The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea

Yesterday [26 May 2011] at the New York Korea Society, Ezra Vogel, emeritus professor, Harvard, and Charles Armstrong, professor, Columbia had a conversation on ‘The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea’ [Harvard University Press], which Vogel coedited with Kim Byung kook, appearing in the very month when Col. Park overthrew the government of Chang Myon 50 years ago. This hefty volume contains contributions from leading South Korean scholars who laboured long in bringing it to the public’s attention.
The book shows, it is said, dictator Park Chung Hee’s strengths and weaknesses; it does not shy away from a ‘warts and all’ approach.
Vogel spoke at great length on a comparison between Deng Xiao ping and Park. Interesting as the similarities and differences are, he would have done the packed room a service by limiting his remarks, which in themselves, shed much light on the 17 years of Park’s rule until his generals assassinated him. Armstrong in very measured tones parsed the various essays in the book in an oral historical essay.
During the Q&A, it was very obvious that the Whig appreciation of the dictator’s rule, which did make a determining mark on the history of South Korea, had won approval by the questioners and by the rapt attention of the audience. Recognising the repressive side of Park, it became clear that the ‘strong man’ won hands down in the light of what South Korea is today.
Saying this, time did not permit the questioning of Park’s role to subvert the US constitution in what is now far from the American imagination: ‘Koreagate’, nor the payoff the US delivered when the dictator sent ROK troops to fight in Vietnam, nor, too, the attempt to kidnap and assassinate Kim Dae Jung, who later became president in the late 1990s, won a Nobel for peace and opened dialogue with North Korea in the now dead ‘Sunshine Policy’ which Lee Myung bak killed when he entered the Blue House in 2008.
Admittedly the Whig approach to history appeals to US and US trained South Korean scholars. The strong man embodies the nexus of economic and political and cultural trends which flow from a country‘s history, but it is his personality that here took centre stage. The role of Japan under whose colonial rule formed the soldier Park did not escape comment nor notice, but the role of the US did ironically.
For some time now, Park has been going through rehabilitation. Where he gets a hearty pat on the back, it is curious that a towering figure like Kim Il sung who played an equally important role in Korea’s history gets a thumb’s down. Obviously what is good for one Korean goose is illicit for another Korean gander!
‘The Park Chung Hee Era: The Transformation of South Korea’ sells in hardcopy at the retail price of us$55, a good sum in tight economic times. GuamDiary suggests looking for it in a university library.

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