An ill-fated duo has taught Korea a valuable lesson: one that none of the Bushes, Kims, or Arroyos could teach us, one that millions took to the street every week to learn, one that demystified a deified dead.
On one hand stands the princess, left to the hands of her secretaries and assistants after both her parents were assassinated. She must have walked a lonely path. Even though she may have been constantly aided by her counselors, it is not hard to imagine that their helping hands might have been a political move. She was surrounded by her parents’ political colleagues, and proponents of her father let her inherit the undying support. Her life as the First Lady left an imprint on many people of our parents’ generation. The orphaned ambassador lived on her sympathetic congregation. Her involvement with a certain shamanist leader grew deeper, as people’s belief in her strengthened. Finally, after a number of low-profile administrative offices at universities and private foundations, she resumed her political career. Despite her far-below-average activity as a member of the National Assembly, she triumphed her way up the ladder and earned herself the title of “election queen”. Crowned as the messiah of her party at its most turbulent times, she and her party slammed the 2012 legislative elections, leading to her eventual victory at the presidential election later that year. Just like that, a hardly experienced — except that of an acting First Lady in her mother’s stead — politician reigned as the Korean head of state with praise-ridden media and supporters reminiscing about the monumental glory of her father’s contribution to the nation.
Rewind 11 presidents, and we have a post-war nation in ruins. This is when that father makes history. He took over the government in a coup and carried out unprecedented reforms, some in a controversial manner. Perhaps it is he that epitomizes the entire means-versus- the-ends debate. Weighing his contributions and achievements against the shortcomings and repercussions is still the most popular political issue even 40 years after his death. Some of his nostalgic supporters today believe that he had many more unrealized dreams for the country, and such beliefs explain how his daughter’s supporters anticipate the same kind of leadership from her. People wanted his legacy to carry forward through his daughter, to save Korea once again, this time from its political rubble. As if fate was answering to their calls, she was elected president with a vote count of 51.6%, a number bearing an eerie resemblance to the date her father threw a coup.
Fast-forward to March 2017, marking the first-ever impeachment of a Korean president. What went wrong? Why couldn’t she do better — at least out of a sense of filial piety if not out of a sense of responsibility? Hardly a minute passes without the news media pointing out faults from her governance of national agenda, but let’s just put those aside for now. The entirety of her alleged incompetence as a member of the National Assembly? Put that aside for now. Her delayed response to the sinking of the Sewol? That, too. Wrongly delegating her power — one that has been bestowed upon her by votes — to a long-time friend? Having a casual “tea time” with the leaders of the largest corporations within the country and asking them for “donations”? Letting the Senior Secretary of Civil Affairs meddle in the prosecution service? Shutting herself away from the people who gather every Saturday to have their voices heard? Endorsing state-authored textbooks and imposing on middle and high school students what “the state” believes to be the “correct history”? Trying very hard not to roll my eyes, I would say that a responsible president wouldn’t do any of those. If anyone wants a debate on that, I would step back and decontextualize the situation into this: would a respectful daughter do any of those?
It’s worth noting that I’m not taking a political stance here to criticize her wrongdoings. I don’t need to. I am questioning her as a human being, cognitively capable of both articulating thoughts and executing actions that are respectful towards her deceased father. It is a much more fundamental question that is inherently immune to political colors since respect towards parents is a societally common value indivisible by political beliefs. It is therefore my strongest belief that every one of his supporters ought to bear that question towards his daughter, had they at least a bit of respect for him after all these years. Otherwise, no one will be able to save the dead from falling from grace regardless of how exalted he used to be. Not when his successor kills him twice. And certainly not when his daughter kills him twice.