Paying homage to history

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Paying homage to history

President Lee Myung-bak paid a visit to the graves of three former presidents on the first day of the new year. It was the first time an incumbent president had made such a visit on New Year’s Day.

The three presidents to whom he paid his respects presided over major turning points in modern Korean history. Syngman Rhee was the nation’s first president, Park Chung Hee brought about industrialization and Kim Dae-jung helped democracy take root.

The year 2010 is symbolic in many ways, marking the centennial anniversary of the country’s humiliating annexation by Japan, the 40th anniversary of the completion of the Gyeongbu Highway, which signifies the country’s progress toward industrialization, and the 30th anniversary of the democratization movement in Gwangju. President Lee’s visit to three such significant leaders’ graves represents the nation’s desire to move forward on its path to success.

History should be represented and respected as it is, not distorted to feed and supplement the needs of the incumbent administration. Unfortunately, however, certain administrations have tried to repudiate history and manipulate it for their own selfish purposes.

Army-general-turned-president Chun Doo Hwan oppressed the dissidents from the opposition camp as well as those loyal to President Park Chung Hee to justify the coup d’etat of Dec. 12, 1979. Dissident-turned-president Kim Young-sam enacted a special law to prosecute those in charge of the military coup. But he himself had joined hands with Chun’s followers to become president. The liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were no less reckless in persecuting past leaders. As president, Kim, touting the reconstruction of a second state, tried to degrade the conservative heritage that had been handed down from Syngman Rhee to Kim Young-sam. Roh went a step further, saying that “our history has been marred with the embarrassing defeat of justice.” Roh was a judge under the Yushin Constitution [which governed South Korea from 1972-1979], yet went on to deny the republic’s legitimacy, twisting history along the way.

The national cemetery contains 54,000 tombs of people who sacrificed themselves for this country and its leaders. All presidents should spend the new year paying homage to these heroes. As they make their way to the tombs, they should reflect on the sacrifices these men and women made and the nation’s tumultuous history.

The epitaph on Kim Dae-jung’s grave contains the phrase, “Life is beautiful and history evolves.” This is a good reminder for us as we move into the new year.
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