Presidential libraries or shrines?“I was so envious,” said former Blue House secretary Kim Hyo-jae upon returning from the George W. Bush Memorial Library last month. He attended the opening of the library with former President Lee Myung-bak. He added that Laura Bush, the former first lady who used to work as a librarian, supervised preparations for the library. “The exhibition was very systematic, and we could see the Bush administration objectively,” said Kim. Another former Blue House secretary, Lee Dal-gon, who also attended the event, said the library let visitors decide how to interpret Bush’s legacy.
Bush said his presidential library is “a place to lay out facts, not a forum to explain policies. There’s no need to defend myself. I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.” In the library’s interactive exhibit called “Decision Points Theater,” visitors are presented with controversial issues such as the Iraq War and given information on the specific situation. Then they are asked what they would have done. They are given a chance to explore and assess the decisions made by the president as a way to learn from history.
How about the memorial halls for Korean presidents? I visited the Park Chung Hee Memorial Library, which opened in Sangam-dong, western Seoul, in 2011 after a long debate. The library offers a concise exhibit on Korea’s development. However, the democratization movement during his era was omitted. Also, the background and circumstance of his assassination were nowhere to be found. The library reflects no trace of failure. Park’s eyes were said to tear up when he had to scrap the currency reform after a month in 1962, but such a setback in unimaginable in a library filled with only success stories.
The Kim Dae-jung Memorial Library in Donggyo-dong, about three miles from the Park Chung Hee Library, is not much different. It was the first presidential library in Asia, but it could be the first “unilateral” memorial in Asia: Here, Kim was a president with only lights, no shadows.
Presidential libraries in the United States have been criticized as shrines. Leonard Bernardo wrote in “Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents,” that “presidential museums have become a key instrument in each new ex-president’s campaign to revise history.” In America, a former president raises funds to establish his library and dedicate it to the National Archive. Former President George W. Bush raised $500 million. Naturally, the former presidents, their families and supporters have a major say about the projects.
However, former president Bush had to include the Iraq War and Bill Clinton his infamous sex scandal. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library also included the Watergate Scandal after decades of deliberation. When the libraries are transferred to the National Archives and taxpayer money is used to maintain them, these libraries became fair and objective. They literally became “public libraries.”
But we don’t have any incentive. The established process requires taxpayer money as they are joint civilian and government projects. The Park Chung Hee library received 20.8 billion won ($18.77 million), the Kim Dae-jung and Kim Young-sam libraries 7.5 billion won each. The Kim Young-sam library is under construction in Sangdo-dong. But government involvement stops after the initial investments, and management is left to the libraries.
The outcome is the memorial libraries today. Will nonsupporters agree with the edited version of the truth unilaterally revised by supporters? If they highlight outcomes without explaining the process, what can the young generation learn? These libraries are only suitable for confirming whether you support or oppose these former leaders, nor does the space offer opportunities for exploration or learning. They are nothing but shrines.
Presidential memorial libraries will and should be established. We need proper memorials for Syngman Rhee, Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo. But when existing libraries are so biased, how can the government persuade taxpaying citizens to spend more of their money? Even if assessments of the current generation feel unfair, the former presidents, their families and supporters need to demonstrate a comprehensive sense of history. Only then might opponents be convinced. Roman historian Tacitus deplored that writing history to offer lessons to future generations had disappeared because of a rebellious or servility. We are not so far from his lament.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae