I have a childhood memory of watching the Korean actor Bak Yongsik on television, playing a hapless buffoon on a comedy show. He was only in his thirties at the time, but he often portrayed older men because of his premature baldness. In fact, the particular scene I remember is of Bak being repeatedly slapped on the head by an insolent young prankster who called him “Uncle Baldy.” Bak yelled back, “Uncle Baldy? Uncle Baldy? Have you no respect for your elders?” He never became anything more than a minor character actor on various television shows and a few films, but he worked steadily enough that he was a familiar figure to the South Korean audience. He is, however, best remembered for a strange role he played in the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1980s. It is a story worth rescuing from oblivion for the insight it provides on political tyranny, at this time when there is an unfortunate and urgent need to renew our understanding of its nature.
In studies of tyrants, petty or otherwise, it is natural that scholars pay most of their attention to their worst deeds, whether in the form of domestic oppression, military aggression, or crimes against humanity. But it can be worthwhile to look at some their minor transgressions as well, acts and policies which may be trivial in the face of the great horrors they perpetrated but still provide insights into the tyrannies and their historical legacy. For instance, the worst crimes committed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime were, of course, plunging the entire world into war and slaughtering millions in the Holocaust. What could be regarded as an example of a lesser crime is their use of the swastika which turned the millennia-old Hindu-Buddhist sign of divinity, eternity, and cosmic energy into a symbol of racial hatred and militaristic nationalism. The travesty of perverting the venerable image may pale in significance to war and genocide, but research into the topic reveals an interesting history of the famed archeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s interpretation of it as an ‘Aryan’ symbol in the ruins of ancient Troy, its adoption by early twentieth-century racial theorists, its alteration and appropriation by Hitler for the Nazi party, and its continued use by different groups in the post-war period for extremist ideologies.
In the recent history of South Korea, the dictator Chun Doo-hwan came to power through a military coup d’état in December 1979, two months after the assassination of the previous dictator/president Park Chung-hee. The worst crimes Chun committed during his rule were the crushing of the hope for true democracy in the country, the violent suppression of dissent, and the massacre of hundreds in the May 1980 uprising in the city of Gwangju. They must no doubt be remembered and studied for a proper accounting of the country’s long and arduous fight for democracy. But it would also be useful to preserve the memory of a minor crime of Chun’s regime, namely what it did to the actor Bak Yongsik.
In the early 1980s, Bak Yongsik appeared regularly on television, but he was hardly a rising star as he was relegated to playing supporting roles in comedies. So it came as a shock when he found out that the government had singled him out to be banned from mass media, effectively forcing him out of show business. For people familiar with his work, the reason for Bak’s persecution was both obvious and absurd. In the eyes of the government, his crime was that he was the spitting image of the president himself, most notably in their baldness. For a regime that was trying to establish authoritarian control over the country, it could not allow an actor who looked that much like Chun playing the buffoon and being called ‘Uncle Baldy’ by disrespectful youngsters on TV. Bak never involved himself in politics or appeared on a politically charged show, but his uncanny resemblance to the president and the silliness of his characters made it appear as if he were engaging in acts of lèse-majesté. Throughout the period of Chun’s presidency, Bak underwent a great deal of hardship as he had to eke out a living as a sesame oil salesman.
The reason for Bak’s persecution may be darkly humorous, though not to him and his family, and one might consider it trivial in view of the significantly greater harm many people suffered at the hands of Chun’s thugs, torturers, and executioners. But the significance of the story is not just one of an innocent bystander hurt by political events. As history moved on, the intertwined lives of the dictator and the actor took a strangely ironic turn.
