Seoul Exhumes the Past and Conservatives Cry Foul

GORDON FAIRCLOUGH – The Wall Street Journal

SEOUL, South Korea — A film that portrays Park Chung Hee, the dictator who ruled South Korea for nearly two decades until his 1979 assassination, as a philandering tyrant with ties to Japan is part of an unprecedented spasm of historical revisionism roiling the country’s business and political elites and damaging pro-U.S. conservative forces.
Produced in secret because its contents are so potentially explosive, the movie, “The President’s Last Bang,” is a partially fictionalized account of the killing of Mr. Park by his own intelligence chief. In the film, the killer calls Mr. Park by the Japanese name the president adopted when serving as a soldier for Imperial Japan, and then shoots him in the head, proclaiming victory for “democracy.”
The movie, which is set to open here today, comes as South Korea is digging up its past, hunting those who collaborated with Japanese colonial rule and debating how to treat those who supported the country’s own military dictators.
This wrenching re-examination has been prompted by liberal politicians — in control of the presidency and Parliament for the first time in the nation’s history — in part to discredit conservative opponents by pointing up their links to Korea’s former Japanese colonial masters and repressive home-grown regimes.
For South Korea, this is anything but ancient history. Newsreel footage of Mr. Park’s state funeral, spliced into the end of the new movie, features close-ups of Mr. Park’s daughter Park Geun Hye, who now is head of the conservative opposition Grand National Party.
Conservative lawmakers have condemned the movie. Mr. Park’s son has sued the film’s makers for defamation. A Seoul court on Monday ruled the producers must remove some scenes, including footage of Ms. Park, or it would block distribution of the movie. MK Pictures, which made the film, says it will contest the ruling.
The upheaval goes far beyond usual partisan bickering and is part of a much broader antiestablishment wave. Koreans who battled the generals who ruled here in the 1970s and 1980s are rising to positions of power in society and moving to break the hold of the old elite — many with strong ties to Japan and the U.S. — which has dominated politics and the economy for decades.
“This is a new generation. They don’t have the same baggage of the past, so they can dare to do this kind of thing,” says Kim Yong Deok, a historian and dean of the graduate school of international studies at Seoul National University. “So many things in our history have just been hidden. They need to be cleared.”
The National Assembly passed a law late last year setting up a committee to investigate South Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese authorities during the colonial period. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and Korea was liberated in 1945 after Japan’s defeat in World War II. The government also wants to probe past abuses by military governments and those who served in them. And it has declassified documents showing how the American-backed Mr. Park cut a deal with Japan for development aid in exchange for letting Tokyo off the hook for claims by individual Korean citizens.
[A poster for South Korean movie ‘The President’s Last Bang’]
A poster for South Korean movie ‘The President’s Last Bang’
All of this is strengthening the hand of liberal parties and dealing a significant blow to the pro-U.S. conservatives here at a critical time. The U.S. and South Korea are working to redefine their 50-year-old military alliance, while at the same time struggling to maintain a unified front as they confront a nuclear North Korea.
It also could help the government’s liberal economic agenda, which proponents say is focused on achieving a more equitable distribution of wealth. Critics say the administration of President Roh Moo Hyun is penalizing the wealthy and pursuing antibusiness policies, such as measures that seek to reduce family control of the country’s major conglomerates.
“The president wants to rewrite history. He thinks existing history was written in favor of the conservative mainstream,” says Park Jin, a member of the National Assembly from the opposition Grand National Party. “But you have to do that very carefully and not through the prism of politics.”
A number of venerable Korean companies might be affected by the collaboration investigations. Among those accused by some scholars of cooperating with the Japanese or profiting under colonial rule: Chosun Ilbo, one of the country’s largest newspapers and its leading conservative media voice; and the Doosan group, a large conglomerate with interests in construction, beverages and publishing.
Chosun Ilbo said that during the Japanese colonial period the paper may have done things that “were both meritorious and things that were mistakes.” It said that both should be considered and “we should not highlight only the mistakes.”…
…New movies and books are looking at South Korea’s past with a new — and skeptical — eye. The film about Mr. Park’s demise uses dark humor to look at the nature of his autocratic regime and personal foibles. Mr. Park is shown speaking Japanese with aides and is shot dead while in the company of two women — one a famous singer — brought to entertain him.
“I wanted to reveal the truth about the regime and Park Chung Hee,” says the film’s writer and director, Im Sang Soo. Mr. Im, who was 17 years old when Mr. Park was assassinated, says he grew up frustrated at the inability of people in South Korea to speak honestly about the late president…
Criticism of Mr. Park and discussion of his service in the Japanese Army and his ties to Japan were discouraged when Mr. Park was in power. His successors also clamped down on free expression. “I wouldn’t have been able to make this movie before now,” Mr. Im says. “Korea is changing very rapidly.”
Koreans don’t like to discuss Mr. Park’s connections to Japan, which is still widely reviled for its role as colonizer of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, says Mr. Im. Mr. Park served in the Japanese Army, fighting Korean partisans. “It’s a tragedy of modern Korean history that Park Chung Hee could become president of this country after independence from Japan,” Mr. Im says…
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