How an election became a contest for Korea’s past as well as its future.
by Woojeong Jang
On December 19, 2012, South Korea held its eighteenth presidential election. As a result, Park Geun-hye became the first female president in Korean history. She is the notable daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator who ruled South Korea between 1961 and 1979. Park Geun-hye has never formally declared political severance from her father. The victory of such a controversial candidate was a dramatic outcome that has critical implications for South Korean society.
Park Geun-hye’s father came to power through a military coup in 1961 and ruled the nation for 18 years until his assassination. Liberal critics harshly condemn Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, during which the imposition of martial law and use of torture became all too common. On the other hand, many conservatives believe that he was a legitimate and charismatic leader whose economic policies generated growth at an unprecedented rate. In today’s South Korea, the most important distinction between conservatives and liberals, besides their stance on North Korea, is their view of Park Chung-hee’s regime.
In this context, President Park is her father’s political heir as much as she is a symbol of both acclaimed and discredited aspects of his dictatorship. This particular legacy starkly contrasts with the past of her opponent, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer who had fought against Park Chung-hee’s repressive regime and was imprisoned for his activity in 1975. Moon Jae-in represented those who opposed Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship and fought for the democratization of South Korea throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The 2012 presidential election, then, was not only a contest to set the nation’s course for the next five years, but a deep-rooted struggle to define the past and the ultimate values of South Korean society. In essence, Koreans were deciding between different interpretations of Park Chung-hee’s rule. The result was his daughter’s victory.
In December 2012, TIME magazine defined this election as a confrontation between a strongman’s daughter and a human rights lawyer. However, within the confines of this overly simplified framework, it seems difficult to explain how a dictator’s daughter who never declared political severance from her father could become a democratically elected president. In reality, Park Geun-hye’s electoral chances could not have been solely determined by the easy political formula of “democracy over dictatorship,” assuming, as that schema suggests, that Park Geun-hye represents the legacy of dictatorship. Rather, there were many variables at play, all of them rooted in the complex history and politics of Korea. The collective memory of South Koreans, who have a traumatic history marked by Japanese colonization, post-war division, civil war, dictatorship and a 1997 financial crisis, must be explained in order to fully understand the nature of President Park’s victory.
First, South Korea is a highly conservative society. Shortly after becoming independent from Japanese domination in 1945, the country was divided into a capitalist South and a communist North. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, triggering the Korean War. Ever since, the presence of North Korea has been the greatest threat to the South’s national security. The long confrontation gave birth to a peculiar brand of South Korean conservatism lacking pan-Korean nationalism, despite such nationalism becoming a major component of conservatism in many countries. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to take a softer stance toward North Korea, exposing themselves to attacks based on anticommunist rhetoric from the right.
Because South Korea’s political constituency is so markedly conservative, liberal presidents have only served two out of eighteen terms in the history of South Korean democracy. Even during these two terms, conservatives held a majority in the South Korean congress for most of the time. As former Healthcare Minister Yoo Simin remarked in his book “It Is a Fate,” it is as if South Korean liberals were “playing soccer in a slanted field”: blunders made by conservatives usually go unnoticed, whereas even a slight mistake committed by a liberal ends up as a fatal own goal. This suggests that regardless of the conservatives’ presidential candidate, the liberal opponent would have never had an easy chance.
Another factor to take into account is the remarkable economic growth that took place during Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship. The Korean War, which lasted for three years, completely destroyed the cities and infrastructure of South Korea. Even after the armistice, many South Koreans lived in poverty and in constant fear of a possible invasion from the north. During Park Chung-hee’s regime, the country’s economy experienced an average annual growth rate of 10 percent.
South Koreans began to believe they were now safe from the threat of communism, since the nation’s wealth increased substantially, and society—as well as the military—became more stable. Regardless of whether the high rate of economic growth should be attributed to Park Chung-hee’s economic policies or to the broader global trend of growth in East Asia, economic conditions were favorable enough to frame the senior Park as a respectable leader who saved the nation from the communist threat by reviving the economy.
As a result, not only Park Chung-hee’s daughter but in fact many South Korean conservatives accept that the dictatorship was a necessary condition for the sake of rapid economic growth and a strong national defense. They argue that nothing could have been worse than being conquered by the communist North. Thus, balanced against economic growth and the stabilization of social order, the violation of human rights was simply a lesser evil and could be condoned for the greater good. Liberals, on the other hand, continue to condemn his dictatorship, arguing that economic growth and the protection of human rights are not mutually exclusive, and asserting that economic growth cannot be an excuse for Park’s abuse of power. These opposing narratives clashed fiercely throughout the election season, as the most intense and jarring debate regarding modern Korean politics was formally introduced into the electoral and cultural arena.
Many political commentators predicted that being framed as a dictator’s heir would give Park Geun-hye a substantial disadvantage, and it was unclear whether she could endure accusations grounded in moral issues and her father’s disregard for human rights without losing legitimacy. The attack on her father’s legacy, however, actually worked in her favor, because the contention served to consolidate her largest constituency: older generations.
According to Realmeter, one of the largest polling organizations in South Korea, the voter turnout of the over-50 age group was about 90 percent in the 2012 presidential election. Such a record suggests that Park Geun-hye successfully mobilized her constituency. Support came chiefly from the sense of stability and the link with the past that she embodied for older South Koreans, who remain nostalgic for the astonishing economic growth they witnessed firsthand during the senior Park’s regime. Liberal critics, meanwhile, lambast depictions of that period for being increasingly romanticized since the 1997 financial crisis.
The 2012 South Korean presidential election demonstrates that political decisions made today are profoundly influenced by collective memory. The decision to elect Park Geun-hye will itself become part of South Korea’s common past one day, and can immensely affect the country’s future.
But the challenges for South Korea are all too present. President Park must now work to unite a society that became deeply fragmented during the presidential election, and precisely because she is a symbol of South Korea’s controversial past, Park might be the only figure who can truly reconcile the divided people and heal their wounds—that is, if she works to embrace both sides and distance herself from the most controversial aspects of her father’s legacy. In September 2012, Park Geun-hye formally apologized for human rights violations committed during her father’s rule—a good start—though some observers doubted her sincerity given the approaching election and her reluctance to criticize outright the senior Park. But by electing Park, many South Koreans have cemented their interpretation of the past—and the key to the future is now in her hands.
Woojeong Jang ’16 is a Political Science concentrator.
Art by Katrina Machado