History goes in but one directionThe latest incident involving a vulgar insult against President Park Geun-hye was different from previous attacks on her because it reflected a view of Korea’s modern history and the role of her father, Park Chung Hee. Representative Hong Ihk-pyo called Park Chung Hee a gwitae, which can be loosely translated as someone who should not have been born. Hong tried to criticize Park’s rise to power through a military coup as well as his past collaboration with the Japanese colonial government.
It is an undeniable historical fact that Park Chung Hee cooperated with the colonial government of Japan. He wrote a letter in his own blood to enter the Manchurian Imperial Academy, established by imperial Japan. He vowed loyalty to the emperor. After graduating from the Japanese military academy, Park served as an officer in Manchuria. If you look at those facts, he is undeniably a collaborator with Japan.
The latest insults against him and his daughter are serious because a significant number of people in Korean society share the sentiments. They also attack Syngman Rhee, the country’s first president, as a collaborator of the U.S. government. In this simple but sweeping way, they dismiss Rhee’s role in founding this country and Park’s even greater role in developing it economically.
Their views have influence in the community. They make worse the ideological conflicts over our modern history and give a highly negative historical view to the younger generation. The problem is that Park Chung Hee’s past - of having been a collaborator with the Japanese and staging a military coup - is historical fact. When sons and daughters ask for facts, what should the parents tell them about Park?
We can use the reasoning of “the trunk and branches” to judge a leader and a country. Although branches may rot and break off, a tree is great when its trunk is strong. With Park Chung Hee, his collaboration with Japan and later military coup are branches, while his achievement of pulling the Korean people out of abject poverty and creating the foundation of our modern economy is the trunk.
It is natural for people to wish for entirely pure blood in the body politic. It would be great to have not only a perfect trunk but perfect branches. But Park was a patriot and he achieved the Miracle on the Han, which most of us benefit from today. If he had been a member of the Korean independence fighters, it would have been great. Alas, he served in the Japanese military. He made a choice in the circumstances of his times.
Had he been an anti-Japanese independence fighter, would he have become the Park Chung Hee he became? Without his personal network within the Manchurian Army, he probably could not have become the military leader he was and would not have been able to stage a coup.
Kim Il Sung actually scores a perfect 100 if we rate him through the desire for total purity. He joined a guerrilla unit to fight Japan when he was a teenager. But what has become of North Korea, the country he built? Isn’t it one of the most failed states in history? The very people who criticized Park’s “tainted blood” try their hardest to ignore the total failure of the ideologically “pure” Kim.
Mao Zedong too was an ideologically pure leader. He was determined to join the Communist revolution when he was 25 and helped build a Communist China with boldness and creativity. What were his failures? Because his stubborn-headed Great Leap Forward, tens of millions of Chinese died prematurely, many from starvation. They turned to cannibalism to survive. Because of the madness of his Cultural Revolution, an ideological ruse intended for no other purpose but to keep Mao at the pinnacle of power, China spent a decade in darkness and many more years trying to recover. When President Roh Moo-hyun visited China, he said Mao was the Chinese leader he respected the most. Roh only saw “purity,” while failing to see his unmatched failures.
An ideal combination would be both purity of spirit and practical achievements, but the world and the people who walk on it are imperfect. For a country, the most important thing is that its people are fed well and enjoy freedom. If such fruits are produced, shouldn’t the tree be called great? Even if its branches bend, a strong trunk is the most important thing.
Napoleon Bonaparte was not a pure-blooded leader. His homeland was the French colony of Corsica and his father was an independence fighter. But he chose to join the French military academy. He became an artillery officer and later supported the government built through the French Revolution. He later became an emperor and under him, France became a modern country.
Lee Kuan Yew is the father of modern Singapore. When he was young, Singapore was a British colony. He, somewhat like Napoleon, went to London and became a lawyer. Under his nationalistic dictatorship, the country enjoyed marvelous growth. The people of France and Singapore do not criticize Napoleon and Lee for their pasts.
History is like a river. You cannot reverse it. Without Park Chung Hee, there would have been no Kim Jong-pil, the second most powerful man in his regime. Then there would have been no alliance between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-pil in 1997. Without Kim Dae-jung winning the presidency, there would have been no Representative Hong Ick-pyo.
It’s impossible to remove Park Chung Hee from the modern history of Korea. The same goes for Syngman Rhee and Kim Dae-jung.
Calling Park a gwitae is serious because it gives a signal to youngsters that some part of history can be excised or changed if one wishes hard enough. That’s nothing less than a big lie. The big truth is that, without Park Chung Hee, there would have been no Kim Dae-jung.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin
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