WSJ: Rewriting the History of Korea's President Park Chung Hee

Roundup: Talking About History

Editorial in the WSJ (April 6, 2004):

Americans stationed in Seoul years ago used to joke that Koreans reacted to anything from rising prices to marital infidelity by marching on the U.S. Embassy. A look at the work of a commission probing the assassination of a former president makes us wonder how much things have really changed.

President Park Chung Hee was assassinated at a safe house on Oct. 26, 1979, by the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Kim Jae-kyu, who was later executed. Now Kim's nephew, Kim Chin-baek, has applied to a commission investigating these events to reassess history and declare his uncle a "democracy hero." The younger Mr. Kim was quoted by the Korea Times as saying the "guilty verdict" against his uncle was "unfair."

So far so good, but the commission will also look at an old canard -- whether the CIA (this time the American one) was behind the assassination. Press reports quote a commission member as saying it would look into whether the act was "instigated" by the U.S. CIA.

Koreans will be the ultimate judges of Park's legacy, of course. But if the military dictator's 1961-1979 rule had its dark aspect, it also had its bright ones.

To be sure, Park suppressed all opposition and tried to have dissident and later president Kim Dae-Jung killed (Mr. Kim was saved by the U.S.). But Park also took a country that in 1961 had a per-capita income lower than that of many African countries and handed over at his death a mini-industrial powerhouse.

Even this economic leap was achieved ruthlessly. But Asia in the 1960s was hardly a lodestar of democracy. India and Japan stood as the sole exceptions in a region that boasted Mao, Ne Win and Ho Chi-Minh. Kim Il-Sung, lest we forget, was Park's counterpart in Stalinist North Korea.

Kim Jae-kyu's act, moreover, introduced nine more years of rule by another military dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan. Again, we will leave it to historians to parse whether Gen. Chun was an improvement on President Park.

The commission, in other words, will have its work cut out for itself tabulating all this. Everything in Korea is politically charged these days, what with parliamentary elections scheduled for April 15 and President Roh Moo-hyun being unable to fulfill his mandate because he has been impeached. And it just so happens that Park Chung-Hee's daughter, Park Geun-hye, is the new leader of the opposition Grand National Party. In a nod to these realities, the Park commission has said it will not examine the case till after the elections.

Even after that, it may be difficult to resist the temptation to punt and blame the whole thing on the U.S. But Washington had nothing to gain from Park's assassination. It had tens of thousands of soldiers on the border with North Korea (as it still does), and every time Korea goes through one of its periodic upheavals, the lives of these young Americans are put at greater risk. Aside from that, Jimmy Carter, U.S. president at the time, would hardly have countenanced a plot to assassinate Park.

Correcting the historical record is sometimes necessary, especially after a country has becomes democratic. But rewriting history is never a good idea and it is a practice more usually associated with dictators.

comments powered by Disqus