A Brief History of Korea – A Response to Jeenho Hahm
Author’s disclaimer: You can read the conclusion (‘A myth that must die’) first, if you want.
By Won Jang – SIPA ’19
“The historian’s task is not to disrupt for the sake of it, but it is to tell what is almost always an uncomfortable story and explain why the discomfort is part of the truth we need to live well and live properly...A well-organized society is one in which we know the truth about ourselves collectively, not one in which we tell pleasant lies about ourselves.”
- Tony Judt
“As I finish my war-like night shift
I pour cold soju over my chest
The chest that was pierced by the dawn”
- Park No Hae
“We were all monsters back then. During a time when injustices were not allowed to be called injustices, people just kept their rage inside of themselves. Jeon Doo Hwan’s rule was harsh, but the spirit of unity was rising among people who opposed it. During the October Restoration era (Park Chung Hee’s rule from 1972-1979), however, young people were unhappy because of the helpless anger within themselves.
So nowadays when I hear that college students these days respect Park Chung Hee the most out of all the South Korean presidents, I feel the urge to jump over a post office window. From the perspective of today’s college students, all the oppression and injustices of the era have flowed down the river of time, and they don’t need to be afraid of these things anymore.
For some people, only things in fall under the blanket of their immediate sight counts as history. But for others, the suffering of serfs in the Chosun era is the present. The degree of sensitivity one possesses, whether politically or aesthetically, depends on how “thick” his or her present is.”
- Hwang Hyun San
A few months ago in April, Jeenho Hahm, a SIPA student (henceforth simply referred to as ‘the author’), published an article titled “Being a Conservative at SIPA” which immediately elicited commentary from various other SIPA colleagues. And more recently, he wrote a follow-up piece, “(Still) A Conservative at SIPA”.
Multiple Seeples have challenged the author on his so-called conservative views when it comes to US politics – on matters such as Donald Trump, the history of political parties in the US and of course, MLK.
He not only discusses US politics but makes several references to Korea and his Korean heritage. A sampling of such comments follows:
“For me, witnessing how the aforementioned conservative policies have transformed my ancestral land South Korea from an impoverished autocracy into an advanced democracy within a generation has had a lasting impact, and the contrast with its totalitarian and isolated neighbor in the north cannot be starker.” (‘Being a Conservative at SIPA’)
“As a Korean, I’ve had the privilege of being raised with the belief that one should focus on the big picture and persevere instead of being trapped in victimhood.” (‘Still a Conservative at SIPA’)
“When my parents were born, their country South Korea had the lowest GDP per capita in the world following colonization and a fratricidal war. Today, their home is one of the most advanced democracies on the planet. Out of many aid recipients, South Korea is the only one so far to have turned itself into a major aid donor mainly because it had effectively implemented capitalism as well as the culture of self-responsibility.” (‘Still a Conservative at SIPA’)
“A member of my family was killed by North Korean agents for internationally pressuring the regime, and I’ve had to talk with people who would justify all of the regime’s harrowing acts. I certainly didn’t agree with their logic or morality, but I wanted to understand what made them think that way. North Korea’s continuation of leftist policies of government control over all aspects of life had led to destitution and the worst human rights record on earth. Meanwhile, South Korea’s rightist policies of access to free markets and free minds had led to a successful transition to democracy. The Koreans who had shared similar physical, geographic, historical, and cultural roots for centuries found their living conditions in stark contrast within a couple of generations; and the only major difference was the choice of right versus leftist directions in public policy.” (‘Still a Conservative at SIPA’)
“I am not ashamed of defending the conservative values that had made America, South Korea, and other free societies great.” (‘Still a Conservative at SIPA’)
If I’m not mistaken, the author’s thesis is that a combination of “rightist policies” that include capitalism, access to free markets, free minds and a culture of self-responsibility led to South Korea’s transition to democracy, whereas North Korea’s “choice” of leftist politics made the country a dictatorship.
