A Familiar Name Returns to South Korean Politics

September 28, 2012
By Elizabeth Pond

I have nothing against Park Geun Hye—but her father had something against me. I am therefore following her campaign to become South Korea’s first woman president with special interest.

It all happened 40 years ago, when I got a call at about 3 a.m. my time in Tokyo from my foreign editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. The South Korean embassy in Washington had just warned him that my reporting from Seoul was so inflammatory that on my next visit, the government could not guarantee my safety from angry readers of the Monitor, he told me.

The notion that all four or five Korean readers of The Christian Science Monitor might congregate with baseball bats at the bottom of the airplane ramp was flattering, but sobering. We agreed that I should rip up my ticket for the flight to Seoul I was booked on later that morning.

At the time, former general Park Chung Hee, the dictator who had seized power in an army coup, was cracking down harshly on trade union organizers and political dissenters. I had written (as had other American journalists) about torture of political prisoners in jail. But what apparently incensed President Park was the interview I had published with the American official who had saved his life back in the 1940s after Park took part in a pro-Communist coup. Had the American not intervened, Park would have been executed. This was a part of history that the staunch 1970s’ ally of the United States preferred not to have disinterred.

A decade and a half later in Europe, well after Park’s 1979 assassination, South Korea and I made up. By then Park had laid the foundations that would turn the ravaged post-war country he took over into one of the Asian tigers, with Samsung and Hyundai exporting their electronics and cars around the globe and jacking per capita GDP up to today’s $30,000, only slightly below European levels. At an international conference in Berlin, I was mystified as a South Korean ambassador sought me out and invited me to breakfast the following morning. The only reason I could imagine was that he wanted to lobby me to entice thousands of American readers to visit the forthcoming summer Olympics in Seoul.

Since neither my host nor the two other Korean officials present initiated a topic of conversation at breakfast and it seemed impolite to sit at the table in silence, I posed some lame track-and-field questions. When these petered out, I tried a different tack and asked the man opposite me where he had worked before his present post. Bingo! He had been in the Blue House, the Korean equivalent of the White House. He made no reference to the awkward fact that I had been persona non grata in South Korea, nor did I. But we both smiled, ever so slightly. And when we parted company, the entourage presented me with a huge container of ginseng tea and said they certainly hoped I would come to see the Seoul Olympics.

Fast forward to Park Geun Hye, the conservative governing party’s candidate for South Korean president in the campaign that has already started for the December 19 election. She served as her father’s hostess in his last five years in office after her mother was assassinated in 1974 and has been an elected legislator in the National Assembly since 1998. She suffered a deep gash in her face at the hand of a knife-wielding attacker in 2006 but survived. She now draws 38 percent approval in opinion polls as she runs for president against liberal rival Moon Jae In (23 percent) and independent Bill Gates-clone Ahn Chul Soo (27 percent), and is widely expected to win if her two competitors both stay in the race and split the progressive votes.

She has now moved toward the popular center by championing “economic democratization,” implying a reduction in the huge income gap between chaebol billionaires and the man on the street. She has promised, if elected, to be president of “100 percent” of South Koreans. In this vein she has also appealed to one-time opponents of her father by visiting the graves of all former presidents—including Kim Dae Jung, who in Park Chung Hee’s era was kidnapped by the South Korean CIA in Tokyo and came very close to being deep sixed in the Sea of Japan.

This week she also apologized for her father’s authoritarian rule for the first time. While her father had put economic growth and national security first, she said, he had done so at the cost of  “sacrifices by workers who suffered under a repressive labor environment” and “human rights abuses committed by state power.” For herself, she said, “I believe that it is an unchanging value of democracy that ends cannot justify the means in politics.” She cited the aphorism that “when the past and present fight, the future is lost” and continued, “We need to move on from hatred to tolerance, division to integration, and past to future.”

I never did get back to Seoul. But if Park Geun Hye makes history and enters the Blue House in her own right, I might just revisit South Korea one day to thank her for the ginseng tea.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist. Her book on German unification, Beyond the Wall, was translated into Korean and may have contributed in a small way to Seoul’s present-day aversion to the huge costs any unification with the economic basket case of North Korea would entail.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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