The candidate and the military

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The candidate and the military

Controversy is brewing over the fact that Park Won-soon, the independent candidate for the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election, served his compulsory military duty as a short-term civil service personnel for eight months, not as a regular active-duty soldier for three years.

As it turned out, Park was legally made the grandson of his own grandfather’s brother - whose whereabouts were unknown after having been conscripted as a wartime laborer during the Japanese occupation - in July 1969, when he was 13 years old. As heir of a family whose head of household was missing, Park was allowed to serve as a civil service personnel instead of being in the regular forces thanks to regulations at the time. After his adoption, Park’s brother could also receive the benefit, as he became his father’s only son.

The ruling Grand National Party claims that Park’s father intentionally sent him to the relatives’ family to exploit that regulation concerning compulsory military service. Park rebuts the allegation by saying his parents, who worked as farmers in the countryside, weren’t aware of such military rules. He says that he was adopted because there was no one in his great-uncle’s family who could hold a memorial service for the presumably dead great uncle.

In Korea, with its strict compulsory military service, how leaders fared in the military is a very sensitive issue, particularly at times of confrontation with North Korea. As a result, Lee Hoi-chang, former presidential candidate for the GNP, was critically wounded by his son’s suspicious exemption from service. President Lee Myung-bak also had to explain why he didn’t have to serve in the military.

There are some doubts about Park’s adoption. Even though adoption was often used to ensure the continuity of rites honoring ancestors, the timing of his adoption could have been further delayed until Park came of age. In other words, he could have been adopted after having served in the military as an active-duty soldier.

Park’s fuzzy attitude on the issue rings alarm bells. If someone really wants to be a respected leader of our society, he or she must clearly explain all suspicions about their past. Whether Park chose an alternative military service because of his family’s decision or not, he must give a full account of how the decision was made. And if something went wrong, he should apologize. If he chooses to get around such a serious issue in other ways, it will only trigger a profound distrust of his integrity as a leader. He should not forget that.
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