Inside Look: Who is Running for President? Part Three - Park Geun Hye
In a three-part series, Haps takes a look at this winter’s top three presidential candidates in the South Korean elections. What do they represent and what are they talking about on the campaign trail? This week, the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye.
Her advantage is over both Moon Jae-in, the candidate of official the opposition Democratic United Party, and Ahn Cheol-soo, the super-rich software titan. The advantage is the speculation that her two rivals will split the left-wing vote unless one backs down or agree to some form of power sharing in a president/prime minister system. Park, by contrast, has more or less unanimous right-wing support.
But it’s still a tough fight for her, because her defining image, whether she likes it or not (and recent actions prove she probably doesn’t), is as the daughter of former president-slash-dictator Park Chung-hee, who’s as famous for pushing South Korea through huge technological advances in the 60s and 70s as he is for muscling his way to the top via military coup and rewriting the constitution to maintain dictatorial power.
It bears mentioning that Park had not, for several months since her mid-August candidacy confirmation, outright apologized for her father’s actions. But within a week of her two liberal opponents’ race entrance, she had no choice but to directly address her father’s tyranny: "In the shadows of South Korea's rapid growth, there was pain,” she said on September 24. "I deeply apologize to all those who were personally hurt and families members of victims of government abuse.”
What followed was a slight bump in her popularity, ensuring that if both Moon and Ahn remain in the race, she’ll probably win on December 9. If one drops out, though, she may very well not. So let’s take a closer look:
Who is she?
Park was born in Daegu, in February of 1952, to the man who would revolutionize South Korea. As her father seized power of the country, one might assume Park’s upbringing to be one of privilege (Moon, her rival, has outright said as much); in fact, like her current candidacy, it’s a mixed bag. Park watched idly at the world’s transformation from behind the glass windows of the Blue House until her mother was assassinated in 1974. Her father, too, was famously murdered five years later by his own intelligence chief.
Park laid low for years, finally entered politics herself in 1998 as a Daegu assemblywoman for the conservative Grand National Party. She was well liked by her constituents, who re-elected her three more times for 14 years until she bowed out from that position this past spring. During her tenure, she became a power-hitter for the GNP, earning the informal title of “Election Queen” after remaining loyal to citizens of Daejeon after being slashed in the face with a knife at a public forum, an attack which left a 60-stitch scar across her cheek.
After she lost her 2008 presidential bid to current president Lee Myung-bak, she held steadfast to her commitments and quietly waited. As Lee’s administration dwindled in popularity, the Grand National Party, with prominent help from Park, changed its name to the Saenuri Party, or New Frontier Party: the idea, in effect, was that as President Lee began shrinking near his end, Park would lead the party with a fresh face, under a fresh name.
Where does she fit in?
Park’s place is pretty self-evident: she represents the right. She once famously described her political aspirations as “Korean Thatcherism”.
But despite her conservative stance, she’s politically softened in reaction to those unhappy with Lee’s governance. She has claimed a more centrist stance, including a warmer touch to North Korea (assuming it gives up its nukes) and stronger emphasis on welfare, despite being more market-oriented than either other candidate. She was vocally in favor of the US-Korea free trade agreement of this past winter and also promised, this February, to finish construction of an airport in the southeast that was ostensibly scrapped due to funding issues.
Park is known as a woman who gets things done: she makes promises and keeps them. Whether the country likes her promises is another matter.
Who would vote for her?
Stereotypically, older voters, as well as anyone else set in their ways with conservative values.
In reality, she’ll have a hard time courting voters who dislike current president Lee Myung-bak, which is a lot of people. Click here to see the beginning of her popularity decline in September (over 56 percent of voters want a new party in charge), and here to see the consistency in mid-October (in a head-to-head battle, both Moon and Ahn would beat her, albeit by slim margins).
What’s nice for Park is that 30-40 percent of the voting populace will probably vote for her. What must be excruciatingly difficult for her, though, is that slightly more people exist who will not. Her job is to reverse those numbers in the next two months, so instead of losing with 45 percent of the vote, she’ll win with 55.
What’s her next move?
Frankly, Park doesn’t have to try very hard if both liberal candidates stay in the race. They will split the vote, and she will win. If one drops out, however, she’ll have to campaign hard, focusing on her lefter-leaning platform stances on issues like North Korea and welfare, and try to steer the conversation away from big market promotion and the economy. She’s got all the right votes, she just needs to win over a few thousand lefties.
To close this Haps series, a note on predictions: South Korea is a very difficult country to read, politically. While Seoul voted in a politically independent (read: left-wing) activist as its mayor last October, the rest of the country invited 157 conservative party members into its National Assembly this April, striking a clear majority victory. (Just look at all the red!) The assembly election is traditionally telling of the country’s presidential sway, so one would assume that Park has a pretty good shot at succeeding Lee Myung-bak.
But a lot has changed since April. South Korea’s democracy is, as I pointed in in the first of these articles, still a young, fickle, evolving thing, only 25-years-old. It’s tempting for left-leaners to assume that the trickling of the Arab Spring or something would affect Korea, inspiring fury after five years of conservative government. But there just isn’t enough precedent to tell what the country’s natural governing party is—and Korea is, after all, a pretty socially conservative place.
Either way, we’ll know in eight weeks.
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