SEOUL – First it was the ferry sinking, a subject that a year later still haunts Park Geun-hye’s presidency: Demonstrators rampaged through Seoul over the weekend, accusing Park of not addressing the alleged corruption and incompetence that cost South Korea 304 lives, mostly children.
Then another bombshell: Park’s prime minister, Lee Wan-koo, offered to resign Monday over allegations by a disgraced businessman who died in an apparent suicide that Lee had been bribed, the latest in a string of officials linked to the president who have faced ethics questions.
It’s safe to say that Park has had better weeks. And it’s only Tuesday.
With Park’s popularity plummeting and parliamentary and local elections looming, there are growing doubts about her ability to pursue, during her remaining three years in office, the ambitious goals she once voiced. They include reaching out to rival North Korea, balancing economic and diplomatic ties with China, Japan and the United States, and closing the huge gaps there between rich and poor, men and women, old and young, city and countryside.
Park, just by way of her lineage, was already a divisive figure when she was elected in late 2012, becoming the country’s first female president. She’s the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee, whose 18-year rule, which ended with his 1979 assassination, continues to split South Korea.
Critics say he tortured and murdered opponents before tearing up the constitution to give himself virtually unlimited power. His supporters, many of whom form his daughter’s conservative political base, say his firm hand started the country’s transformation from the wreckage of the 1950-53 Korean War into what’s become Asia’s fourth-biggest economy.
His daughter beat liberal opponent Moon Jae-in handily and took office in early 2013, but she has been battered regularly ever since.
Park took over as president amid allegations that the country’s spy service interfered in the election to gin up votes for her, though she hasn’t been linked directly to the scandal, which saw the conviction of a former spy chief.
The first 100 days saw her choices for key spots in her administration repeatedly shot down over corruption allegations. Her outreach to North Korea has been generally met with insults and a string of missile launches, and she’s faced criticism of curbing press and free speech freedoms.
Park seems unable or unwilling to push through major changes or take bold steps and is becoming a caretaker leader and bland defender of the status quo, according to Robert Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
This is a far cry from what she promised in 2012.
Park tried to strike a contrast in that election with her aggressively conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, by campaigning against her liberal challenger as a centrist who would shrink gaps between the rich and poor, improve welfare and establish checks on South Korea’s powerful, sometimes corrupt corporate conglomerates.
Part of the problem, Kelly says, is that she’s closely linked to those South Koreans who benefit most from keeping things as they are — especially big business and the elderly.
Relatives of the ferry dead blame Park’s government for failing to monitor safety ahead of the April 16, 2014, sinking and botching rescue attempts. The government was expected Wednesday to formally approve a plan to raise the ferry from the seabed off the country’s southwestern coast.
The families of the dead — most of whom were students from a single high school — believe salvaging the ship might reveal new facts about the cause of the sinking and uncover the remains of the nine passengers still missing, according to Park Jumin, a lawyer representing them.
But members of Park’s own party and others have questioned the wisdom of salvaging the ferry, which could cost as much as $137 million and take as long as 1½ years to accomplish.
The government needs to carefully proceed with the difficult, potentially dangerous salvaging operation and resist going too fast, said Kim Kil-soo, a professor at the Korea Maritime and Ocean University in Busan. Kim is skeptical that the salvaged ship will provide any major new revelations.
Thousands of demonstrators, led by relatives of victims of the ferry sinking, rallied in Seoul on Saturday to criticize the government’s handling of the disaster. Police used water cannons and pepper spray to disperse protesters, who vandalized dozens of police busses and attacked officers.
Park is also being battered by allegations against her No. 2, Prime Minister Lee, one of eight high-profile people whom the disgraced businessman said, in his suicide note, he had bribed. Most are considered close associates of Park.
Lee has denied the allegations.
It was the prime minister who announced last month an aggressive government plan to counter corruption, in what critics at the time saw as an attempt to target associates of former President Lee, a longtime Park rival.
There’s no immediate sign of political relief for Park, said Jang Seung-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
Many believe her government has done nothing to address calls for the higher-level officials who are seen as being responsible for lax safety and the botched ferry rescue to be held accountable, he said.
Unless the government goes out of its way to meet relatives’ demands that it find the whole truth behind the disaster, anger over the tragedy will last until Park’s last day in office, Jang said.