Korean History

35 Years Ago Today

Park Chung Hee was either exceptionally tough, exceptionally cold, or both of these. Of course, Korean culture was even less solicitous of sentimentalism then than now. And maybe this was Park’s idea of defiance and courage under fire. Either way, even after an assassin’s bullet had mortally wounded his wife, you can clearly hear Park tell the audience that he’s going right ahead with his speech.

19 Comments

  1. Park’s response was very unnatural and weird.
    No wonder he became unpopular as a military dictator.
    His assassinated wife was Yuk Young-Soo, who was his second wife, and the mother of the famous Park Geun Hye.
    The poor daughter lost both parents to assasinations.




    0



    0
  2. Unnatural according to what? This was 1974 South Korea where sentimentality was frowned upon, a country where leaders had to be tough and symbols of strength. Did you think it would’ve been better for Park to weep and cry?




    0



    0
  3. Er, yeah, it would have been better for him to weep and cry. That’s what human beings usually do when their loved ones are killed. But what can you expect from a coldhearted sonofabitch dictator?




    0



    0
  4. He later mourned her. But considering his background and situation… born during Japan’s occupation of Korea, veteran of Japan’s army, survivor of a crackdown by the ROKA of communists in south Cholla province after a rebellion, etc… you couldn’t really expect the man to show sentiment in public; certainly not if he was from an earlier, older generation of a culture/nation where outward expressions of sentimentality were not common, to put it lightly.




    0



    0
  5. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I don’t find his reactionsurprising in the least. I don’t wanna dehumanise him (I think he makes an attempt at that himself), but whatever about his cultural background, I just think the guy was a pure bastard.




    0



    0
  6. I think Huk succinctly supplied the missing cultural context.

    The political culture at this time demanded stoicism and public-spiritedness from leaders, and Park would have been laughed out of the country if he frothed and broke down Clinton style. Park has been faulted for all sorts of things he did and didn’t do during his stewardship of Korea in the 60s and 70s, but I have yet to hear a native Korean of his generation fault him for his comportment on the day of his wife’s assassination.

    Moreover, highlighting this seeming indifference to his wife’s death ought to be counter-balanced by the awesome poignancy of his picking up his wife’s shoes in sadness. Yes, Park was a man of action rather than words in so many ways.

    As for Dan’s rant, some other time.




    0



    0
  7. Park was one tough SOB. A perfect counter to Dictator KIM Il Sung also known as: True Bastard of the North. President Park was asked back in the 1960’s why he sent troops to Vietnam and he replied with, “Good training.” Sums it up rather well, I think.




    0



    0
  8. And would you please tell us why you thought he was a bastard?

    …erm…well, why do you think that someone would think that Park Chung-He was a bastard?
    I’m kind-of surprised that you would find this so “shocking”. I’d have thought this site would be one of the last places where we might find apologists for authoritarians.




    0



    0
  9. By the way, Won, “stewardship of Korea”?
    That’s being more than polite to the man.
    For every excuse made for Park, you may as well make an excuse for Castro, an excuse for Stalin, an excuse for Kim Il Sung.




    0



    0
  10. I think it has to do with the status of women.

    I thought of a scene from the (fictional) show MASH where the doctors stop a jeep beside a Korean family beside the road near a field. The older male father is watching as his two daughters poke around in the field to see if it is mined. That reminded me of a story I vaguely remember from a soldier’s memoir relating a similar story.

    This reminds me of the travelogues written about Korea in the late 1800s and early 1900s that describe how women in Seoul were kept off the streets or walked with their heads covered or the rich ones were ferried around by bearers while basically sitting hidden in a box.

    Which makes me think this —- if we saw a similar event like this one with Park Chung-Hee happen in one of the heavily Muslim countries, would be shocked to see the king or president or whatever continue the speech?

    It’s just a big difference in contemporary culture for us watching something like the video of the Park assassination attempt…




    0



    0
  11. Dan,

    I never said he wasn’t a bastard – I asked you to explain why you saw him as such.

