Monday, February 4, 2013

Museum Showcases Contemporary Korean History Forged in Blood, Sweat and Tears

The JoongAng Ilbo
The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History opened yesterday in the heart of downtown Seoul. Previous memorials have only dealt with single historical events such as independence, the Korean War and the May 18 democratic uprising in Gwangju, or key figures such as former presidents Park Chung-hee, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. The new museum is significant in that it showcases Korean history since the independence movement of the early 20th century. It contains exhibits of nation building and security as well as industrialization and democratization, providing a comprehensive and balanced view.
Among the exhibits of particular importance are calligraphy by An Jung-geun [1879-1910; patriotic martyr who assassinated Ito Hirobumi, then resident-general of Korea, in 1909], the Declaration of Independence issued on March 1, 1919, the draft Constitution written by the first National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, journals on the April 19 Student Revolution, major documents on the five-year economic development projects of the President Park Chung-hee government, diaries and passports of miners dispatched to Germany in the 1960s, and Pony, the first Korean-made car to be exported. The halls dedicated to young labor activist Jeon Tae-il and pro-democracy struggles offer visitors an opportunity to experience the dynamism of contemporary Korean history. Hence the museum may well be dubbed the “Memorial to Blood, Sweat and Tears.”
The latest presidential election was characterized by unprecedented controversy over history. The progressive/leftist camp criticized Park Chung-hee`s dictatorial rule. The conservative/rightist camp emphasized Park`s economic development and attacked the confusion created under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. Although Park Geun-hye won, it was not by a landslide. The voters were divided into 51.6 percent vs. 48 percent, reflecting the intense tension prevailing in society`s view of history.
Regardless of its outcome, however, the presidential election has taught the nation a lesson: history is an inheritance of irreversible legacies. Park Geun-hye paid respects to the late presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who led opposition parties. However, her election opponent, Moon Jae-in did not visit the graves of Syngman Rhee (Yi Seung-man) and Park Chung-hee, for which he had to face accusations throughout his presidential campaign that he failed to understand the bigger picture of historical inheritance and national integration. This shows that Korean people have broadened their views of history.
In his congratulatory address at the museum`s opening ceremony, President Lee Myung-bak said, “We need to learn from old and create new.” Rightly said. Korea`s contemporary history is unique in the world in that it is a history of unprecedented success and development. I hope that the presidential election and the opening of the contemporary history museum marks a turning point from which Koreans have a more positive perception of their contemporary history.

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