conflicted legacy of Park
Chung-hee By Steven Borowiec
South Korea generally doesn't like
recalling its past as one of the world's poorer
countries. The country's back-story is usually
only evoked in the context of triumph: a tiny,
mountainous land that prospered through diligence.
No one is given more credit for its economic
transformation than former president Park
Chung-hee, who led the country from 1961 until his
death by assassination in 1979.
lionize Park as a visionary leader who brought
South Korea out of poverty, others remember him
much differently, as evocative of the nation's
history of harsh dictatorship. Park got results,
but was brutal in how he went about getting them. This
duality is at the heart
of his complicated legacy.
That legacy is
up for debate once again, brought on by the
opening of the Park Chung-hee Memorial Center in
Seoul. The center is a large complex detailing
Park's life and work as president. The memorial
was more than 12 years in the making and cost more
than US$15 million in taxpayer money.
op-ed in the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper reads:
"The Park Chung Hee Memorial-Library should be
more than an exhibition displaying his relics. It
should be a place that inspires national pride and
encourages ambition. It should remind us of how
far this country has come and how strong
leadership can direct us to a better tomorrow."
Alongside these calls to remember Park
fondly, the memorial's opening was met with
allegations that it inaccurately portrays his life
by washing over the unpleasant aspects of his
rule. The Alliance for Historical Justice, a
Seoul-based civic group who demonstrated at the
memorial's opening, issued a statement that read,
"If the Park Chung-hee Memorial-Library is
allowed, we will in future come to witness the
tragic farces of memorials being built to
slaughterers like Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo."
Upon entering the complex, the first sight
is a massive portrait of Park, with his
characteristic no-nonsense glare. To the left of
his portrait are laudatory quotes about him from a
few notable international figures, among them
Harvard professor Ezra Vogel and former
Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew. These
cherry-picked quotes come across as an attempt to
flaunt outside approval.
struggle and triumph through hard work are popular
in South Korea and they are found throughout the
memorial. On a wall near the memorial's entrance
is a near life-size image of a man with his head
bowed while dragging on overloaded wheelbarrow, an
image the memorial's designers would like to
associate with Park.
achievements were the building of South Korea's
impressive infrastructure and its export-oriented
economy. The memorial's first main exhibit touts
the surge in Korea's exports under Park, from $100
million in 1964 to $10 billion in 1977. The
accomplishments are presented only as
accomplishments; there is no discussion of costs.
At a model of a factory, uniformed workers
toil at sewing machines with the slogan "Zero
mistakes" pinned to a nearby wall. The sound of
busy machines is played over speakers. The factory
is bright and clean and the workers have no
discernable facial expressions.
decisions that in their time generated controversy
are presented as having gone over smoothly. The
exhibit on the establishment of diplomatic
relations with Japan glossed over Park's
acceptance of a payment not to push the matter of
colonial injustices committed against Koreans.
Park accepted aid through the Treaty on Basic
Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea,
which helped lead to the growth of the chaebol.
Many criticized him for not doing more to seek
redress for colonial-era abuses by Japan.
The Gyeongbu Expressway linking South
Korea's two largest cities Seoul and Busan is one
of Park's most enduring achievements. He said he
wanted it to be possible to move between any two
locations in the country in one day. The story
goes that when Park made mentions of the plan, he
was laughed at by the international community. Why
would such a poor country, one with few cars, need
a major expressway? The road ended up being
instrumental in South Korea's development by
linking opposite ends of the country and providing
people in Seoul with access to goods offloaded in
Busan's busy ports. It is because of this kind of
foresight that Park is well regarded by many.
The exhibit refers to Park's "tenacity" in
executing the project. There is no mention of the
many South Koreans who were displaced during its
construction. Also mentioned are "dams as a
solution to droughts and floods", though there is
no sign of all the people who had to move to make
way for those dams.
In the final room of
the memorial, a lit-up map of the country shows
industrial bases primarily in Park's home region
of Gyeongsang province, creating a disparity
between Gyeongsang and neighboring Jeolla province
that is still glaring today.
as freedom of speech are not addressed in the
memorial, nor is the fact that Park governed under
a state of emergency left over from the Korean
War. It doesn't mention the widespread
dissatisfaction with his dictatorial rule that led
to his assassination in 1979 by Kim Jae-kyu, then
director of Korean Central Intelligence Agency and
a close associate of Park's.
of dictatorship is never far off in South Korea.
The ruling Lee Myung-bak regime has been accused
of reverting to such strong-arm tactics as gagging
the media and persecuting critical citizens.
Glorifying Park without mentioning his denials of
freedom makes it more likely the authoritarianism
will remain part of the political landscape.
The final exhibit is titled "Park
Chung-hee as a Human Being". In one picture he
cradles a dog. In another he almost smiles.
Personal effects of Park's are displayed: a
television, shoes, pens and papers. This apparent
attempt to humanize the dictator seems forced. A
more effective humanization might have been to
acknowledge that Park made some mistakes in
addition to his successes.
Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.
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