Presidential preview: Park Geun-hye

Story by: James Little, Photos by: Adela Ordoñez

On Dec. 19, Koreans will choose their president for the sixth time since free elections began in 1987. The importance of this election cannot be understated: While on the surface the two remaining candidates have produced platforms with more similarities than differences, their philosophies and visions couldn’t be more different. 

The right has offered an olive branch to centrist voters by offering to ramp up social spending, an area where Korea consistently ranks near the bottom among the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But will Park Geun-hye’s conservatives follow through with their pledge to narrow Korea’s wealth gap, or will they fall back into their old ways of pandering to the country’s conglomerates? The bigger question for Park’s presidential run might be whether she can successfully rid herself of the label “the dictator’s daughter.”

On the other hand, the liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in, was chief of staff to late President Roh Moo-hyun, and the jury is still out on whether that will help or hurt his bid for the Blue House. 

Roh had one of the lowest approval ratings of any democratically elected leader in the world while he was in office. Also, the liberals have stubbornly clung to their policy of appeasing North Korea, even through its deadly provocations over the last few years. 

Moon and Park are vying for an electorate weary of rampant corruption among government officials and policies favoring the wealthy. In addition to that, there’s precious little information about how the candidates will achieve broad proposals for reform of childcare, education, or the corporate sector. Specifics are also lacking on how they will spur economic growth amidst a weak global economy, an especially daunting task for Korea’s export-dependent businesses. Would they raise or lower taxes, cut programs, or loosen corporate regulations? 

Ahn Cheol-soo’s short-lived and much talked-about bid for the presidency now looks like it was little more than a sideshow. Had Ahn stayed in the race, he would have split the liberal vote and handed Park a landslide victory. Now that he’s no longer in the running, we’re back to where we were in early September. 

As the well-regarded journalist Michael Breen wrote in his book, “The Koreans” (2004), “There is a joke among political scientists that if you put two Koreans on a deserted island, they would form three political parties…”

With all that in mind, Groove Korea presents to you the two major candidates running for the office of president of the Republic of Korea.

Park Geun-hye Saenuri Party – Conservative

Park Geun-hye has been in the harsh spotlight of Korean politics her entire life. The daughter of the late autocratic dictator Park Chung-hee, Park was thrust into prominence in 1974 when a failed assassination attempt on her father by a Japanese-born, North Korean sympathizer inadvertently killed her mother. Recalled from graduate school in France at the age of 22, the young Park spent the next five years as the de facto first lady of the Republic of Korea until the eventual assassination of her father, five years later, at the hand of his own head of intelligence.

Following her father’s death, Park dropped out of the spotlight, not to be seen again until the late ‘90’s when she returned to politics as a member of the 

National Assembly, promising to save an embarrassed country from the woes it was experiencing during the Asian Financial Crisis and IMF bailout loans.

Foreign policy

Park is vague on her foreign policy goals. However, her essay in the Sept./Oct. 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine does give us some clues.

“Two contrasting trends exist side-by-side in Asia, the information revolution, globalization, and democratization clashing with the competitive instincts of the region’s major powers. To ensure that the first set of forces triumphs, policy-makers in Asia and in the international community must not only take advantage of existing initiatives, but also adopt a bolder and more creative approach to achieving security. Without such an effort, military brinkmanship may only increase — with repercussions well beyond Asia.

“The rest of the world can help with these efforts. To begin with, strengthening the indispensable alliance between South Korea and the United States should send unequivocal signals to North Korea that only responsible behavior can ensure the regime’s survival and a better life for its citizens. The E.U. is not a member of the six-party nuclear talks, but the model of regional cooperation that Europe represents can contribute to peace building on the Korean Peninsula.” 

Like father, like … ?

Park’s greatest strength, her royal status amongst adoring conservatives, is also her largest obstacle to wooing votes from the center. Voters are just as likely to vote for her because of her father as they are to reject her for the same reason.

However, Park is her own woman. While her detractors enjoy publicly referring to her as “the dictator’s daughter,” comparisons such as this are misrepresentative. Park is unashamedly conservative and at times has appeared cold and distant. Yet she is certainly no authoritarian dictator in the making. She has so far had a difficult time positioning herself on her father’s legacy. 

She originally stated, in reference to the 1961 coup d’etat in which her father took power, “I think my late father made an unavoidable, yet his best possible, decision.” However, after continuing pressure from the left, she offered a formal apology for those who suffered under his rule, as well as describing numerous actions of his as being in violation of the constitution. It seems unlikely, however, that this will slow the left from attacking her for her father. At the same time, she has also misrepresented her father’s actions.  

One such case is with regards to the People’s Revolutionary Party incident, in which eight men were executed just hours after being sentenced to prison for protesting Park Chung-hee’s rule, and were posthumously exonerated. Similarly, she falsely defended the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation scandal, where she said that the original founder surrendered the foundation’s assets, though a Seoul court found in February that he was forced to do so by her father’s regime.


Since announcing her intention to run, and winning the backing of her conservative party with a staggering 84 percent of the vote, she has focused her campaign platform primarily on welfare, fairer business (what she describes as “economic democratization”) and bridging the partisan divide between the two sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately for Park, the workers’ unions and liberal factions she is trying to make amends with seem to be less than interested in cooperating. 

In November, her team announced she is planning to refocus her campaign on a 10-trillion-won economic stimulus plan, but that hadn’t been confirmed as of press time. 

Even if she is able to bring in a stronger welfare system and prove her credentials as a candidate set on social change, it is unlikely that her core principles, particularly those regarding the economy, will change significantly. 

During the 2008 presidential election, where she narrowly lost the conservative ticket to Lee Myung-bak (who went on to win the presidency), Park campaigned on the promise of lower taxes, reduced economic regulation, and continuing a friendly relationship with the chaebol, or conglomerates.

With respect to North Korea, Park speaks from a position of experience, having met the late Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang in 2002. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine in Sept./Oct. 2011, she expressed her belief that the Sunshine Policy of previous liberal governments had not worked. Yet at the same time, she also acknowledged that the hardline policies of her conservative party have brought about very little for either the development of North Korea or an improvement in relations. Park called for a system of “trustpolitik,” whereby South Korea and its allies would align themselves to the actions of North Korea based on developing trust. If North Korea were to enact economic reform, it would be aptly rewarded, however if Pyongyang were to restart enriching uranium, it would meet a stern response from the South and her allies.


Park’s easiest path to success would have been if the two liberal candidates, Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in, both stayed in the race. Against the two liberal candidates and a split on the left — as happened in the 1987 presidential election — the presidency would have been hers. That, of course, didn’t happen, with Moon now being her sole rival.

Now in a head-to-head race, Park remains in a strong position. Having distanced herself from the current, and rather unpopular, conservative President Lee, and having the backing of the largest political party in the country, Park is arguably the strongest and most experienced candidate. The biggest threat to Park rests in whether Moon can successfully invigorate the young and liberal base enough to come out and vote, skewing the voting demographics away from her.

Victory for Park isn’t dependent on whether her older, richer and more conservative backers will come out and vote for her; they will. The election will be decided by whether or not the left shows up to vote on the day — something they haven’t been doing in recent elections.

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