It has been a year since Park Geun-hye became President of the Republic of Korea (RK). Although the year was spent in expectations and personnel changes that are so typical for South-Korean politics, some preliminary assessments can be made.
Normally, one or one and a half years is enough for a new RK president to carry out a personnel revolution and assign all key positions to loyal people capable of executing his or her policies. But here Park Geun-hye has been caught in the middle; hence at the moment her political positions are not strong enough to enable her to pursue an independent policy.
As a reminder, both of the Korean “main parties” are, in fact, largely broad coalitions which consolidate the conditionally right or the conditionally left trend but at the same time mainly consist of different factions ready to trip an opponent. There are many of these factions in the ruling party, and special attention should be given to two of them which are hostile to the president’s faction.
The first faction is the supporters of ex-president Lee Myung-bak, who keeps a low profile at the moment. Being a good manager and almost ideal mayor of Seoul, he turned out to be rather an average president. For political reasons, he shared power with ardent conservatives who still hold a number of key posts in the country’s government. Among them is, in the first place, Minister of Defence Kim Kwan-jin, who, by the way, comes from the province of Jeolla (also spelt as Cholla). Although this region brought to the world ex-president Kim Dae-jung and, on the whole, is considered to be the domain of the left, Kim Kwan-jin belongs to the extreme right, but he plays on the fact that most of the previous presidents denied Jeolla-born politicians access to high politics. Therefore, if he is removed without a proper and serious reason, opponents of the president can accuse her of regionalism.
On the other hand, there is the faction of ex-president Kim Young-sam, who suffered seriously at the beginning of his political career from General Park Chung-hee and, therefore, cannot perceive the latter’s daughter as an ally and especially as a boss. As a result, during the pre-election campaign, Kim Young-sam and his faction supported not Ms Park but centrist/populist Ahn Cheol-soo, who was claiming the role of the third force between the right and the left but in the end drifted towards the left and now is trying to establish his own political party.
There are quite a few enemies of Ms Park in the left camp as well. Her father’s invisible shadow hovers over her, and since a large proportion of left politicians were raised during the rule of Park Chung-hee, his rule was perceived by them approximately in the same way as the rule of Stalin was perceived by liberal intelligentsia during the Thaw. Their perception of Ms Park emanates from the concept “like father like son”. And if Ms President has not yet shown the evil grin of totalitarianism, she will definitely show it in the future.
Besides, many in the left camp believe that Park Geun-hye was elected illegitimately. We have already touched upon the scandal about the “trolls in epaulettes” and the interference of the intelligence services in the pre-election campaign. Let us recall that the RK has a law on the neutrality of the intelligence services, which was undoubtedly violated. Besides, as it turned out, the anti-left Internet campaign was carried out not only by civil intelligence officers, but by the military “cyber command” as well. And although the process has been rather slow, new facts are increasingly coming to light.
However, the author would like to note that Park Geun-hye had probably nothing to do with the interference herself as it was directed not so much at supporting her as against the left, and it was initiated by the stubborn paleoconservatives from the Lee Myung-bak camp. Also, it is hard to know for sure the extent of the impact this Internet activity had on the citizens’ choice: if it can be established in percentage terms, then how high this figure is and whether it is high enough to talk of the need to review the election results. But the left point out that the gap in the presidential race was not very big, while some representatives of this camp claim (without providing any evidence) that there was, probably, a higher level of interference but the authorities are hiding this fact because the presidential administration hinders the investigation.
Park Geun-hye is indeed in a difficult situation: she cannot really manoeuvre between the two trends, and she cannot split her own party either. That is why some of the conservatives believe that you just need to wait a bit and, driven by the pressure of the circumstances and the general logic of political struggle, Ms Park will have to go for an alliance with the right because there is a possibility of a compromise with them, but the left cannot see a possibility of a compromise. As for Lee Myung-bak, he also positioned himself as a pragmatist and an economic president, but under the influence of the 2008 economic crisis and the understanding that an economic miracle was not going to happen, he opted for an alliance with the ultra-conservatives.
