Korea's Park apologizes for abuse during her father's rule
Asia News Network
SEOUL — Korea's Saenuri Party presidential candidate Rep. Park Geun-hye yesterday publicly apologized to the people who suffered under her father's iron-fisted rule in a move to ward off controversy over her historical views and regain her frontrunner status.
"The May 16, Yushin and Inhyeokdang cases damaged the value of the constitution and delayed the political development of the Republic of Korea," Park said at a press conference held at the party's headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul.
"I deeply apologize to all those who were personally hurt and the family members of victims of government abuse... I will exert all my efforts to cure the pain and the suffering."
The five-term lawmaker was referring to three of the most controversial incidents during former President Park Chung-hee's 18-year rule: the May 16 military coup in 1961 that led to his presidency; the Yushin Constitution amendment in October 1972 that allowed him to stay in power indefinitely; and the Inhyeokdang incident that led to the execution of eight democratic activists in 1974.
This was the first time the presidential candidate made a formal apology for her father's rule. It came two weeks after her popularity ratings dropped after comments in a radio interview that there were "two verdicts" on the Inhyeokdang case. The initial ruling was overturned in 2007 by a court that ruled the eight were tortured into making false confessions.
Torn by her personal sense of duty to uphold her father's achievements, Park had sidestepped questions about his rule, prompting her fellow party members and campaigners to recommend she take a more conciliatory approach.
"How a purpose cannot justify the means in politics has been a value of democracy in the past and must remain that way," said Park, her eyes bloodshot and expression solemn.
"In the shadows of South Korea's rapid growth there was pain, suffering and irregularities as well as various human rights abuses committed by authorities," Park added.
After apologizing to victims and their families, Park said during the 10-minute speech that a committee would be set up to realize greater social harmony for a more developed democracy.
Park's aides explained after the news conference that the committee would not only deal with the contentious issues of the past but also tackle other pending social divisions in the long-term.
Observers said while the former chairwoman's apology was timely to help prevent a further decline in popularity, it would take more to persuade those beyond her traditional supporters.
"The reason why the opposition forces' attacks on Park's historical perception rings true among the public is because the public has become concerned that Park herself has the potential to become an authoritarian and uncommunicative leader," said politics professor Yoon Seong-yi of Kyung Hee University.
"While an apology was necessary, it is more advantageous for Park to place the focus on what type of leadership she will show if she wins the presidency," he said.
As an example, Yoon suggested Park give a clear position on how she will secure better, greater democracy inside the party, and how to distribute the excessive power bestowed upon the president under the current system.
During the speech, Park also appealed for understanding her agony as a daughter, saying, "I am sure it is not what the people really want for me to spit on my father's grave."
Visibly tense, Park made the mistake of calling Inhyeokdang, Minhyeokdang, while delivering her statement. Her aides explained the word was misspelled on the prompter, but others said it was a mispronunciation. Minhyeokdang refers to an organization set up by a pro-North faction in 1992.
After the statement, Park told reporters while leaving the press room, "Everything is implied in what I have said today and what is important now is acting on it."
The main opposition Democratic United Party said it was "considerably positive" for Park to offer such acknowledgement, but called for "sincere countermeasures."
"While Park calls Yushin and May 16 the past and says that she is the future, the two cases are still on-going issues," said DUP spokesman Jung Sung-ho.
"What we need is not only the legal conclusion of the Yushin system but also a close cooperation in reforming chaebol that are the vestiges of Yushin," Jung said.
Bereaved families of the Inhyeokdang case criticized Park's news conference as "not sincere."
"If she had made such comments from the start, I would have believed that she had such views in mind as a politician. But now it seems as if she is reading out something that someone else wrote for her," Kang Soon-hee, the wife of late Woo Hong-seon, was quoted as telling Yonhap News.
Independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, meanwhile, welcomed Park's position.
"It must not have been easy but it was something that needed to be done," Ahn told reporters during his visit to a research centre at Kookmin University.