquiry will allow us, the present-day people, to learn about the situation at that time and ask ourselves the question, ‘What would I have done in their shoes?’”
Because of his leading role in Korea after the war, Park Chung Hee is best known of those who will be targeted by the special legislation. That his iron-fisted rule in Korea between 1961 and 1979 upended dreams of democracy in Korea is not contested.
But his service in the Japanese military have never been the subject of historical scrutiny. But he is not alone in this regard. Many senior police and government officials, businessmen and cultural icons have never had their roles under the Japanese examined.
“I have read through many historical documents, and there is not much to suggest that Park Chung Hee ever committed any actions of collaboration,” said Shin Yong-ha, professor emeritus at Seoul National University. Still, there is the dilemma of picking apart the life of a man whose daughter is now a major political figure in her own right and who was not even born when her father was a member of the Japanese military.
Offering a solution to the sticky politics of the inquiry, Mr. Shin said, “This is about justice for the whole, not a personal matter. I hope she [Ms. Park] regards it in that way, but as an alternative, we could leave that case for after Ms. Park retires from politics.”
The commission, if formed, is likely to largely follow the mold of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Uri Party is working on that model.
“The institute is of the stance that the commission should be called ‘Redemption and Reconciliation Commission’ because that is what the legislation aims to do,” said Cho Se-youl, secretary-general of the institute.
But little of those sentiments are in evidence. Rancor, instead of reconciliation, rules at the moment.
by Kim Ji-soo