    He wasn’t a warm and fuzzy leader, but first of all, in the history of humanity, those who rose to power, whether in ancient kingdoms/empires or in the 20th Century, had to be tough, ruthless, and hard-nosed. In a place like 1960s Korea, a country whose population still suffered the traumatizing effects of the brutal war w/ the DPRK and reeling from 35 years of oft-harsh Japanese imperial rule, it would have been fantasy to expect anything different.

    Park Chung Hee pissed off a lot of people during his rule, and quite often, certainly not without reason. He stepped on more than a few toes to get things done his way. But the absolute same can be said for any modern leader, ranging from the beloved and at times quasi-deified Franklin D. Roosevelt to the almost universally vilified Iosif Vissarionovich Jughashvili.




    0



    0
  12. Dear Lee,

    Thank you for your polite and articulate response; I understand that the task you undertake is not an easy one and your intentions are good. It’s rather late here and I don’t have much time; I’d like to write a more detailed response but I fear that time is an issue, so I’ll just try to deal with the main thrust of your argument for now and request that you overlook its general untidiness and incoherence.

    To begin with, don’t get me wrong about Kim Il Sung and Stalin: yes, scale matters to some extent, I would not deny that nor should anyone in my opinion. I fully understand how one could be led to believe from my previous brief post that I do not draw this distinction, but rest assured, I do.

    Aside from the scale issue – and please correct me if I’m wrong – I guess the main this point you make is a key one:

    I do hope that you will give some further thought to why the majority of South Koreans today view Park–a national leader who presided over the greatest period of growth in all of Korean history–as the most effective national leader ever.

    I understand your point here. However, public opinion doesn’t really sway it for me.
    To be sure, there’s a lot to be said for the economic ‘successes’ of quite a few dictators throughout history. But it comes at a price. And, unfortunately, many many many people are more than willing for that price to be paid, as long as it doesn’t effect themselves or their families.
    I hate to bring Stalin back into this, but I believe it was just a few months ago that a rather bizarre thing happened in Russia: in a nation-wide contest to vote for the greatest Russian in history, an absolutely astounding number of people voted for arguably the most heartless dictator in history. His success was such that celebrities had to appeal on television for people to vote for someone else, as it looked likely for a long time that Stalin would win.
    Now, again, I’m not saying that Stalin and Park are necessarily in the same boat. But this does tell us something rather interesting about public opinion towards former (or even current) dictators. It appears to me a great tragedy of modern human ethics that those who go untouched by the violence, brutality, murder and intimidation which takes place under dictators tend more often than not to be indifferent towards it. Rather, it seems that unfortunately many people eat up the discourse they’re supplied with to justify the situation, and that rhetoric can, sadly, quite easily pass from generation to generation (I’m speaking, of course, quite generally here).
    So what I’m getting at here in my own late-night-sleepy-and-inarticulate way is that ‘ideology’ is something of a problem: time and again, those on the ‘left’ and ‘right’ nowadays continuously make excuses for authoritarians, present or past, of one kind or another – the leftists often romanticise (or at least excuse) Castro, Trotsky, Lenin, Chavez, or (rather strangely) Hamas; the rightists Pinochet, Franco, Mubarak, Uribe, Park, Chun, and so forth. I suppose it’s generally a reactionary thing, is it not? The ‘leftist’ may understandably be so frustrated and angered by the failures of capitalist ideology or the perceived extent of U.S. economic and cultural hegemony that they are drawn to whatever figure represents a supposed alternative; similarly, a ‘rightist’ may be so appalled by the abuses of Stalin and the Kims that they would justify any alternative.
    But, this – as you’re probably aware – is what I take issue with. While as I said, scale is an issue which shouldn’t be ignored, it is not the be-all and end-all. As I said, it’s so easy for people to sit back and mitigate, to overlook and excuse the actions of these people when the violence and fear they wrought has not entered our lives. But it did enter peoples’ lives, and although the scales are different, scale means little or nothing to those who suffer political repression under dictatorial rule and their loved ones and families – I cannot even imagine the pain of having a single loved one jailed or tortured or murdered for their political beliefs; to bring that pain into the life of a single human being is a crime which cannot be excused in my opinion. So while I take your point that scale is an issue, I’m not entirely sure that scale mattered all that much to those who did suffer under Park or any other ‘less harsh’ dictator.

