Ending the Park Era in South Korea for Good

Photo by Foreign and Commonwealth Office | CC BY 2.0

Park Geun-hye, the former South Korean president, just got sentenced to 24 years in prison for corruption. This is good.

Some perspective. Following the imposition of the U.S. Occupation on (southern) Korea in September 1945, the U.S. handpicked the Korean nationalist Syngman Rhee (Lee Seungman) to head the emerging South Korean colony. (The Koreans were still viewed by the U.S. forces as hostile, if only because Korea had been part of the Japanese Empire and Koreans had fought in the Japanese Army.  Lt. Gen. John R. Hodge, who headed the occupation administration, explicitly described the Koreans as “enemies,” refused to recognized the newly-formed Korean People’s Republic—which had been recognized by the defeated Japanese—actively suppressed its “people’s committees” throughout the south, and initially ordered Japanese colonial administrators to remain in their posts  to serve the U.S. in its occupation goals.)

Rhee had been living in the U.S. since 1904, receiving degrees from George Washington University, Harvard and Princeton and making a name for himself as an advocate for Korean independence. A Christian convert from his youth, married to an Austrian woman, Rhee was little known in Korea. (Kim Gu, who had been based in China, had the greater revolutionary nationalist credentials.) He had spent two years (1910-12) in China and Korea, but otherwise lived in Hawaiian exile. As it was the U.S. imposed him as dictator in the south, while actively preventing national reunification.

Syngman Rhee brutalized his people. An ardent anti-communist of course, he arrested thousands of opponents, killing some (including his rival Kim Gu). He jailed some 30,000 accused communists, many of whom were tortured in prison. He crushed uprisings with brutal force; in the communist-led revolt on Cheju Island (which is as far removed from the North Korean border as one can be and still be in Korea; that is, the revolt was not directed by Pyongyang) state forces killed about 14000 rebels. Park’s repeated provocations along the 38th parallel worried some Congressmen who felt Rhee might drag the U.S. into war.

When Kim Il-sung’s forces stormed over the border on June 25, 1950, in order to reunite the artificially divided peninsula, inaugurating the Korean War, they met with general support from the southern population. (This is the key point about the Korean War that is inadequately known or discussed. The fact is, the people wanted reunification, Rhee was unpopular, there was little incentive to resist the “invasion” by patriotic brothers. Had the U.S. not intervened to maintain the division, Korea would be one today.)

Within six weeks, the northern forces gained control of almost the entire peninsula; only the region around Puson remained under the control of the south Korean state. The U.S. summoned the Security Council to approve an international mission to repel North Korean “aggression.” Had the Soviet ambassador been in attendance he would have vetoed the resolution approving the mission. But he was absent protesting the failure of the UNSC to confer the China seat on the UNSC to the Beijing government, leaving it instead in the hands of the U.S. puppet regime of Chiang Kaishek on Taiwan. (The PRC did indeed acquire the UNSC seat, twenty-one years later in 1971.)

Posing as UN-approved forces defending international law etc., U.S.-led forces pushed the Northern forces back to the 38th parallel and beyond, threatening to reunite the peninsula on U.S.-dictated terms. As U.S. troops approached the Yalu River, the Chinese felt obliged to intervene big-time. The U.S. forces were defeated in the north, and driven back, despite unprecedentedly savage bombing and Gen. MacArthur’s threat to use nuclear weapons.

The war that took about four million lives ended in a stalemate after thirty-seven months. Nothing had been accomplished, except for massive death and the leveling of the country. The 38th parallel border was reaffirmed; Rhee remained in power. (He attempted to derail the armistice agreement by releasing from prison 25,000 North Korean “anti-communist” prisoners in the south, instead of repatriating them by agreement to their homes.) In 1960 student protests against his manifest corruption and the rigging of a recent election drove him out of the country. The U.S. realizing he was too discredited by now for further use skirted him away to a comfortable Hawai’i retirement in exile (as Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were later to enjoy.)

After a brief politically tumultuous interim, Park Chung-hee (Geun-hye’s father) rose to the helm in a military coup in 1963, remaining president up to his assassination in 1979. Another murderous scoundrel—a career officer in the Japanese Imperial Army, by the way, right up to 1945. (Thus while Kim Il-sung was fighting Japanese in Manchuria, Park Chung-hee was fighting with them against the Allies.)