Chun Doo-hwan began to lose his grip on power in the summer of 1987, when Seoul erupted in widespread protests demanding democracy. His designated successor Roh Tae-woo caved into the demands of the people by sidelining Chun from politics and holding a free election in December. Four years later, the television network MBC decided to test the new government’s commitment to freedom of expression by producing a dramatic show entitled The Third Republic, which narrated the rise of President Park Chung-hee, from his rise to power in 1961 to his promulgation of the authoritarian Yusin Constitution in 1972, with overt depiction of his regime’s tyranny. As Chun Doo-hwan played an increasingly important role in those years as a military officer who was favored by Park, he had to appear in the drama. It was almost inevitable that the producers of the show would think of Bak Yongsik for the role of Chun. Indeed, Bak was brought out of exile from show business to put on the uniform of a general and play the man whose government had forced him out of acting. The Third Republic proved to be a massive success as it gave South Koreans the opportunity to ponder recent political history in an open and frank manner. The show also allowed the audience to marvel at how much Bak still resembled Chun. In 1995, Bak reprised the role of Chun in The Fourth Republic, MBC’s follow-up drama which picked up where the previous program left off and ended with Park Chung-hee’s assassination and Chun’s seizure of power in 1979-1980. Unfortunately, once the novelty of Bak playing Chun wore off, the modesty of his talent became painfully obvious.
Bak was not a great actor to begin with as he never demonstrated the ability to play anything more than a simple comedic character. He consequently portrayed Chun as a buffoon, the kind of role he was familiar with, an Ubu Roi-type who bumbles his way into power and then struts around with comic arrogance while arbitrarily causing suffering to the people. It would be entertaining to consider that a deliberate act of revenge on Bak’s part against the former dictator who had caused him hardship, by committing the very act of lèse-majesté that Chun’s regime had seen the potential for in his resemblance to the president. But it is probably the case that he was not capable of playing the role in any other way. It was also a problematic performance in the historical sense since Chun Doo-hwan was far from a buffoon. As even his most vociferous critics would admit, Chun was a tough, ruthless, and shrewd strategist who systematically rose up the ranks of power to reach its pinnacle. So in 2005, when MBC produced The Fifth Republic, the third installment in the historical series in which Chun was the central character, the network hired the much more seasoned actor Yi Deokhwa for the role of the dictator. Yi did not resemble the president very much but he was able to project Chun’s strength and sharpness in a convincing manner that was beyond the ability of Bak Yongsik. Bak continued to act but returned to playing minor comedic roles. He passed away in 2013, at the age of sixty-eight, due to complications from an infection.
In the consideration of modern tyrants and tyrannical regimes, including those that committed atrocities on a much greater scale than Chun Doo-hwan and his government, their crimes can lead one to imagine them as almost unearthly monsters in charge of infernal machines. But even in the context of the unquestionable monstrosity of authoritarian leaders, the minor episode of the dictator and the actor reminds us of their humanness, however twisted and callous. A regime that cannot countenance a minor actor who resembles the dictator reveals the all-too-human pettiness and insecurity behind the veneer of unassailable strength. Such a state may act like a heartless colossus of power, but it is comprised of individuals who are under constant fear of looking ridiculous and losing control. Totalitarian regimes may be defined by the greatest crimes they have committed, but their essence must also be comprehended on the human level as entities that are inherently petty, spiteful, and insecure.
Three years after the airing of The Third Republic, Chun Doo-hwan was put on trial for the many crimes he had committed as a dictator. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment as well as a massive fine to deprive him of the enormous wealth he had accumulated during his years in power. After serving less than two years, he was pardoned by the democratically elected President Kim Yong-sam in the interest of allowing the country to move on from its troubled past. To this day, Chun has paid only a fraction of the fine.
On New Year’s Day 2017, despite rumors of failing health and dementia, the eight-four-year-old Chun Doo-hwan made a rare public appearance. A reporter asked for his assessment of the beleaguered President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Chun’s former patron Park Chung-hee, who had been impeached for corruption by the National Assembly only a few weeks before. Chun denigrated her abilities as a leader, attributing her failings to the fact that “she is a woman who never raised a family.” Political commentators have interpreted his statement as payback for President Park allowing the passage of the so-called ‘Chun Doo-hwan Act’ in 2013, a law that extended the statute of limitations for the prosecutor’s office to investigate Chun for wealth he may still be hiding.