The author is wrong. And as a Korean, I will explain why. Korea’s “successful transition to democracy” had nothing to do with “rightist policies to free markets and free minds”, nor was it easy or linear as the author’s tone and brevity suggest. South Korea’s democracy is the result of a bloody uphill battle waged by the pro-democracy movement against not one but several brutal military dictatorships. Without protestors, laborers, human rights activists, students, journalists, musicians and others who sacrificed what could have been ordinary lives, South Korea would most likely be a mirror image of the North Korean dictatorship the author despises, albeit with a better economy.
Furthermore, people tend to have a sort of dualistic thinking when it comes to the history of military dictatorships in South Korea, suggesting that while the dictatorships denied human rights they also did successfully develop the economy. What is fundamentally wrong about this premise is that in reality, South Korea dictators developed its economy through the systematic oppression of human rights – the two are inseparable, like Bonnie and Clyde. And like Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, one gave birth to the other.
Below I will present a brief history of Korea which should corroborate my views. I say brief because there is no way for me to present a comprehensive history of the Koreas post-WWII liberation. They are mere episodes in South Korea’s road to democracy, but they will prove my point.
1. October 1946 Daegu Uprising
Post-WWII liberation was not easy for the Korean peninsula. Japanese colonization had come to an end and Koreans had nominal independence, but that didn’t mean the cruelty inflicted by the “other” had vanished. The USAMGIK (United States Army Military Government in Korea) had taken control over the country while the foreign governments such as the United States, Russia and Britain debated its fate and future.
US military’s governing of Korea was in no way benevolent or beneficial to the people. They reinstated pro-Japanese collaborators for ease of rule and actively made use of pro-Japanese Korean cops to arrest and harass Koreans. According to a survey in the latter part of 1946, 5,000 out of approximately 8,000 cops had stayed on since colonial times. They arrested people without warrants and hired right-wing youth groups to terrorize anybody they accused of having leftist or communist leanings. No Duk Sul, a vile policeman and traitor to his own people, made a career out of arresting Korean freedom fighters and torturing labor activists in the 1920s and 1930s. He continued his dirty cop work after 1945, which included hiring an assassin to kill a member of a special committee set up to identify and document pro-Japanese colluders.
The US military and Korean government officials were very aware of the abuses that were going on but gave the police carte blanche. Colonel William Maglin, an American advisor to the Korean police at the time said: “Many people ask if using cops that were trained by the Japanese is a good idea. Most of them are born to be cops. If they did their job well under the Japanese, I’m sure they can do it well now. Therefore, it is unfair to remove cops who have been trained by the Japanese.”
Nefarious colonial-era police running amok was not the only reason why common Koreans resented US military rule. The US military was incompetent when it came to running its affairs in Korea and their original sin was ignorance. They had no understanding of the people, history, culture or economy of the land and they did not care too much about it either. High-handedness was a virtue to them.
In November 1945, a mal of rice (‘mal’ was a traditional Korean unit that was about 18 liters or 4.75 gallons) cost 140 Korean Won, but by Sept 1946 prices had shot up to 1,500 Korean Won. Koreans were starving either because they couldn’t afford rice or they were not receiving their distributed rations properly because of corruption. The US military, to their credit, attempted to control inflation. But again, willful ignorance was their Achilles heel. When the summer of 1946 came, they collected rice from farmers not just during the rice harvest season like the Japanese did during colonial times, but also collected barley and wheat in the summer. Even the Japanese did not collect these summer crops because they knew that was what the poor survived on when there was no harvest. But because Americans wanted to defuse what they saw as an imminent exploding bomb by collecting more crops to distribute, they did not foresee that they were setting off another bomb.
Crooked cops, widespread corruption, mass deprivation, hunger and the US military’s forced acquisition of crops were the ingredients for this explosion. An unnamed US military official was quoted saying “Why do Chosun people ask for so much rice, when there are things like bread, fruit and meat to eat?” By the time August 1946 came around another disaster had struck - 10,000 residents of the city of Daegu were infected with cholera and the US military was not quarantining the area properly. On the contrary, guard posts and blockades were mismanaged and 1,200 Daegu people died because of the disease.
