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Dr. Namhee Lee of the Department of History at UCLA discusses the "Park Chung-hee Syndrome"

by Hye Eun Choi

Posted: November 21, 2008

Dr. Lee described how public perceptions and descriptions of Park Chung-hee have changed. Since South Korea's achievement of parliamentary democracy in the late 1980s, public perception of Park had been largely negative. His government was described as repressive and anti-democratic. However, a reappraisal of Park began in the 1990s. Dr. Lee used the example of a poll conducted by a South Korean newspaper in 1997. The poll asked a group of university students which historical figure they would like to see cloned. Answers included the Korean patriot Kim Gu along with Mother Theresa. A small number of students chose Park Chung-hee. Though the number of students was small, including Park in such a list would have been unthinkable in previous years. This and other examples indicated that public opinion about Park was changing. The South Korean media called this the "Park Chung-hee syndrome." Dr. Lee suggested that Park Chung-hee syndrome can be a way to examine cultural or social production of historical understanding outside academic contexts, as well as more general questions about the relationship among history, public memory, and historical consciousness.

Several reasons were cited by Dr. Lee as possibly being behind the Park Chung-hee syndrome. A primary reason was economic and social changes that have occurred around the world since the beginning of the 1990s. These changes include the collapse of socialism in Easter Europe, the growth of neoliberalism and globalization, and the overall dominance of the market. Dr. Lee indicated that these developments had the effect of discrediting notions of revolutionary change. In South Korea specifically, these changes lead to a loss of moral privilege and influence among intellectuals, particularly those that were associated with the "minjung," or people's movement.

Dr. Lee explained that in the 1970s and 80s, intellectuals had a privileged role in understanding and defining South Korean national identity as well as historical consciousness. They had been critical to articulating the counter memory of the minjung movement, which had considered them leaders in the struggle for democracy. By the 1990s, the democratic transition was well underway. This fact, along with material prosperity, meant that the conflict between state memory and counter memory had less political relevance. There was more interest in consumption than politics. Accordingly, social expectations about intellectuals changed as well. They were now expected to have a cultural rather than a political role, as professionals who supported the state and market. Intellectual participation in the minjung movement was now seen as politically suspect, founded on a desire for power. The intellectuals' loss of political influence went along with a more confident attitude by conservatives, whose understanding of history was now less balanced by the counter memory of the minjung movement.

The shift in perspective was particularly clear in historical novels and biographies of Park. While earlier biographies had presented him as an important historical figure, newer works portrayed him as an almost superhuman leader. Dr. Lee used the example of a 1997 biography which drew a mystical parallel between Park and the destiny of the country. Park was also a character in a historical novel in which he is portrayed as a heroic nationalist resisting the controlling influence of the United States as well as Japan. The Park of this novel sees the development of nuclear weapons as a great national project or quest. In the end he is thwarted by the CIA. Other works had a similar mixture of fictional situations and real characters, and typically had themes of cooperation with North Korea and war with Japan.

Dr. Lee indicated that critics in South Korea have viewed such literature as political manipulation of the people, carried out by the conservative media with ties to the ultranationalist Right. These critics see in the popularity of this literature a desire for the strongman politics of the past, given the uncertainties of present South Korean society. Dr. Lee concluded by asserting that historians have an important role in resolving the ambiguities and traumas of the past. She views this as particularly important in South Korea, where memories of historical trauma are still very much present. She hopes to find a way to disentangle belief in the progress of history from the unreflective approaches of both the Left and the Right that have characterized much of South Korean history.

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