This piece is thirty years old, from back before President Park's assassination, but the first sentence should sound familiar to anyone who read up on Singapore during the 1990s (and during the Zeroes, too). This story will give some idea why some people in Korea, and not just the chinbo "progressives" who bash anything associated with the Korean conservatives, the U.S., Japan, or capitalism, have very mixed feelings about Park's legacy: yes, he is responsible for putting Korea down the road to fruition, but he ran over a lot of people along the way.
[Related note to those who follow the Japan apologist line that Japan is responsible for Korea's post-war growth: If your belief holds water, why did Korea's economy not take off until after Park took over and instituted his economic plan? If Japan had installed and left the proper infrastructure and capital and instilled an entrepreneurial mindset, why didn't the economic climb start while President Syngman Rhee was in power, a period that lasted until some years after the Korean War had ended?]
There are some quotes in this piece that are amazingly timely for today. Then opposition leader Kim Youngsam, who would later become president for the post-military era conservatives, says, "Essentially, President Park's claim of an imminent military threat from the North is a subterfuge for ensuring the longevity of his regime." [Note also that under Park there was a law that forbids "slanderous or libelous remarks against the state" to foreign media.] In Kim's remark you can see a glimmer of what the problem is today: many in Korea's far left have long believed that the threat from the North has been engineered in order to justify the right from maintaining tight control.
Moreover, this should underscore why so many people in Korea are willing to entertain "Sunshine Policy" in an attempt to try something different: they suffer from threat fatigue. It was certainly true in 1975 and it's true today: most South Koreans had lived most or all of their lives with the idea that the North could swoop down and kill them at any minute (ditto for the Taiwanese from Mainland China). In contrast, the Japanese and the Americans have had no similar threat since the Cold War supposedly ended.
Is it any wonder that the Taiwanese and the South Koreans seek to remove or mitigate this threat by reaching out to the one pointing a knife at them? Standing there in a bold stance, showing that your ready to fight, has kept the two ROs (as in Republic of Korea and Republic of China, in contrast with their People's Republic of counterparts) safe, but it hasn't abated the threat. Perhaps alleviating the threat by ameliorating relations would help. And that's where we are today. It would be foolish for military benefactors in Washington to assume that Seoul or Taipei are no longer "on our side."
Anyway, on with our story...
South Korea's President Park Chung Hee has long maintained that Western-style democracy could only work in South Korea with certain Eastern "modifications." In recent weeks Park has given a graphic demonstration of what he means. After a brief period of relaxation during which some 148 political prisoners were released, repression has returned with a vengeance.
The crackdown began with the public hanging two weeks ago of eight South Koreans convicted of being Communists. Last year a military court sentenced the men to death for having conspired to overthrow the government by encouraging anti-Park demonstrations. Early this month the supreme court upheld the sentences; less than 24 hours later the men were executed.
At the same time, Park bore down on the chief centers of resistance to his government: the churches and universities. Three of Seoul's best-known Protestant ministers were arrested on vague charges of "misusing" some monetary contributions from West Germany. (Seven U.S. missionaries who donned hoods and nooses to protest the hangings were questioned by officials but later released.) Two dozen colleges and universities in and around Seoul were closed, and more than 200 students were arrested for urging Park's downfall. One student committed suicide by disemboweling himself on the campus of Seoul National University. He left behind a note to the President: "Do not mistake the silence of the masses as support for your regime."
The latest repressive measures reflect new elements of uncertainty within the Park government. South Korea was genuinely shocked that the U.S. did not intervene to prevent the collapse of South Viet Nam and Cambodia. Even though the U.S. still maintains 40,000 troops and keeps tactical nuclear weapons in the country for defense against a possible invasion, there is concern over the strength of the American commitment. Moreover, since 1971 the U.S. has given only $792 million of a promised $1.5 billion for modernizing Seoul's armed forces.
Beyond that there have been some unsettling encounters with the often jingoistic, saber-rattling North. Last month firefights broke out when two flotillas of North Korean patrol boats ventured along the South's coastline. Then, adding credence to the South Korean claim that the North's President Kim II Sung is bent on aggression, two tunnels, apparently intended for use by North Korean guerrillas, were discovered in the southern half of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries. Last week Park warned anew of an invasion by the North's 480,000-man army (the South's army totals 600,000) pointing out that Kim II Sung was about to fly to Peking, where he is expected to ask for arms aid.
To dissidents in the South, Park's warnings are only an excuse to repress political activity. Said Kim Young Sam, 48, leader of the opposition Democratic Party: "Essentially, President Park's claim of an imminent military threat from the North is a subterfuge for ensuring the longevity of his regime." Kim Young Sam's judgment could land him a seven-year prison sentence under a law that forbids "slanderous or libelous remarks against the state" to foreign media. Yet many members of the Seoul establishment privately agree with him.
U.S. analysts also tend to minimize the likelihood of a North Korean military adventure. President Kim's economic policy has suffered from acute shortages of foreign currency. Furthermore, China, which would have to aid Kim in any invasion of the South, clearly does not want a costly war. It would not only tax the Chinese economy but would give the hated Soviets a chance to increase their influence in East Asia.
These arguments are clearly lost on Park, even though he is well aware that exactly 15 years ago last week massive student protests forced the overthrow of the dictatorial Syngman Rhee. Park might well strengthen his position by permitting some political liberalization. Most of the country's dissidents are strongly anti-Communist and ready to fight off a North Korean invasion. Sadly, members of Park's ruling Democratic Republican Party last week began debating still another addition to the country's internal security system: a new law that would impose stiff penalties on "ideological criminals."
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