Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book Review: Park Chung-Hee: From Poverty to Power

Title: Park Chung-Hee: From Poverty to Power
Author: Chong-sik Lee
eBook: 327 pages
Publisher: The KHU Press (March 29, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0615560288
ISBN-13: 978-0615560281

Former ROK army general and self-appointed "democratic" president Park Chung-hee (1917-1979) is still quite possibly the most controversial political figure in Korean history. Interpreting his legacy remains a contestable notion of whether infrastructural matters such as economic security and public services take precedence over domestic matters like citizen rights and public programs. Appropriately aimed at an English-speaking audience outside of Korea, the author writes in hopes for the foreign reader to gain a better understanding of Park's legacy and why it still matters. This thorough biography of Park's early life sets the stage for discussions about not only Park but his first daughter, conservative assemblywoman and presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye, as her father's legacy is inexorably tied to hers. Unsurprisingly, the elder Park has one of the most turbulent, fascinating background stories to support his questionable, yet dynamic legacy.

One couldn't ask for a more qualified author, either. Professor Lee's multilingual confidence in writing makes you wonder whether if English is his first language (which it isn't). Lee's narrative is concise and informative. Unfortunately, his ability is underutilized;  Lee takes the reader on somewhat of a glossed tour of the late president's life, leaving out key events such as a play-by-play breakdown of the 1961 military coup, the October Yushin reforms of 1972, a failed assassination attempt that instead took his wife's life in 1974 and even his own eventual assassination on October 26, 1979. How these crucial events could be left out in a biography of the man is beyond me. Why include an entire chapter on Park's elementary school performance but leave out him stepping down from the military junta and entering into the realm of debatably democratic politics? Surely, it's not asking too much for the author to have added just a few more chapters to continue the story that he spent so much time and effort building up.

However, it can be said with confidence that Lee's research is meticulous and relatively objective; which is to say that he draws from not only liberal but also conservative sources as well as sources based on languages other than Korean. Make no mistake that the author is ready to defend his position and has solid ground to do so; each chapter ends with more than enough footnotes loaded with interesting comments and context. Lee's expertise is well-suited for this type of internationally spanning biography.

Without a doubt, this book had the potential to be the authoritative English-language reference on one of Korea's most influential men to date. However, due to the book's abrupt end while leading up to the 1961 coup, it regrettably removes this title from a wide-reaching non-Korean audience and instead places it in obscurity for history nerds like me to rip apart. Much like one of the author's previous works Syngman Rhee the Prison Years of a Young Radical, this book, too, begs more from the author's clearly capable hands. After such a brilliant build up in the first and second acts, for Professor Lee to flat out leave out the most memorable and talked about moments of Park Chung-hee's life really makes this book hard to recommend.


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