The faltering fortunes of a once-favourite 'daughter'

SEOUL • When the Disney movie Frozen was all the rage in South Korea in early 2014, comparisons abounded between the cartoon's ice queen character Elsa and the country's President Park Geun Hye.

Much like Elsa, Ms Park, 64, is said to hole herself up in her ivory tower (the presidential Blue House), conceal her emotions and avoid interaction with ordinary people.

It is this self-imposed isolation, coupled with an increasingly authoritarian leadership style, reminiscent of her late father Park Chung Hee's military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s, that caused her to fall out of public favour.

Her approval rating has plunged from a high of nearly 70 per cent in 2013 when she first assumed office to a record low of 31.5 per cent, after her Saenuri party suffered a drubbing at the parliamentary elections earlier this month. It lost not only its majority in Parliament but also its status as the largest party. It was narrowly pipped by the leftist Minjoo Party with 123 seats to its 122.

Factors such as a faltering economy amid a global slowdown, high youth unemployment of 12.5 per cent and a poor pension scheme that leaves the elderly feeling hard done by have led to unhappiness among the people.


South Koreans placed much hope in Ms Park Geun Hye, in part because they saw her as a savvy politician who also worked hard for her country. But her tough, confrontational leadership style has cost her dearly in the opinion polls since. PHOTO: REUTERS

But it is the perceived poor handling of these bread and butter issues and others such as the Sewol ferry sinking in 2014 that killed 304 people, and a sense of disregard for the wishes of the people, on the part of Ms Park's administration, that turned voters off.

"Public anger against the Park Geun Hye government is the primary cause of the electoral result," said Dr Kang Sei Miong, a senior research fellow at Sejong Institute, a leading think-tank.

"They want the Blue House to be honest, open and communicative about the aims and goals of policies and gain the consent of the people, but it seems very hard for the Blue House to do that. People have lost confidence in the government."

Ms Park and her government blamed the parliamentary gridlock - caused by the high threshold of three-fifths majority needed for any Bill to be passed and Saenuri having only a simple majority - for her inability to deliver on her campaign promises. She had pledged to revitalise the economy, create jobs for the young and improve welfare for the old.

However, as analysts have pointed out, it is Ms Park's confrontational style and her inability to work with the opposition that led to the stalling of her reforms. For instance, in 2014, when the opposition refused to pass any other Bills unless the ruling party addressed concerns regarding a Bill to investigate the Sewol sinking, Ms Park berated them, suggesting that they should return their salaries for not fulfilling their responsibilities.

Earlier this year, an opposition filibuster against an anti-terror Bill famously lasted nine days, a world record. (The Bill was passed.)

EARLY PROMISE

Yet, Ms Park had returned to the Blue House - where she spent much of her youth when her father was president from 1961 to 1979 - in 2013 under happier circumstances.

She had swept to victory in the December 2012 presidential election on the back of her father's legacy after 14 years as a Member of Parliament in a district of her hometown Daegu.

With their country's export-oriented economy still hurting from the global financial crisis of 2008, South Koreans were nostalgic for Ms Park's father, the late strongman credited with pulling the country out of the post-Korean War poverty through rapid industrialisation, after seizing power in a military coup.

They placed much hope in his daughter, in part because they saw her as a savvy politician who valued trust and principle, and who worked hard for her country - Ms Park, who is single, has joked that she is married to South Korea.

Women who voted for her also hoped that she could do more to push the envelope for gender equality in a male-dominated society and encourage more female participation in the work force.

The President, who joined politics only in 1998, has said in interviews that she decided to do so during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis as she could not sit back and watch as the country teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

In politics, she was not only popular with her constituents but she was also an able election campaigner, winning for her party seats that were doubtful.

As President, she was applauded for her three-pronged foreign policy to build trust with North Korea, promote peace and cooperation in East Asia, and play an active role as a middle power.

While North Korea's nuclear issue remains unresolved, Ms Park's hard stance against Pyongyang yielded some success in stopping its young leader Kim Jong Un from actualising verbal threats.

