washingtonpost.com  > World > Asia/Pacific > East Asia > North Korea > Post

S. Koreans Revising Image of Nation's Elite

Film, Truth Panel Seen by Some as Attack on Wealthy

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A29

SEOUL -- The politically charged film "The President's Last Bang" is a shot at the heart of the South Korean establishment.

The main target: Park Chung Hee, the South Korean president, conservative icon and former military leader who was gunned down in 1979 after 18 years in power.

South Korean actors Baek Yoon Sik, front, and Han Seok Gyu star in "The President's Last Bang," which portrays the country's elite unflatteringly. (Reuters)

Park was venerated by conservatives as a hero who faced down communist North Korea while turning his country into an economic success. But the film, which opened this month to cheers and jeers, casts him as a philandering drunk with a traitorous soft spot for Korea's former occupiers, the Japanese.

South Korea's wealthy elite -- represented by Park's ministers, aides and henchmen -- are portrayed as degenerates torturing communists and gorging on luxury foods, excessive drink and easy women while displaying disregard for the common man. More than a lashing administered by one director, the movie captures the national mood.

South Korea's upper classes -- which have succeeded in amassing enormous wealth over the past three generations -- are calling themselves the victims of an anti-establishment crusade designed chiefly to discredit the pillars of politics and commerce who have long opposed North Korea. Analysts and political experts, in turn, describe it as part of the ideological debate raging as South Korea undergoes the broadest re-examination of national history since the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910.

President Roh Moo Hyun signaled changes when he took office two years ago on a vow to bring economic equality to the world's 10th-largest economy. Since then, the government has moved to raise property taxes on the wealthy, limit the power of the conservative-run print media and impose tighter controls on South Korea's family-founded conglomerates, including Samsung, the world's largest electronics firm.

In a country where saving face matters, wealthy South Koreans are alarmed by what they view as an assault on their reputations through the creation of a new truth commission investigating World War II-era Japanese collaborators and the release of embarrassing, long-sealed documents from the anti-communist Park era. The yet-to-be-named individuals and institutions, analysts say, are likely to incur profound public scorn.

"The ones who enriched themselves through anti-nationalist acts have been at the center of power until now," said Park Ki Choon, a leading legislator from Roh's ruling Uri Party, which took control of the National Assembly from conservatives last year for the first time in half a century. "We are not trying to punish anybody, we are trying to set history straight."

On Dec. 29, the Uri Party pressed a bill through the National Assembly creating the sweeping new commission to investigate South Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Top analysts predict the commission's eventual list of names will read like a Who's Who in South Korea.

The re-examination of the past reaches far beyond one commission. Last month, the Roh government released previously sealed documents from the Park Chung Hee era in what many analysts saw as a maneuver to discredit Park and his daughter, Park Geun Hye, who now heads the opposition and is Roh's main political rival. Among other revelations, the documents disclosed what opponents characterized as the scandalous terms of a 1965 agreement that Park struck with the Japanese on the issue of war compensation, settling all current and future compensation claims against Tokyo for $800 million in grants and loans. The release sparked an outcry from South Korean victims of the Japanese occupation who have spent years unsuccessfully seeking retribution in the courts.

Roh's supporters are also pushing to expand the scope of the truth commission to include those who engaged in human rights abuses and wrongfully benefited under the later military dictatorships, including that of the anti-communist Park Chung Hee from 1961 to 1979. Although plagued by human rights abuses, it was a time when powerful business leaders greatly expanded their personal wealth as South Korea quickly industrialized into a modern economy.

But inequities between rich and poor remain. Statistics show the number of South Koreans earning less than the minimum wage of $3 an hour is troublingly on the rise -- climbing to 1.25 million in 2004 from 850,000 in 2002.

Part of the reappraisal focuses on the deceased parents or grandparents of the powerful and wealthy. For example, Park Won Kuk, 76, lost control of Seoul's prestigious Duksung Women's University in 2001 amid charges that his mother, Song Keum Sun, secured ownership of the university after collaborating with the Japanese. Several years ago, a group of professors and students alleged that Song, who died in 1980s, had praised Japan's wartime Emperor Hirohito and headed a housewives association during the occupation. Charges against Song sparked student riots and an internal power struggle in which Park was ousted.

"The people of that era had no choice! The Japanese were in charge!" said Park, his voice shaking as he sat in a traditional chair of wood and mother of pearl at his elegant home in one of Seoul's finest neighborhoods. "They are attacking the people who built this nation into what it is today -- the people who protected us from communism!"

He said he was fighting to win back control of the school. But he said he "will never again be able to hold my head in public as a Korean" if his mother is named as a collaborator. Park Ki Choon, the Uri legislator, and other supporters of the probes deny their motives are political or that they are attacks on the establishment. Human rights advocates, historians and leaders of the Uri Party note that South Korea, unlike the nations of Western Europe occupied by Germany during World War II, never went through a broad purge of known collaborators. Rather, critics say that those South Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese and South Korea's own anti-communist dictators were rewarded.

Such allegations underscore the deep divisions in South Korean society, particularly among the old and conservative, who distrust Roh's rapprochement with North Korea and his reformist agenda, and the young and liberal, who largely support it.

The legacy of Park Chung Hee a quarter-century after his death remains one of the most divisive issues plaguing the nation.

Conservatives have held up Park as the foremost father of the nation, a patriot who lost his wife to a North Korean assassin's bullet and was gunned down by his own intelligence chief. Reformists, meanwhile, view him as a self-indulgent and brutal dictator who massacred and jailed students and pro-democracy demonstrators -- several of whom now rank among President Roh's top aides.

"The President's Last Bang," directed by Lim Sang Soo, is an assault on Park's reputation. In the dramatization of his assassination, Park, a former schoolteacher who joined the Japanese army during Tokyo's occupation of the Korean Peninsula, is shown delighting in Japanese song and culture. In one scene, the movie shows his intelligence chief calling Park by the Japanese name assigned to him during World War II, just before pulling the trigger. Later, Park's daughter -- now chairwoman of the opposition Grand National Party -- is shown in actual newsreel footage mourning at his funeral.

Park's only son, Park Ji Man, sued to stop the film's release. As with South Koreans' own views on Park, the court's verdict was mixed. It allowed the movie to go into release -- but only after mandated cuts of the original newsreels, including those showing Park's powerful daughter at the coffin of her controversial father. The court claimed that the scenes could lead viewers to "confuse fiction with reality.''

"This is not a campaign for vengeance," said Park Ki Choon, who is not related to the Park Chung Hee or Park Won Kuk families. "The only way to heal the nation is to examine our past, no matter how painful that may be."

Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company