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Hither and Yon

2 tough Asian leaders will be rememered longer than nicer mediocrities

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
When it comes to judging the performance of deceased national leaders under the icy glare of historical research, strongmen go down in collective memory as tough guys who defeated their enemies and built up their countries. Weak leaders are often regarded as mediocrities, especially if they were overthrown.
Of course, strongmen also come in for criticism after they’ve disgraced themselves and their countries in humiliating defeat, as in the case of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. While Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of China managed to survive, they are remembered with extremely mixed feelings — tens of millions died under their harsh rule.
All of which leads to a few thoughts — and memories — of the late Lee Kuan Yew. He’s credited with having been the “founder” of modern Singapore and having turned the city state into a cleanly governed beehive of commercial success. He’s also credited with having ruthlessly suppressed the least criticism, with having jailed political foes and outlawed political groupings that might challenge his long-ruling People’s Action Party, and with having stifled creativity.
Nonetheless, Singapore is so prosperous, so vital as a major port city at the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific oceans, as a manufacturing and shipping hub, that people tend to overlook the downside of the decades of Lee’s rule. They forget that Singapore these days is culturally sterile, that no one dares say a bad word about the man who took on the title of “minister mentor” while bequeathing power to his son.
But who’s really complaining? Leaders around the world have sent condolences for the man whose passing at the age of 91 would seem to have marked the end of an era in Asian history. Statesmen and politicians, scholars and analysts revere him. Journalists may carp about his dictatorial rule, but really, when you look at the mess that some leaders make of their countries, it’s difficult to take too critical a view of the Lee Kuan Yew era in Singapore.
That type of rationalization inevitably leads to comparisons with another dictatorial Asian leader, Park Chung-Hee. Unlike Lee, Park did not have the good fortune to live to a ripe old age, to retire with the respect of other leaders, of academicians and opinion makers. Rather, Park was the target not only of scathing criticism by liberals and leftists, whom he repressed far more severely than did Lee, but was also quite literally the target of his intelligence chief, who assassinated him over dinner in October 1979.
If Park’s rule was marked by violence, however, his legacy in recent years has taken on a new luster. These days he’s recognized as Korea’s greatest leader. If there is any rival for that accolade, the man most often mentioned would be Kim Dae-Jung, whom Park and then his successor, Chun Doo-Hwan, hated.
Kim Dae-Jung may have been the hero of liberals, particularly from the Jeolla provinces, for his crusade for human rights, but there’s no denying Park’s role in building modern Korea. Wasn’t he the man who fostered Korea’s rise as a global economic power? Wasn’t he responsible for spurring the founders and leaders of the chaebol that dominate the Korean economy? Weren’t his policies partially responsible for the enormous success of industrial empires that now export their manufactured products — everything “from ships to chips” — to the far corners of the earth?
One has to ask whether Park had to exercise such authoritarian control in order to achieve the Korean dream of economic supremacy rivaling that of its colonial ruler, Japan? We’ve all heard stories of torture, of executions, of rigged or repressed elections, of cruel crackdowns on worker unrest during the 18 years and five months of Park’ increasingly harsh rule.
The Park era was complicated, moreover, by a problem that Lee Kuan Yew never encountered — the constant threat of war by a neighbor ruled by a far more dictatorial leader.
North Korea under Kim Il-Sung kept tensions on edge by staging numerous incidents along the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas — and, of course, attempting to assassinate Park during the infamous commando raid on the Blue House in January 1968. Critics of Park tend to forget the danger posed by North Korea, much more a threat then it is today.
Let us not, however, rationalize or justify Park’s excesses. The point is simply to draw a comparison, however, imperfect, between Park and Lee Kuan Yew. They both were intensely nationalist figures, they both placed highest priority on economic success, and they both had little patience for opposition figures whom they saw as interfering with their ambitions.
Park and Lee shared, moreover, one other legacy — Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, carries out his father’s policies as prime minister of Singapore while Park’s daughter, Park Geun-Hye, perpetuates her father’s ambitions as president of South Korea. Where their fathers differed most was that Lee, having retired with honor, lived long while Park died tragically, still in power — but seen in retropect as a dynamic, visionary leader.
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