[Viewpoint] Looking back at a hard-working dictator

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[Viewpoint] Looking back at a hard-working dictator

The desk was simple. It was a favorite of former President Park Chung Hee - the desk he used in his office on the first floor of the former Blue House main building, which was demolished in 1993. The dark brown desk has no patterns. It is featureless.

Park held the reins of power for 18 years. The “revitalizing reform” he pursued in 1972 was a dictatorial system. But the desk does not go with the image of a dictator who wielded enormous power. A small label is still stuck on the top drawer. Rather, it would suit a clerk at an administrative office.

This desk is on display at the National Palace Museum. The exhibition opened on Monday, the 30th anniversary of the Oct. 26 incident, during which President Park was assassinated.

Two visitors in their early 60s measured the desk. It was 140 by 86 centimeters (55.1 by 33.9 inches) and 68 centimeters in height. Then, they recalled the Oct. 26 incident in which the president was assassinated.

“Army surgeons, who performed an autopsy on the body of President Park after he was shot by Kim Jae-gyu, then director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, did not know who it was at first, because the leather belt he was wearing was worn out. They thought, how could the president wear a worn-out belt?

“He probably insisted on this simple desk because he was frugal.”

The desk stands there as if representing the Park Chung Hee era. The spirit of the times was one of practicality and frugality. Those values were the foundation on which he led the nation to accomplish the miracle on the Han River.

There is a set of wooden tableware that he received as a gift when he visited the Philippines in 1966. The label explains, “When he held a summit meeting with the president of the Philippines, President Park resolved to make Korea better off than the Philippines.” Back then, Korea was a poor country that envied the Philippines.

Around 100 new republics arose after World War II. Among them, Korea is the only country that succeeded in achieving political as well as economic development. The model of Korea’s success is “industrialization led by Park Chung Hee first and democratization by the two Kims - Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung - later.”

The Philippines proclaimed that they would pursue political and economic development simultaneously. When the country’s economy failed, however, its politics were also swept into turmoil. No country has succeeded in accomplishing development of its economy and politics simultaneously. If a country fails to develop its economy, it is doomed to face a crisis in its democracy. This is what world history tells us.

A gift from Kim Il Sung of North Korea, an embroidered painting of a “Mount Kumgang Nymph,” is also exhibited.

Park received it through Lee Hu-rak, former director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, who secretly visited Pyongyang in 1972 under the orders of President Park. Park Chung Hee and Kim Il Sung competed against each other to create a better country.

They approached the future of the Korean race with different strategies and visions - one with an open-door policy and the other with a closed-door policy, one with export-oriented growth and the other with independent rehabilitation. The result of the competition became apparent in the late 1970s - a landslide victory for Park Chung Hee. Now, North Korea is in dire straits. Even if the people are highly qualified, they have to lead a painful life under the wrong leadership.

A small model tank is on the right side of the desk. It is a Korean-type tank. It symbolizes Park Chung Hee’s pursuit of a certain degree of independence in defense capabilities. The United States applied the brakes to that effort. The administration of President Jimmy Carter put pressure on President Park, using the suppression of human rights under the “revitalizing reform” of President Park as an additional excuse. The discord between the governments of South Korea and the United States at the time had a subtle effect on the Oct. 26 incident.

There is a paper tray on the desk. It is scratched and stained with ink. The wooden tray is the one Park used when he worked out a strategy for national reform and penned Korea’s economic development plans such as the construction of the Seoul-Busan Expressway.

The revitalizing reform and oppressive policies he pursued in the 1970s, including a series of emergency measures, were organized using that tray. It is alive and has its own stories to tell. It seems to remember the glory and shame, accomplishments and setbacks of that age.

Park Chung Hee used to write in calligraphy, “Review the old and learn the new,” as his favorite motto. This was also the motto of Deng Xiaoping, former leader of China, and Park’s leadership was based on this idea. It also constitutes the core of the presidential culture of the United States. It means, “Consolidate the accomplishments of the past and relay them as visions and wisdom to the next generation, and take failures as lessons and as precautions for the future; do not allow them to grow into hatred.”

The Republic of Korea is a successful country. All its presidents from President Syngman Rhee to President Roh Moo-hyun played their part. The scale and depth of their merits and demerits are of course different.

Now, President Lee Myung-bak has to secure a positive status for the former presidents. He should demonstrate his ability to integrate the people by reviewing the old and learning the new properly. This is the driving force that will lead South Korea to become a first-rate advanced country.


*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Park Bo-gyoon
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