Ghosts of past haunt Park, Moon

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Ghosts of past haunt Park, Moon

The 2012 presidential election has become a test of faith rather than politics. What started as a debate on themes of economic justice and social welfare has turned into a brawl between fundamentalists of different ideological sects following deceased presidents Park Chung Hee and Roh Moo-hyun. As religious fights tend to be, candidates and followers of the rival factions have veered away from the sphere of logical and empirical reasoning demanded in presidential debates and are instead embroiled in reckless and retrogressive mudslinging. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult for voters to tease out platforms and make a judgment on candidates.

Lee Hae-chan, head of the main opposition Democratic United Party, claimed that South Korea will zoom back to the dark dictatorial days under President Park Chung Hee if his daughter, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, is elected president. It is a highly political statement, but from his perspective, understandable. But while he was in an outspoken and honest mood, he should have frankly admitted that should Moon Jae-in, candidate of his party, become president, the country would return to the state it was in under President Roh Moo-hyun. Moon, who was the late president’s closest confidante and chief secretary, still carries Roh’s ghost on his back.

When Park sincerely brooded on becoming Korea’s first woman president, many wondered if she could dare to lead the country with a heavy load of guilt and political, as well as moral debt to those who suffered and were killed during the rule of the military junta led by her father. But the way she handled questions on her deceased father’s military coup, the executions of anti-government activists under his rule and her controversial association with the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation he allegedly confiscated from a businessman in Busan, she apparently did not have the guts to step over her father’s grave to pursue personal ambition. The Tokugawa Shogunate of ancient Japan forced fumi-e, or the ritual of trampling over a stone with images of Jesus or Mary to identify Christians and persecute them.

She fumbled in expressing her thoughts on her father’s military coup and the persecution of anti-government activists not because she was not fully informed of past affairs, but because she simply could not taint her father’s legacy. She also wavered on the scholarship fund she inherited.

She could undo a slip of the tongue over a trial of the People’s Revolutionary Party in which the elder Park’s military regime interfered to order death sentence to activist members. But her sincerity was questioned when she said foundation chairman Choi Phil-lip should step down, because she, at heart, found nothing wrong in its birth and operation.

She contradicted herself by urging Choi to step down after she repeatedly had claimed she had no connections with the fund. The foundation’s name took after the first and second initials of her parents, and she ran the scholarship fund for 10 years. The fund was virtually stolen from Busan businessman Kim Ji-tae soon after her father staged the military coup and it survived all these years. She has not earned public favor strong enough to silence today’s spirit and go to the Blue House without clearly settling issues of the past stemming from her father.

Yet her camp still seems to believe Park can overcome the problems of her father’s legacy by diverting public attention to the controversy over a compromise that Roh allegedly made over the maritime border in the Yellow Sea during summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Another ghost from the past has been drawn into the central stage of the campaign.

If Roh actually implied South Korea could yield on the Northern Limit Line during the talks in Pyongyang in October 2007, that means a president - who at the time had less than five months in office - bargained with the country’s front-line border and placed national security at risk. The sea border is part of the cease-fire arrangement between the two Koreas. Any change should only take place when the two Koreas attain a sufficient level of mutual trust and North Korea takes irrefutable military steps to guarantee peace. Given his leadership style and ambitious proposal to create a joint fishing and economic zone on the western coast, in particular, Roh may have envisioned such a tipping point in inter-Korean relations before he left office.

Moon, as Roh’s chief of staff, orchestrated the summit arrangement. The NLL controversy may dog Moon as much as the Park Chung Hee legacy haunts Park. As the heir to the Roh Moo-hyun sect, Moon would have to face up to the charges concerning the sea border. If there are legal difficulties in disclosing the record of the conversation between Roh and Kim Jong-il, members of the legislative intelligence committee could demand opening the sealed documents.

Instead of trying to untangle the problem, however, the liberal camp is busy accusing the conservative of triggering the so-called “northern wind” to help her campaign by bringing up the NLL issue and is bent on attacking the Jeongsu fund scam. Voters can hardly exercise good judgment with all the smoke and mirrors.

British historian Edward H. Carr’s view on history - that a new order is born in bloody collision of ambition and revenge - may not apply to the election battleground in Korea, a barren land for historical consciousness. Unless candidates Park and Moon open their eyes to a new order evolving around the Korean Peninsula and fold their blind faith-led campaign strategy, the next five years could become “lost” for the country - regardless of who wins the race.

Politics must turn consumer-friendly before it’s too late. Instead of peeping at the fight between the mainstream players behind the curtains, Ahn Cheol-soo also must actively get involved in the debate, because whichever way the scandalous events play out, they can serve as a double-edged sword for the independent contender: An advantage from Park and Moon’s rift, but potential damage because of a lack of time in the media spotlight in the crucial weeks leading up to the election.

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

by Kim Young-hie
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