After nearly half a year of scandal and an investigation that revealed extensive government corruption, the South Korean President Park Geun Hye was arrested on bribery charges last week and ever since, the nation has been doing some soul-searching. This political drama has reverberated even in New York City’s Korean neighborhoods.
While some Korean New Yorkers look forward to a better relationship with the United States and North Korea, others worry that a prospective shift to more left-leaning policies, especially those towards North Korea, will jeopardize alliances and threaten national security. These differences resonate in the views of two community leaders in Queens.
“The peninsula is looking for a new political frame,” says Dong Chan Kim, president of Korean American Civic Empowerment, a nonprofit organization in Flushing that raises awareness about political issues affecting Korean immigrants. According to Kim, Park Geun Hye was elected in 2013 on a campaign appealing to Koreans’ nostalgia, specifically tapping into a longing for the years during which her father, Park Chung Hee, served as president. The former president’s father held office from 1963 to 1979, a critical period following the Korean War. The time has come, he says, to move forward.
The senior Park’s reputation remains controversial amongst Koreans, says Kim. They have a hard time reconciling his postwar presidency’s economic successes with its oppressive and authoritarian style of governing. It’s the memory of the prosperity brought by Park Chung Hee’s rule, however, that led to his daughter’s victory in 2013, say Korean political analysts. Koreans hoped that she would repair the economy in the same way that her father had brought wealth to the country. She didn’t. Instead, corporate corruption and cronyism in South Korea flourished during Park Geun Hye’s presidency.
“Now we have to focus on freedom and democracy,” says Kim.
One resident of Bayside, however, continues to embrace Park Chung Hee’s legacy. Han Tai-Kyuk, a former Korean navy officer and local business owner, bought an advertisement space on a phone booth at the corner of 32nd Street and Broadway, at the edge of Manhattan’s Korean district, to showcase two former Korean presidents: Rhee Syngman and Park Chung Hee, both leaders with a conservative ideology.
Rhee Syngman, who actively sought an alliance with the United States before and during the Korean War, is on the left of the ad. On the right is Park senior who led the country to economic prosperity. This advertisement has been up since March 6, says Han. He hopes to remind the community that despite Park’s daughter’s downfall, conservative values remain strong among Koreans in New York.
“She is the icon of the conservative party,” says Han, who has personally financed another similar ad in Flushing advocating strong U.S.-South Korea relations. He has put up similar signs whenever political issues emerge. “Many people like me on the conservative side, we are worried about the alliance between U.S. and Korea,” he said.
Dong Chan Kim is aware that not all Koreans in New York support Park’s impeachment. He says older generations of Koreans who lived through Park Chung Hee’s presidency fear a progressive agenda that might mean a more lenient attitude towards North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the hostile dictator with whom they share the peninsula.
“If the South leans towards the North, certainly America will withdraw their troops from the South,” says Han, who opposes a friendlier, “Sunshine Policy,” a term that has been used to describe South Korea’s cooperation and humanitarian aid-based foreign policy towards North Korea between 1998-2008. The frontrunner to replace Park Geun Hye in the May election is expected to renew the Sunshine Policy.
This fear of damaging the alliance with the United States, Han says, explains the generational divide between older conservatives and their younger counterparts. According to Han, Koreans above the age of 50 witnessed how an alliance with the United States allowed the South to become a developed nation.
“The economic miracle in the South for the last half century has been possible under American military protection,” he says.
According to Kim, however, a hostile approach to North Korea may mean trouble for the South’s relationship to China, a nation that has been historically friendly with the North.
“It’s a very difficult equation,” says Kim, who argues that it’s crucial for the United States to understand the delicate relationships between the Koreas, China, and other East Asian countries like Japan. But for now, Kim believes that the Sunshine Policy will be the most peaceful approach. Han, not surprisingly, disagrees.
“The Sunshine Policy failed and allowed North Korea to make weapons,” he says. According to Han, the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid given to North Korea by left-leaning South Korean presidents is what allowed the North to develop its nuclear weapons. Han believes South Korea’s relationship with the North should be secondary to its loyalty to the United States.
Kim, on the other hand, believes any new president, no matter which way he or she leans, will be an improvement. Moving forward, Kim hopes that the United States’ will calculate South Korea’s changing policies towards the North into its own foreign policy.
“The Korean peninsula is the key,” says Kim. “There has to be peace there.”