The National Palace Museum (국립고궁박물관) is currently hosting a smallish exhibition about former president Park Chung-hee. President Park, who held power from 1961 until his assassination in 1979 at the hands of his own KCIA director, lead the nation in a period of unprecedented economic growth. A nation which had been mostly rural and agricultural industrialised itself very quickly. For a while, paved roads were a rarity outside of Seoul or some of the larger cities. Now, seeing things like grass seems to be a luxury. The huge conglomerates such as Hyundai, Daewoo, LG, and Samsung really took off during the Park years. Former President Park is often criticised the authoritarian manner in which he lead the country, especially in his later years. However, even some of his foes do respect the development he accomplished. Like with anything in this life, it is something of a mixed blessing. The face of the country was changed very quickly and sometimes it seems as if the nation is still catching up.
Korea’s presidents generally have not built presidential libraries and museums as their American counterparts have done. About the only one I know of is the Kim Dae Jung Presidential Library on the grounds of Yonsei University. So this was sort of a rare opportunity to see some things associated with the Korean presidency.
A large part of this exhibition was made up of gifts presented by various world leaders to President Park. Included among the gifts are some very small moon rocks and a small Korean flag from the Apollo 11 (gift of President Richard Nixon), a saddle (gift of President Lyndon B. Johnson), a painting (gift of North Korea’s Kim Il-sung), a whole bunch of stuff from Indonesia, and some stone lions and other things from Taiwan’s former President Chiang Kai-shek. There was also some furniture as well as some calligraphy from the hand of Park Chung-hee. Like many educated Korean men of his generation, former President Park was a skilled calligrapher, something he shared in common with his polar opposite President Kim Dae Jung. For those who like such things, old newsreels of Daehan News (대한뉴스) were also playing.
There were two things which stood out to me. The first of these was a large commemorative copy of the that unfortunate document, the Yushin Constitution. While Korea’s economic development was taking place on a massive scale, Korea democratic development was taking huge leaps backwards. If anything, the president became more authoritarian during the latter part of his presidency. This constitution basically legalised his dictatorship. The second was his Order of Saemaeul Service Merit (새마을훈장). The Saemaeul movement was his grand plan for remaking the face of modern Korea.
For those who care to see it, it will be at the National Palace Museum until Thursday.