    Finally, a very brief segue about this ‘culture’ issue which has been brought into it a couple of times. Of course I understand that codes of behaviour and, to some extent values, have varied greatly across time periods, countries, and cultures – and I think to a large extent, of course, the world is a richer place for it – I don’t think that really makes the whole thing any more palatable; we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) excuse, for example, the mistreatment of women in particular cultures nowadays, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t look down on his stiff upper-lip bullshit from a few decades ago. Regardless, the whole thing just…doesn’t sit right.

    At this point I fear I must leave it for tonight. I do look forward to reading any further thoughts you may have.




    0



    0
  13. Dan,

    I did not want to respond further to your comments, because I thought to do so would waste people’s time for a number of reasons. First, your initial posts were frankly so trollish that they appeared deliberately intended to stir things up. Second, if you really believed that there were no differences between a Park and a Stalin, I doubted any counter-evidence or counter-arguments would make a difference. Anyone who upholds such an extremist view would likely not be amenable to a rational debate, just like those who literally equate Bush with Hitler.

    So I am glad that at least you conceded that you were exaggerating a bit.

    Nonetheless, I still think an online fora is not the best venue to debate the merits of a complex issue such as Park’s presidency in all its complexity, in spite of Dr. Lee’s valiant effort. To do so would require at least a debate about first principles regarding whether dictatorship is necessary in any context–as well as a subsidiary conversation about Korean culture and history to determine whether South Korea in 1960s constituted that necessary occasion if you answer affirmatively to the first question.

    So I will limit myself to one correction or counter-view, if you will. Unlike usinkorea or you, I do not believe Park’s stoic behavior at his wife’s death had to do with sexism, though Korea at that historical juncture was–and to some degree still remains–a sexist country by Western standards. Lady Yook was a highly-visible public presence during Park’s presidency; while she was no Hilary or Elanor, she was not exactly shunted off to the kitchen of the Blue House. So I agree with Dr. Lee that his behavior is better explained by the demands of Confucian political ethic that was idealized throughout most of Korean history. That code of behavior demanded public men to essentially to ignore their private concerns in favor of the public. I would imagine Park’s reaction would have been no different had his father or his son been shot, instead of his wife.




    0



    0
  14. Dan, I share your skepticism on public opinion (collective memory) as a true indicator of a leader’s worth. “Great men” of the past are a symbol of their era–an oft manufactured reminder of our collective struggles and achievements–as well as a vision of what we wish to become as a nation. I think Park Chung Hee is an example of the former, folks like Mao and Stalin the latter. Each society needs a hero, and the way the public remembers a bygone era–be it triumph in civil war, great power status, or overcoming abject poverty–is certainly subject to selective memory and political ideology. Distance in time also lends romanticism as well as detachment, I’m sure you’ll agree. I wonder what you will say about how Genghis Khan or the Qin Emperor are remembered fondly by their descendants today.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/world/asia/03genghis.html

    I expect Park to be remembered as a “great leader” 500 years from now, with greater justification.

    Many North Koreans today wax poetic about the “good old days” under Kim Il Sung. Had the two Koreas been unified in the mid-1970s, once could conceivably make the case that North Korea was the more successful government by virtue of its economy outperforming that of the South. I would strongly disagree with that view, for Kim killed and enslaved large portions of his people with impunity. I guess this is my main point: proportionality, or “scale,” as you put it, is essential in evaluating leadership as it is criminality. Park’s legacy was not built on industrialization alone. And as far as authoritarian rule goes, his was “soft” compared to most of his contemporaries across the Asia Pacific, among whom not even a handful were able to steer their nation away from squalor and hunger.