Among Park’s crimes: the abduction of political opponent Kim Dae-jung from his Tokyo hotel, with the intent to murder him, in 1973; the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which South Korean military forces deployed with U.S. consent to suppress demonstrations, resulting in over 200 dead; his comment to his KCIA chief that he didn’t care if it cost 30,000 lives to suppress riots in the country. His secret nuclear weapons program from 1972 to 1978 (aborted by Jimmy Carter, who considered withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea but was blocked in his plans to do so by the brass).

Revisionist scholars in South Korea are rediscovering Park as a wise economic planner responsible for South Korea’s rise in the world. But he was a swine and it’s not surprising his own intelligence chief shot him to death in 1979, complaining he’d surrounded himself with insects.

Park was followed by Chun Doo-hwan (1980-88) who was sentenced to a long prison term for corruption.  Then Roh Tae-woo, a general implicated in the Kwangju Massacre, was president 1988-93. After leaving office he was sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption but the sentence suspended.

We can say that from 1945 to 1988 (43 years) South Korea was ruled by a dictator, and that a kind of bourgeois democracy has pertained since.

Kim Yong-sam (1993-98)–finally–was a civilian, liberal reformer who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. Kim Dae-jung (president 1998-2003) is the more noteworthy figure; Park Chung-hee had so feared him that he wanted him dead. But he embarked on a “sunshine policy” towards Pyongyang that Washington during the Bush/Cheney era actively sabotaged.

After him came Roh Moon-hyun (president 2003-08), a human rights activist who performed badly on the economy, taking responsibility with his suicide in 2009. Then Hyundai CEO and anti-north hardliner Kim Myung-bak governed from 2008-2013. Then this clown Park Geun-hye.

Thirty-four years after her father’s death, Park became the South Korean president. This itself seemed to represent a validation of her father’s dictatorship. In 2013 and 2014 Forbes declared her the most powerful woman in Asia. She’s the one who was disgraced and removed last year, and just got sentenced to 24 years in prison for corruption. In particular she lavished favors on Choi Tae-min, the ex-wife of her onetime Chief of Staff who’s the daughter of a religious cult leader and seems to have wielded inordinate psychological influence over Kim. The South Korean press has compared her to Rasputin. The two extorted some $ 72 million from Samsung and seventeen other conglomerates to, among other things, finance Choi’s daughter’s equestrian lessons. Her anti-labor policies, a new law requiring schools to use only government-approved history texts, and imposition of censorship produced large-scale protests.

(She does have her supporters. About 1000 protestors with U.S. and South Korean flags and posters reading “Rule of Law is Dead, Stop Deadly Trials Against President Park Geun-hye” rallied outside the courtroom when she was sentenced. But her popularity had been down to 4% when she was removed from office.)  Considered a hard-liner on North Korea, she had support in Washington, whereas current President Moon Jae-in, who favors rapprochement and will meet with Kim Jong-un soon, can be less assured of that.

Park while not as bad as her dad, was bad enough. She earned the contempt of her people and instant karma got her. Good riddance.

South Korea has been very poorly served by its leaders for 73 years. For 48 of them dictators ruled, naturally with U.S. support. For 25 bourgeois democracy has prevailed—alongside ongoing chaebol-related corruption, ongoing tensions with Japan and the DPRK, occasional crises such as the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis that caused the closure of one-third of South Korean banks. Geun-hye’s embarrassing presidency was the appropriate footnote to her father’s savage, ill-fated one. Her disgrace in a society where family identity is key, disgraces again her vicious father and the whole post-war South Korean polity—marked at is is from birth by Cold War confusion and submission to imperialists’ sadistic infliction of violence on its subjects.

Moon is the anti-Park. A former student activist, human rights campaigner, and secretary to Roh Moon-hyun, he has responded to the DPRK’s expanding nuclear weapons program (and Trump’s irresponsible sabre-rattling) by outreach, friendship and negotiation. He’s done so no thanks to Trump (unless he’s to be thanked for terrifying them both). The Koreas jointly participated in the PyeongChang Olympics, renewed cultural exchanges after many years, and planned a summit in the near future. A revival of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy that was sabotaged by Dick Cheney and his minions in 2001.

