Film deepens divisions in South Korea over the North
The dark comedy is stirring memories of a former dictator known for rights abuses and a tough line on Pyongyang.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — A new movie on the killing of South Korea's most controversial leader more than two decades ago evokes a dark period from the country's turbulent past - and is polarizing Koreans on how to face North Korea.
The film, "Those People, That Time," opened this month amid a firestorm of conservative criticism for its fictionalized portrayal of the 1979 assassination of dictator Park Chung Hee.
Scenes of black comedy spliced with historical footage of Mr. Park's grieving family members have upset the slain leader's admirers. Worse, in their view, the assassin, who was his intelligence chief, comes off as a kind of hero when he tells his accomplices, "We are going to ... give our lives for democracy."
Now, the government has opened an investigation into the killing, as well as other events during Park's harsh rule - notably the 1972 kidnapping of the dissident, and future president, Kim Dae Jung.
Conservatives fear that all such inquiries may posthumously vindicate the assassin as well as the relatively soft line the country has pursued toward North Korea in recent years. The government, for its part, is struggling to persuade Park's diehard followers of the urgency of reconciliation with North Korea and the importance of having moved beyond the human rights abuses associated with the Park era.
The spotlight the movie places on injustices of a generation ago, and the bitterness it has stirred, worries some observers. The film "reinforces the obsession with history," says Peter Beck, director of the International Crisis Group, which is studying paths for reconciliation between the two Koreas. "It's hard to get beyond history - and look into the future."
Under Park's 18-year rule, thousands of foes were imprisoned, tortured, and in many cases killed. Yet it was during this period that South Korea began its rise to economic greatness in an effort to catch up not only with the West but with Japan, which Park held up as an example for Korea.
The transition from dictatorship to democracy has exposed deep divisions among South Koreans. Kim Dae Jung was elected president in 1997 by a razor-thin margin over a conservative foe. Despite his narrow mandate, Mr. Kim reversed decades of confrontation to pursue reconciliation with Pyongyang, a policy furthered by President Roh Moo Hyun, who in 2002 also won by a narrow margin.
Earlier this month, South Korea's Defense Ministry, in its first white paper in four years, dropped any reference to North Korea as the "main enemy." Conservatives, who also say they want peace, see such moves as emblematic of government weakness. They admire Park for his tough policies, economic as well as military.
The conservative Grand National Party supports the campaign against the film, in part because Park's daughter is its leader. A court ruled against a ban of the film, but ordered the deletion of newsreel footage that gives a veneer of historical accuracy.
Park Jin, a conservative party leader in the National Assembly, says he still believes that many who see the film "could easily be confused." And, he says, he could not "exclude the possibility that the message of the film was political."
Opponents of the film argue that the purpose is to offer a rationale for killing Park. According to government sources, the National Intelligence Service, which is responsible for the inquiry, is quietly looking into rehabilitating the assassin, Kim Jae Kyu, who was hanged for the deed. The agency has declined to comment publicly.
Conservatives see any such effort as undermining what they view as Park's most enduring achievement, his economic reforms that helped make Korea the world's 11th-largest economy. "A lot of people still love him," says Jung So Yoon, a member of the film's marketing team. "He made the economy strong. Middle-aged people who lived in that period think it's totally unfair."
The film's director, Im Sang Soon, told reporters his aim was not to "criticize anybody or damage any political party." But he admitted privately that he was strongly critical of Park's background as a former junior officer in the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II. The film pointedly has the president making small talk in Japanese. Activists here have been demanding a full investigation into ties between influential Koreans and the Japanese, who ruled South Korea for 35 years.
Park's human rights abuses, though, are what most upset his critics. The government still hopes to revise - conservatives say water down - the National Security Law that Park used to arrest dissidents.
Assemblyman Chung Eui Yong says its abolition ranks as high as conservative demands for inquiries into the North's record on human rights. "They are equally important," he says.
Such talk upsets Park Nei Hei, a professor at Sogang University. "There was no choice except to execute Kim Jae Kyu," he says. "Young people think he should be pardoned. They should look at what's going on in North Korea before they talk about human rights in South Korea."