On Monday 50 years ago, a group of Army officers, led by Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee, toppled the government and took power in a coup. Park ruled the nation for the next 18 years ― first as the coup leader and later as an authoritarian president ― before being assassinated by his intelligence chief.
The anniversary is certain to rekindle a debate on the event’s historical meaning. The government ousted by Park had been installed in the wake of the 1960 student uprising against President Syngman Rhee’s authoritarian rule. On one side of the debate are Park’s conservative advocates who praise it as a “revolution that saved the nation from collapsing.” On the other are his liberal critics who denounce it as nothing but a “coup d’etat that disrupted constitutional rule.”
At the core of the contest is counterfactual history presented in the form of a question: What if Park had not disbanded a legitimate, though weakened, government.
The advocates believe that, had Park and other military officers remained in the barracks, the nation could not have pulled itself out of political chaos and that it would still remain one of the poorest countries in the world. Taking an apologist approach to the violations of human rights during his rule, they argue that he had to sacrifice them to a certain extent as Korea needed a strong leadership to achieve economic advances.
But his critics say that the ill-fated Cabinet, had it been left alone, would eventually have sorted things out and maintained political stability. If so, they say, the foundation for democracy laid by the Cabinet would have been consolidated by its elected successors. They also believe that democracy would have been no less effective in promoting economic development.
Each answer to the “what if” question is meant to be an effective weapon when one party attacks its opponent on the significance of the historical incident. But the battle is of little value, insofar as what has been done cannot be undone. The contestants are required to see both sides of Park’s legacy.
The unalterable historical fact is that Park took power in a coup and that he remained an authoritarian leader whose regime violated human rights on numerous occasions. Juxtaposed against this is another undisputable historical fact that he was duly credited with a “can-do” leadership that catapulted the nation from least-developed status to that of an advanced economy.
The anniversary comes at a time when his daughter, Geun-hye, is called on to expand her political role in the ruling Grand National Party. Like it or not, her political career is often viewed in association with her father.
It is undeniable that she inherited much of her political capital from him, which apparently made it possible for her to win by a landslide when she ran for a parliamentary by-election in Daegu in 1998. But the downside is that she is called a “dictator’s daughter” by her critics.
Still, due credit must be given to her for her rise to the top in the nation’s political community. A former leader of the Grand National Party, she has successfully parlayed the inheritance into her position as the most favored among the potential presidential candidates in and outside of the party.
It appears that she tries to see both sides of what her father did. In 2007, she called his coup a “patriotic revolution.” But she offered an apology to former President Kim Dae-jung, once a persecuted freedom fighter, on his behalf in 2004. She reportedly said, “You were hurt on many occasions when my father was president. I apologize as his daughter.” It is yet to be seen what she will do not just with the assets but the liabilities she inherited from him.