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Posted : 2013-01-02 17:11
Updated : 2013-01-02 17:11

South Korea's global role

By Arthur I. Cyr

The election on Dec. 19 of Park Geun-hye as president of South Korea represents a milestone event in the remarkably rapid evolution of that country from wartime devastation to post-Cold War leadership. She is the first woman to be elected chief executive of her country, which alone represents significant forward movement in fairness, as well as democracy.

This takes place in the context of one of the most extraordinary national success stories of our time. As recently as the early 1960s, South Korea was one of the poorest economies in the world. It was a peasant society and the entire Korean Peninsula had been devastated by the Korean War of 1950-53. Yet today, the Republic of Korea ranks among the top 20 economies in the world, holding leadership roles in the automobile, advanced electronics, shipbuilding and other industries.

Rapid industrialization and economic modernization has been complemented by striking transition from dictatorship to democracy. Park's father, Gen. Park Chung-hee, stifled incipient democracy and imposed harsh military authoritarianism for nearly two decades. He was assassinated in 1979 by the head of the KCIA, the national intelligence agency. In Korean memory, he remains a respected symbol of strength and effectiveness for many, doubtless a factor in his daughter's notable national electoral success.

While this family history has understandably been the focus of considerable media commentary on the present Park political victory, the background of now-stable representative government in South Korea is a much more important story. Gen. Park was succeeded as chief executive by two more generals, Chun Doo-hwan and Roe Tae-woo, but growing pressure for true democratic representation proved insurmountable.

The capstone of transition to democracy was the election of Kim Dae-jung as president in 1998. He completed his five-year term without interruption, and in 2000 received the Nobel Peace Prize. A principal symbol of opposition to Park dictatorship, he was imprisoned for several years. On another occasion, KCIA agents kidnapped him and planned to kill him. Only the intervention of senior U.S. CIA official Don Gregg saved his life.

South Korea's remarkable domestic accomplishments have unfolded while the country becomes increasingly influential in global arenas. In March 2012, the Obama administration nominated Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim, who was born in Seoul Korea, as president of the World Bank.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is a career South Korean diplomat. Despite challenges, the U.N. has expanded international cooperation since the end of the Cold War era.

The original vision of the United Nations combined competing goals of favoring the most powerful nations and inclusive global representation. Ban and Kim personify South Korea's significant expanding role as a bridge between developed and developing nations.

Market economies and reasonably representative governments now characterize a steadily increasing share of the world's developing nations. In short, South Korea is ideally positioned to lead populations in poverty toward prosperity.

The remarkable vision of the U.N., which helped define the Allied leadership of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt from an early point in World War II, has been confirmed.

Park Geun-hye personifies family continuity but also remarkable national political progress. She has the opportunity to develop a starring global leadership role, with noisy North Korea shunted off to stage left.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College. E-mail him at acyr@carthage.edu.


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