First Published in EPW,Vol-XLVIII, No. 10, March 09, 2013
On 25 February, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former military ruler Park Chung-hee, was sworn in as South Korea’s first woman president following her tightly contested election victory on 19 December 2012.1
In more ways than one, her election marks a historic breakthrough for a traditionally Confucian country2 whose social, political and business fields are dominated by men. Although the country has shown a remarkably high level of economic performance over the past few decades,3 its global ranking in gender parity is not much to talk about.
Women hold only 14.7% of parliamentary seats, and only 79.4% of adult women have reached a secondary or higher level of education compared to 91.7% of their male counterparts. According to the Gender Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (2011), female participation in the labour market is only 50.1% compared to 72% for men.
Park’s rise to the top post has raised hopes that it could herald a significant gender power shift and help normalise the idea of women holding positions of power, even as historical evidence in other Asian countries suggests that the ground reality is far more complex and only makes for good media headlines.
Moreover, this is not Park Geun-hye’s first stint at the presidential office Blue House. Born in 1952 as the eldest of three siblings, she moved into Blue House in early 1964, shortly after her father, Park Chung-hee, an army general, grabbed power.4
After spending her school years at Blue House, she enrolled at a local university to study electronic engineering, and, following graduation, left for France to continue her studies. She had to return abruptly in August 1974, after a gunman killed her mother in a botched assassination attempt on her father. For the next five years, she served as the acting first lady until the intelligence chief gunned down her father in 1979.
While it can be argued that she did not have control over her father’s regime, the fact remains that she was from a privileged background, with access to power. Following her father’s assassination, she spent the next 18 years out of the public eye, a period during which, as noted in her autobiography (Park Geun-hee 2007), she endured the betrayals of many of her father’s close aides and also devoted much of her time to reading books on history, philosophy, and visiting cultural heritage sites across the country in an effort to broaden her perspective.
The liberal intelligentsia however has a different story to tell (The Hankyoreh 2012). They claim that all her activities were focused on the restoration of her father’s image, by defending the military coup as a revolution to save the nation, using the bogey of a North Korean communist invasion. She published several books, and appeared regularly in the media justifying the violence committed by her father’s regime.
Throughout her father’s rule, the state’s routine invocation of the threat of communism effectively blocked any popular demand for democratic participation in the political process. The regime functioned in a manner that extended beyond the routine infliction of violence by the state on its citizens, into a realm where the state authority infiltrated every corner of civil society to both control it, and stifle its potential (Korea Democracy Foundation 2010).
Park claims that the Asian financial crisis, which dealt a devastating blow to South Korea’s pride and economy,5 proved to be a turning point in her career and she decided to rejoin public life. She was first elected to South Korea’s National Assembly in 1998, serving five terms as a representative.
Many critics argue that she used it as an opportunity to put her father back on the pedestal.6 This she has apparently succeeded in doing, by becoming the 18th president of the country, and its leader for the next five years. With her success, she has also ensured that conservatives will have held power for a decade since her predecessor Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008.
However, despite her ideological affiliation, her victory owes a lot to her embracing a liberal agenda in areas like economic democracy. During her campaign, she came out with a relatively progressive platform on issues like chaebol reforms7 and social welfare. Park said she would “tend closely to the public’s needs like a mother of ten determined not to let the children go hungry”.
Her promise was that as the first female president, she would adopt a “maternal” approach to her leadership. As a single woman who has never married, she also said she is married to her country and pledged to think only about the people’s happiness.
Park surely realises that pre-election pledges are one thing, but actual governance is a totally different cup of tea. Particularly since there are many daunting challenges that she faces – not just the economic slowdown, but more importantly North Korea’s third nuclear test in defiance of United Nations (UN) resolutions, just 13 days before she assumed office.
Amid the continuing global financial crisis, South Korea’s economy has slowed down significantly in recent years. The government estimates that the economy grew 3.3% in 2012, but many worry that it could actually have been lower. It would follow 6.2% and 3.6% gains reported for 2010 and 2011, respectively. Things could ease to some extent this year, but risks, which have dogged the export-driven economy throughout 2012 are likely to remain in place, and the country could enter into a phase of low growth (Ministry of Strategy and Finance 2013).
The country is highly dependent on exports,8 which makes it even harder to recover. The prolonged eurozone debt problems and a possible global slowdown, as well as low domestic consumption and volatile exchange rates only accentuate the economic uncertainties. At present, there is very little that Park can do to provide an immediate boost to the economy.
An export-oriented country will always find times difficult when the world’s major importers are experiencing sluggish growth (ASAN Institute of Policy Studies 2012).
Another problem is the indebtedness of the Korean public. Today, household debt stands at greater than 160% of income, making a reorientation of the economy towards domestic consumption very difficult. The government will therefore have to make effective management of the macroeconomy its first priority in order to successfully deal with internal and external risks, continue to help boost the economy, and pursue inclusive growth.
The long-term challenges include a rapidly ageing population, inflexible labour market, and heavy reliance on exports. As a candidate, Park promised to work for the livelihood of individual families, making several pledges aimed at reversing the collapse of the middle class. She vowed to implement policies to improve growth, create jobs and increase social welfare spending.
She also highlighted the importance of reforming large conglomerates that dominate the economy by promising that she will stop their unfair practices and excessive profit-seeking. While this is certainly a core issue in rebalancing the country’s wealth distribution, her party has always been strongly pro-business, and there is every likelihood that she will back away from strong reforms.
