[Viewpoint] A hall for memories of President Park

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[Viewpoint] A hall for memories of President Park

When I was an elementary school student, I thought he was the greatest man in the world. He was considered a hero, especially in my hometown of Gumi, North Gyeongsang. Every morning during the school assembly, the principal always told us to follow President Park Chung Hee, who was also from our town.

When President Park visited Gumi, the school was in a state of emergency. I still remember the entire school lining up along the main street, and the students waving handkerchiefs at him.

As the rural village transformed into an industrial town in the late 1960s, public sentiment in Gumi began to change subtly. Those who made money after their land and homes were appropriated by the government praised President Park, and those who lost money criticized him. Some considered him the leader of a national restoration, while others claimed that anyone could do as well in office for so long.

When I went to college in the late ’70s, he was considered a notorious dictator. We demanded his resignation day after day. After a year of aggressive protests, he was shot by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency chief, who had been his right-hand man.

Since then, people have had differing views on President Park Chung Hee. Some think of him as a hero, while others despise him as a dictator. While the evaluation varies depending on time and ideology, businessmen and economic officials generally put more weight on his accomplishments than on his faults. They think of him as the prime architect of today’s Korea with a clear vision and strong conviction that we can make it if we try.

“President Park Chung Hee is a true visionary who thought of nuclear power plants when the per capita national income was only $300. Foreigners are very surprised when I tell them this story,” said one president of a public corporation.

The 83-year-old Korean-American scientist Kim Wan-hee exchanged letters with former President Park for 13 years. He told the JoongAng Ilbo that President Park became aware of the importance of the electronics industry through various channels when even businesspeople were not interested.

As the country goes through an economic slump today, many people are reminded of President Park Chung Hee. The leadership of the president who revived the country’s economy is especially celebrated. In the last six decades, Korea has been busy building a nation, industrializing, adopting democracy and promoting development.

No one can deny that President Park is a central figure in Korea’s industrialization. While he is known to have focused on growth, he also established the foundations of the welfare system, such as the national pension and health insurance. It would not be an exaggeration to call him “the father of pragmatism” for his ceaseless expansion of his political domain.

However, Park Chung Hee did not receive the evaluation he deserved due to ideological discord in the last decade. When you said you admired President Park, you were labeled a “conservative fanatic.” Because of these controversies a memorial hall could not be established for him, even as other living presidents are honored with memorials. Former President Kim Dae-jung has a library and a convention center in his honor. Former President Kim Young-sam’s memorial hall is being built in his hometown of Geoje, South Gyeongsang.

This October marks the 30th anniversary of the death of the president who said, “Spit on my grave.” He hoped for a solemn historical evaluation after his death, so it would be appropriate to at least build a space where the next generation can judge his legacy for themselves. But the Park Chung Hee memorial project has been drifting for over 10 years. The project began in 1999 during the presidency of Kim Dae-jung, who was the political opposite of President Park. The Roh Moo-hyun administration was not enthusiastic about the memorial project, and government assistance was cut off when civilian fund raising proved unsatisfactory.

Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that cutting off aid was inappropriate. The President Park Chung Hee Memorial Project Committee filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Public Administration and Security for canceling government assistance of 20.8 billion won ($16.5 million), and the court ruled in their favor.

The government has caused confusion and administrative waste due to political misjudgments and the three lawsuits. An insider on the Park Chung Hee Memorial Project Committee claimed, “The former administrations picked insufficient fund raising as an excuse to prevent the memorial from being built.” The committee will submit a plan to the Ministry of Public Administration and Security in the near future. The committee needs to actively raise funds, and, if needed, provide assistance.

The memorial should record the accomplishments and faults of President Park so that we have a better understanding of his legacy. The memorial hall could be a living textbook covering industrialization, democratization, Yushin, the Saemaeul Movement and defense. The memorial hall needs to be built soon. Many of those who were close to President Park have already passed away. Those who are alive will show a tendency to interpret historical facts in their own favor. Also, valuable records related to the president are likely to get lost or damaged. It is time we stop this vicious cycle of denying our own past.

*The writer is an economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Eui-joon

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