[Viewpoint]Our presidents’ legacies

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[Viewpoint]Our presidents’ legacies

No parent would speak ill of his own parents or grandparents to his children. No person in the world is without fault or shortcomings.
What use is it to talk of such things to your children? Instead, words like, “Your grandfather was a very romantic person,” or “Your grandmother took care of a broken home,” would instill pride in children.
With the presidential election only three weeks away, there are hot debates over “the lost 10 years” or “the bygone 50 years” among politicians.
There is no reason for the people to be confused by such political catchphrases.
Politicians are only trying to to gain votes by scaring people with words like, “Are you trying to add five more years to the 10 years already wasted by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations?” or “Do you want to go back to the days of military regimes?”
We have already experienced the ages of industrialization and democratization.
Progressives may retort, “A true progressive administration has never been in office.”
But the same observation can be made by the conservatives. They may also say that a genuine conservative administration has never been in office.
History never repeats the past in exactly the same way. It is natural, therefore, that we move toward a time that combines the two political orientations.
Fortunately, all major presidential candidates are emphasizing the importance of harmony and unity in our society.
Candidate Lee Myung-bak professed that he is a harmonizer by saying, “Who would win, between the one who tries to benefit from division and conflict, and someone who prefers harmony?”
Candidate Chung Dong-young said, “I cannot but acknowledge the fact that former President Park Chung Hee thought hard about the future survival of the country.”
Candidate Lee Hoi-chang said, “Former President Kim Dae-jung should be credited for opening the channel of inter-Korean dialogue that had been closed before.”
Although those remarks are political rhetoric aimed at attracting votes, to anyone listening, they clearly give a positive evaluation of past presidents of the Republic of Korea.
The portraits of seven former presidents hang on the wall of Sejong Room at the Blue House, and President Roh Moo-hyun’s will also be hung there soon.
Of course, people may have complaints against each of the former presidents. How can there be no unsavory aspects to their presidency, if we look into things that were done during their terms of office?
However, if this is the reason why presidents and would-be presidents cannot acknowledge the merits of their predecessors, there will only be a vicious circle.
Of the most immediate former presidents, all tried to differentiate themselves from previous presidents and cut themselves off from their predecessors. Kim Young-sam emphasized “putting history right,” Kim Dae-jung declared “the second founding of the nation,” and President Roh claimed that he would “straighten out past history.”
But what results did this bring? Their efforts only brought about opposition and weakened the foundations of political power.
According to a public opinion survey conducted by the JoongAng Ilbo last year, the approval ratings of former presidents were 55.4 percent for Park Chung Hee, 17.1 percent for Kim Dae-jung, 3.1 percent for Chun Doo Hwan and 2.2 percent for Syngman Rhee. According to a Munhwa Ilbo survey this year that allowed multiple answers, the approval ratings were 83.8 percent for Park Chung Hee, 38.4 percent for Kim Dae-jung, 26.7 percent for Chun Doo Hwan, 8.3 percent for Roh Tae-woo, 7.4 percent for Syngman Rhee and 6 percent for Kim Young-sam.
What would happen if Park Chung Hee and Syngman Rhee were condemned under such circumstances? What would happen if Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were rejected?
Those who support them would not allow such acts. This would result in endless confrontation, conflict, division and antagonism among people.
Syngman Rhee founded the nation and had a great diplomatic sense. Park Chung Hee lifted the country from the swamp of absolute poverty and built an industrial base.
Kim Young-sam rooted out politically oriented military officers and their factions and initiated the real-name financial transaction system.
Kim Dae-jung led the nation to overcome the foreign exchange crisis and succeeded in bringing about the first inter-Korean summit meeting.
Roh Moo-hyun got rid of the remnants of authoritarianism in our society, shedding light on misdeeds of the past.
The reason why the massive outpouring of demands for democratization at the end of the military regime did not lead to extreme violence is attributed to the lukewarm leadership of Roh Tae-woo, who was severely criticized as a president for doing nothing during his term.
The Republic of Korea has become the 13th-largest economic power in the world only 60 years after winning national independence from harsh Japanese colonization. We also accomplished democratization to a level that we can truly feel proud of.
This was achieved thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of the people, but it cannot be denied that our presidents carried out the summons of the times, each in their own way.
Incorrect history should be put right. However, former presidents cannot be denied their due forever. Denying them is denying Korea’s modern history.
Let’s take a step back, even if there are things that are not wholly satisfactory. Let’s look at former presidents with a warm eye. Let’s build memorials for former presidents, evaluate their accomplishments and include them in our school textbooks.
That would be the way to really break away from the past and gain momentum to move forward.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Du-woo
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