Against this backdrop, the residents of Daegu decided to protest against the police and the US military. The first protest took place on Sept 30th 1946 where a cop shot and killed one of the protestors. The police made excuses, saying it was a mere passerby but people had witnessed the incident and were livid. On October 2nd, as protestors surrounded police stations in the area, the US military sent tanks to protect the 19th Precinct police station and told the protestors to go home. Between Sept 30th and that day around 136 persons had died (73 of them civilians) and 262 persons were injured (including 129 civilians). Back then, the total population of Daegu was around 100,000 and it was estimated that around 10,000 protestors were out on the streets – that is, 1/10 of the population. It was one of the first major protests (or uprising, whichever term you prefer) in the history of modern Korea, which showed that the people hated US military rule with a vengeance. It was also a precursor to the collective action by masses against repression that made the country what is it today.
Daegu workers at a general strike on October 1st 1946
2. Park Chung Hee, a Japanese at heart?
The year was 1948, when a young South Korean army major was arrested and sentenced to death penalty by a military court. His crime? The army discovered that he was an active member of the Worker’s Party of South Korea, the main communist party in the country. His name was Park Chung Hee, and he would go on to overthrow the government in 1961 and become president of South Korea, persecuting all those his regime labeled as leftist and/or communist.
It’s quite interesting that a person who was on death row for being a communist, until he was saved and acquitted through the lobbying of military officers he knew when he was stationed in Manchuria, would years later come to hate the ideology and use it as an excuse to suppress thousands, if not tens of thousands.
There are numerous theories as to why Park Chung Hee joined the Worker’s Party, the most commonly accepted one being that it was because his brother Park Sang Hee was shot and killed by the police. Park Sang Hee was a leftist activist and who led a mass protest in Gumi in Oct 3rd just two days after the Daegu uprising. Park Chung Hee might have been motivated by his brother’s death to tussle with the police and the authorities of the day. The actual extent to which he was genuinely felt ideological attraction to socialism/communism is unclear. What is clear is that one strong belief ran throughout his entire life, which was his disdain for the status quo and desire to uproot it. Taken at face value, it might seem as if he was a revolutionary. However, Park’s vision of a new society was reactionary, fascist and harked back to the ideals of Japanese imperialism.
Park Sang Hee, Park Chung Hee’s Brother
Nowhere does this show better than in his book <Nation and Revolution and I>, published in 1963, where he describes his utter contempt for what his country had been up until then. Let’s look at what he says.
“Our history for the last 5000 years was a continuous history of regression, crudeness and recession. When have we ever crossed borders to invade other lands, or imported foreign culture to revamp our society, or formed a united country to show our power to other countries, or had a unique culture and industry to show our autonomy?”
“If you take an in-depth look into our history it cannot be more shameful. It is a vault of evil that should rightfully be burned down to ashes.”
Park Chung Hee scornfully disparaged Korea’s past and present and idealized what he saw as its antithesis, Japanese imperialism. He graduated from Shinkyung Military Academy in Manchukuo, which was a puppet state in Manchuria established by the Japanese from 1932 to 1945. It was basically a sister school to the Japanese Military Academy that trained the imperial forces loyal to the Japanese emperor. Park Chung Hee applied to the school when he was 23 years old and was initially rejected because the age for admission was between age 16 to 19. He then wrote a letter in his blood, published in the March 31st 1939 edition of the Manju-Ilbo Newspaper, swearing his allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. The letter is too long to quote in its entirety, but it contained words such as “As a Japanese citizen, I swear to sacrifice my life for this nation” and “For my country (Japan), I ask for no glory or honor”.
His fidelity to Japanese imperialism and its values was so entrenched and pervasive that it is hard to wrap one’s head around it. After graduating top of his class from Shinkyung Military Academy, he transferred to the senior year of the Japanese Military Academy where he again graduated with flying colors. He then went back to China, conducting 110 raids and attacks on Korean communists who were part of the armed resistance against the Japanese. It is ironic that the man who would become president of an independent South Korean republic, played an active role in trying to preempt its very existence by killing Korean freedom fighters.
