Observing amplification of South Korean rhetoric, deterioration of the inter-Korean cooperation and escalation of the crisis up to allegations by the leadership of the South Korean National Intelligence Service of posible acts of terrorism, I decided to write an article that would shift readers’ attention to a no less important topic. It will not be about conservatives in South Korea making another breakthrough. It will not be about an ever so possible mishap that would not be devised by the leadership, but would occur because of an unlucky train of events incited by mutual hysteria. Rather it will be a sad story about the fate of the person currently in charge of South Korea.
Certainly, each president of the Republic of Korea is special enough to be told a story about. Take, for example, ex-president Lee Myung-bak. The story of his life is a cautionary tale of how to be an excellent manager, an ideal mayor, but a poor leader of the country. And all that is because those strengths that helped him to move up the career ladder turned into weaknesses once he took office. Lee Myung-bak’s predecessor Roh Moo-hyun’s life story is another fable about a skin-deep person, during whose tenure conservatives made their reappearance on the country’s political stage.
The story of Park Geun-hye’s life is a tale about a strong, independent lonely woman with a harsh fate. We will begin Ms. Park’s story with her childhood and adolescence years. She lost her parents very early in life. First, her mother was assassinated. Then Ms. Park was instated as acting first lady of South Korea (at that time her father Park Chung-hee was serving as South Korean president). She saw the decline of her father’s rule. She watched the “architect of the South Korean economic miracle” suffer a mental defeat. Later her father was also assassinated. Then there was a sad story of her first love to an older man that her family resisted to such an extent that they would send reports to the authorities requesting “to protect and to correct.” Her love was shattered. This is, probably, why she has never gotten married — a circumstance perceived as negative in the traditional Korean society where any woman’s destiny is to have family and children. Then Park Geun-hye committed to making a political career, naturally, in the framework of the conservative trend. Actually, she always held moderate views in politics. At the beginning of 2000s she even tried to create an alternative political party, but the Korean political system was intolerant to a “third power.” Thus, Ms. Park had to make a humble return to the mainstream party and labor hard to save it from a political bankruptcy and devastation.
Her efforts were never fully appreciated, though. In 2007 Park Geun-hye had good chances to be nominated as the conservative party presidential candidate, but as it now turns out, she lost to Lee Myung-bak because of ballot rigging orchestrated by the chief of sociology services. Though Park Geun-hye was not noticed putting a spoke in Lee Myung-bak’s wheel and refrained from backstabbing, she would consistently turn down any offers to participate in her predecessor’s controversial initiatives. She also declined his proposals to join the cabinet.
Park Geun-hye is also perceived as an honest and uncorrupt politician. So much so, that no serious compromising materials on her have been discovered so far.
But as soon as she entered big politics, she was accepted not for who she was, but for who her father used to be. Koreans have highly polarized opinions about his rule and consider him as much of a controversial person, as Stalin. Park Geun-hye was perceived as the embodiment of her father Park Chung-hee. The entire range of feelings evoked by this figure, from hatred to admiration, was projected on her. Since more Koreans were dissatisfied with his rule, majority of South Korean left-wingers boycotted Park Geun-hye from the very beginning of her carrier. “A dictator’s bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness,” and dictator’s daughter can be nothing else, but dictator. Upholders of that opinion can be satisfied. Their predictions materialized and, largely, as the result of their rigid position.
But when Park Geun-hye was elected president, she found herself between the rock and the hard place because mainstream conservatives were not very comfortable with her either. From the very beginning Park Geun-hye was committed to finding consensus and centralization. Many of her ambitious projects, had they been implemented, would have spoken volumes about her stance. To support Park Geun-hye’s program meant to gradually abandon inflexible policy (at the very least). The “Eurasian initiative” was an attempt to digress from the traditional block system and to establish relations with Russia and China. The attempts to interfere with the inter-Korean or North Korean-Russian projects had the same underlying idea. Simultaneously, Park Geun-hye wedged a rather successful war on corruption. She also pushed through a law under which activities of Protestant sects could be taxed.
But it is very hard to remain a centrist in Korea. And the few brave ones would receive blows from both sides. Park Geun-hye’s “administrative reserve” was not inexhaustible, and coordinated criticism of the right- and left-wingers had its effect: most of her appointees were forced to resign, although the fuss about their past was overly exaggerated. The crackdown on corruption ended in a suicide of one of the suspects. A high-profile lawsuit against the PM appointed by Ms. Park was filed. His involvement was never confirmed or denied, but he had to step down. The anti-corruption campaign started fading away. In her foreign policy Park Geun-hye was doing her best maneuvering between Beijing and Washington. She refused to impose formal sanctions against Russia and was harshly criticized for that. And when she went to China to participate in the festivities on the occasion of the ending of the Second World War, Japanese mass media compared her to Queen Min killed by Japanese for pursuing a policy contradicting the interests of the Land of the Rising Sun.
And she kept receiving pinpricks from all sides. The left-wingers continued to exploit Park’s missteps to step up their criticism, which, in fact, comprised rather personal attacks on the President. At first North Koreans also kept a low profile and then as the conservatives started gaining momentum also heat Park Geun-hye below the belt having fully engaged their propaganda machine. Basically, calculations made by conservatives were justified: receiving no support from left-wingers, Park Geun-hye had to move towards the rightists. The situation was further complicated by the human factor. Politics is a permanent source of stress for those involved. Sometimes politicians are stretched too thin. They also get emotionally burn out and sometimes even fall into despair. Meanwhile, any president always is blamed for any troubles because there is a misconception that president is ultimately responsible for the development of the situation. There will be no excuse if a president makes a mistake, regardless of whether he or she knew about the problem or whether it was beyond their abilities to prevent it. In other words, using slang, it seems like Park Geun-hye “has had enough.” And, though some experts tend to believe that the crises associated with North Korean nuclear missile test served as a trigger, it was more of a “last straw” situation, which we will be monitoring in the future. Please keep in mind, though, that Park Geun-hye has already served more than half of her presidential tenure. The next year is the year of parliamentary election. It will be the last for Ms. Park’s presidency and the “lame duck” year since South Korean constitution restricts running for presidency to one term only.
I remember “the promising beginning.” Then election of the first female president was perceived as the beginning of the era of new achievements. It was especially important given the state of inter-Korean relations and the overall level of tension that marked the end of Lee Myung-bak’s rule. To tell the truth, the objective circumstances affecting the situation are not very encouraging, but let us still hope for the better.
How will Park Geun-hye be remembered? It would be a pity if she goes down in the annals of history as a president in whose rule inter-Korean tension was comparable only with the end of the 1960s. Back then, both countries would deploy sabotage parties to infiltrate the territory across the border. Armed provocations at that time were more of a daily life event than an exception. This article was by no means intended to sound like a requiem or political obituary. Park Geun-hye remains a capable and promising leader. Let us hope that she will go down in the history of South Korea as a laudable president, not as “a dictator’s bloodline,” but as a strong, independent, reasonable and uncorrupt politician.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”