Park admits father’s faulty legacy
Park Geun-hye, the presidential candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party and the eldest daughter of the late strongman Park Chung Hee, admitted for the first time that her father’s dictatorial rule violated the Constitution.
Park has been sliding from her front-runner position in the polls and one of the main issues in the campaign has been her reluctance to make a clear statement about how she views her father’s legacy.
She addressed that need yesterday in a brief press conference televised live nationwide. Park gave a short speech about how she views her father’s autocratic rule.
“But in politics, goals cannot justify means,” she said. “And that is the democratic value that was true in the past and must be respected in the future. The May 16, Yushin and the People’s Revolutionary Party incidents and others violated the constitutional values [of Korea] and delayed Korea’s political advancement. I once again apologize sincerely to those who suffered from it and their families.”
May 16 refers to the day in 1961 that Park Chung Hee came to power in a coup. Yushin, also known as the “October Restoration,” refers to how Park extended his rule almost indefinitely through a constitutional amendment. The People’s Revolutionary Party incident was the wrongful execution of eight political prisoners during his rule.
At the beginning of the media conference, Park explained that she stood before the press to talk about her father’s legacy as a presidential candidate, not as a daughter.
“With sadness, I have had a long period of agonizing thinking about the debates and conflicts in society over this controversy,” she said.
“In Korea, I believe everyone understands that it is extremely hard for a child to evaluate the parents, particularly pointing out their demerits publicly,” she said. “But since I am a presidential candidate, I have reached the conclusion that I must be more cool-headed and identify more with the people.”
Recalling that Korea in the 1960s and 1970s was battling poverty and North Korea’s military threats, Park said economic development and national security were her father’s most urgent goals.
“Behind the history of miraculous growth, laborers sacrificed themselves by suffering from poor working environments,” she said. “To protect the national security against the North, human rights were violated by the public authorities.”
Promising to do her best to make up for the suffering of the victims of her father’s rule, Park said she would create a grand national unity committee. “I will also meet with them, although it may be hard to do so right away, and try to do my best to heal the scars,” she said.
The 60-year-old former chairwoman of the conservative ruling party is the first woman ever to win the presidential nomination from a major Korean party. While conservative voters nostalgic for the era of Korea’s industrialization, led by Park’s father, helped her gain political popularity, she failed to acknowledge until yesterday the conflicted legacy he left behind.
During the presidential primary this year, Park defended her father’s military coup in 1961 by saying, “I think my late father made an unavoidable, yet his best possible, choice.” Regarding her father’s constitutional amendment in 1972, Park said history should be the judge of his actions.
She sparked further controversy earlier this month with her defensive reaction when asked about the People’s Revolutionary Party incident. She said there were two different rulings on the case, and that more time was needed to judge the incident properly.
The Supreme Court convicted eight people on charges of attempting to restart the People’s Revolutionary Party with an aim of overthrowing the government and handed down the death penalty on April 8, 1975. Only 18 hours after the sentence was announced, the government executed the prisoners. In December 2005, the judiciary accepted an appeal for a posthumous retrial, and acquittals were made in 2007.
After her remarks prompted public outrage, Park swiftly changed her position and said she respected the retrial’s ruling.
Since then, Park’s popularity ratings have dropped while liberal rivals Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Cheol-soo saw their ratings rise.
Dressed in a dark gray suit, Park became teary-eyed as she addressed the press conference yesterday. Her speech lasted about nine minutes, and she didn’t take any questions from the media.
Sounding much less defensive than before, Park talked about the merits and demerits of the late strongman. She also stressed that her father knew that his rule would be controversial. “After May 16, my father said there should never be another unfortunate soldier like me,” she said. “And about the Yushin era, he even said people could spit on his grave.”
During the conference, Park made some emotional appeals. “I believe my spitting on my father’s grave would not be what the people truly want from me,” she said. She also said she understands the sadness of losing family members because she lost both of her parents in assassinations and she hit rock bottom in her personal life.
Reiterating her campaign slogan of a “grand national unity,” Park urged the public to unite and move toward the future. “Let’s move from hatred to tolerance, from schism to unity and from the past to the future,” Park said.
It was evident that the Saenuri Party hopes to end the controversy surrounding Park’s father’s legacy with yesterday’s conference.
“This is the first time that she made such strong remarks,” said Representative Lee Jung-hyun, Park’s chief public affairs officer.
It remains to be seen if Park’s statement will put an end to the controversy over her historical perspective.
While her presidential rivals welcomed her move, the families of the victims in the People’s Revolutionary Party incident said they cannot accept her “insincere” apology.
“It felt like she was reading a statement that someone else wrote for her,” said Kang Sun-hee, widow of Wu Hong-sun, one of the prisoners executed in 1975. “I couldn’t feel her heart.”
Other relatives of victims also issued a statement criticizing Park. “She is apologizing with a complete lie because she wants to become the president, but her popularity plunges,” the statement read.
Park’s liberal rival, independent Ahn, responded positively to Park’s move.
“She did what was really needed, although it must have not been easy for her,” Ahn said. “We have to learn a lesson from the painful past and advance toward a new future. I believe everyone shares the same feeling.”
The Democratic United Party also responded positively to Park’s statement, but urged her to show sincere follow-up measures.
“It’s progress that she admitted that Yushin and May 16 violated the Constitution and delayed the political advancement of Korea and apologized to the victims,” Representative Jung Sung-ho, spokesman of the DUP, said. “She, however, said the incidents were in the past and she is the future. But they are ongoing incidents. If she really wants to open an era of grand unity, she must present more sincere follow-through measures.”
The DUP presidential candidate, Moon, also welcomed her statement. “It must have been hard, but I think she did a great thing,” he said yesterday.
By Ser Myo-ja [email@example.com]