Even when he became president, his almost delirious obsession for the Showa Restoration, a 1930s movement in Japan aiming to abolish liberal Taisho democracy and restore power to Emperor Hirohito, was evident. Once he was in power, many of his policies he instated were heavily inspired by Japanese imperial projects that promoted absolute obedience to the monarch through nationalistic rituals. Drafting a Charter of National Education (which was analogous to the Imperial Subjects Vows in Japan), making Korean salute to the flag every day at 6PM and forcing movie-goers to sing the national anthem before watching the latest box office hit (you went to jail if you didn’t stand up) are just a few examples. Even the October Restoration in 1972, through which Park effectively extirpated democracy in South Korea, was lifted off the Japanese word ‘Ishin’ (維新) or ‘restoration’ as in the Showa Restoration and the Meiji Restoration, another imperial revivalist movement in Japan.
Park Chung Hee’s book, <Nation and Revolution and I>
So when the author writes that “conservative policies have transformed my ancestral land”, I’m not quite sure what he is talking about. Could he be saying that policies in his ancestral land founded upon Japanese totalitarianism, the same system of belief Japanese jet fighters who bombed Pearl Harbor and killed 2,335 Americans adhered to, are part of conservatism? To be fair, I don’t think he is saying that. But that doesn’t mean he’s right either.
His flaws are many. Firstly, he throws around the terms leftist and rightist like sales during Christmas season. It’s quite ahistorical to apply his Western/American understandings of rightist and leftist to a faraway land where the historical trajectories have been quite different, albeit admittedly much of the ideological understanding did owe to American and Russian influence and intellectual exchange. Perhaps the author visualizes sort of imaginary game show taking place in the 1940s, where the pros and cons of communism and capitalism were spelled out clearly and people had crystal balls where they could look into the futures of North and South, and based on what they knew and saw, people could move freely to wherever they wanted. Well, that’s not how history worked back then or ever will work. I recommend the author to read <The Square> by Choi In Hoon. It’s a fictional novel, but being the masterpiece it is, it illustrates vividly the choices that people had to go through back then. But I won’t spoil it for him.
There was another time when people hurled words like leftist, communist and socialist around without any proof or justification. It was during the rampage of the Korean War and the years after where anyone with arms could and would accuse people of being their ideological enemy and shoot them. Right-wing youth groups and police massacred 800 women and children in Baebang-eup in the Choongchung Province between 1950 and 1951, the remains of whom were only excavated in March this year. As one of the organizers of the excavation said: “How can a one-year old kid be a communist?” Just to make myself clear, I am not suggesting that the author would kill innocent people. But his habit of branding entities and policies that he doesn’t like as “leftist” without any basis whatsoever certainly draws parallels to the scaremongering craze of the 1950s.
Moreover, the author completely pooh-poohs the principle of onus probandi, where the burden of proof in an argument is on the person who makes the claim. After his initial piece, his SIPA peers called on him to back up his use of terms with history, but the author intentionally ignored such requests and rehashed the same language like a broken record without any explanation or contextualization. This is probably because the author is more interested in showing his own ideological leanings than actually delving into history and being made uncomfortable by the fact that he is wrong.
In Hyuk Dang legal assassination
As I previously asserted, democracy did not flourish in South Korea because of “rightist policies” (whatever those are) but because of a sustained, active resistance by pro-democracy activists and “ordinary people” who just wanted basic rights such as fair wages and decent working conditions in factories. But they had none of that. Park Chung Hee’s government was a military dictatorship, and it’s important to understand just how abominable it was to understand what protestors and activists were up against.
