Give credit where it is due

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Give credit where it is due


Moon Jae-in, new leader of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), was right to visit the graves of former Presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee. A once and likely future Presidential contender, Moon knows he has to represent all South Koreans. As he said, Rhee founded the Republic while Park launched its industrialization. Those are the facts.

Regrettably, no party colleagues went with him. And shamefully, Jung Chung-rae, a member of the NPAD’s supreme council, even asked: “Could a Jew pay tribute at Hitler’s tomb?” This newspaper and others rightly lambasted Jung for such an idiotically inaccurate comparison.

Why does Park Chung Hee not command wider respect? That is also Mike Breen’s question. The noted author of The Koreans, resident in Seoul since 1982, is writing a new book; and he found something which puzzled him about outside attitudes, historically. He asked me this:

“Why, back in the day, did liberal westerners tend to be more negative towards authoritarian allies, such as South Korea, than towards our communist enemies? It appears that in the west, we thought that step one of national development was political liberalization and that step two was economic growth. Why was it that we instinctively didn’t like the idea of economic growth being conducted by authoritarian rulers, unless those rulers were communist?”

Good question. Also tough, in two senses. To answer is both difficult and - for some of us - embarrassing. It means admitting and confronting past double standards and wilful stupidity.

There were several reasons. The wider ones included the post-colonial mood of the 1960-70s. National liberation was all the rage, but it had to be real. We read Fanon, mourned Che, and thought Mao and Castro heroes battling for the oppressed. The Vietnam War epitomized the struggle. We marched for Hanoi and the Vietcong: the Saigon regime was a puppet and loser.

Practice was echoed in theory. “Dependency” scholars like A G Frank and Samir Amin taught that capitalism created underdevelopment. True development meant breaking decisively with the imperialist system, to establish socialism and self-reliance. Soviet industrialization was an implicit model, with Maoist China and Cuba also grasping the nettle of what had to be done.

Not only a few Marxists, but a wider liberal soft left shared these attitudes. Fidel and Mao got the benefit of the doubt, while Chile’s Pinochet was a bloody murderer. (Conservatives, to be sure, reversed these double standards: Pinochet was a hero and Nelson Mandela a terrorist.)

Two other factors fuelled liberal negativity: shame, and ignorance. The hypocrisy of counting oppressive dictators as part of the Free World disgusted many. And ironically, authoritarians got a worse rap than totalitarians. The former could never quite hide their crimes, whereas the myriad victims of regimes like China and North Korea were mostly nameless and unknown.

And South Korea? Our twisted template really didn’t fit, but like Procrustes we jammed it on anyway. Park Chung Hee never stood a chance. He had served imperial Japan, made a military coup, tortured or killed opponents, and not only hosted U.S. troops but sent his own to Vietnam - on the wrong side. As the young say: End of. What more did we ne need to know? Bad guy.

A few of us went further. North Korea had no foreign troops, and its economy at first outgrew the South’s. Kim Il Sung’s system was hard to like, but this was the steep climb to the future and the “true” Korea. (I know where Lee Seok-ki is coming from: no excuse for either of us.)

Stuffing our heads with this nonsense blinded us to what South Korea was achieving. My first visit in 1982 was a shock. I found myself in a dynamic developing country, not the wretched comprador neo-colony of my a priori fantasies. The self-imposed scales fell from my eyes.

Thirty years on, it amazes me that a few still deny or denigrate what Park achieved. To transform a sizeable nation (memo to South Koreans: yours is not a “small” country) from Africa-level poverty into one of the world’s great trading and industrial powers, in two generations, is an astonishing feat without parallel in modern times. Only Taiwan, also little honored, is close.

Park Chung Hee had no roadmap. He blended capitalist and statist elements in a new creative way, which worked. True, South Koreans were not asked but dragged into this. I don’t defend that, and I mourn martyrs like Jeon Tae-il who resisted. They too built today’s South Korea.

In 2015 we can surely manage some distance and perspective, historically and comparatively. Whatever you think of Park, he built the system which now gives all South Koreans material comfort, as never before in this ancient nation’s history. Doesn’t that deserve some respect?

Even if you wish it had all been done different, look around. Many countries are still ruled by dictators: often worse oppressors than Park. Most just enrich themselves. None deliver change and prosperity, as he did. Would Jung Chung-rae rather live in Thailand? Kazakhstan? Egypt?

South Koreans today have much to be thankful for, even if few think so. Give credit where it is due, which means above all to Park Chung Hee. I don’t say like him, or exonerate him. But we need a sense of proportion. Park destroyed people, but he created a whole country anew.


*The author is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, in the U.K.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

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