The Sphinx of Hannaradang
By Andy Jackson
Park Guen-hye will never be the president of Korea.
That may seem counter-intuitive. Park is by far the most favored politician to follow Lee Myung-bak into Cheong Wa Dae. According to the polling firm Realmeter's latest survey, Park commands the support of 36.8 percent of Koreans for the 2012 presidential election, over 20 percent more than her nearest rival.
She also has the resume to be president. She has headed numerous education and political organizations, and is serving her third term in the National Assembly. She even served as first lady for five years after her mother was killed by an assassin in 1974.
Then there is the pedigree. Park is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee. Despite his sometimes brutal rule, the elder Park invariably tops the list of Korea's most popular former presidents.
One of Park's inheritances from her father is an unshakable base of support in Korea's southeastern Yeongnam region, especially in Daegu.
Park is rightly credited with saving Hannaradang (the Grand National Party) from political oblivion in 2004. Park took over a party facing a massive voter backlash following the impeachment of former President Roh Moo-hyun just a few weeks before legislative elections in April. Her leadership and popularity in Yeongnam helped the party hold on to its traditional base and prevented an electoral defeat from becoming a rout.
She then led the party to a massive victory in the 2006 local elections.
So what's not to love about her?
Park's problem (aside from being a polarizing figure along the lines of Hillary Clinton) is that she is addicted to political intrigue and petty tactical maneuvers.
Finding herself unexpectedly well behind frontrunner Lee Myung-bak early in the 2007 GNP presidential nomination campaign, Park began seeking changes in party rules in a bid to boost her chances. She sought and gained a delay in the nomination period, an intraparty vetting panel (which was supposed to expose Lee's alleged ethical shortcomings) and a compromise in the formula by which delegates to the nominating convention were selected. Despite those changes, Lee prevailed in an extremely close vote.
The following spring saw the GNP preparing for National Assembly elections, which the party expected to win handily. As is normally the case in such situations, a larger share of the party's nominations went to supporters of President Lee than Park. Many of Park's allies who failed to be nominated decided to form their own party and chose the moniker Pro-Park Alliance. Others ran as ``pro-Park independents."
For her part, Park ran for reelection under the GNP banner but did nothing to support the party against those using her name against it. She also urged the party to accept her supporters back into the fold after the election. Her ``two- front" approach was tolerated by the GNP only to avoid a more open rift. Park got her wish in the end and most of her supporters who won in their districts are now back in the GNP.
Park is still up to her old tricks. Former GNP Chairman Kang Jae-sup is considering running in next month's by-elections in Suwon but is hesitating because a pro-Park candidate is also planning to run there. Such a split of the conservative vote in Suwon would almost certainly assure that a candidate from the Democratic Party would win the seat.
While President Lee is trying to make peace with Park in order to help smooth the way for his agenda, Park's continuing to simultaneously work both for and against the GNP is going to increasingly alienate members of the party. Her position among GNP candidates in 2012 may look unassailable now, but it is likely that a candidate from the capital region, such as Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo or Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, will rise and unite the anti-Park forces within the party. Even if she survives the nomination contest, her polarizing nature means that she would be less likely than either of those gentlemen to win in the general election.
In her love of intrigue, Park possesses at least a passing resemblance to Napoleon III, emperor of France in the middle of the 19th century. While Napoleon III was an able administrator, improving France's economy and modernizing Paris, he continuously succumbed to the temptation to embroil himself in some foreign policy plot or another, often only succeeding in outmaneuvering himself with his schemes.
Henry Kissinger said of the emperor: ``During his lifetime, Napoleon III was called the 'Sphinx of the Tuileries' [after the imperial palace in Paris] because he was believed to be hatching vast and brilliant designs, the nature of which no one could discern until they gradually unfolded. Only one European leader, Otto von Bismarck, saw through him from the beginning."
For his part, Bismarck considered Napoleon III to be a ``Sphinx without a riddle."
Lee Myung-bak could have said the same of Park Geun-hye in 2007. Park will find herself bypassed again in 2012.
Andy Jackson has taught courses on American government and has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for four years. He is the chairman of Republicans Abroad-Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com.