On May 16th, 1961, Park Chung-hee and a rising generation of military officers rebelled and seized power in South Korea. Even today, the people of South Korea hold varying views on the events and consequences of Park's coup d'etat (Called The May Coup,) and judge their history accordingly.
The debate starts with the label attached to the 5.16 action itself. Should it be termed a "military coup" or a "military revolution"? Some observers are of the positive opinion that "Park Chung-hee and the forces of The May Coup raised the flag for industrialization and an independent self-defense for South Korea while leading the country to social regeneration." Others take a dimmer view, saying that "Park Chung-hee led the country to the light of economic development under the dark clouds of dictatorship." Today's reality is that both opinions uneasily coincide in South Korea.
What about in the North? How do North Korea's students and elites, who must function in the social prison created by an absolute dictator, view events in South Korea in 1961?
At the time, North Korean students and the elite were taught to think of the 5.16 change in regime in the South as "a military coup carried out by a clique of gangsterous puppets." But the students themselves came to hold a different perception. In light of a new sensibility, North Korea's most energetic students, who had come under the influence of Eastern bloc revisionist histories from Russia and China, and its elites, who had come into contact with foreign culture and civilization through international research reassessed the "gangsterous puppets" as "patriots who spearheaded fundamental change which resulted in the Miracle on the Han River."
There is context to this change in perceptions. North Korean students heard about foreign cultures and societies from those students who travelled abroad and experienced them first hand. The impact of foreign books, in particular, has been considerable.
Also, the so-called returnees, repatriated to North Korea in the 1960s after being resident in Japan, transmitted detailed descriptions of the status of development in Japan, South Korea, and developed nations to friends and relatives.
The young and the elites in North Korea at that time exchanged views on Deng Xiao Ping's Black Cat White Cat economic principle (ie, that it doesn't matter whether it's a black cat or a white cat so long as it catches mice) according to which Chinese society was being opened up and its economy developed. They would secretly discuss the origins and process of the collapse of socialism in Russia and the Eastern bloc. And a concurrent topic for debate was the 1961 May Coup in South Korea.
Through debate and foreign texts, youngsters were introduced to the South's "miracle on the Han" of the 1970s. They could compare it with the North's "Swift Horse" miracle in the 1960s. They judged that General Park and the young officer's played the major role in the 5.16 revolt.
The young and the elites started to compare President Park Chung-hee with Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. At the time the Kim family was using all the support they received from Russia and China as well as any profit they extracted from their own people to maintain their dictatorship and to underpin their own idolization. Kim Il-sung also focused solely on promoting his own name brand value amongst the non-aligned African and South American states. The educated in the North couldn't help but compare the worsening violent repression and state surveillance enforced by the orders of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il with former President Park Chung-hee. In terms of Korea's vested interests, they judged the leading role in the miracle on the Han River to have been played by Park Chung-hee, through such innovative and practical reforms as the "New Village" movement and the centrally directed strategy for rapid economic growth, which was based on democratic principles.
Moreover, a vigorous debate occurred amongst the elite postulating that "North Korea will be languishing in a state of starvation and collapse within twenty years."
According to a source in the North, the elite continue to recognize that Park Chung-hee played the pivotal role in providing the scaffolding for South Korea's growth up until today.
"Of course there's no getting away from the historical fact that he operated a dictatorship," said the source, "but in terms of the level of dictatorship it is as nothing compared to the system run by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il."
The source conveys the message that in the 1980s the image every student began to develop of the May Coup plotters was that they were a "patriotic force which effected the miracle on the Han." Today, these students constitute the core of North Korea's power elite. They have been in deep anguish for some time about the absence of economic potential in the North Korean system, the illogicality of the principal of going it wholly alone, and the impossibility of economic revival.
So for the sake of growth and democratization on the peninsula we must act to embed a positive system of values into the elite, and also make sure they possess a sense of responsibility that it is they themselves who should spearhead that growth and development.
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