Don’t lose prideThe days under strongman Park Chung Hee, who ruled the nation for nearly two decades, have become a distant memory. But his mark on the history is distinct. The 18 years of Park’s reign, which were terminated suddenly with his assassination in 1979, were tumultuous. They are remembered for periods of vivid darkness and brightness. Korea achieved miraculous economic growth and modernization, but suffered a lot under his harsh dictatorship.
Nov. 14 marked the 100th anniversary of Park’s birth. Memories are legion. In one memorable moment, he visited Ganghwa Island off the west coast of Incheon in 1977. He remembered battles in a fortification that bore scars of repeated outside attacks. He paid respect to the graves of unidentified soldiers killed while defending the islet against five U.S. naval ships in 1871.
A JoongAng Ilbo article on Oct. 29, 1977 reported that Park ordered the erection of a separate memorial stone for the fallen soldiers after noting there was a monument to the commander who led the battle against the U.S. fleet, but none for the common soldiers.
I have paid a visit there. On the stone of a grave at the memorial site of the 1871 invasion was written the following: “Here lay 51 unidentified soldiers who died during the battle of Gwangseongbo Fortress.”
I wondered what brought Park to this island 40 years ago. Why did he suddenly wish to remember the souls of low-class men of the Joseon Dynasty? He was the only president who visited here. Park was acting out a scene symbolic of a commitment to self-defense. The message was aimed at the U.S. government.
South Korean’s relations with the United States were tense at the time. President Jimmy Carter wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Korea. He was relentlessly pressuring Park on human rights. Washington began redesigning its Asian strategy from the early 1970s. Park had suspicions about Washington ever since the Nixon Doctrine in 1969 when President Richard Nixon announced that the United States would not “undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” In January 1973, Washington signed peace accords in Paris to formally end the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger, then National Security Advisor, was the key negotiator from Washington. In November of the same year, Kissinger visited Seoul as Secretary of State. Park met him along with Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil.
Kim recalled the conversation. “As Kissinger was still gloating over the feat in Paris, Park asked him, ‘Do you really think the Paris Peace Accords will work? If so, then the Thieu regime of South Vietnam is done.’ Kissinger frowned and retorted that peaceful co-existence has begun. But Park warned that the North Vietnamese would continue to attack after the U.S. withdrawal, and the forces in the South wouldn’t be able to defend itself. History shows that Park was right.”
In April 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army. Vietnam became unified under the communist regime. Kissinger’s concept of peace is “balance of power.” He still advises a major deal between Washington and Beijing to solve the North Korean nuclear problem.
About that time, Park ordered development of nuclear weapons in case the U.S. pulled out its troops. Washington was stunned by his boldness and regarded the move as a challenge to the Northeast Asian order led by Uncle Sam. Washington persistently and sternly demanded Seoul forego its nuclear ambitions. It was then that Park thought of the 1871 Ganghwa invasion. While looking down at the rough waters, he called the island a naturally blessed fortress. He could picture Joseon men desperately firing their cannons at the invaders. The memorial stone has his calligraphy: “This is where we build on the spirit of self-defense and patriotism of our ancestors. “In order words, he was telling the American troops to leave if they wished to.
Park strengthened our defenses. Crisis provided opportunity. He bundled self-defense with heavy industries. Korea’s industrialization accelerated at a staggering pace. Yet he did not lose self-control. He addressed global powers with constraint and boldness. He did not recklessly stretch the limits of national power. Park gave up his nuclear weapons program. Carter in return cancelled the plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea. “South Vietnam was feeble and overly relied on America. The U.S. withdrew from a weak country, but did not give up on a country standing up for itself. Korea used the U.S. to build itself,” Kim Jong-pil later recalled.
President Moon Jae-in emphasizes balance in foreign policy. He wants to please both Washington and Beijing. He assured the United States and at the same time vowed to Beijing not to do three things — deploy additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) batteries, join a U.S.-led missile defense system, or join a full defense alliance with the United States and Japan. Seoul was assured Beijing would no longer squawk about Thaad. But in summit talks on Nov. 11, President Xi Jinping repeatedly expressed opposition to Thaad.
The three nos were concessions to China. They must not appear as weakness on Seoul’s part. The strong tend to demand more from the weak. This is how China has always treated others. Korea’s strength is the U.S. alliance. If the alliance weakens, China will look down on Korea. We need to maintain an amicable relationship with China, but must not lose our pride.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 16, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.