Now, with power in her hands, the focus may be on economic growth and job creation rather than on reining in the chaebols. Clearly, keeping the campaign pledges will not be easy.
North Korea Relations
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended the combat phase of the Korean War. The North Korean nuclear negotiations have lost all momentum. The six-party talks are part of a distant past and North Korea’s third nuclear test on 12 February, conducted in defiance of international warnings, have put a sudden halt to Park’s proposal to reach out to the communist neighbour.
During her campaign, she disapproved of the hard-line policy that came to define her predecessor over the past five years and said that a friendly relationship with North Korea will be the core of her foreign and security policies. Inter-Korean relations were effectively cut off during the Lee Myung-bak administration due to a string of provocations committed by North Korea and the response by Seoul.9 Park said she would find middle ground between the approaches of South Korea’s previous presidents – Roh Moo-hyun, who gave the North unconditional aid, and Lee Myung-bak, who treated it as an adversary. Back in 2011, Park announced her vision for foreign relations, national security, and unification policy, an idea she called “diplomacy of trust and a new Korean Peninsula”.
The measures she described emphasised incremental approach over radical changes in inter-Korean relations (Park Geun-hye 2011). This was clearly done to woo large sections of the voters who disapproved of the traditionally hard-line stance of her political party towards North Korea, and it worked in the elections.
What she did not expect was that Pyongyang would go to any extent to guard its regime and increase its negotiating power, even before she could occupy her seat. Moreover, even as the UN is in the process of discussing what actions it should take to penalise the country, North Korea warned it can acquire intercontinental ballistic missiles to counter hostile forces and bolster its self-defence capabilities.
On the whole, Park has made clear on numerous occasions that she cannot allow the North to have nuclear weapons, yet stressed her commitment to engaging the communist country in a dialogue to deal with all outstanding issues. The nuclear detonation has effectively tied up her options, since South Korea is likely to join other countries in sanctions. Such a stance can cause North Korea to take a more tough approach, making it harder for her to make any conciliatory overtures.
To make matters worse, just two days before her inauguration, the North Korean military’s representative at the truce village of Panmunjom was quoted by the official Korean Central News Agency as saying that the peninsula is facing “a grave situation where a war may break out any moment”.
The latest developments will clearly jeopardise inter-Korean relations that otherwise could have made headway under her administration. It will force her to reassess her “Korean Peninsula confidence building process”, which she has said is the cornerstone for better inter-Korean relations.
With pressure to fix the domestic economy and South Koreans’ individual welfare along with a desire to see improved relations with North Korea, Park will have to work quickly on both fronts to have a chance of succeeding. Her ability to handle relations with North Korea while working towards solutions to domestic issues will decide her legacy in the Blue House other than of being South Korea’s first woman president.
1 Since its transformation into a republic, the Korean government, except for a brief period between August 1960 and July 1961 when a parliamentary system was in place, has maintained a presidential system. Under the Sixth Republic that began in 1987, the president is directly elected for a single five-year term by plurality vote. It was a two-way competition between Park Geun-hye and the opposition candidate Moon Jae-in. With a high voter turnout of 75.8%, Park defeated her liberal rival by 3.6 percentage points garnering 15.77 million votes.
2 For 2,500 years Confucian teachings have influenced the thought and behaviour of people in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Confucianism drew a clear distinction between the woman’s domestic sphere and the man’s public sphere, in the belief that the law of nature gave women an inferior and subordinate position in all aspects of life.
3 Popularly known as the “Miracle on the Han River”, South Korea’s highly accelerated export-fuelled economic growth, including rapid industrialisation, technological achievement, education boom, exponential rise in living standards, rapid urbanisation and globalisation transformed it into a wealthy and highly developed country with a globally influential trillion-dollar economy.
4 Park Chung-hee led a 1961 military coup, dislodging South Korea’s very first experiment with parliamentary democracy.
5 For South Korea the consequences of financial and economic crisis and the intervention of the IMF in overcoming the accompanying problems were extremely painful. These problems included: a large number of bankruptcies of industrial firms and private banks; the increasing pressure on industrial firms to carry out rapid restructuring; massive dismissal of workers; currency devaluation; drastic decrease in domestic households’ demand caused by income reduction and high interest rates, etc. An average of more than 100 companies went bankrupt each day and the number of laid-off workers increased from 5,00,000 to more than 1.2 million in only a few months.
6 Park Chung-hee won wide respect for transforming the poor war-ravaged nation into an economic juggernaut, but is also reviled in some quarters for his human rights abuses. Still, many older South Koreans remember the almost two-decade rule with fondness thanks to the economic successes of his government.
7 Chaebol refers to a South Korean form of family business conglomerates, such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and SK. Since the Asian financial crisis, several attempts have been made to decentralise their management, strengthen their accounting practices, enforce anti-trust laws and impede the ability of families to retain control.
8 The weight of exports in the South Korean economy hit an all-time high in the first nine months of last year. Exports of goods and services amounted to 57.3% of GDP, according to data by the Bank of Korea, the highest since the central bank began compiling related data in 1970.
9 In 2010, North Korea sank a South Korea naval vessel resulting in the deaths of 46 sailors and shelled an island in the Yellow Sea that left four dead, while in 2008 a woman tourist was killed at the Mount Kumgang resort. The North also detonated its second nuclear device in May 2009 and launched a long-range rocket despite warnings issued by the international community. Seoul halted most exchanges and cooperation projects between the two sides in May 2010.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
First Published in EPW,Vol-XLVIII, No. 10, March 09, 2013