A starting point for unitySome moments can last a lifetime and change the course of history, and the recent meeting of President-elect Park Geun-hye and dissident poet Kim Chi-ha bore all the hallmarks of one of these. It was a symbolic scene of reconciliation in modern Korean history, one that took on an even deeper meaning in the new year as the country embarks on a new course under a new leadership.
They met at the Toji Culture Center that commemorates renowned novelist Park Kyung-ni for her magnum opus “Toji” (“The Land”) at the birthplace of the famous novel in Wonju, Gangwon. Kim, the late novelist’s son-in-law, told Park he loathed her father, strongman Park Chung Hee, for his dictatorial ways. Park appeared sympathetic, giving him a serene smile as though she understood his anger. Kim also seemed prepared to give the strongman’s daughter the opportunity to prove she was different. Speaking of her in the past, he once said: “You would expect her to be different from others, having seen both her parents shot to death [at a relatively young age]. She must have lived a very lonely life . . . and what pain she must have endured.”
Kim has long been an outspoken critic of Park Chung Hee’s dictatorial rule, which ran from 1961-79. Refusing to soften his views, Kim paid dearly for his beliefs and spent seven years in an isolated prison cell, a period during which he was also subjected to torture.
For many young people in the 1970s, Kim’s acidic criticism of the corrupt elite in his celebrated satirical poem “Five Bandits” — which targeted the family owners of big conglomerates, lawmakers, senior bureaucrats, military generals and ministers — whetted their appetite for freedom and social justice. They embraced his imaginative craftsmanship of rebellion. The seeds of passion sprouted and flourished during the June 1987 democracy movement. When they reached their 30s, the pupils of Kim’s verses joined students in protesting against what they saw as a tyrannical government.
Those people are now in their 50s and 60s. They have witnessed and lived through the country’s modernization process of industrialization and democratization. A majority are proud of their generational experience and accomplishments. Korean history is full of dramatic upheavals, turmoil and paradoxes. But this generation empirically understands all of this, and it has given them a sense of balance. In many respects, they were Kim’s most important teachers. Showing himself not to be one-sided in his judgments, Kim even said: “Park Chung Hee’s wrongs are wrongs and his merits are merits. He did some things well and others badly.”
To those who are now in their 50s, the current liberal camp led by Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party was a disappointment, swept up by far-left-leaning and unqualified liberals that caused the party to lose its sense of balance. They preached hatred and prejudice to today’s younger generation, enraging older people by trying to make the public feel ashamed of its past. For many older people, the liberals were overly radical and bent on presenting past democracy movements in ways that both distorted and discredited them.
While the literary circle led by Paik Nak-chung, a prominent literary critic and emeritus professor at Seoul National University, publicly supported Moon, most of those in their 50s deciphered traces of hypocrisy and falsehood in their claims. Kim Chi-ha criticized Paik by saying, “What nonsense it is to claim we are now facing a similar state of emergency as back in the old days. What kind of a mix-up of the truth is that?”
The poet’s straightforwardness emboldened the older generation of 50-somethings, who retaliated by making their way to polling stations and casting their ballots for Park.
In rationalizing its defeat, the DUP comes across as being short-sighted to the point of ignorance. According to its assessment, it lost because it failed to provide tailor-made welfare programs for people in their 50s. But this was clearly a case of it not seeing the wood for the trees. The DUP underestimated the integrity and maturity of the historical view of the 50s generation. They voted to correct and punish Moon and the liberal camp for their lopsided perspective of history.
So the meeting between Park and Kim was welcome as it marked a starting point for a new era of unity and conciliation between the governing powers and the people. Park’s government must continue going down this road to instill in the public a fair sense of Korea’s history, rather than merely focusing on the mistakes that were made along the way. It should begin by re-evaluating the successes and failures of former presidents with an open mind, from the time of Syngman Rhee to incumbent Lee Myung-bak.
Lessons can be learned from their accomplishments and missteps alike. Americans and Chinese respect their past leaders in this way, and it’s time for Korea to follow suit. The U.S. often looks back to its previous leaders for inspiration in times of hardship, much as the Chinese cite precedents by leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong to build their nation.
Koreans in their 20s and 30s should also embrace this more positive view of the nation’s history to narrow generational gaps, and better balance the views of extreme leftists. Fair-minded liberals need to be restored from the wings to the center of political activity, and they should watch the incoming president like hawks to catch any missteps. Meanwhile, Park will have to learn how to connect and communicate better with the liberals. At the same time, she will have to urge her conservative peers to continue down the road of reform.
In her New Year’s speech, Park urged the nation to shake off its bad memories of the past and embark on building a bright new future together. Taking from the past that which helps unite rather than divide the people is certainly desirable as it will push the country toward more progressive development. It will also pave the way for the greater public good and happiness. Park’s transition team should get started on designing such a positive framework immediately.