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(Yonhap Feature) Controversial museum on Korean history finally faces opening
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Nov. 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's long-awaited national museum dedicated exclusively to the country's turbulent contemporary history is expected to open its doors next month, despite lingering debate over the ideological partiality of the exhibits to be displayed.

   The 45 billion won (US$41.3 million) National Museum of Korean Contemporary History is the culmination of a project begun four years ago by President Lee Myung-bak to construct a modern history museum where the culture ministry building was formerly located in Seoul's central Gwanghwamun area.


"We're almost ready to open it, putting final touches on the exhibits to be displayed," Lee Yong-seok, a museum official in charge of managing exhibitions, told Yonhap News Agency.

   The opening was initially scheduled for Nov. 22, but the government said last week it would be delayed about a month, without giving any reason. Officials say the delay is due to the museum's failure to appoint its first chief amid controversy over the eligibility of a potential nominee.

   A right wing university professor who is a close aide to Lee Myung-bak was the strongest candidate for the post but she recently joined the camp of the conservative presidential hopeful, Park Geun-hye, as some culture ministry officials strongly opposed her nomination, citing her ideological inclination and high-handed working manner. South Koreans are set to elect their new president on Dec. 19. The government says the final decision on the opening date will be made on Monday.

   The nomination problem, however, does not seem to be the only reason for the delayed opening.

   As it sheds light on Korea's rapid growth from the ashes of war to the world's 15th-largest economy rather than the history of democratization, the museum has sparked controversy over its ideological imbalance from the outset.

   Opposition lawmakers claimed during this year's regular parliamentary audit into government offices that exhibits mentioned South Korea's former conservative presidents Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee 28 and 24 times, respectively, while there was not a single mention of liberal former President Roh Moo-hyun.

   The late Park is revered by some for bringing about South Korea's stunning economic growth, whereas others attack him for his suppression of democracy. He ruled the country for 18 years until his assassination in 1979.

   They also pointed out that exhibits on Park's Saemaeul Movement outnumber materials on the people's pro-democracy movement against authoritarian governments. Launched in 1970 by then-President Park, the government-led movement, which translates as the "new community movement," is credited with helping to modernize the then-rural South Korean economy.

   "We need a modern history museum but not the way as it is now," Hong Seok-ryul, history professor of Seoul's Sungshin Women's University, said in a recent forum organized by a civic group.

   "The aim of the museum -- displaying Korea's 'history of miracle' of achieving industrialization and democratization in a short period of time -- is inadequate for a contemporary history museum because it could focus on the story of success without critical introspection on the history," he said.

   Lee Yong-seok refuted the claim, saying, "We're not lax enough to give no consideration to such a matter."

   "The names of President Rhee and Park were mentioned so many times because we described both positive and negative sides of their achievements. So if they visit the museum after it opens, they will come to know that they misunderstood," he said.

   The government's repeated change of the museum's opening -- from the originally scheduled 2014 to February 2013 then to December 2012 and to Thursday, before delaying it another month -- has also triggered speculation that the government intentionally expedited the opening hoping to influence this year's presidential election.

   Park Geun-hye, a daughter of former President Park, is a strong presidential candidate in the Dec. 19 election.

   The glass-walled seven-story museum houses about 43,000 items in a collection covering the period from the year 1876, when the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) opened its doors to the outer world, to Korea's future. It also touches on Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula and the 1950-53 Korean War.

   More than a quarter of the collection is from individual donations, according to Lee.

   Visitors will be able to see the museum's extensive collection, including South Korea's first mass-produced "Pony" car and "GoldStar" radio, the official said. The Pony was a small rear-wheel drive automobile produced by Hyundai Motor Company from 1975 to 1990.

   "We purchased the car from a collector in New Zealand because it was one of the models exported to the country," he said.

   Visitors can also view a photo slideshow capturing the historic encounter in June 2000 at a Pyongyang airport between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for the first inter-Korean summit.

   For foreigners who follows news on Korea, there are editions of U.S. weekly TIME and Newsweek magazines from the 1980s with cover stories on Korea's economic growth and the 1980 Gwangju democracy uprising, he said.

   The uprising in Gwangju, about 320 kilometers south from Seoul, was crushed in a bloody military crackdown. The regime of then-President Chun Doo-hwan, who took power through a military coup in 1979, dispatched paratroopers and tanks to brutally put down the revolt. According to government data, about 200 people were killed and 1,800 others wounded in the uprising, but the incident was rarely covered by local news media because of the government's strict control of media.