Evaluating Park Chung Hee

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Evaluating Park Chung Hee

I lived my elementary, middle and high school years during the Park Chung Hee presidency. For me, the president was Park, and he was the Korean leader. When I failed to correctly recite the Charter of National Education in front of the photo of Park hanging on the classroom wall, I felt a sharp twinge of guilt. After Park’s assassination, I became a college student. Since then, I have read and heard that Park was the second-worst dictator in Korea after Chun Doo Hwan.

Just like that, Park became a light and a shadow in my mind. And Korean society had extremely divided opinions on Park, I learned after I started my journalism career. The most memorable illustration was the collection of money envelopes I saw in the house of a former minister. More than 10 faded envelops were arranged like a fan and then mounted in a frame, which was hung on the most prominent wall in the house. The former minister made a collectible of the envelopes stuffed with cash that he received from Park during his service in his administration.

As he showed me his exhibit, the former minister gave a lengthy talk about his achievements and Park’s leadership. He truly respected the president, who recognized his abilities, appointed him as a minister and also gave cash gifts on a regular basis. His memory of Park was truly warm.

But it’s impossible not to question: Where did the money come from? The former minister, who lived a comfortable life in the sunlight of Park’s administration, was adamant in dismissing the shadows of that time. He had a simple view that it was inevitable to have some errors and mistakes on the grand journey toward modernization.

But the people who lived their lives in the dark shadow of the Park regime would feel rage about that overly blithe view.

There is no simple way to evaluate a giant like Park with a few words. But the political situation requires evaluations of him and his rule. For Park’s daughter, who is a presidential candidate and the legacy of Park, it is inevitably the hottest topic of debate during the campaign.

Voting is an act of emotion: You usually cast a ballot for the person that you like. When voters see the name Park Geun-hye on the ballots, they will automatically be reminded of Park Chung Hee. No matter how many times Park Geun-hye asks the public to let history evaluate her father, Park Chung Hee isn’t mere history now. And that makes the public feel frustrated to see her repeating her stance that history will do the judging, not her.

Evaluating Park Chung Hee is a sensitive issue, and it’s almost an evaluation of Korea’s modern history. The reality is complex, but political arguments are simple and public opinions are split between conservatives and liberals and between younger and older voters. It is highly likely that the split will grow wider during the presidential campaign. An ideological divide is a political burden. So what we need now is an eye that can see the light and shadow of Park at the same time.

Let me be clear with some terms. May 16 and the October Restoration of 1972 were coups. A coup d’etat is a sudden, illegal overthrow of a government with force, often by the military. May 16 meets the classic definition of a coup. The October Restoration is a special form of a coup, known as a palace coup. It is a self-coup by the ruler to demolish the existing constitutional order to reinforce his power.

What is important here is whether the coups were really “inevitable choices,” as Park Geun-hye has said, and whether the outcomes actually contributed to the development of the country. History may say the May 16 military coup was indeed unavoidable. At the time, President Yun Bo-seon and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chang Do-young did not actively oppress the coup, and circumstances showed that they, in fact, accepted it. The United States, which had absolute power over Korea at the time, chose to observe rather than suppress the coup. Shortly after, the United States supported it.

And the country’s development after the coup should be judged for both industrialization and democratization. No one can challenge Park’s modernization and industrialization of the country. “Spit on my grave,” Park once said. In other words, “Those demanding democratization can insult me after I die.”

Sacrificing democracy to concentrate on industrialization was Park’s intention, and the classic example was the October Restoration.

Politics ended after the October Restoration. Park sacrificed even the minimum amount of democracy for industrialization. Therefore, the period after the October Restoration deserves a more severe evaluation. Most of all, the wrongful execution of the people convicted in the People’s Revolutionary Party incident is the darkest stain on his legacy.

In this more complex evaluation, what would Park’s score be? To evaluate Mao Zedong’s legacy, Deng Xiaoping coined the famous phrase, “seven parts good, three parts bad.” That means there were more merits than demerits. It was a message to accept Mao’s era - and his successors - despite some truly great disasters like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. On the Park era, I would like to give the same evaluation.

* The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang
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