    Yet, I also firmly believe that transgressions of the past must not be forgotten. I appreciate people like you–in South Korea, the US, anywhere. All I ask is that you give some thought to the degree of such transgressions, the conditions (economic and security) of the times, and the sobering fact that no society has achieved economic development (characterized by an educated urban middle class and a per capita GDP of $8000+) without going through an extended period of authoritarianism.

    I could not agree more with the following view you present so eloquently:

    “The ‘leftist’ may understandably be so frustrated and angered by the failures of capitalist ideology or the perceived extent of U.S. economic and cultural hegemony that they are drawn to whatever figure represents a supposed alternative; similarly, a ‘rightist’ may be so appalled by the abuses of Stalin and the Kims that they would justify any alternative.”

    This statement, by Mr. Won Joon Choe, I also totally agree with:

    “I would imagine Park’s reaction would have been no different had his father or his son been shot, instead of his wife. “




    0



    0
  15. I obviously agree with Dr. Lee’s emphasis on “proportionality”–or what I would call “degree”–of criminality or culpability in judging Park.

    Nonetheless, I would also stress that Park’s dictatorship represented a difference of a “kind” as well as “degree” in comparison to both its totalitarian counterparts and the more garden-variety Third World dictatorships of a Marcos, to name an example.

    Among other things, Park was not a kleptocrat in the way that virtually all Third World dictators have been; his life-style was legendary for its frugality (save the yo-jeong episodes), and no one will ever accuse Lady Yook of going on shoe shopping sprees.




    0



    0
  16. Dr. Lee,

    Apologies for the lateness of my reply, between work and moving to another country, I’ve a rather busy schedule at the minute (as much as I would love to be able to sit down immediately and rant and rave, I don’t even have time to update my own blog!).

    I’ll comment firstly on your main point, that of proportionality. Of course, what you say is logical and undestandable. There’s an obvious reason why, if asked who we believe was the most evil person in history, most of us will reply “Stalin”, “Hitler”, and so forth, and won’t say “Park”, “Pinochet” or “Castro”.

    However, if you were to ask the same question to people who did suffer persecution under these “soft”* dictators, I’m quite sure they would respond differently. My point is, (at the risk of repeating myself), that I don’t think that “scale” would be particularly important to you or I in passing judgement on those responsible if (God forbid) we or any of our family or friends were ever to be subjected to imprisonment, torture, or murder for our political beliefs. Nor, indeed, would we consider there to be anything 2soft” whatsoever about our persecutors; and to say the very least I don’t think we’d be particularly enthusiastic about whatever “economic development” they may have achieved.

    As you noted yourself, we would be deeply offended by the thought that some people would attempt to mitigate the cold-heartedness of their acts with reference to such discourse. It is for this reason that I avoid making excuses of any kind for any such person: to those being subjected to political oppression, tortrue and murder, there are no “soft” dictators. If those toiling in the concentration camps of the DPRK were aware of the proportional difference between the crimes of Kim and Stalin, I don’t think it would matter to them particularly; for the homosexuals on death row in Iran, I imagine the line between the Ayatollah and Hitler must be somewhat blurred; and I doubt that those young men kidnapped, dressed as guerrillas, tortured and shot in the mountains by the Colombian military are particularly interested in Uribe’s economic development plans. The way I see it, sir, they could just as easily be you or I.

    Please don’t get me wrong — I know you’re far from an apologist, and I appreciate the point you’re making here. I just don’t believe an educated urban middle-class or a per-capita GDP of over $8,000 are worth torturing anyone over. Perhaps that’s not necessarily an easy corner to defend either. And this does take us to the threshold of another, more complex discussion…anyway, I’d be very interested to hear any further thoughts you have.

    *By the way, while I don’t have a huge amount of interest in quantitative democratisation studies, I was interested to note that the Polity IV index rates the ROK as -8 between 1973 and 1981 (the lowest possible, as exemplified by the DRPK, being -9). I’m curious as to your thoughts on this?




    0



    0

Comments are closed.