[Viewpoint] Two types of dictators

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[Viewpoint] Two types of dictators

One can tell what kind of leader rules a community from the state of his residential storehouse. If the supply room is barren of stocks, his people are being well-provided for. If brimming with stocks, people are probably living in destitution.

Past despots could hide their extravagant lives from the public eye. But these days, their posh residential estates are caught by satellites. Tyrants no longer have places to hide in the broad daylight of civilization and are pushed to the shadowy corners of Asia or Africa.

A number of Western media outlets, including CNN and Foreign Policy magazine, shed light on the extraordinary and luxuriant personal life of publicity-shy North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. He owns 12 residences across North Korea, including two in Pyongyang. Another home, seven stories high, looks down on the ocean and is furnished with a pool with an automated wave machine to enliven Kim’s regular poolside parties.

The Far Eastern Economic Review three years ago exposed the horrendous state of prison camps in North Korea with satellite photos taken by American satellite DigitalGlobe. The opulent lifestyle of a totalitarian renders a shocking contrast to the horrific conditions of the gulag.

South Korea, too, is no stranger to dictatorship. But Army-general-turned-President Park Chung Hee took pains to distance himself from the kind of extravagance and indulgence that usually accompanies absolute power.

One of his chief secretaries testified that the president’s face would stiffen if he saw that a company head’s office was too lavish. He would inquire how much the company was paying its lowly employees and get upset if staff conditions were relatively poor.

President Park once ordered an inquest into the colorful lifestyles of senior government officials and corporate executives. His squad investigated about 100 people.

The president flipped through the photos of their homes and pointed to several. His aide, having learned that the houses in question were gifts to mistresses, called them individually to the presidential residence. Park told them how modest the president’s residence was. Most of them understood and promised to dispose of the homes. The only personal estate President Park left behind was his three-room home in Sindang-dong. His family donated the house, worth 200 million won ($166,400), to the president’s heritage commission.

Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from office in 1986 and his family fled to Hawaii. Their opulent palace and infamously indulgent lifestyles were displayed to the public. A spacious room in the basement was filled with luxury accessories and the wardrobe of First Lady Imelda, including a staggering collection of 2,200 shoes, 3,500 undergarments and hundreds of jewelry boxes.President Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo, enjoyed wearing traditional hanbok made from ordinary silk. Her wardrobe was supplied not by a famous designer but from a small shop run by an elderly woman named Lee Soo-jin.

Park himself was a regular in a small tailor shop. The shop-owner reminisced that he was called in to the presidential estate because the president suddenly gained weight after a nose surgery.

He was told to expand the waists of five pairs of trousers. The pants were worn-out inside, yet the president insisted that they were still wearable. The tailor complied and fixed the pants. North Korea-friendly people have contempt for this dictator who had a simple lifestyle, yet they’re lenient with the northern despot who leads a paradoxical life of personal extravagance and oppression of his countrymen. This symbolizes the gap between the two Koreas.

When Park seized power in 1961, the Philippines had a per capita income of $95, $13 more than South Korea’s. Our first lady’s simple wardrobe and Imelda’s shoe collection illustrate the divergent paths of Korea and the Philippines in the following years.

Park had a dictatorial streak, but as a result, South Korea is well off. But the legacy of egoistic dictatorship will never be pretty.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)