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Park Chung-hee's place in history

By John Burton

One of the assumptions explaining why President Park Geun-hye and her conservative supporters are so intent on introducing a single government-authored history textbook for middle and high schools is that they want to correct distorted views of the president's father, Park Chung-hee.

They claim that the current textbooks primarily portray Park Chung-hee as a pro-Japanese dictator who abused democratic and human rights while they largely ignore his contributions to making Korea an industrial powerhouse.

In this regard, the conservatives may have a valid point. Seen in an international context of the mid-20th century "Third World," Park was an extraordinary figure.

The May 1961 coup led by Park was just one of a wave of military interventions that toppled governments in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of them were highly nationalist in their rhetoric and goals, although the reasons for the military taking control varied.

Coups were normally mounted by officers disgruntled with the state of the nation, angry at the "unprofessional" performance of their military superiors and the lack of meritocratic promotion, or a desire to free their country from "neo-colonial" powers that often were their former colonial rulers.

The rebellious military officers often concluded that they were the only ones capable of providing firm leadership in a political vacuum, since they saw the military as the one existing national institution that could modernize and develop their country.

Many of these elements motivated the 1961 coup in Korea. In the wake of the 1960 overthrow of Syngman Rhee in a popular revolt, the country was politically adrift and the economy was suffering. The Korean military regarded itself as the only organization that was professionally trained to carry out modernization, and the complex administrative tasks associated with it, thanks to the management practices taught by the U.S. military. This was considered particularly important at a time when North Korea was militarily and economically stronger than South Korea.

It is also important to note that like many military coups during this period, the 1961 coup was not in response to a mass uprising but rather amounted to a revolution from above by a small group. Several military coups during this period were conducted by "progressive" officers who wanted to impose radical socioeconomic reforms to revive their countries. Park Chung-hee and his supporters were no exception.

Park and his associates also employed many of the authoritarian practices seen in other military Third World regimes, with a heavy reliance on the army, intelligence agencies and the police to suppress dissent while offering patronage to build up support.

But what made Park Chung-hee different from many of his Third World counterparts was that he actually achieved substantial progress in modernizing Korea despite the sometimes unsavory methods he employed.

While other nations in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America stagnated under military rulers whose primary motive in the end appeared to be gaining personal power or protecting vested interests, Park laid the groundwork for the Miracle on the Han.

It was Korea's rapid economic growth and prosperity that ultimately doomed military rule by Park's successors as a rising middle class mounted what was a social revolution in 1987 to return the army to the barracks. It was the leaders of these protests who condemned Park for his human rights abuses and their perspective is reflected in history textbooks today.

Park's repressions were not unique at that time in the developing world, but the outcome of his actions was unique in producing probably the greatest global economic success story in the second half of the 20th century.

This observation does not mean that Park's authoritarian rule should be ignored, but it also calls for a more balanced assessment of his rule.

Unfortunately, his daughter's attempts to set the record straight by ramming through a state-sanctioned textbook will probably do more harm than good to her cause since it smacks ― and reminds many ― of the autocratic methods for which her father has been criticized.

The study of history does not mean delivering one uniform set of "correct" facts, but rather consists of differing narratives interpreting facts. It is this element of debate that gives history its vibrancy and no definitive conclusion can ever be reached because each new generation will interpret the facts in different ways.

If the government wants to educate the young properly in terms of history, it should encourage the presentation of contrasting interpretations of history in school textbooks to allow students to think for themselves.

One good place to start analyzing the Park era would be posing this question: Where would Korea be now if he had not come to power in the 1961 military coup?

John Burton, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Seoul-based independent journalist and media consultant. He can be reached at johnburtonft@yahoo.com.

By John Burton

One of the assumptions explaining why President Park Geun-hye and her conservative supporters are so intent on introducing a single government-authored history textbook for middle and high schools is that they want to correct distorted views of the president's father, Park Chung-hee.

They claim that the current textbooks primarily portray Park Chung-hee as a pro-Japanese dictator who abused democratic and human rights while they largely ignore his contributions to making Korea an industrial powerhouse.

In this regard, the conservatives may have a valid point. Seen in an international context of the mid-20th century "Third World," Park was an extraordinary figure.

The May 1961 coup led by Park was just one of a wave of military interventions that toppled governments in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of them were highly nationalist in their rhetoric and goals, although the reasons for the military taking control varied.

Coups were normally mounted by officers disgruntled with the state of the nation, angry at the "unprofessional" performance of their military superiors and the lack of meritocratic promotion, or a desire to free their country from "neo-colonial" powers that often were their former colonial rulers.

The rebellious military officers often concluded that they were the only ones capable of providing firm leadership in a political vacuum, since they saw the military as the one existing national institution that could modernize and develop their country.

Many of these elements motivated the 1961 coup in Korea. In the wake of the 1960 overthrow of Syngman Rhee in a popular revolt, the country was politically adrift and the economy was suffering. The Korean military regarded itself as the only organization that was professionally trained to carry out modernization, and the complex administrative tasks associated with it, thanks to the management practices taught by the U.S. military. This was considered particularly important at a time when North Korea was militarily and economically stronger than South Korea.

It is also important to note that like many military coups during this period, the 1961 coup was not in response to a mass uprising but rather amounted to a revolution from above by a small group. Several military coups during this period were conducted by "progressive" officers who wanted to impose radical socioeconomic reforms to revive their countries. Park Chung-hee and his supporters were no exception.

Park and his associates also employed many of the authoritarian practices seen in other military Third World regimes, with a heavy reliance on the army, intelligence agencies and the police to suppress dissent while offering patronage to build up support.

But what made Park Chung-hee different from many of his Third World counterparts was that he actually achieved substantial progress in modernizing Korea despite the sometimes unsavory methods he employed.

While other nations in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America stagnated under military rulers whose primary motive in the end appeared to be gaining personal power or protecting vested interests, Park laid the groundwork for the Miracle on the Han.

It was Korea's rapid economic growth and prosperity that ultimately doomed military rule by Park's successors as a rising middle class mounted what was a social revolution in 1987 to return the army to the barracks. It was the leaders of these protests who condemned Park for his human rights abuses and their perspective is reflected in history textbooks today.

Park's repressions were not unique at that time in the developing world, but the outcome of his actions was unique in producing probably the greatest global economic success story in the second half of the 20th century.

This observation does not mean that Park's authoritarian rule should be ignored, but it also calls for a more balanced assessment of his rule.

Unfortunately, his daughter's attempts to set the record straight by ramming through a state-sanctioned textbook will probably do more harm than good to her cause since it smacks ― and reminds many ― of the autocratic methods for which her father has been criticized.

The study of history does not mean delivering one uniform set of "correct" facts, but rather consists of differing narratives interpreting facts. It is this element of debate that gives history its vibrancy and no definitive conclusion can ever be reached because each new generation will interpret the facts in different ways.

If the government wants to educate the young properly in terms of history, it should encourage the presentation of contrasting interpretations of history in school textbooks to allow students to think for themselves.

One good place to start analyzing the Park era would be posing this question: Where would Korea be now if he had not come to power in the 1961 military coup?

John Burton, a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Seoul-based independent journalist and media consultant. He can be reached at johnburtonft@yahoo.com.

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