Imagine, if you will, Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos running for president and clinching the post. Or, for that matter, her brother Senator Bongbong or even her mother Congresswoman Imelda.
Will you think it’s too soon for a Marcos rehabilitation or resurrection? Will memories of the dark days of martial law come flooding back? Will you fear a return of the repression and abuse that characterized those years?
Those may be the self-same thoughts and emotions running through the minds and hearts of South Koreans with the inauguration of Park Geun-hye as the country’s first woman president. Though most observers downplay the significance of her gender or civil status (she is single) in a nation that is still highly patriarchal (women make up only 3 percent of senior government officials), they do make much of her lineage. She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who led a coup in 1961 and proceeded to rule South Korea for 18 years, heading government with an iron fist but at the same time leading the country out of the economic ruins of the Korean War.
Korean novelist Suki Kim writes in the New York Times that for Koreans in their 50s and 60s (what Koreans dub as the “5060 generation”), “Ms Park has always been an emotional touchstone. She was the nation’s first daughter when her father ruled from 1961 until he was assassinated in 1979. For the last five of those years, she was also South Korea’s first lady—replacing her mother, who was killed in 1974 in a botched attack on Mr. Park by a North Korean sympathizer.”
This may explain, writes Kim, her strong emotional appeal to Koreans, especially those among the “5060 generation,” who lived through the years of Park Chung-hee’s reign. “Park Geun-hye looks eerily reminiscent of her mother, whom South Korean history books have cast as the nation’s ultimate first lady—a martyr. During the campaign, Ms Park borrowed a page from that script by reminding voters that she herself, having never married or had children, had nobody to mother except the people.”
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I highly recommend that readers try to get a copy of “The President’s Last Bang,” an award-winning movie about the assassination of Park Chung-hee by his chief of intelligence. The film focuses more on the aftermath of Park’s shooting, with the conspirators desperately trying to elude elements of the military who are intent not just on catching the culprits but on ensuring their takeover of government.
Many have commented on the uncanny parallels between South Korea and the Philippines, which both languished under dictatorial governments before the resurgence of democracy and the launching of their own versions of “People Power.”
What irony then that even as Filipinos observed the 27th anniversary of the 1986 People Power revolt, Koreans were witnessing the oath-taking of Park Geun-hye, daughter of an assassinated dictator.
Even more of a contrast is the fact that, during the official celebration of the Edsa revolt, P-Noy signed into law a bill compensating close to 10,000 victims of human rights abuses during martial law. The monetary compensation marks the first, formal acknowledgement that, from 1972 until the Marcoses’ ouster in 1986, the government violated the human rights of citizens, unjustly detaining them, torturing them, killing them. How fitting, then, that the money to be used for compensation will be coming from deposits illegally amassed by the Marcoses and their cronies and turned over to the Philippine government.
As a favorite movie line goes: “The money is the apology.”
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But also a point of contrast between our two countries is that even as our people struggled mightily to return to democracy, South Korea was leaving the Philippines behind in terms of economic development.
And by general consensus, this was mainly an accomplishment of Park Chung-hee, which explains the mixed feelings that many Koreans hold regarding Park and his memory. Korea’s economic surge is widely attributed to Park’s decision to shore up the chaebol, or family-controlled conglomerates, with generous government subsidies that resulted, said a news report, “in birthing the vibrant South Korean economy, a rapid rise from the ruins of the Korean War that has built a thriving middle class, made South Korean companies feared by competitors and restored the nation’s dignity.”
We all know what happened in our country, how the so-called cronies of Marcos, and the Marcoses themselves, used their access to power not to fuel economic growth or countryside development, but only to enrich themselves and amass fortunes abroad.
Read the two-part interview with former Trade Secretary Roberto Ongpin by Fernando del Mundo to remind yourself of how we came to such a pass.
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But even Korea’s “Miracle on the Han” must hit a snag some time. One of the main themes of the campaign was the worsening economic inequality, with the chaebol accused of using their power and corrupting influence on government to commit economic sabotage and abuse.
Reining in the conglomerates is thus seen as a main item on Ms Park’s governance agenda, although voters seemed to prefer her gradual approach rather than her main opponent’s more aggressive tendencies.
Meanwhile, observes Kim, “on either side of the 38th Parallel, we now have at the helm a daughter and a grandson of the two men who kept the halves of our nation pitted against each other through much of the cold war.”
Isn’t it our good luck that the dynastic politics of our own recent past took a different turn?