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Another Star Named Park Rises in South Korea’s Political Sky

Monday, February 11th, 2013
Miss Park

The surname Park may be one of the most common encountered in South Korea, so if you say it in isolation to a local conversation partner, it may draw a blank. But if you mention it with the word “president” in front, you are likely to get a strong response from your friend. Some South Koreans idolize the man who served in the Blue House from 1961 to 1979 and credit him with advancing the economy. Others revile him for prioritizing industrialization ahead of democracy while a third camp praises his economic policies, even as they denounce his dictatorship. But be sure that everyone articulates an opinion.

These days, the attention is focused not just on him, but also on his daughter, namely Park Geun-hye, who is seeking to become the paramount leader of the Republic of Korea in this year’s national election. Who is she and what can be said about her as an overview? Park was born on February 2, 1952 in Daegu. She was the first child of future president Park. Her younger brother is Park Ji-man and her younger sister is Park Seoyoung. Her early life was painful. Tragically, on August 15, 1974, her mother was shot to death by Mun Se-gwang, a Korean born in Japan, who was apparently trying to kill President Park. The incident occurred at the National Theatre. With the country’s first lady dead, the young Park bravely stepped into a new role. Then her father suffered assassination on October 26, 1979 when Kim Jae-kyu, the head of the Korean intelligence service, pulled the trigger on his own pistol. This double loss has won Ms. Park some measure of public sympathy.

Concerning her education, Park graduated from Seoul’s Seongshim High School in 1970, then earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Sogang University in 1974. She has also been awarded honorary Ph.Ds from the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan in 1987, the the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in 2000 and from her alma mater in 2010.

Is politics in the family genes? Park was chairwoman of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) between 2004 and 2006 and then in the years 2011 and 2012 (the party then altered its name to the Saenuri Party in February 2012). Park has served five terms in the Korean National Assembly. What, then, are some of her career highlights? In 2002, her party tried -- but failed -- to impeach the incumbent left wing president, Roh Moo-hyun. Plus, it was revealed in 2004 that the GNP’s previous candidate for the presidency, Lee Hoi-chang, had been embroiled in a bribery case two years earlier. The GNP was heading for a major that year, Park was appointed as the party chairwoman and spearheaded its election effort. Although the GNP lost its majority in the assembly, it still held 121 seats. Many hailed it as a victory of sorts given the adverse environment -- and lionized her stewardship. Also, she was instrumental in seeing the GNP triumph in local elections. In fact, it was during the elections for regional assemblies in 2006 that Park showed how the fire of politics burns in her belly. On May 20, Ji Chung-ho, a man who already had racked up eight prison convictions, slashed her face with a knife. He made an 11-centimeter wound that landed her in surgery. When she came out of it, the first thing that she said to her secretary was, “How is Daejon?” It helped to propel the GNP candidate into the mayor’s seat. This in part gave Park the nickname “Queen of Elections”.

One noted commentator on Park is Hong Sung-gil, Professor of Public Administration and Public Policy at Kookmin University. He fields the question of whether or not it penalizes her that she is the daughter of a dictator. “She does not have any liability in legal terms. But politically, she is responsible for what her father did regarding human rights abuse. This is a bit of a cultural matter too. Westerners may not be able to understand this situation.” Plus, “Due to political considerations, that is, to receive more votes from the young generation and liberals, she is in a sense forced to apologize.” But Hong deems the situation rich in irony. “Yes, it is a big contradiction. Human rights are valuable for all human beings, but the left and liberals never criticize North Korean human right problems. This is why people like me strongly argue that they are following North Korea without any proper criticism”.

Another voice on the matter is Scott Snyder, the senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. He notes in a contrary vein that, “Progressives are trying to make her father an issue, and his record is certainly subject to serious criticism, but the Korean public doesn’t seem inclined to judge Park Geunhye solely based on her father’s record. She probably would not be involved in politics if she weren’t Park’s daughter, but she now has a political track record in her own right and South Korea has changed dramatically since Park was in charge. In my view, her lineage provides a mixed impact on her prospects.”

Hong pegs Park as definitely to the right of center. “It is true that her policies...seem to be located at the center-left” such as “her belief in economic democratization and life cycle-fitted welfare programs. But from a comparative perspective, she is more center- right than other candidates...economic democratization may be a left issue, but in the political economic environment in contemporary Korean society, every single candidate has to say economic democratization anyway. So it does not mean that Park is left or center-left.” Snyder, however, finds that she is “center right on most issues, but she appears to have taken a progressive stance on welfare reform and economic distribution issues, which are central to her political platform.”

Hong notes the flaws in her style when he insists that “many people criticize her short sentences which quite often incur misunderstanding...I think she needs to speak more, especially in a friendlier manner, adding more emotional words and actions.” Actually, Park is sometimes called the Ice Princess for her detached style and propensity to use prepared texts. But then again, her supporters find her broad smile charming. Some have compared Park to the US’s chief leader, Barak Obama, because the former breaks barriers; after all, America did not have a black president until Obama, and Park is the first female to bid for the Blue House. Hong finds the idea correct. “Her career is “a path-breaking achievement. But other than that, I do not see any significant similarities.”

As often occurs in politics, personal factors enter the fray. Many point out that Park, unlike most Korean women, did not marry -- and raise kids. Snyder offers the creative insight that “her singleness could be a political asset; there is no rival interest to compete with her devotion to the state.” Sung states that the answer is actually “yes and no. People who put much value on the traditional role of women may think it is a problem. But most of them are conservative, meaning that Park would be the only candidate for whom they vote.” What about Park’s foreign policy orientation? Hong finds that “she and her colleagues in foreign policy areas are mostly conservative, although she stands a bit more flexible toward North Korea as compared to President Lee Myung-bak. They all strongly agree with the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement and value the alliance much more than those who back other candidates.” Snyder has more to chip in. He recommends “her Foreign Affairs article from last year...she wants a stable relationship with North Korea and is open to direct dialogue and diplomacy while remaining committed to seeing North Korean reform and denuclearization. The north has not perceived her positively.

She was Lee’s special envoy to Beijing when he was inaugurated in 2008 and has personal relationships with many top Chinese leaders. Her views on the alliance with the United States are conventional and comfortable for most American interlocutors. She has had good reviews on her past visits to Washington. The most complicated relationship for Park to navigate may be Korea’s relationship with Japan, given her father’s role in pushing for Japan-ROK normalization in 1965. It is hard to say whether this legacy would paralyze her diplomacy toward Japan or make her well-suited to address contemporary problems in the relationship. It is a different era.” Backing Snyder’s claim that Park is pro-US is the fact that in 2007, she addressed an audience at Harvard where she advocated more robust ties


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