Park Geun-hye sets many firsts
This year’s presidential race is that of many firsts. It is the first between genders in Korea and the first to elect a president who was born after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953).
Park Geun-hye becomes the first woman president in the nation’s history as a republic. In fact, over the course of Korea’s 5,000-year history, the only other woman leaders were three queens who ruled during the Shilla Kingdom era.
The significance of her victory extends far beyond the confines of the country. She is the first woman to lead an East Asian country. This feat is especially meaningful in Confucian-oriented societies where women are underrepresented and underappreciated. With her victory, Korea is now ahead of the United States in electing a woman as president.
Furthermore, Park has become the first president who has served as first lady, after her mother’s assassination in 1974 till her father’s assassination in 1979. Korea picks the first head of state that majored in engineering as an undergraduate.
Furthermore, it is the first to elect a president with more than half of eligible votes since 1971 when Park Chung-hee won 53.19 percent of the vote. This year’s race was the first between two candidates from the conservative and liberal parties. Since Korea reintroduced direct popular voting in 1987, there had always been three candidates.
It is also the first to elect a president who won more than 15 million votes the largest number of votes in any presidential election since 1948.
It is also the first to elect an unmarried head of state.
In addition, if she completes her term, then her family will have occupied the presidential office for 23 years, which is nearly a third of the 67 years since Korea’s experience as the republic. Her father, Park Chung-hee, led the country for 18 years.
The parallel successions of power from parent to child in North and South Korea may lead observers around the world to think that the two countries are not strikingly different. In the communist North, the Kim Dynasty, which started with Kim Il-sung, has continued through his son, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandson, Kim Jung-un. In the capitalist South, the daughter of the late president Park rules. However, the Kim family controls the North against the free wills of their people, whereas Park Geun-hye was elected by popular vote.
Park’s victory lends credence to the 10-year-cycle trend on change of power in Korea. From 1998 to 2002, liberals, including Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, led the country. Now, Park takes over from fellow conservative leader Lee Myung-bak.
Park Geun-hye won the election on a platform of 10 promises to increase the wellbeing of Koreans: reduction of household debts; free nursery for children up to age five; free college tuition for the third child of each family; welfare programs for different age groups; more jobs; extension of the retirement age to 60; reduction of discriminatory practices against irregular workers; all-out war against social crimes, including sexual violence; harmonious growth between small and large companies; and a balanced regional development and personnel policy, regardless of region. Throughout the campaign, she prioritized the unity of the people, which she intends to achieve through political reform and job creation.
Park is a free-market conservative. She advocates rebuilding the middle class, which she says should comprise up to 70 percent of all Korean households. This, she says, will be the key to ushering in what she calls the era of people’s happiness. Few Koreans deny that the late Park Chung-hee, despite his authoritarian style of leadership, was the father of Korea’s rags-to-riches industrialization, unprecedented in human history. His daughter wants to repeat this economic success. She emphasizes software creation as a solution to refueling the economy, and she dubs her economic philosophy the creativity-driven economy. She vows to revive the ministries of science, information technology, and telecommunications.
Her dream of ushering in the era of people’s happiness is timely, but the implementation might prove elusive. In fact, the Satisfaction with Life Index showed that although Korea is the world’s 14th largest economy in the world, it is only the 102nd happiest country among the 178 countries surveyed.
A survey conducted in 2011 by Yonsei University showed that Korean teenagers are the unhappiest in the OECD. Suicide is the prime cause of death among the youth. According to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Korean children are among the worst in the world at social integration. Similarly, a research by the Samsung Group shows that 74.4 percent of Korean workers feel that their jobs have driven them to depression.
Many South Koreans returned to Korea after settling in Australia and New Zealand. They call Korea an entertaining hell while terming the Oceanic countries a dull heaven.
President Lee won the election in 2007 on a slogan of ushering in the era of people’s success. This slogan has now turned into the era of people’s failures. Park, one hopes, will not be similarly derided for ushering in the era of people’s unhappiness.
Park was beset by the privileged die-hard conservatives who were reluctant to change. During the campaign, her opponents said that she must be defeated because she is responsible for the failure of the outgoing Lee administration. Far-left candidate Lee Jung-hee, who withdrew from the presidential race three days before the voting date, said that Park’s victory would be a “national disaster” and a “retrogression of history.”
Park was often ridiculed for having inherited her father’s authoritarian, top-down leadership. Left-wing politicians call Park the “Notebook Princess,” because she grew up as a privileged child in the presidential family and speaks publicly from prepared scripts. She is also derided as the “Ice Princess” for her rather cold facade.
Park’s victory has overshadowed such criticisms, however. Even her detractors agree that she is a trustworthy politician who has had seldom reneged on her commitments. She is predictable and principled. At present, few doubt her patriotism and advocacy of alliance with the United States.
The president-elect should begin to embrace the opposition voters, who comprise nearly half of Korean adults. These opposition voters want to see Korea change at a faster rate than the Park administration anticipates. They also want to reduce the privileges of the chaebol and the rich, to reengage with the North, and to allow more press freedom and freedom of expression. Park has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of her predecessors, which include corruption, cronyism, and alienation of opponents. One of Park’s foremost tasks is to move out of her father’s shadow.
She should begin imagine how people will evaluate her in five years. Whether or not she will become the first president who will end her presidency with integrity is something that the people will have to wait for and see.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com