Quite likely the two sides are exchanging notes about mutual concern that the U.S. will visit “fire and fury” on their peninsula (again). Moon and the Supreme Leader in Pyongyang may regard one another as more reliable and sane than the U.S. president; they know his former Secretary of State called him a “moron” (which is highly unusual in the modern world). There are reasons for everyone to worry. On the other hand, it is possible that Trump actually understands that an attack on the north to force it to dismantle its nuclear program on John Bolton’s terms, with no U.S. concessions, in order to show abject deference to the U.S. and power of its terrorist threats, is untenable. (Lindsey Graham was saying last December that Trump could very well attack North Korea, and anyway, all the fighting afterwards would be “over there.”) He may agree to diplomatic and trade relations, and a reduction in U.S.-ROK military drills, in response to a schedule for denuclearization, in coordination with the south. This would be a joint Korean victory, both in a general sense (over the U.S. which has driven Seoul’s relations with the north since 1945 and actively opposed reunification), and in the particular sense of  victory over Trump’s unstable personality.

He went from saying he’d be honored to meet Kim Jong-un (May 2017) to calling him “Little Rocketman” (November 2017). In August he tweeted a warning to rain down “fire and fury”  on North Korea if they make more threats to the U.S.  In September he actually spoke before the United Nations General Assembly, declaring to the astonished assemblage of “world leaders”: “If the United States] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” Imagine how Korea, both Koreas, responded to this savage, racist, idiotic rant from an obviously unbalanced old fool knowing nothing about history and not interested in learning.

Fast forward. On March 28 the president opined that there’s a good chance the  North Korean leader “will do what’s right.” In the interim, on March 8, a South Korean delegation had come to Washington to brief the White House on recent talks between Seoul and Pyongyang. They delivered to Trump an  invitation from Kim Jong-un for a summit by May, and Trump accepted immediately, without even consulting with advisors. Linger on this point.

The South Koreans had held (very cordial) talks with the North Koreans. The North Koreans (while conducting “secret” negotiations with the U.S. in New York and Sweden and maybe elsewhere) decided to make the invitation through their southern compatriots to indicate that everybody involved supports this. The delegation publicly and privately praised Trump for his leadership in helping to relax tensions on the peninsula.

(I suspect the point was not in fact to say, “Thank you for your help” as to say, “We’re talking now and would like to solve our own problems. No Korean wants you to conduct a missile strike on the Yongbyong nuclear complex, whatever Bolton has to say about it. We are all concerned about the wild rhetoric and apparent unconcern about the Korean people. Please accept this face-saving alternative of a summit with Kim to more threats.”)

Two days later (March 30) in a speech in Ohio about something or other Trump strangely stated the following, concerning a new trade agreement with Seoul: “I may hold it up until after a deal is made with North Korea, does everybody understand that? You know why? Because it’s a very strong card. South Korea has been wonderful, but we’ll probably hold that deal up for a little while, see how it plays out.”

Who knows what this means? Is Trump telling Moon that he’s going to use the prospect of a peace agreement on the peninsula, and his ability to approve or prevent it, to beat Seoul into restricting steel exports? Is can be possibly be hinting, “We might treat you the way we’re treating China, provoking a trade war, while investing in the north?”

Trump’s popularity rating in South Korea was according to Gallup 24% in March. Kim Jong-un’s figure was 10%. There have been points over the last year when Trump was at 9%. As mentioned, Park Geun-hye was at 4% when she fell from power. The era of fascist repression and Cold War bloc contention seems past. North Korea rose from the ashes of the Korean war (in which it lost one-third of its civilian population to U.S. bombing) to a greater height of prosperity by the 1970s than the south. Things went very badly thereafter, as we know. But the state survived and now has obtained a new degree of international respect, having so dramatically augmented its defenses.

Seoul I think understands this. Moon may secretly admire how deftly the Dear Leader has played his hand. The Kim-Trump summit itself, if it happens, is a coup for DPRK diplomacy, but also South Korean diplomacy. The offer was made from Pyongyang via Seoul. It’s appropriate that these developments unfold as Park Geun-hye begins her jail term. Let the sun shine in.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu