It was the fall of 1990 that I first learned about the true character of former President Park Chung Hee. The JoongAng Ilbo was to run a series titled “The Blue House Office of Secretaries” on the undisclosed history of the Park Chung Hee administration, and I took the job of the first chapter of the years-long series.
For one year and two months, I met with ministers, lawmakers, secretaries and military officials who had served under President Park. Their stories were just as dramatic as Park Chung Hee’s.
Park was very much alive in the memories of those who worked with him personally. Kim Jeong-ryeom, who had been the chief of staff for Park for nine years and three months, devoted his life to documenting the stories of Park Chung Hee.
O Won-cheol, the architect of the heavy chemical and defense industry, was killed by the new military government in 1980 and Blue House secretary Lee Seok-pyo was struck by a stray shot during the first test firing of the Vulcan gun.
President Park’s barber showed tears as he recalled the shabby belt the president had been wearing.
Those who had worked for Park Chung Hee attested to his patriotism and character in unison. Over a decade had passed since the president was assassinated, so they had freedom to be critical of him at that time. Yet, they did not talk about his flaws. Instead, they recalled the memories of integrity and patriotism.
The frugal leader kept a fly swatter in his office and put a brick in the toilet water tank to save water. He liked to have simple noodle soup for lunch. They also mentioned the phrases that have since passed into legend - restoration of the country, modernization and industrialization, international trade and the Saemaeul Movement.
As a reporter, it was a surprising experience to hear consistent testimony from all of those interviewed. I had worked on stories about Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak. No other president received such consistent and coherent praise.
Those who worked for other presidents did not fail to mention their bosses’ faults and flaws along with their accomplishments. Park’s successors were apparently less perfect leaders than he was. I do not believe that the Miracle on the Han River would have been possible if it weren’t for Park Chung Hee’s leadership.
Moreover, it is even less convincing to me that Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung could have attained democratization along with economic development. These theories are nothing but fiction.
What characteristics of Park Chung Hee made so many subordinates so loyal? I concluded that Park Chung Hee was an archetypal “community man.” Most people lead an ordinary life of pursuing their own ambitions within a community. However, a leader seeks improvement of the community as a whole rather than focusing on his individual desire.
A man of community integrates the progress of civilization and the development of the community with his personal growth. Park Chung Hee was a man of community and he changed my perspective of the world.
In 1960s and ’70s Korea, development of the community meant establishing security, overcoming poverty and attaining economic development. Democratization was not an urgent task of the period. Rather, the development-driven dictatorship of Park Chung Hee became the beginning of full-fledged democracy. Democracy is only possible when a middle class is formed through economic development.
The Park Chung Hee period was different from today. The country needed extraordinary unity to attain economic growth amid socialist threats from the North. So the development-driven dictatorship may have been inevitable. Park was a man of integrity and the purpose of his dictatorship was the economic development for the community, inspired by patriotism to defend the nation.
Once I learned about Park Chung Hee, I came to have deep antagonism against the leader who deceives the community. I despise the leader who takes advantage of what the community provides and pretends to stand up for the community yet betrays the interests of the community in the end.
For a long time, the Democratic Party has denied that Pyongyang is responsible for the sinking of our Cheonan warship. The opposition party still does not recognize the provocation officially. I feel anger that borders on religious conviction, largely because of my respect for the president. Park deterred the North Korean threat and assured 30 million Koreans that we can do it if we try.
If he were alive today, he would take the Democratic Party lawmakers to Baekryeong Island. He would then personally tell them who had died there, who killed them and why the liberal-democratic state denounced the murderer.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the May 16 coup and I feel grateful that the bullet shot by a military police officer did not hit Maj. Gen. Park Chung Hee as he crossed the bridge over the Han River half a century ago.