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South Korea Sees a Link to Its Past

Politics: The 49-year-old daughter of assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee is beginning to make a name for herself in some circles.

July 01, 2001|SANG-HUN CHOE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEOUL — On an early October morning in 1979, an intercom buzzer awoke Park Geun-hye in her second-floor bedroom overlooking a manicured lawn of the presidential Blue House.

An aide to her father, the president, came up the stairs with the devastating news: Park Chung-hee, dictator of South Korea for 18 years, had been assassinated hours earlier by his disgruntled intelligence chief.

Two decades later, Park Geun-hye, who has an uncanny resemblance to her father, has embarked on a successful political career, motivated by a desire to rebuild the reputation of South Korea's most controversial leader.

The move comes as some Koreans, fed up with a drifting economy and political infighting, are taking a fonder look at Park Chung-hee. Reviled by many as a harsh ruler, he is also remembered for saving South Korea from poverty after the 1950-53 Korean War and championing industrialization in the 1960s and '70s.

"When people see me, they think of my parents," said Park, who is 49.

She has the warm smile, grace and coiffed hairstyle of her mother, Yook Young-soo, a beloved first lady who also was assassinated, in 1974, by a communist agent sent to kill her husband.

The daughter has inherited--and honed to the hilt--her father's quiet charisma. She speaks with a calm yet insistent voice, gesturing with precise, karate-like chops. Her speech is sprinkled with words that echo her father: "economic prosperity," "patriotism," "principle" and "order."

In her third year in politics, Park is already a star in her father's populous North Kyongsang province and viewed as a possible running mate for candidates in the December 2002 presidential election, according to media surveys.

Park isn't known for legislative achievements, but South Korean elections often are decided by regional loyalties. She is one of 16 female legislators in the 273-member National Assembly.

The daughter's career has fueled a vigorous debate over her father's legacy.

President Kim Dae-jung, a former dissident who says the late dictator tried to kill him, has promised $15 million in government money for a $54-million memorial to Park Chung-hee, citing the dictator's role in transforming South Korea into an industrial power.

Critics denounced it as a move to woo conservative support.

Civic groups and human rights activists are trying to block construction of the memorial. Activists recently vandalized Park's statue in a Seoul park.

When Park Chung-hee, who was an army major general, seized power in a military coup in 1961, South Korea trailed North Korea economically.

Per-capita income soared tenfold during Park's tenure, and today South Korea feeds the world's markets with steel, oil tankers and TVs. In contrast, the communist regime in North Korea depends on international handouts to feed its hunger-stricken people.

But Park also used anti-communist security laws to jail and torture hundreds of dissidents, kept secret files on tens of thousands of citizens, banned strikes, censored the press and subsidized conglomerates that thrived on cheap labor and long work hours.

After Park's death, praising him was taboo for many years.

That changed when the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis made South Koreans recall the two-digit growth under Park. Polls found a majority of South Koreans picked Park as their favorite president.

His daughter entered politics in 1998 at the height of the financial crisis, running in a by-election representing the conservative Grand National Party, which is now the main opposition party. She ran in her father's old political base, Daegu, and won a landslide victory.

"With unemployment rising, people seemed to think a lot about my father," Park Geun-hye said. "I felt I had to do something when I saw people suffering and the economy built with sweat crumbling."

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