By Oh Young-jin
What would you suggest to Rep. Park Geun-hye, if you were her political strategist?
The 60-year-old frontrunner among a field of presidential hopefuls has already done half of what any pundit would wish for.
Park, the eldest among three children of the authoritarian late President Park Chung-hee, effectively defended her father’s legacy as expected of any pious offspring but without damaging her credentials.
“It was an inevitable and best possible choice,” she told editors during a news conference, Monday, referring to the May 16, 1961 coup that led to Park senior’s eventual 16-year ironfisted rule before he was assassinated by his intelligence chief aide in 1979. He served as junta leader for the first two years after the coup and became president in 1963.
She elaborated on the circumstances of the economic plight and North Korean threat that she thought led her father to kick out the civilian government by force. Five years ago, when she made her first presidential bid, she called it a “nation-saving revolution.”
Some might as well call it a rhetorical adjustment but the real test that strengthened her bid for becoming the ruling Saenuri Party’s standard bearer was the April 11 parliamentary elections.
As the leader of the party’s campaign efforts, she upset forecasts of a major defeat and helped her unpopular party maintain a majority in the National Assembly. She deftly executed a generation change among candidates without a commotion and showed a steady hand when the chips were down.
This was the moment that Park passed the critical “3 a.m. call” question posed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on President Barack Obama, when the two fought for the Democratic presidential candidacy almost four years.
The Clinton question was aimed at contrasting her experience against Obama’s lack of it through an ad arguing that the junior senator from Illinois wouldn’t have a clue about how to deal with a national security crisis arising early in the morning without help from his staff.
But what would the other side of punditry be, highlighting what she has not done yet but should do in order to improve her chances in the Dec. 19 presidential election?
She could start by wearing skirts. Of course, Clinton wore a skirt but still lost to Obama. But her loss had more to do with her platform of experience, which was trumped by Obama’s message of change, because change almost always resonates better with voters than experience.
In this sense, the suggestion that Park wear a skirt is intended to be a political statement that conveys three messages to voters. The first is that she can change; the second that she can change even more and the third is that she is ready to make further changes additional to the first two.
Few would dispute the utilitarian benefits of trousers but, by insisting on wearing them, it reinforces sexist stereotypes that she is just another woman trying to break the glass ceiling in a male-dominated society. It could arouse the sympathy of women as much as alienate them.
But it also carries a stronger message of change than a change of wardrobe.
It is about her being able to change one of the deep-seated myths surrounding her ― best represented by her nickname ― “Ice Princess” for her lack of ordinariness or, on the flipside of it, for her tendency to be a perfectionist.
Of course, we know of her tragic past. She lost her mother and then first lady to an assassin in 1974 and served on her behalf as the “first daughter” for her father before he was killed by his disgruntled director of the intelligence agency in 1979. This traumatic experience would drive most people close to insanity but, in her case, she must have overcome the two tragedies through her strong sense of self-discipline.
Now the same characteristics that helped her withstand the ordeal are turning into political baggage dragging down her presidential bid. Ditching this is her first priority and doing it nicely is her second priority, if she wants to become president.
For that, she will not just have to start wearing skirts but have to do more ― such as opening herself up to the people. She needs to show she can be like the rest of us ― smiling, crying, getting angry, listening to us, speaking to us, making a mistake in public and laughing about it.
When her father was president, the public image of the national leader was a grim-looking father figure who relied on personal charisma rather than the rule of law.
Now, we want a leader who is more accessible and can connect with us, whether they are a man or a woman.
Changing her personality then is not just a matter of choice but an act of political necessity.
We know that the older generation of voters is most likely to vote for her in December, if she wins her party’s ticket. But more pivotal to her electoral success will be how she draws in those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, who tend to be liberal. Her grim look, exemplified by her all-pants wardrobe, won’t do much to persuade the young and restless to vote for her. If she wears skirts, shows some leg and smiles broadly, it will work magic, I bet.