Nothing shows the heinous nature of the regime more graphically than the In Hyuk Dang incident. To provide some background – in 1972, Park Chung Hee declared the October Restoration where he disbanded the National Assembly and prohibited all activities by political parties. He ended direct presidential elections in the new constitutional amendments he introduced in December that year and gave himself the power to declare a state of emergency and suspend the constitution itself if necessary. The power to dissolve the parliament and appoint court judges was also his. Obliterating the separations of power, he became the legislature, executive and judiciary himself.
People protested fervently against the October Restoration and the new constitution, and Park Chung Hee felt threatened. He needed to regain control and show what kind of strongman he was. On April 3rd 1974, he made a special announcement – a secret communist organization called the National Democratic Young Students Coalition had infiltrated numerous sectors of the country. To prohibit their activities he declared Emergency Measure No. 4. By May, 1,024 Koreans were arrested without warrants for violating the Emergency Measure, and the government announced that the People’s Revolutionary Party was controlling this student’s coalition to stage a coup d’état.
The only thing was, the People’s Revolutionary Party didn’t exist. At all. It was a figment of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)’s imagination. A fake entity created by the government to snuff out the opposition. And it served their purpose well, in the wickedest way possible. After a series of trials starting from July 1974, most were acquitted through a special “pardon” from the President, despite the fact that there was nothing to pardon in the first place. However, by April 8th 1975, there were still 39 persons on trial, waiting for the court decision in their final appeal.
On April 8th 1975, the Supreme Court dismissed their case and sentenced eight of the defendants to death. Their family in the audience shouted foul, screaming at the top of their lungs – “This is an absolute sham!” “How can you even say this is a trial!”. No credible evidence had been submitted and the defendants had been tortured in the investigation process. And most importantly, they were alleged members of a political party that didn’t even exist. But all of that didn’t matter to the judiciary, who carried out Park Chung Hee’s bidding.
The court decides to impose the death penalty on April 8th 1975
The judge read his decision for 10 minutes and left the court. 18 hours later, without due process, the eight defendants were executed. Not only were they denied a retrial, but the government forfeited their last testament and blocked the families of the dead from even retrieving their bodies after the execution. The International Commission of Jurists, an international human rights organization based in Geneva, designated April 9th 1975 as the darkest day ever in legal history.
It was a carefully planned ‘legal assassination’. Lee Yong Taek, who headed the 6th Bureau at the Korean Central Intelligence Agency later testified that the Ministry of Defense had orders from Park Chung Hee to execute the defendants as soon as the Supreme Court threw their case out. Prison officers at Seoul Prison were ordered not to go back home on the night before the trial. Years later, close acquaintances of Park told former president Yoon Bo Sun (who tried hard to free the eight defendants), that Park shed tears while he was drunk and regretted executing them. This and other testimonies strongly suggest that Park Chung Hee directly ordered this unprecedented ‘legal assassination’ that wrongfully took the lives of eight young innocent men.
His tears came too late. More than three decades later, on January 23rd 2007, the Seoul Central Court acquitted the eight of their charges postmortem and found them innocent. The same court in August ordered the government to pay $60 million USD in reparations to the families of those who were executed and also those who had survived after imprisonment. In 2002, a presidential commission on death under suspicious circumstances only put an official seal on what everyone already knew, when they released their investigation results – the Korean Central Intelligence Agency had fabricated the whole incident. But again, too little too late.
Park Chung Hee treated anything that could check and balance his power as useless and expendable. He stamped out independent justice institutions, due process, parliamentary opposition, a free press and other essential elements of a democratic republic. So it’s rather funny to me when the author claims that he has sworn to protect the American Constitution when its ideals are diametrically opposed to what Park Chung Hee stood for. Yes, I did talk about the dangers of applying to Western ideals to non-Western contexts, but the American Constitution does hold somewhat universal values that can be applied to other countries. Would Park Chung Hee have cared about Article One to Three on the three estates? Article Five on the process of amending the Constitution through legislature? The First Amendment on freedom of speech? He wouldn’t have and he didn’t. Yet, the author says ‘free minds’ led to democracy in South Korea, when that was precisely what successive South Korean governments from the 40s to the 80s were trying to annihilate.
