SEOUL – It is something of a cliché question in South Korea nowadays: Who would be the country’s next president if the election were held tomorrow, rather than in December 2012?
Numerous opinion polls show Park Geun Hye of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) to be the leading candidate. If elected, she would be South Korea’s first woman president, and, for her rivals, her dominant position in the race is an uncomfortable but unassailable fact.
South Korean voters of all ages and regions have welcomed Park as a candidate for their country’s leadership. Her political style is both refreshing and relevant, because she comes across as sincere and forthright at a time when the public is hungry for moral leadership. And she has an astonishing talent for simplifying complicated issues accurately, which she likely learned — along with how to interpret and manipulate the political connotations of every issue — from her father, former President Park Chung Hee.
Acclaimed as a national hero among radical rightwingers, the iron-fisted Park Chung Hee ruled South Korea from 1963 to 1979, in the wake of the 1961 military coup, only to be assassinated by his intelligence chief. His daughter is proud of his legacy, which marked the beginning of South Korea’s economic boom.
Indeed, as a pillar of export-oriented modernity, Park Chung Hee was once lionized as the archetype of a modernizing political leadership in military-authoritarian states. At home, he still ranks first in popularity among the country’s heads of state, kindling nostalgia like a popular old record — a corollary to people’s frustration and anger at the current government of President Lee Myung-bak.
Park, who lost her first bid for the GNP’s nomination to Lee in 2007, needs to ensure that no rupture with her erstwhile rival knocks her off the path to victory in 2012. An astute politician, Park did not hesitate to campaign wholeheartedly for Lee the last time around — a move that, as part of long-term political strategy, made perfect sense.
To many South Koreans, the election is now Park’s to lose. No candidate on the horizon seems able to stop her. If she wins, it will be the result of her seriousness and tenacity, not her political heritage. No one in South Korea’s conservative movement doubts that Park is one of them. And, as an icon of the right, she is well aware that she cannot afford to betray her status.
Despite her charisma, Park is neither a Sarah Palin nor an Eva Peron. Indeed, she looks more like a Korean Margaret Thatcher — a lady not for turning, in Thatcher’s famous phrase, and with clearly thought-through political principles animating her actions. In any case, she seems destined to establish a new South Korea focusing on her landmark pledge “jul pu se,” literally meaning “reduce-loosen-strengthen tax-cuts,” deregulation, and law and order, not just to add another chapter to her father’s old book. Her administration would mark a fresh departure from the country’s troubled recent past.
Left-leaning pundits claim that the dictator’s daughter has the same autocratic vision as her father, though Park invariably prefers incremental change to radical measures, and cut her political teeth in the tough-minded politics of the GNP. Others take a flagrantly sexist stance, arguing that a woman president would be a non-starter as long as the North Korean regime continues to threaten national security.
Although these criticisms don’t seem to bother the electorate very much, Park’s path to victory may yet prove narrower than her supporters expect. She has been called the “Queen of Elections,” in particular since she won a campaign in 2006 after being slashed with a box cutter by a deranged man. But she must convincingly outline practical strategies to resolve South Korea’s most serious problems, including high unemployment, worsening educational performance and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Park once pledged to provide loans for working-class families from elementary school to college years, while contending that local universities should be empowered to have more autonomy. She favors engagement policy and the six-party talks so as to resolve the nuclear troubles.
Come presidential election day in 2012, South Korean voters will pick the candidate who embodies pragmatism and centrism over a partisan or ideologue. Park’s success will depend, in the end, on the effectiveness of her campaign in further defining her character along those lines.
Unlike former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, who lost her presidential bid in Peru last month, Park is likely to defy her family’s tragic history. If she does, she will be Asia’s most powerful woman, perhaps the most powerful in the world, at the end of next year.
Lee Byong Chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, served on the foreign- and national-security policy planning staff of South Korean President Kim Young Sam (1993-1998) and President Kim Dae Jung (1998-2003) from 1993 to 1999. © 2011 Project Syndicate