Happy ending?

B.J. Lee

The family story of former president Park Chung-hee symbolises South Korea's tragic modern history. Park's wife was killed in 1975 when a Pyongyang-inspired assassin shot her after missing the prime target, the president. Park himself was gunned down in 1979 by the head of his own intelligence agency who was unhappy with the way he was running the country.

Park's only son, Ji-man, inherited the family's ill fortune. A graduate of the Korean Military Academy, he has been jailed several times for drug addiction, and had failed miserably in business.

But the family's curse finally seems to have been broken. Park Ji-man, now 46, married a young and promising lawyer at a Seoul hotel on Tuesday, with the blessing of more than 2,000 guests. President Roh Moo-hyun sent them a large congratulatory wreath.

During the wedding, photos of the bridegroom's past were shown to the guests. He choked back tears as he looked at some pictures of him smiling next to his parents. After the wedding, the couple visited the National Cemetery and paid their respects to the couple.

The marriage was made possible after the young Park quit drugs. He has also become a successful businessman and no longer seems stuck in the tragic past. His elder sister, Park Geun-hye, is also working hard to regain the family's glory. As president of the largest opposition party, she is seen as one of the strongest contenders for the next presidential election, slated for 2007.

During the wedding Park Geun-hye often stood next to the bridegroom, occasionally holding his hand, as if together, they were going to rebuild the fallen family.

The former president would have enjoyed the wedding, if he had still been alive. However, the public still has mixed feelings over Park Chung-hee. On one hand, he is a national hero who built the South Korean economy, now the world's 12th largest, from scratch. His clear vision and leadership were behind this remarkable growth.

But, on the other, he still represents the dark legacy of authoritarian rule. For 18 years, he ran the country with an iron fist, suppressing human rights and jailing dissidents. His contribution to national economic growth is offset by the destructive consequences of his dictatorship.

One thing is certain: Park Chung-hee left behind a country that turned poverty into prosperity within one generation. Democracy in South Korea is now as dynamic as any in the world. His son's ordeals of the past are, in fact, a strong testimony to South Korea's supremacy over North Korea, where a third-generation dynastic succession is talked about, despite the fact that its people are starving.