The real Park Chung Hee-nomics
Early in the winter of 1972, Park Chung Hee sat in the conference room of Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) with thirty other people including his Blue House advisors, (Korean) Republican Party officials and other political figures. They were about to watch a promotional film produced by North Korea that had been sent to consulates worldwide. The KCIA had gotten their hands on three of these films and edited them into a single three-hour video.
Those in the room watched carefully as the film showcased North Korea’s economy – fields harvested by combines, automated machines mining coal and moving it on conveyor belts, all sorts of factories manufacturing TVs, fridges and washing machines… Basically, it boasted a prosperous North Korea.
People in the conference room were silent after the film was over. They were overwhelmed by how strong the North Korean economy was. Park Chung Hee finally uttered his first words: “Minister Choi, what do you think?” His question was directed to Choi Hyung Sup, who was the Minister of Science and Technology. Choi replied, “Yes… I think this is quite something.”
Park immediately got up and stormed out of the room without saying anything. Undoubtedly, he was irritated by North Korea’s thriving economy. He had assumed that having steamrolled massive economic expansion for the last few years, South Korea had surpassed its northern neighbor. The next day, he asked Oh Won Cheol, his Deputy Senior Economic Adviser, what he thought. Oh said while the film was well-shot, content-wise it didn’t have much substance. He also told Park that South Korea’s economy was much better except for the heavy industries, which they could catch up in about 2-3 years. Park was not consoled by his words and insisted the topic be put on the agenda for the next Security Planning Meeting, the equivalent of the National Security Council meetings in the US government.
A North Korean TV factory in the 1970s
Park Chung Hee had a manic obsession with proving that South Korea and his way of governance was superior to North Korea’s, and that could only be done by building a better economy. An inferiority complex combined with a yearning to be the perfect anti-communist ally to the US and his complete disregard for democracy, rule of law and justice created a ruthless, ends-justify-means mentality that still defines Korea up to this day. It also meant that human dignity itself was trampled over to make way for the mindless burgeoning of the economy and its main industries. As I mentioned, there is this popular notion that certain freedoms were limited in South Korea in the 70s (mushy language like this is used to vastly understate the abhorrent abrogation of rights), but the economy did grow exponentially. The word ‘but’ is key, because it implies that denial of rights and economic growth can be disentangled. In modern South Korean history, it can’t. Park wrote that democracy, at least “their version of democracy” or “Western democracy”, was basically a waste of time. South Korea didn’t have time for such frivolities. They needed to catch up with North Korea, and he had to do it by all means necessary.
One of the “means” that Park Chung Hee’s government used, a relatively forgotten policy of the 70s, was to actively promote sex tourism to Japanese men who hopped on boats for Korean prostitutes. The government made a spectacular amount of money from it. It started in 1973, when the regime started giving permits to prostitutes that allowed them to enter hotels. There were ads sponsored by the government that promoted sex tourism for Japanese men, who came across the seas because prostitution was cheaper than Japan. A new special department in the International Tourism Board (now the Korea Tourism Board – the official government tourism promotion agency) was installed that managed prostitutes for Japanese visitors by doling out permits and organizing “etiquette training” for the Korean women that the Minister of Culture praised as patriots. These “patriots” were in fact consistently subject to physical abuse by their clients. By 1979, earnings from Japanese sex tourists in Korea amounted to 70 billion Korean Won and Park’s government was taking most of that money to fill its own coffers.
Feminists fought aggressively against the state – which was essentially an institutionalized pimp – and the KCIA responded with the only way it knew how – they threatened and arrested them. Spearheading the movement was Lee Woo Jung, a legendary first-generation Korean feminist and anti-dictatorship activist who was also president of the Korean Church Women Association. She sent letters to the Minister of Transportation and Minister of Health demanding that sex tourism be reined in and published booklets about the issue to raise public awareness. The KCIA took her and other female leaders into custody and tried to force her to sign a letter saying that Lee would not do any opposition activism. She refused and said that she didn’t want to become rich by selling off the daughters of this country.
