[Viewpoint] The influence of health on history

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[Viewpoint] The influence of health on history

Every time Oct. 26 arrives, I revisit one of the oddest mysteries of modern Korean history. What led Director Kim Jae-kyu of the KCIA to kill his oldest friend and revered boss, President Park Chung Hee, on this day in 1979 without even plans for escape or a coup d’etat? What prompted him to race toward a tragic and suicidal end?

A while ago, I came across a clue to the conundrum. A retired journalist confided to me that he had learned from a private doctor of Kim Jae-kyu that the former head of the powerful security agency suffered from serious erectile dysfunction.

I persuaded the doctor, who first obstinately refused to share confidential information about his patient, to tell the tale by saying he might hold a key to a historical mystery. He said he secretly treated Kim three or four times between 1976 and 1977 in the secret room of the Blue House where Kim assassinated the president.

He discovered his patients’ testicles were in a poor state. There was no pharmaceutical solution like Viagra in those days, which actually could not have helped him, the doctor said. The only solution would have been a surgical vacuum pump, a medical device that didn’t exist in the country at that time.

The 50-year-old security chief suffered from cirrhosis. Liver failure is associated with the loss of libido and impotence. He continued that there was medication available from the United States, but could be risky due to his liver condition. The doctor, however, proposed introducing Kim to his American medical professor. But Kim was hesitant as it meant he would have to tell the truth to the president and possibly lose his job. The doctor had to give up the case.

The loss of virility might have weighed on Kim and caused him pain over the following two years, leading up to his death. Kim, a lieutenant general, was already involved in a power struggle with Cha Ji-chul, a retired lieutenant colonel and head of the Presidential Security Service. Kim felt belittled and humiliated by Cha, who used to teach karate to special combat soldiers, when it came to his appearance and health.

His sexual problems might have aggravated his hostility to Cha, who in contrast was full of machismo. He also might have been resentful against his lifelong friend, the president, who doted on Cha. The doctor added his pathological analysis that Kim might have been suffering from serious depression, leading to his impromptu and drastic actions on the night of Oct. 26.

Health-related phobias have influenced many authoritative figures throughout history. Historian Henrik Eberle, co-author of the book, “Was Hitler Ill?,” gave a unique account of Adolf Hitler’s fragile state based on medical archives and classified files maintained by the Fuhrer’s personal doctor, Theodor Morrell. By the time he was 55, toward the end of World War II, Hitler was on 82 medications and suffering a variety of symptoms including chronic headaches, cramps and high blood pressure.

His fear of health problems in some way may have played a part in his monstrous acts against the Jews. The robust physique of a leader can somehow epitomize the vitality of a country. The healthy young appearances of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama or the sturdy look of Chinese leaders Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping befit the mighty status they enjoy on the global stage.

English philosopher Francis Bacon said, “A healthy body is the guest-chamber of the soul; a sick, its prison.” Kim must have been tormented in his “prison of the soul.” History may have taken a different turn if he had lived comfortably with his soul in a guest-chamber.

Korean history is once again affected by a certain leader’s health condition. The omnipotent leader of the reclusive state on the other side of our northern border is in a haggard state and limping on his left leg, after suffering a stroke. A black blemish on his right face is getting bigger, a sign of a dysfunctional kidney from diabetes complications.

We are witnessing a sequence of oddities playing out in the country under the rule of an erratic leader in deteriorating health. A submarine sneaks into southern waters and fires a torpedo at a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors, and a youth in his twenties assumes the crown in a third-generation hereditary succession. What is worrisome is that the strange events may just be the harbinger to an unpredictable and unfathomable era.

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


By Kim Jin

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