Of course, Park Geun-hye reinforces her leadership. She is waging a successful struggle against corruption: in particular, she has managed to make ex-presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo return to the treasury all the illegal savings which they were supposed to return to the state as early as the end of the last century. Many believe that it is a preparation of the public opinion before an attack on Lee Myung-bak and his faction, who have also been involved in a number of corruption scandals. Ms Park applies administrative and bureaucratic methods as well. For example, under the pretext of the North-Korean threat, she revived the National Security Council which existed before Lee Myung-bak. The National Security Council is subordinate to the president and is capable to supervise the power block and the key areas of the executive branch. What’s more, there is no need for presidential appointees, unlike ministers, to be approved by the National Assembly, which can find that the candidate for the vacant post has quite a few sins: we should not forget that when the left vote “against”, the right do not necessarily vote “in favour”.
The North-Korean card is also played to maintain the image of a stern politician who is capable of a decisive action if necessary. Her rhetoric here is very similar to the rhetoric of Kim Jong-un: encouraging the troops and visiting the border areas, the president talks of the need to remain vigilant and of the readiness to deal with enemy provocations firmly and vigorously. The latter is quite important as it means that, in the case of inter-Korean exacerbation, Ms Park will be held hostage by the situation and will have to be responsible for what she said, which means a shift towards the conservatives. And this is exactly what they want. They even set the dates for new North-Korean provocations: the end of January – early March. The fact that South Korea is holding some serious exercises during this time is somehow being overlooked, but we do remember a number of strange incidents which, in light of certain ideological bias, could be stigmatised as provocations on the South-Korean part; luckily, it does not take very long to annoy the North Koreans.
Formally, however, Park Geun-hye’s course is aimed at building confidence, although the South-Korean proposals are reduced to “we are ready for dialogue, but North Korea must first do the following (see the list attached)”. There are some visible steps towards easing tensions as well. Provocative rallies with the burning of the Kims’ portraits have a smaller scale as some of the groups organising them have had their funding cut. The police continue preventing attempts to launch balloons with anti-communist leaflets to North-Korean territory: this area is considered to be closed to civilians, but during the rule of Lee Myung-bak this problem did not exist for the activists of conservative NGOs. During the Lee Myung-bak period, there was another popular provocation that has now stopped as well: they used to place at the 38th parallel a 30-metre dummy “fir-tree” with a sparkling cross on top. The exercises, including the joint ones, helped reduce tensions, though not much. On 12 February 2014, South and North Korea held high-level talks which could develop into a permanent platform if this is what both countries want.
The Kaesŏng complex has been gradually reviving (even the inter-Korean arbitration committee has started to operate). But we need to remember that it has never been a major source of currency for the DPRK, and cheap labour does not always compensate for technological underdevelopment: it is not by chance that they do not have chaebol there, but small and medium-sized businesses mainly engaged in light industry. Nevertheless, at the end of December 2013, the overall production at the enterprises of this industrial park reached 352.9 million dollars,which is slightly less than the level of the corresponding period of the previous year when the figure was 364.2 million dollars.
South Korea has returned to the idea of economic penetration into the North, including the Rason special economic zone, where they are planning to use the port capacity in exchange for providing logistics infrastructure. The South Koreans are also trying to participate in the bilateral projects of Russia and the DPRK.
But as far as the internal policy is concerned, Park Geun-hye is probably failing to implement her programme of action. Although her course towards a social state was approved by the broad masses, she argued with the left forces candidate not about “whether it was worth doing” but about “how much money should be allocated for that”. The president continues the course towards building a socially oriented state, but progress in this direction has been much slower than anticipated. Free pre-school education has been provided, but free higher education and the pension system are still on the way. Reforms require money, but the authorities are afraid to increase taxes. This situation is explained by the fact that the taxes for legal entities in the RK are already much higher than average, whilst the taxes for physical persons, the other way round, are slightly below average. Hence, the raising of taxes should probably hit the ordinary Korean in the first place, and no one is prepared for that.
But at the moment, the regime has to fight the trade union movement threatening with a general strike. The left are talking of unprecedented repressions yet again equating the president with her father, although such statements are either of a rhetorical nature or reflect their perception of the situation.
Besides, Ms Park is criticised for having a very narrow circle of advisers who she listens to ignoring the opinion of others. Of course, these complaints can be interpreted as her unwillingness to listen to the lobbyists, but there are really not many people whom Ms Park can trust.
On the whole, the author sympathises with Park Geun-hye and hopes that, despite the pressure from the left and from the right, she will be able to fulfil her programme both in the external and internal policies. Never giving up, never taking the path of least resistance, which did her predecessor a bad turn – he had decided that being a conservative president was more beneficial than being an economic president. This is going to be a very complex and difficult path, and we wish her every success.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, senior research fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute of the Far East RAS; exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.