Then the government tried a carrot and stick strategy. A Ministry of Culture official invited Lee and other civil society figures for lunch and begged them to stop protesting: “We need foreign currency right now, so we can buy fertilizers and produce goods. Sex tourism is patriotism!”. Lee clapped backed at him: “If you think that is such a patriotic thing to do, why don’t you make your daughter do it first? If you do that, we won’t oppose it either”. No further words were needed because the Ministry official turned red in embarrassment.
Ewha Women’s University students protesting sex tourism by Japanese men at Gimpo Airport, December 19th 1979
Of course, money from sex tourism wasn’t the only factor in the equation that made South Korea the economic powerhouse it is today. It also received monstrous amounts of aid from the US government in exchange for its allegiance to the anti-Communist crusade during the Cold War. Robert W. Kromer, an NSC staff member, drafted a memo addressed to President Lyndon B. Johnson that read: “We've poured into South Korea more than $6.6 billion in aid ($3.8 billion economic, $2.8 billion military) since World War II”. From 1946 to 1962, the total amount of economic (non-military) aid the US government gave out to countries totaled 66 billion USD, so the South Korea received roughly 5% of the pie, which doesn’t seem much, but is a huge piece considering it was more than what Vietnam and the Philippines received combined. India, whose population was 20 times bigger, got the same amount as South Korea. And 70% of the aid to India was in loans compared to South Korea where only 2.3% of the aid was.
From 1961 to 1978, 1.4 billion USD of economic aid flowed from the US to South Korea, but at the tail-end of this period a big PR disaster for both countries struck. On October 25th 1976, the Washington Post reported that Park Dong Sun, a Korean-American businessman who had graduated from Georgetown University and ran the posh Georgetown Club in DC, had been hired by the KCIA to bribe 90 American politicians and spent around 50,000 to one million USD on this effort. Why did the Korean government feel the need to bribe Beltway politicians? There were mainly two reasons why – one, the US was increasingly critical of the human rights situation in South Korea. Secondly, as American troops stationed in the peninsula began to withdraw in 1971, the US government also asserted that military aid for South Korea’s “modernization project” needed Congress approval. Such a move would put aid to Korea under scrutiny, which Park Chung Hee didn’t want. Park Dong Sun was a secret weapon used to sway congress members to support his regime.
The House of Representatives’ Ethics Committee subpoenaed Park Dong Sun in 1978 and questioned him. In exchange for amnesty, he testified that he had given 850,000 USD to 32 current and former politicians. However, he also maintained that the Korean government was not involved, and he had acted on his own accord. The so-called Koreagate scandal fizzled out with only one politician from California found guilty and three put on probation. Decades later, Park Dong Sun gave an interview where he not only admitted that he was acting on behalf of the Korean government, but he had met Park Chung Hee in person, who asked him to conduct lobby activities. The president arranged a slush fund for Park Dong Sun to use that even the (Korean) Republican Party and KCIA were not allowed to touch.
Park Dong Sun revealing in a 2011 interview that he was working for the South Korean government.
The question is – since the author contends that implementing a “culture of self-responsibility” made South Korea the great country it is today, does it mean that he sees sex tourism and illegal lobbying as good examples of self-responsibility?
A myth that must die
One way to look at all this is to ask, were any of the dictators of modern Korea – Lee Seung Man, Park Chung Hee and Jeon Doo Hwan - remotely interested in democracy or willing to cede power to the people once a certain level of economic stability had been achieved? Is there any grist for this? In other words, would Lee, Park and Jeon have relinquished their power if it weren’t for protests that erupted countless times nationwide? The answer is absolutely not. There are no records of these three being even remorseful about what they did or having a blueprint for a transition to democracy that stemmed from their own conviction and not due to popular pressure. Jeon Doo Hwan, the only one alive, still masquerades as a national hero in spite of his 1995 sentence that found him guilty of orchestrating a military coup and a bloody crackdown of the Gwangju Uprising.