For instance, North Korea backed down from a "semi" state of war a day after declaring it last August and started talks to end the military standoff after Seoul started a loudspeaker propaganda against the North. Tensions had escalated then after a landmine explosion blamed on the North that injured two South Korean soldiers.

Ms Park also worked hard to win the trust of Chinese President Xi Jinping as Beijing was deemed to be key in suppressing Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, it being the North's ally and economic lifeline.

The two leaders have since had six summits and Ms Park even attended China's military parade last year to mark the end of World War II at the risk of offending South Korea's ally, the United States, which has a competitive relationship with China in Asia.

But her efforts were questioned earlier this year when it was revealed that Mr Xi did not respond to her calls to exert pressure on North Korea after it conducted its fourth nuclear test.

Relations with Japan also improved under Ms Park's charge, partly due to pressure from their common ally, the US. At Ms Park's insistence, a landmark comfort women deal was struck last December, in which Japan agreed to apologise and compensate for forcing Korean women into military sexual slavery in WWII.

QUICK DISAPPOINTMENT

But soon after Ms Park took office, cracks began to appear in her government.

She seemed to have a problem appointing the right people in her Cabinet, with frequent reshuffles yielding little result. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn is the sixth premier she has appointed in just over three years, with those before him having stepped down due to scandals over various issues ranging from corruption to the Sewol ferry sinking.

Analysts say she surrounds herself with aides who mostly agree with her instead of giving her sound advice. Those who dared to criticise her would be dealt with harshly, like former Saenuri party whip Yoo Seung Min whom she labelled a "traitor" for opposing her welfare policies.

Indeed, a key reason for Saenuri's poor showing in the recent elections was a nomination fiasco as a result of Ms Park putting forward only her close aides and causing strong candidates like Mr Yoo to quit the party to run independently.

Her inability to trust people who are not within her immediate circle stems perhaps from her tragic personal life. Both her parents were assassinated - her mother died from a bullet meant for her father in 1974 and, five years later, her father died at the hands of his intelligence chief.

Ms Park lived the next two decades in seclusion, keeping mostly to herself. In 2006, while on the campaign trail, she was herself the victim of a knife attack that scarred her face.

"Given the trauma she suffered, she doesn't trust people and can't communicate properly with her Cabinet," said Emeritus Professor Im Kaye Soon from Hanyang University. "She needs to open her mind and cooperate with other party leaders more actively, and be more tolerant of other people."

Coupled with a mistrust of people is a stubborn streak that led Ms Park to push for policies despite their not having strong support.

One is a state-written history textbook, seen by many as an attempt to rewrite history to paint her father in a more positive light as the creator of modern Korea rather than a dictator who quashed dissent. The Education Ministry has pushed ahead with plans to publish it by next year, despite massive protests by Koreans.

Her doggedness comes from her background. "Ms Park is a tough woman whose confidence stems from her upbringing as the president's daughter," noted Korea University's politics and international relations professor Kim Byung Ki.

Unfortunately, that same upbringing has also bred an elitism and an aloofness that makes it hard for her to reach across the aisle to opposition leaders and reach out more broadly to her compatriots and persuade them about the soundness of her policies.

Major newspapers JoongAng Ilbo and Dong-A Ilbo have expressed disappointment that Ms Park's first comments on the election results, that she would "humbly respect" the people's will, came five days late and that she did not apologise for her party's poor showing.

If she wants to win back voters and avoid being a lame-duck president during the last 20 months of her five-year term, experts say Ms Park will have to rethink her leadership style.

"Any politician, conservative or radical, needs to communicate with voters, especially Park Geun Hye if she wants her remaining two years to be successful. There is no other way," said Dr Kang.

Perhaps a good sign is that Ms Park will be meeting the editors of major newspapers today, for the first time in three years, to get their opinion on the election results.

Whether she will act on what comes out of the meeting and from other post-mortems, however, remains to be seen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'The faltering fortunes of a once-favourite 'daughter''. Print Edition | Subscribe