[Viewpoint] Thirsty for Park-style leadershipFifty years have passed since the May 16 coup, which opened a critical chapter in the modern history of Korea. A half century is a considerably long time but the evaluation of the event is not so simple. There is praise and criticism and critics and supporters are not likely to reach a conclusion easily.
As we all know, it is a matter of which side you take, the substantial nature of a military coup or the economic development as a result of the coup. Moreover, it is a question closely related to the personal identity of individuals, like myself, whose formative years coincided with the Third Republic.
The evaluation of the history is not something about which we can make assumptions. Moreover, the evaluation of the future generation is not determined by the majority. However, in numerous opinion polls and surveys, Park Chung Hee is ranked as the best president since the establishment of the Republic of Korea and his daughter is consistently considered the most promising presidential candidate for the next term. The continued popularity may reflect the response of the current generation to the past that is still connected to the present.
We cannot deny the serious vice that Park Chung Hee had chosen by way of a military coup and his administration made the blooming democracy regress. For over 30 years, many people suffered from fear of unlawful arrest, detainment, torture and severe punishment.
The memories have now faded but the scare continued through the Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo administrations. Koreans could only get over the fear of military revolt when the political influence of the military was mopped up during the Kim Young-sam administration. The young generation, even those in their 30s, may not know what it was like to live under a military regime. Those older than 50 know that the potential threat was not to be undermined until the mid-90s.
The legacy of the Park administration, most notably industrialization and development, is that it exerted a tremendously positive impact on Korean society. Even the critics do not deny that Koreans were no longer starving during the Park era and his contribution became the foundation of the economic status of Korea today.
In retrospect, you may underestimate his accomplishments or argue that the development was possible because of the forcible administrative structure of dictatorship. You may also refute that economic development would come sooner or later. However, over 60 years have passed since the North Korean government was established and feeding the nation well is still a dream Pyongyang is yet to achieve. No one can deny the fact that you cannot easily find another example of making that dream come true and building a solid economy in less than 20 years.
Although Park led Korea’s escape from nationwide poverty, there are criticisms that the administration adopted a policy of distributing resources directly and indirectly and the export-driven industrialization strategies resulted in a conglomerate-oriented economic structure and polarization.
However, it was thanks to Park’s outstanding insight to escape from the limitation of domestic consumption and dependence on aides and to seek a breakthrough in export and industrialization. It was the time when the majority of energy came from firewood and charcoal and trifling natural resources like tungsten were the biggest export item. We cannot imagine how sharp and insightful Park had been by today’s standard.
The adverse effects of Park’s legacy are not the important issue. It is frustrating that we do not have the wisdom and insight of a paradigm shift after Park. My career as a journalist began almost exactly when Park was assassinated. A series of administrations and leaders have ruled the country and they each played a historical role but it still feels like no successor has shown the insight and vision that Park Chung Hee had.
They all presented political slogans but no leader has offered the vision of looking at the world one step ahead or the driving force to carry out the vision.
Koreans are growing thirsty for the leadership of the future to solve the complicated challenges of today, such as getting ready for unification, reinforcing the welfare system and expanding growth potential, instead of focusing on short-sighted strategies.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Tae-wook