Attempts to erase the party’s pastThirty-three years have passed since President Park Chung Hee was killed by an intelligence chief of his military regime. In a memorial service on Oct. 26, his daughter and ruling party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye pleaded to the public to “let him go.”
She was addressing main opposition Democratic United Party head Lee Hae-chan and floor leader Park Jie-won. The two are spearheading the defamatory campaign against the country’s longest-serving president. Former President Park Chung Hee received immunity 15 years ago from his oldest rival, whom he oppressed and even attempted to kill. He is dissident-turned-president Kim Dae-jung, a man who both Lee and Park consider a political mentor.
Dictator Park was re-evaluated by Korean society in the 1990s. His humble lifestyle and devout patriotism contrasted sharply with other greedy, self-indulgent military leaders. The so-called Park Chung Hee Syndrome, or nostalgia for strong and honest leadership, began to spread.
Major nationwide broadcaster MBC produced and aired a 26-episode epic drama, “Third Republic,” in 1993. The drama recaptured the period from May 16 - when Park and his junta overthrew the civilian government - to October 1972, when Park declared martial law to alter the Constitution to self-entitle almost unlimited power. Despite the controversy, Park was presented mostly as a pioneer in history who whipped up a poverty-stricken self-conscious society into a highly industrialized and hard-working nation. The actor who portrayed Park became a star.
The world at the time also joined in on the re-evaluation. The World Bank in March 1993 convened a seminar titled “Lessons of East Asia” to study the development models of Korea and Japan. Kim Chung-yum, who served as Park’s chief of staff for nine years and three months, attended the conference.
In October of the following year, the World Bank’s Economic Development Institute included Kim’s memoir on economic policies under Park’s rule in its collection of policy-making reference books. Many bureaucrats, economists and students from advanced as well as developing countries read the book. It was published in Japan and China as well.
Park was lionized during the administration of President Kim Young-sam that was tainted with a series of bureaucratic misconduct, missteps and a currency crisis leading to the humiliating bailout. By the presidential election in 1997, his name was among the most respected historical figures in Korea.
Presidential candidate Rhee In-je once topped approval ratings thanks to his resemblance of Park’s petite yet stout appearance. Rhee in his photo in campaign posters even mimicked Park’s hard and impeccable no-nonsense look. Rhee admitted that he had hired the stylist and make-up crew who worked on the TV drama “Third Republic.”
But the magnanimous embrace came from Park’s oldest political rival. During the campaign, Kim Dae-jung visited Park’s birthplace in Gumi, North Gyeongsang, and pledged to build a memorial for Park.
After he became president, Kim kept his promise by endorsing a budget to set up the memorial foundation. During his visit to Daegu in May 1999, he said Park planted a “can-do” spirit in the hearts of the people at a time when the country was struggling with the legacies of the Korean War and ushered the nation into modernization.
Kim’s embrace of Park changed the course of Korean history. Kim Dae-jung joined hands with Park’s coup accomplice Kim Jong-pil about 40 days before the December presidential election in 1997. Kim Jong-pil was heading a conservative party based in Chungcheong. The man had served as the second man in the May 16 coup d’etat and prime minister under Park Chung Hee.
Kim’s heir Park Tae-joon of his United Liberal Democrats was a member of the military junta and served as Park’s chief secretary after the coup. After the coalition, Kim Dae-jung’s key aides worked hard to make the matchmaking work. Lee Hae-chan was a deputy chief of the campaign support team and Park Jie-won the candidate’s special assistant.
Fifteen years later, however, the same men who helped to put their leader in power with the help of Park’s legacy are crucifying Park as a historical villain. In July, Democratic United Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan said if Park Chung Hee was alive today, he would have been charged with a felony for conspiracy.
Lee, however, is denying the birth of his party. If Park Chung Hee should be punished, so should Kim Jong-pil. Without the coalition, Kim Dae-jung could not have beaten the ruling party contender (Lee Hoi-chang) and become president. His liberal successors Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in could not have had the same title in history.
In a legislative government auditing session, Park Jie-won even claimed that President Park had left an inheritance worth 5 trillion won ($4.8 billion), accusing the deceased of embezzlement.
The Korean presidential elections often create a giant eraser. The immediate need of votes triggers the eraser to wipe out the past. But one should be careful with the eraser.
Kim Dae-jung is the founder and root of the liberal camp and the DUP. If he and his legacy are denied, the party’s legitimacy will be in question.
The party’s former chairwoman, Han Myeong-sook, who served as prime minister under Roh Moo-hyun, attempted to erase the major missions her president pursued - a free trade agreement with the United States and a naval base in Jeju - during the April legislative election.
But her eraser did not sell well. It is unclear if Lee Hae-chan and Park Jie-won will have better luck with their eraser this time around.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin