[VIEWPOINT]Dictator sacrificed individualsGovernment archivists this week blew the dust off records from the 1960s, stirring up a veritable sandstorm of anger against the government of then-dictator Park Chung Hee.
The issue at hand highlights a moral dispute at the center of much of the social conflict in Korea today.
The declassified files in question concern the establishment in 1965 of diplomatic ties with Japan. This move was widely protested at the time ― in principle rather than in the details ― by students who went on to form the main body of support for Park opponents, and later, presidents Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam.
Those details are now revealed. We knew that Japan paid $800 million as reparations for atrocities committed during its 35-year occupation and that, with this payment, South Korea agreed that its citizens were no longer able to make individual claims against the Japanese government.
What we didn’t know is that only around 2 percent of the money was actually delivered to victims. Families of people murdered by the Japanese received just 2.56 billion ($5.3 million at the time) and owners of property damaged by the Japanese were paid 6.6 billion won. Other victims, such as people injured by the Japanese and people press-ganged into forced labor and into brothels got nothing.
The other 98 percent of the money went to build roads, establish state-owned companies like Pohang Iron & Steel and modernize the agricultural and fisheries industries.
Here’s the question: Was it wrong to withhold compensation to certain families and redirect the money for national development?
Compensation, as your psychiatrist will tell you, is more an emotional than financial matter. In other words, reparations were paid as an act of atonement. The Japanese did not have to do it, but they did. It was their government’s way of taking responsibility for the actions of previous Japanese governments and saying sorry on their behalf.
Did Mr. Park violate this healing process of repentance and forgiveness? Indeed, does his diversion of funds help explain why Koreans even today still rail against Japan? May we assume that he interpreted Japan’s act of atonement as being made to the entire Korean nation? In which case, was he not acting as a true leader, directing funds for the national interest, rather than compensating a few?
The debate itself will probably not take place publicly because the society does not conduct itself like a U.S. television talk show. Ideas tend to gather ground quietly and then assume power. Questions will occur to older Koreans, and for modern Korea, it will be a relevant discussion.
When Mr. Park came to power, he took Korea’s ethic of individual sacrifice for family a step further. Influenced by Japanese education and Marxist ideas, he sacrificed individuals and families for a higher cause. His vision was of Korea as an independent, industrial powerhouse, capable of defending itself against North Korea and other threats. The strategy to meet this objective involved sacrifice of the individual. This type of ethical pattern led to human rights abuses by people who, far from being thugs, thought they were doing the right thing.
In a developed and free social environment, however, it is natural for the rights of the individual to be stressed above all else. We are seeing this play out now, as, for example, the Blue House reduces its own powers, as women are given greater rights, as the idea of minority shareholders having rights takes hold, and so on.
At the same time, though, because the debate is not well articulated, the old ethic still has great appeal. The idea that the nation must sacrifice for the happiness of individual citizens hasn’t quite taken hold yet.
* The writer is an author and the managing director of Insight Communications Consultants, a public relations company.
by Michael Breen