South Korea Politics

South Korea Park Geun-hye is already struggling in the popularity polls. Pic: AP.

South Korea’s President-elect Park Geun-Hye limps out the gate on domestic affairs but North Korea may offer chance to restore conservative credentials

The days between an election victory and taking office are usually ‘the good times’ for Korea’s leaders. This honeymoon period has seen previous winners pick up impressive approval ratings of 86% (Noh Moo-Hyun) and 84% (Lee Myung Bak). Park Geun-Hye’s 55% stands underwhelming in comparison.

Why is the President-elect finding things so tough so soon?

The most notable setback to the incoming administration’s plans has been a disastrously failed Prime-Ministerial nomination. Kim Yong-Joon withdrew his name from the running just five days after he had been championed by Park following controversies surrounding his personal finances and family’s military commitments (or lack thereof). With just 18 days until the new government takes office and still no candidate for PM, the pressure is on. Even the conservative press are piling the pressure on Park: “If another candidate drops out of the running like Kim Yong-Joon did, President-elect Park will suffer a significant hit to public trust and expectations.”

It is not an isolated case. Lee Dong-Heub is currently nominee for Chief of the Constitutional Court. Although this was Lee Myung-Bak’s nomination, Park’s people have made it known it was with her approval and consultation. That piece of PR looks set to backfire as Lee is also finding his confirmation extremely problematic as he has been accused of moral and financial corruption. The DUP are now calling for his withdrawal and they may get it. Whatever the truth of these accusations, Park and her team were seen to be dropping to ball in both cases and Park’s subsequent lack luster defenses and media-blaming did little to instill confidence that Korea is set for a term of ‘smooth sailing’.

Other candidates may have been forgiven this turbulent start to Presidential life but Park’s success, even if she herself never campaigned for it, came on the back of her ‘strongwoman’ image. Being a political veteran of 15 years, five-times elected, and the head of the conservative Saenuri party all went towards creating this impression, but these were all building upon what is the most fundamental view of Park. The daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee.

Her father’s ghost may not have been as big a campaign issue as many Western sources took it to be, but it is still deeply embedded in the Korean view of Park. After her mother’s death Park stepped into a, as Chico Harlan put it, “De facto First Lady” position. Her role then is still what defines her to many elderly Koreans. Despite Korea’s mixed opinions and extremely complicated remembrance of her father, Park Geun-Hye undoubtedly benefited in some of the more conservative circles from this association.

However, Park has never really been comfortable in this ‘Strongwoman’ role. During the election Park had to walk a delicate line between honoring her father and distancing herself from his dictatorial rule. Between these two needs Park never really settled on how strong she could appear without scaring away middle ground voters suspicious of her father’s legacy and also tired of 5 years of firm, no-nonsense rule by Lee Myung-Bak.

But after her less-than-inspiring transition period Conservatives may already fear they have not got the kind of leader they wanted.

North Korea may be the opportunity Park needs to flex her muscle.

Park’s campaign promise was a move away from Lee’s hard-line but not back to the Left’s Sunshine Policy. It was yet another attempt to claim the center, but now North Korea may themselves force her to the right. This week has seen the strongest words, and in general the most action from Park during the transitional period. She warned North Korea: “For South Korea, North Korea’s nuclear program is unacceptable and if there is an additional provocation we will deal sternly with it together with the international community.”

All this will have little to no effect on North Korea’s plans but it can help Park reestablish her momentum. She has already begun this by calling all parties together for an emergency session. This may be one area in which the DUP won’t be opposing her every step of the way.

Would it be going too far to suggest that Park’s strong stance right now is for her own benefit? Yes it probably would, but it may be just the thing she needs to get her administration moving back at full steam towards her accession.