[Viewpoint] The illumination of history

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[Viewpoint] The illumination of history

History is a weapon. It brings to issues of the present the power of the past. Today’s historical debate is almost always a way to move forward and to occupy the future.

History is seduced by distortions and biases and emotions, and it’s always been a powerful tool for those seeking power. The relationship between history and politics is sensitive, dynamic and, frankly, dangerous.

In the months leading to the presidential election, the influence of the debate on our history will be unique, and attempts to use history as a weapon will continue until the struggle for power ceases. That’s why disputes on modern history keep coming back, keep getting repeated and keep disappearing from sight as well.

History works strangely, and the Roh Moo-hyun administration paid special attention to it. During its time, the leaders of the Roh administration attempted to seize control of cultural power and they used modern history in their attempt. Various government bodies investigated the past and leftist civic groups joined their efforts.

They deconstructed and reconstructed modern history, but most of their attempts were rebellions against historical documentations. The world recognizes Korea’s industrialization and democratization, but the Roh crowd skillfully created scars on those achievements. And they spread a self-deprecating historical view. Some of them were leftists with unconditional support for North Korea, and their historical rebellions were bold. They tried to claim that Kim Hyon-hui, the Korean Air bomber in 1987, was in fact, not an agent of the North. It was an attempt to cover up the North Korean regime’s crime.

The Lee Myung-bak administration is completely different from its predecessor. The key members of the Lee government were not well-versed on ideology and disputes over modern history. President Lee promotes a centrist pragmatism. He works hard from dawn to night. He wants to be evaluated by history for his diligence and achievements. That is a miscalculation on the president’s part.

It is not a simple matter recording the history of a president. The identity of an administration insensitive to history will easily be shrunken. Speeches that contain no historical views are dull, failing to touch the public’s heat and souls. Lee’s language has never been memorable.

As his administration nears its end, the president’s elder brother and his key associates have been arrested for taking bribes, and it is hard to find someone to defend the historical significance of the Lee administration. The end of an administration that was indifferent to history is without historical drama.

“May 16” is appearing as a controversial topic in the forthcoming presidential elections. Park Geun-hye, the presidential frontrunner of the ruling Saenuri Party, talked about her father Park Chung Hee at the discussion hosted by the Korea News Editors’ Association a few days ago.

“I have seen Internet posts asking whether May 16 is called a revolution or a military coup, but it won’t change the fact that May 16 happened,” she said. “I think it was an unavoidable choice, yet the best one that my father could have made … Although that is my thought, and there are people who have different opinions …”

Five years ago, when Park ran in the Grand National Party’s presidential primary, she called May 16 a “decision to save the country.” This time, she didn’t use that expression. Her rivals in the opposition attacked her for her use of the word “best.” They said Park’s historical view was anti-democratic.

April 19, 1960 and May 16, 1961 are two events marking turmoil in our modern history. On May 16, Park Chung Hee overthrew the Chang Myon administration, which was born April 19, 1960. The two events collide with each other.

But most people keep a historical balance. May 16 is not just a political milestone. It is also considered a symbol of Korea’s industrialization. Park is still rated the highest among Korea’s past presidents.

Although May 16 started as a military coup, it was the beginning of our modernization. And yet, the Park era also cast the shadow of dictatorship. Ultimately, however the majority of the people still see the merits of Park as being more than his demerits.

April 19 is the symbol of democratization. The incompetence of the Chang administration created social chaos - but the April 19 revolution is remembered by the people as a milestone for democratization.

Democratization and industrialization are Korea’s two great achievements. Most of the people have wise approaches toward modern history, and they refuse to indulge in unilateral criticism or unilateral glorification.

Instead of placing April 19 and May 16 in contrary positions, they see the two events as having a balance.

History is a double-edged sword. Historical debates often prompt ideological conflicts and smear campaigns. When they go too far, they produce antagonism and confrontations in society.

The debate on history should help heal Korean society’s schisms. A leadership that values engagement and integration is critical.

Kim Dae-jung made a historical attempt to reconcile with Park Chung Hee, and that was a valuable example of a modern history debate.

The approach of France’s Charles de Gaulle can be used in this matter.

In his time, historical views and integration were the necessities, and he was neither a leftist nor a rightist. He was also not a centrist. He walked on top of it all. A centrist could become an opportunist, and the French hero expanded his power with his historical view.

Historical debate is an opportunity for Park Geun-hye. “My father’s time and today are so different,” she said. “I have to be different because I have to serve this time.”

The first step for Park will be showing the leadership of unity, and her approach should be standing on top of the lines that divide the left and the right, the conservatives, liberals and the centrists.

“I always feel sorry for the people and their families who suffered during the period,” Park said of her father’s authoritarian rule. “And I sincerely offer another apology.”

The people are now wanting to see how she can act upon that feeling of compassion, and if she can she display the leadership of unity through her actions.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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