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    South Asia
     Mar 2, 2012


The 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.

While some 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.

An 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.

Images of 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.

Park's main 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.

Some 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.

Topics such 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.

The specter 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.

Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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