Tragedy of the Park familyHungarian literary giant Sandor Marai, who is often compared to Thomas Mann, wrote that the relationship with the deceased is just as unpredictable as any other relationship. Debate over the Park Chung Hee era became heated when his daughter Park Geun-hye declared her candidacy in the upcoming presidential race. Koreans’ evaluation of Park Chung Hee and his rule has gone through four changes.
At first, people maintained high regard for Park Chung Hee’s legacy during the Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam administrations.
Especially as the president’s incompetency coincided with the foreign currency crisis in the course of democratization, Park Chung Hee nostalgia spread rapidly. In a survey, Park was named as one of the three greatest heroes of Korea, along with King Sejong and Adm. Yi Sun-sin.
However, as democratization was established in the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, the Park Chung Hee nostalgia began to grow faint as Koreans learned that human rights, democracy and peace are just as valuable as security, industrialization and economic development.
For the younger generation, the Park Chung Hee nostalgia meant going back to the rule of the dictator.
The third phase was the Lee Myung-bak administration, when Park Chung Hee no longer held first place in the surveys on former presidents. He was now competing with other presidents who contributed to democratization of the country.
It was thanks to the Lee Myung-bak administration that the accomplishments of the democratization-oriented presidents began to be compared to Park Chung Hee’s economic developments.
Fourth, before and after Park Geun-hye announced her candidacy, evaluation on Park Chung Hee became polarized and has relevance in the present. Park Geun-hye’s running for president was a crucial opportunity to summon Park Chung Hee from history to reality.
Of course, if Park Geun-hye did not run, Park Chung Hee would remain in the realm of historical review. Then, he would have been remembered more by his accomplishments, development and contribution rather than dictatorship, failure and mistakes.
In other words, Park Geun-hye’s candidacy is the prime cause that triggered criticism of Park Chung Hee.
In the end, Park Geun-hye made an apology on the infringement of the constitutional order and suppression of human rights. She denied her father’s legacy to reinstate his honor.
As she spoke, she must have been in great pain and asked herself if she wanted to become president that badly.
What will happen if she is elected president? Park’s administration would pose serious worries. In the United States, President George W. Bush’s report card is considered one of the worst in history. Greece’s Papandreou family assumed power for six terms over three generations and put Greece in its worst national crisis. While Juan Peron, Eva Peron and Isabel Peron were in power, Argentina’s economy fell from the fourth richest country in the world to a slump. We don’t need to even discuss the reality in North Korea as a result of a three-generation succession of power.
Japan is now in the second “lost decade.” Twenty-seven years, or 40 percent of the post-war era, has been ruled by four families, Shigeru Yoshida, Nobusuke Kishi, Ichiro Hatoyama and Takeo Fukuda. And the Yoshida and Kishi families ruled Japan for 21 years, or 32 percent of the time since the end of World War II.
During the lost decade, four consecutive prime ministers - Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, Taro Aso and Yukio Hatoyama - were the second and third generations of four powerful political families. In 1972, 25 percent of the Diet members were second- and third-generation politicians, and 24 percent of the lawmakers were from political families in 2009.
It is impossible to establish a competitive and energetic democratic system that reflects various demands of the society while maintaining family rule.
If Park Geun-hye becomes president, 23 years, or 33 percent of the time since the founding of the nation, will be under the rule of Park Chung Hee’s family. A total of 35 years, or 51 percent, would be governed by presidents related to Park Chung Hee, including Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo who continued Park’s military authoritarian legacy. And the lessons of global history tell us that it is a worrisome case.
In the typical cases of failure, such as North Korea, Romania, Cuba, Egypt and Libya, the hereditary power succession threw the country into ruin. The emergence of the modern republic was inspired by contemplation on the possibility of human mistakes. A democratic regime change was necessary to correct the errors of the previous rule.
However, family rule denies the fundamental spirit of modern republic politics of overcoming and denying the legacy of the previous ruler. It will constantly regress by not recognizing or correcting mistakes and errors.
If Park is elected, she will be faced with the universal obstacles of the second-generation leader. If she loses, she would fail despite the denial of her own father. It is the dilemma of Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey.
If she did not pursue high leadership but devoted herself to helping the poor, elevating women’s rights, caring for the disabled and children in trouble, and protecting the environment, the evaluation of Park Geun-hye and Park Chung Hee would be elevated greatly.
It would have been a shortcut to reinstate the honor of her father. Park Geun-hye’s presidential bid was not the best choice for herself and her father. In the fateful destiny, Park Geun-hye should display wisdom and competence to overcome the universal history and Korean circumstances.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Park Myung-rim