The issue of idolized dictators in South Korea

Turkey has been wallowing in an ever-growing ruckus for years. What the politicians, who are primarily responsible for such a state of being, have been doing is pouring more fuel on the fire and preventing people confused by imaginary enemies from coming to their senses.

The current state of the people who would keep away from political activities in the wake of the 1980 coup d’état constitutes a thought-provoking case for sociological research. In the past, the main piece of advice from parents to their kids was to “keep away from politics,” yet now they say: “It is time to give full support to the chief. We will fight, cause a commotion and stand guard before his house to protect him,” which signifies a tremendous change over the years. Today, many of those parents have come to endorse even the use of elementary school kids in this meaningless and dangerous dispute. The never-ending war of words that erupted between supporters of the ruling party and opposition parties in the wake of the June election is the result of this. But we don’t know exactly where this soaring polarization will lead.

The ongoing polarization in Turkey is also a source of concern for the world. Foreigners find it hard to understand what’s going on in Turkey. Similarly, we, as the citizens who are being suffocated in a sea of argumentative behavior, see our efforts to make sense of the world around us undermined by this process. And we start to look at the world with this perspective.

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who is a South Korean academic, and I realized I was having difficulty in explaining the current crisis in Turkey to him. Furthermore, I also noticed I found it hard to understand the recent developments in South Korea.

The issue of idolized dictators

In South Korea, history textbooks are prepared by several companies and endorsed by the Ministry of Education before use in schools. The country recently saw an interesting debate. The ruling party launched an attempt to ensure that the same textbook would be used in all schools so that the contradictory explanations in the old books could be eliminated. For the opposition parties, such efforts by the ruling party seek to cast young generations in a new ideological dye. The most heated part of the debate is that Lee Seung-Man, South Korea’s first president, and Park Chung Hee, the president who made the country an economic and technology giant, will be declared as heroes in the new textbooks.

Park came to power via a coup d’état in 1961 and managed to drive rapid economic development in the poverty-stricken country that paved the way for the current progress. South Korea was ranking behind many African countries when Park came to power. I knew him as a politician who was behind South Korea’s economic development and thought he should be treated as a hero or the leader of the century by South Koreans. After all, he not only ensured the building of modern multi-lane roads across the country but also implemented a tremendous and successful development program.

However, all those manifestations of economic development and increased prosperity have apparently fallen short of making all South Koreans accept him as the leader of the century. I failed to make sense of this debate on history textbooks; so I decided to discuss this issue with my South Korean friend. “Why is it wrong to refer to a leader who did great services to the country as a hero in history textbooks?” I asked. His answer made me realize that South Koreans value a civilized form of governance that respects human beings more than the material development manifested in the form of roads and plants.

Human rights more precious than economy

My friend referred to Park as a “dictator” and vehemently rejected the idea of treating him as a hero. I was surprised. “Would a dictator work to promote the interests of his people?” I thought to myself.

My friend explained that the degradation of human rights in parallel to economic development during the time of Park mattered more to him. Pressure, violence, crackdowns, investigations, media censorship and other measures targeting people who demanded rights and freedoms created traumas in many South Koreans. He stressed that a leader who started to believe that he should stay in power forever does not deserve respect.

I realized that with a brief perusal of the matter, I can make sense of my friend’s approach to the matter. When Park was in power, economic development was accompanied by corruption and wastefulness, and the government started to favor its supporters. It undermined democratic values but offered the excuse: “We are driving economic development. What else can we do?”

Having amassed power under the existing constitution, Park started to argue that this constitution was failing to serve the country’s administrative system and a new constitution should be drafted. This was another factor on the road to him becoming a dictator. Park took the Japanese Empire’s Meiji restoration as his model, and declared a state of emergency in the country, arguing that South Korea was surrounded by threats in the region and the country would fall into chaos if he went away. He took what came to be known as the Yushin Constitution to a referendum in 1972.

Despite many problems, the public endorsed the constitution by around 90 percent, recreating Park as a legal dictator. He maintained power until he was killed in 1979. Today, the country’s problems of that time are meticulously studied and everyone is referred to with due credit. South Koreans now find the reasoning “He torments us, but he gives us prosperity” as ridiculous.

South Korea was progressing. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects were being implemented. The country’s prestige was increasing on the international stage. To us, all these developments give a government an indisputable position. Even today we try to make everyone believe that it rains for the sake of our leader and the country will fall into chaos if our leader goes away. We hurl all sorts of insults at the people who voice allegations about corruption, unlawful and human rights breaches, and we inform on our sisters and brothers to government officials and try to curry the government’s favor. We declare even those former supporters of the leaders who have now started to voice self-recrimination as traitors and brag about being too merciful to those traitors. Apparently, there is much for us to learn from South Korea about how to lead dignified lives as human beings.

Mehmet Fatih ÖZTARSU

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