Park Chung-Hee Nostalgia and its Relationship to Modern South Korean Politics
During 2016 and 2017 South Korea was faced with a time of great political change; massive, candlelit protests were held in reaction to the news of corruption within the government, President Park Geun-Hye was impeached, and a new president, Moon Jae-In, was elected, ending a decade of rule by the conservative party. Reactions to this event were highly mixed, as evidenced by the protests that took place both in opposition to and in support of Park Geun-Hye. These reactions not only acted as a window into current political attitudes in the country, but also helped to demonstrate the important role political nostalgia plays in modern politics. Nostalgia has the power to sway a country’s citizens either for or against a cause, depending on the way they remember it. In the case of South Korea, this type of nostalgia is most closely tied to the Park Chung-Hee administration. Because it played such a large role in shaping modern South Korea, there is a great amount of memory and nostalgia tied to that president. Furthermore, this nostalgia towards Park Chung-Hee often results in the current economic and political state of the country being compared to or analyzed within the context of his rule. This attitude demonstrates the continuing influence that memories of Park Geun-Hye’s father, former president Park Chung-Hee, and his policies have on the political landscape of the country. Understanding this relationship to South Korea’s past helps to give context to current events and the political landscape with the country and explain the motivations of those who protested against and in support of Park Geun-Hye.
In order to understand why Park Chung-Hee remains such an important and controversial figure in South Korea, and why his legacy has such great influence, it is important to understand the context of the period in which he took power and the actions he took during his administration. Following the Korean War, South Korea was led by President Syngman Rhee. The country was struggling, being underdeveloped and dealing with an economy largely in ruins due to corruption and poor government policy. This situation eventually led to widespread social unrest, culminating in a military coup in 1961, and soon after Park Chung-Hee, who was a general in the army at the time, gained control of the government (Graham 14). Park believed strongly in centralized management of the economy and strong nationalism, a world-view heavily influenced by his officer training in the Japanese military, and as a result led a highly authoritarian administration. One of his most widely noted and perhaps most influential achievements while in office was his improvement of the economy. This was achieved through various means, including normalizing diplomatic relations with Japan, a former colonizer of Korea, allowing the country to receive large amounts of loans and reparation payments, sending troops to fight in the Vietnam War, resulting in payments from the U.S., and most importantly by creating an economic planning board staffed with experts who created five-year plans to direct Korea's economic development (Graham 16; Kim Byung-Kook 408). Under his administration the economy became the number one priority and grew at a rather dramatic rate. This prioritization of the economy, caused South Korea to develop into an economic force in the region, although this rapid development did not come without a price.
While Park’s strong-man leadership style helped South Korea to develop quickly, it also caused many injustices to be done against the Korean people. Throughout his administration, Park suppressed democracy by working to silence political opposition and dissent against him, often acting more like a dictator than a president. For example, under Park’s rule the KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency) was founded with its official goal being to investigate opposition to the government of South Korea, including that sown by agents of North Korea. However, this mission was often abused and used as a cover to suppress all opposition to the government (Graham 16). Additionally, in 1972 Park dissolved the legislature and implemented a new constitution which dramatically expanded the powers of the president and allowed him to effectively rule for life (Graham 15). Support for Park gradually began to fade as economic growth slowed, leading to widespread protests, and he was eventually assassinated by his own director of the KCIA on October 26, 1979 during a banquet. He left behind his three children, including his eldest daughter, Park Geun-Hye, who was eventually elected president.
In the years following his assassination, Park Chung-Hee was not venerated as a national hero, at least certainly not in the national physical memorial landscape, as there were no monuments or statues erected in his name. However, this attitude began to change largely in the late 1990’s, following the 1997 economic crisis in South Korea and subsequent bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (Podoler 277). Such critical economic times resurrected memories of the economic strength experienced under Park Chung-Hee’s leadership and subsequently South Korea was hit with a wave of nostalgia for his presidency, now often referred to as “Park Chung-Hee Syndrome” (Woojin 68). Following this time period, especially during the tenure of later conservative presidents, the legacy of Park Chung-Hee began to be memorialized. In terms of the physical memorial landscape, various statues of him were erected in places such as his home region of North Gyeongsang Province, and in the late 2000’s the house in Seoul where Park had lived between 1958 and 1961 was declared a National Cultural Heritage site, eventually being restored and opened to the public (Podoler 278). One specific example of these sites would be Park Chung-Hee’s grave in the national cemetery. This memorial is significant not only because of its prominent position in the most important cemetery in South Korea, but also because of the way that the plaquards and memorials surrounding the grave present Park Chung-Hee’s legacy. For example, one of the plaques which memorializes Park cites him as having built “the foundation for economic development and a national defense of self-reliance,” while other sections of the memorial fail to mention the context in which he achieved this growth and the growing civil-unrest the contributed to his eventual assassination (Podoler 276). This selective representation of Park’s legacy helps to promote nostalgic feelings towards his rule, while at the same time demonstrating how this type of nostalgic representation can morph history and memory so that the past is seen in a different light. In addition to this physical commemoration, people, especially those with more conservative leanings, began to look up to him as a great modernizer of South Korea, praising him for putting the development of Korea first and his hardline against North Korea, while turning a blind eye to the human rights violations committed under his presidency.
The reasons for this nostalgia are mixed. Many Koreans “believe that Park Chung-hee laid the foundation for an economic miracle in Korea and respect him as the architect of the Korean model of economic development (WooJin 52).” Another factor could be, as previously noted, that the dissatisfaction felt by many Koreans following the economic downturn of 1997 stirred up memories of the rapid economic growth that occurred under Park Geun-Hye’s regime, and thus a sort of nostalgia for those times grew out of that comparison (WooJin 54). Additionally, particularly for those who lived under Park Chung-Hee, this nostalgia may represent a desire for a return to the strong leadership style of the Park Chung-Hee administration. As noted by Woojin Kang in his research about Park Chung-Hee nostalgia, “for citizens who firmly prefer the growth-first ethos, the democratic process often seems to be inefficient and even undesirable. For instance, according to the KDB, a little less than three-quarters[...] of the respondents said that making people’s lives better is more important than choosing leaders through free and competitive elections” (54). Another driving force behind this nostalgia is the issue of inter-Korean relations. Park Chung-Hee’s administration took a rather hardline in terms of diplomatic relations with North Korea, meanwhile the progressive party favors a more conciliatory approach often referred to as the “Sunshine Policy”. For many Koreans who remember the Korean war or still feel wary about North Korea, a stronger approach to diplomatic relations is often preferred. However, this is not to say that all Koreans feel nostalgic towards Park Chung-Hee as many, especially younger people, who did not grow up directly experiencing his influence, or more liberal-leaning Koreans do not view Park Chung-Hee as someone who should be valorized because of his authoritarian rule and the unethical actions he did during his presidency.
Nostalgia towards Park Chung-Hee played an especially important role during the 2012 presidential election, when his daughter Park Geun-Hye ran as the candidate for the conservative Saenuri party. Park Geun-Hye had been pushed into the political spotlight from an early age. After her mother was killed in an assassination attempt on her father on August 15, 1974, she stepped from the role of first daughter into the role of first lady, often accompanying her father to political functions her mother would have otherwise gone to. She later continued her life in the political arena by serving in the National Assembly. During her campaign, she often touched on her father’s legacy. For example, in one speech she “said[...] that she wanted to make amends for the past while perpetuating his legacy as a builder of modern Korea” and explained that she decided to run because she wanted to carry on her father’s legacy and achieve the democratization that he was not able to achieve (Kirk). This invocation of the memory of her father helped her to appeal to those who respect him for his role in helping to modernize South Korea and who remember the economic growth experienced during his administration. These invocations were very successful and garnered her much support with those groups, while Moon Jae-In, her opponent, was well received by younger voters who had not experienced that economic growth ("South Korea Elects First Female President."). This link to her father’s legacy later proved to be a double-edged sword; on the one hand, she was able to draw on her father’s legacy as a great developer of Korea, while on the other, any malfeasance during her campaign or her term as president was bound to invoke negative recollections of the anti-democratic moves made by Park Chung-Hee administration (Doucette 854).
About midway through Park Geun-Hye’s presidency her approval rating began to drop due to a series of controversies. Perhaps the most well-known of these was the Sewol Ferry incident in 2014. The deaths of hundreds of high schoolers and lack of transparency by the government about the factors contributing to this incident sparked public outrage leading many to begin looking disfavorably upon the Park administration (Kim Ho-Ki 85). This dissatisfaction came to a head during the Fall of 2016, when news of a huge political scandal broke as it came out that Park Geun-Hye’s close friend Choi Soon-Sil had been deeply involved in government business, including the drafting of official presidential statements, and was involved in influence-peddling over state affairs (Kim Ho-Ki 82). This information led to widespread candlelit protests, some of the largest in South Korea’s history, across many major cities calling for Park’s resignation (Sang-Hun, "Protest Against”). These protests lasted for months, and while the majority of them called for the impeachment and resignation of Park, there were also counter protests by those, especially older, conservative citizens who continued to support her (Lee). The reasons for their continued support were varied. Some viewed her with pity, arguing that she had been manipulated by Choi Soon-Sil and her father, who had acted as a sort of mentor to her following the death of her parents (Sang-Hun, “South Korean Leader”). Others continued to support her because of their respect for Park Chung-Hee. However, on the flip side of this, some supporters of Park Chung-Hee abandoned Park Geun-Hye, saying that she had tarnished his legacy (Sang-Hun, “South Korean Leader”).
Following Park’s removal from office, new presidential elections were held at the beginning of 2017, with the leading candidates being Moon Jae-In from the progressive party, who had previously lost to Park Geun-Hye, and Hong Jun-Pyo from the conservative party (Sang-Hun, “After Park, Who?”). While Hong Jun-Pyo won in historically conservative provinces, including the province where Park Chung-Hee was born, Moon Jae-In ultimately prevailed in the overall election, marking the end of a long succession of conservative presidents. One factor that contributed to his success was his image as being “untouched” by corruption, a long-standing problem within Korean politics, given his history as a human rights lawyer. His win marked the beginning of a period of great political change in the South Korea. Not only did the timing of the impeachment shift the date on which presidential elections will now be held, it also called into question whether the political parties, especially the Saenuri party, should be reorganized, and highlighted a growing desire for the government to more directly address issues such as economic inequality, partisanship towards chaebol conglomerates, and government corruption (Kim Ho-Ki 85). The end of Park Geun-Hye’s presidency, while being an end to the legacy of Park Chung-Hee in the presidential office, also called to attention the continuing shadow that his legacy had cast over politics and begged the question of how South Korea should confront and move past the memory in the face of modern times.
During his administration, Park Chung-Hee succeeded in rapidly modernizing and industrializing South Korea; however, he accomplished this while at the same time stifling democracy and committing various human rights violations. In spite of this, in recent decades his controversial legacy became memorialized in South Korea due to a wave of nostalgia that hit following the 1997 Asian IMF crisis. This nostalgia became an important player in the political landscape and helped to fuel support for his daughter and the conservative party. However, the recent protests in the wake Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment highlight the conflicting perspectives people have on his legacy. While many conservatives look up to him and work to preserve his memory as a sort of hero and great industrializer of Korea, others, particularly those who have more progressive tendencies, view his legacy with greater skepticism. These two perspectives help to demonstrate the important role that political nostalgia, specifically that felt towards Park Chung-Hee, has played in modern Korean politics as the opinions of those who do and don’t feel nostalgia toward Park Chung-Hee begin to clash. It also demonstrates the way in which the political landscape is changing as generations who do not remember the Korean War or Park Chung-Hee’s presidency begin to grow up and gain greater political clout, while those who do remember and respect him fight to preserve his legacy in the public memory of South Korea.
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