The past and Park Geun-hyeAsking a question is good, although answering it can be dangerous, a French historian once said. Park Geun-hye, presidential candidate for the ruling Saenuri Party, would say aye to that. Throughout her political career, Park has been dogged by the same question: how she evaluates her father, the controversial President Park Chung Hee. It’s a question she poses by running for public office, and it is commonly asked on her campaign trail.
Ten years back, she criticized the conservative party, then called the Grand National Party, of underestimating her father’s accomplishments and contributions to the country. She repeatedly demanded an answer on the issue from party leader Lee Hoi-chang.
One newspaper ran a headline in 2001 saying that an angry Park cornered Lee. She then argued that someone who will be running for president should express his exact thoughts on history. She added that there were many negative things said about her father and demanded to know Lee’s position on them.
Lee reluctantly responded. “I think highly of [President Park’s] accomplishment of consolidating national energy and building the foundation for industrialization and modernization to advance the economy. But in terms of democracy, I cannot agree with his way.” It was a good answer that avoided public criticism.
But at the same time, it had its risk. Park snapped back that she understood that Lee recognized the economic achievements of her father but considered him a dictator. Some suspect Park left the GNP because she was disappointed with Lee’s appraisal of her father.
Park has been asked her thoughts on the coup d’etat in 1961 led by then-General Park Chung Hee, his unilateral constitutional amendments to extend his rule and harsh oppression of opponents. Those questions all have the same purpose. They aim to underscore the late president’s faults, follies and misdeeds regardless of his contribution to the nation’s rags-to-riches transformation.
His daughter, who is now running for the presidency for the second time, may have been annoyed at Lee Hoi-chang’s formulation. But the public today is equally unsatisfied with her responses on the same issues of major historical importance. When recently asked the same question about her father’s rise to power, she said, “I ask myself what I would have done under the same circumstance. I should be objective about it.” Her suggestion is that her father had no other alternative in his authoritarian ways.
She was advocating for her father and implied that he, she or anyone else could not have done any better under that set of circumstances. She may also have been apologetic, but not very forcefully since there was no admittance to wrongdoing.
To admit to any wrongdoing on her father’s part, Park must deny her identity and the 40 years of her life after the death of her parents. After her mother was assassinated in 1974, she confessed that she decided to surrender “a normal life, her personal dreams” - in short everything she deemed as hers and hers alone.
Upon adopting her late mother’s role as first lady, Park started anew with thoughts and judgments hinged upon her father. She returned to the public eye from self-imposed exile in the 1980s in order to restore her father’s reputation. She joined politics to uphold the legacy of her father. The slogan she carried when she won a legislative seat was “Park Geun-hye will make the economic seeds Park Chung Hee planted bloom.”
But she exists in a different age today. If one carries a scale all the time, one grows immune to its original weight. Park Chung Hee today is appreciated by a majority Koreans for creating the modern country. Even those tortured and oppressed under his dictatorial rule recognize Park’s economic contributions.
Park no longer has to advocate hard for her father. She has already made her own accomplishments in her father’s realm. Many worry that Park may use her power to rewrite history just by being a success. The young generation who heard about the dictatorial days from their elders, movies and books are angry at the younger Park primarily because of her attitude.
Even those who support the politician, who has the potential to become the country’s first female president, are frustrated at her turning into a daddy’s girl upon mention of the past. Park has had help from her father in her political rise, but it is time she let go of his grasp from the grave.
Over the decades, people have changed and think differently. It is now Park’s turn to do the same. She needs to reach closure with the past and look back at history from the viewpoint of the dictator’s victims. History has the power to embrace and bring unity only when such broad-mindedness prevails in a society.
Kang Won-taek, a professor at Seoul National University, advised that people will look at Park with a new perspective if she appears to be ready to cut her ties with her father’s days. She should pay heed so that she can have a chance to follow her dream and let her father’s live in history.
* The author is deputy editor of political and international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae