Look Who's Back

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The anniversary of Park Chung Hee's assassination is usually a lonely affair for his eldest daughter. Shot by the chief of his own intelligence service 20 years ago, Park has long been reviled as the brutal strongman who jailed and tortured his enemies and turned South Korea into a police state. Saying a good word about the dead dictator in public was considered politically incorrect, never mind paying homage at the National Cemetery in Seoul where he is buried. So it was a bittersweet moment for daughter Park Keun Hae when some 3,000 people, including three former presidents, joined her at the cemetery last week to do just that. Even President Kim Dae Jung--whom Park tried to have killed--sent flowers. Said Keun Hae: I am so happy, deeply touched and very grateful.
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The anniversary crowds on Oct. 26 are only the latest indication of a stunning reassessment of Park's legacy that's now under way. As the country struggles to cope with high unemployment, diminished economic expectations and the messy compromises of democratic politics, many Koreans are looking back with nostalgia at the no-nonsense leader who laid the groundwork for the nation's rapid emergence as an industrial power.

Park's supporters have organized photo exhibitions about his life and created respectful homepages on the Internet. Last week, an actor portraying the dictator--adorned with his trademark Ray-Ban sunglasses--even made a stage appearance, in the first-ever play about Park's life. Several TV documentaries offering a softer view of Park have also been shown: in one, an acquaintance tells how the dictator was so frugal he insisted on resoling his old shoes instead of buying new ones. Another recalls how Park cried when his wife was assassinated. Says Heo Jean, who helped produce a Park film for state-owned KBS: There is no one who had a comparable impact--bad or good--on Korea's modern history.

It is not just Park's place in history that's at stake. Many Koreans believe that the past has to be put into better perspective before their country's democracy can mature. The old fault lines between an authoritarian right and a sometimes extremist left still roil Korean politics. President Kim has pledged to spend $8 million to build a memorial hall for Park, arguing that forgiveness will help the nation heal the divisions of the past. In a recent interview, Kim told Time: You cannot forgive the sin, but you must forgive the sinner.

Few suffered more at Park's hands than Kim himself. In 1973, Park's intelligence officers kidnapped Kim from a Tokyo hotel. They took him out to sea and readied him for execution, bound and blindfolded; only the last-minute intervention of the U.S. saved his life. Kim spent much of the rest of Park's days in power under house arrest or in jail. Kim wasn't the only target. Park used draconian security laws to jail and torture hundreds of dissidents, kept secret files on thousands of citizens, censored the press and banned strikes. One decree made virtually any criticism of his regime a violation of national security.

Yet two decades after Park's death, polls show that 80% of Koreans rank him as the country's best past president. Of course, he's up against weak competition: the generals who followed him were tripped up by corruption scandals. Kim Young Sam, Korea's first civilian president, bowed out in ignominy in 1998 after the economy imploded, forcing Korea to go hat-in-hand to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout (he scores about 1% in the polls).

North Korea's collapse has also helped refurbish Park's reputation. When he took power in 1961, the South trailed the North economically. Two decades later, it had become a powerhouse, flooding the world's markets with steel, oil tankers and TVs. The economic miracle instilled a lasting sense of pride in Koreans, and a taste for double-digit growth--without the bipartisan bickering that now characterizes politics. The Park revival, says Lee Bu Young, an opposition lawmaker: is a yearning for simpler days.

That nostalgia helped catapult Park's daughter to a sweeping victory in a parliamentary by-election last year. It didn't hurt that she inherited her father's presence and quiet charisma. Elderly people treat me like their relative, says Keun Hae, 47. But it wasn't always easy being an ex-dictator's daughter: she suffered when her father's supporters turned against his memory after his death. She says she was in a state of shock for years, then quietly began a campaign to rewrite the rap on the man she believes saved Korea from communism and grinding poverty. The one-sided denouncements of my father just wiped out everything he has done for the country.

Not everybody is happy with Park's rehabilitation. Accusing Kim of distorting history, a group representing 1,200 academics is trying to block construction of the memorial hall. Human rights activists are angry, too. I can never forgive Park, says Lee Kwan Bok, who was jailed for refusing to teach his students that Park's regime was the world's best liberal democracy. He betrayed democracy on the pretext of defending South Korea from communism. Opposition politicians, meanwhile, accuse Kim of trying to win votes in Park's political strongholds, where his support is weak. The general would surely have been amused by all the fuss.