This, by and large, disproves the dualistic thinking that I mentioned – the constant use of the word but in saying that Park Chung Hee did a couple of bad things but modernized South Korea. No, it was precisely by encroaching upon human rights and ethics that he created the economic impact he wanted – whether it was through exploiting women’s bodies, dehumanizing factory laborers (which I didn’t touch upon directly, but there’s ample literature out there) or arming lobbyists with tens of thousands of dollars to spend on Capitol Hill.
I wasn’t cherry-picking the worst episodes in the last 70 years or so to show that I was right. Actually, there are stories that are more tragic, gruesome and heart-wrenching. Modern Korean history is one of tragedy – of greedy, corrupt and violent elites stomping on the common people over and over again. It is a sad history which Koreans live in the shadow of every single day up until the present. No case is more exemplary of this than that of Park Geun Hye, former president, daughter of Park Chung Hee and now a convicted criminal imprisoned at Seoul Penitentiary. During her time as a politician, even before being elected to head of state, she consistently tried to embellish her father’s image and romanticized him as a great pioneer. His supporters are still enamored by the idea of a great Korean ruler who will oversee the nation with an iron fist and lead it to glory.
Hence, if it wasn’t for the pro-democracy, pro-labor rights movement that emerged after independence, South Korea wouldn’t have become the “advanced democracy” that the author is so proud of. This sounds pretty self-evident and we see the repercussions in the social struggles of today, but as the late Hwang Hyun San said, people have different degrees of sensitivity. Sensitivities aside, one has to wonder why the author doesn’t mention our rich history of resistance – whether that’s intentional or unintentional, I have no idea. But what I do know is that his simplistic, reductionist presentation of history has no truth to it. All he has done, to be honest, is to jot down some of his thoughts based on his own thoughts, in what we Koreans call ‘nwae-fficial’ or ‘official from the brain’ in English – which means one’s statements are solely based on inner workings of one’s head and has no corresponding fact or phenomenon in the real world. In doing so, he used his heritage as a source of authority, selling his Korean identity as a cover and excuse for his poor logic and flaccid grasp of history.
Commenting in response to his peers on Facebook on April 26th, the author implored his interlocutors to ‘pay attention to history’, haughtily implying that anyone who doesn’t agree with him had inferior views. Although he was talking about American not Korean history, he should nevertheless listen to his own advice and read a book or something because it would be time better spent than complaining about why he isn’t compared favorably to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
History tells us there was no such thing as the “Miracle of the Han River.” There was nothing miraculous about South Korea’s “modernization”. There was only the sweat, tears and blood of those who dreamt of a new era better than the one that they were living in. So it’s time to lay pitiful nationalist myths to rest once and for all. Only then can the souls of Lee Han Yeoul, Jeon Tae Il, Park Jong Chul, Kim Soo Hwan, Seo Do Won, Kim Yong Won, Lee Su Byoung, Woo Hong Sun, Song Sang Jin, Yeo Jeong Nam, Ha Jae Wan, Do Ye Jong and thousands of others rest in peace.
Despite this, the author admonishes his readers to take a stand, understand the complexity of a situation, handle disagreements and/or to grow up. If the author thinks that he took a stand, understood the complexities of a situation and handled disagreement adeptly, like a grown-up, in the two articles he wrote (one in supposed response to the comments of others), then I can say that the bar for his suggestions is so embarrassingly low that I am not interested in heeding his call. At least in his unique understanding of those terms. And if he thinks being divisive and angry are the polar opposites of his propositions, then I am quite content being so.
As many SIPA students have found, engaging with the author has been akin to talking to a brick wall because you never get any real answers. If he was a brick wall, he’d probably be at a place Jon Stewart once called ‘spin alley.’ So in closing, I’d just like to say that he is free to respond to my piece, but I can’t promise that I’ll write back and if I do, I’ll just make up my own facts as I go along. You know, just to level the playing field.