SKorea: Park to challenge Lee’s legacy?
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SKorea: Park to challenge Lee’s legacy?

As Park Geun-Hye draws plaudits for her inauguration speech, we rewind five years and compare Park’s words with those of Lee Myung-Bak’s

Park Geun-Hye took the stage yesterday amid much fanfare (aided by the now inescapable PSY, of Gangnam Style fame), but now the singing and horse dancing is completed how does Park’s speech stand in relation to previous inaugurations?

Despite some cautious attempts to distance herself during the election campaign, Park is still seen by some as Lee Myung-Bak’s successor in more than just chronological terms. Most obviously she is of course from the same party, and it is a party that has shown no desire to change its image during this change of administration. It is very much the same name, same people, and same politics at Saenuri. Personally as well, Park’s policies promises during the election were not seen as radically different from Lee’s: slightly softer on North Korea, slightly tougher on Chaebols (Korean conglomerates) maybe, but more reform, not revolution. So, how different are the two leaders, and what’s changed in the country in the past five years?

Miracle on the Han

Both presidents referred frequently to Korea’s remarkable economic rise, and both focused on a phrase that Koreans seem to hope is intrinsically linked to the mention of the country. Park referred to it outright, “The Korean saga that is often referred to as the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ was written on the heels of our citizens who worked tirelessly.” Lee also spoke of, “A country that lived by the mercy of others is now able to give to others in need and stand shoulder to shoulder with the most advanced countries. Some say this is a ‘miracle.’”

The ‘miracle’ is, rightfully, a source of immense pride for the Korean people and any other President would undoubtedly wax lyrically about it, but with more and more of the population being born into an already modern and affluent Korea how long will this kind of rhetoric still appeal to all those listening? Park has already shifted focus to ‘embarking on a Second Miracle’, whilst Lee spoke much more of continuing success. Maybe Park’s change is an attempt to speak to new demographics, or maybe a result of Korea tougher economic situation than it was in five years ago.

Me, Me, Me

Lee Myung-Bak was certainly not afraid of blowing his own trumpet in his speech: “I will serve the people and bring peace to this nation, I will invigorate the economy and unite our society, I will enliven our culture and advance our science and technology, I will strengthen our security and lay the foundation for peaceful unification” and so forth. Park on the other hand spoke mostly of the country and the people, and peppered her speech regularly with “fellow citizens”.

Is this indicative of anything? Maybe that Park is still uncomfortable in the spotlight. As I’ve said before she is still seen by many as “distant”. She has thus far not set out to open herself up to the public and it seems this did not change yesterday.

Happy, Happy Talk

One of the clearest and most repeated messages of Park’s speech was the ‘Happiness of the People’.  With Korea recently coming 32nd (of 34) in an OECD happiness poll it clearly is an issue that needs to be addressed. Lee, however, spoke of ‘pragmatism’. This is not of course a polar opposite to happiness, but Lee definitely focused more on the great Korean tradition of working for the benefit of the nation: “Pragmatism is Zeitgeist that unites man and nature, matter and mind, individuals and communities for a healthy and beautiful life. We will arm ourselves with pragmatism for cooperation and harmony so that we may thaw out differences [between us].”

Park may have sensed that the Korean public now increasingly are tired of working ‘for the nation’ and are questioning these social structures. She spoke clearly to the need for personal happiness when she said “there is no place for an individual’s dreams, talents or hopes in a society where everything is determined by one’s academic background and list of credentials.” We wait to see what policies Park has in store to help this push for individual happiness.


South Korean rapper PSY performs at the inauguration Monday. Pic: AP.

A Friend of Big Business?

It is no secret that Lee Myung-Bak is a business man through and through. He did not hide his love for Chaebols during his speech: “Corporations are the source of national wealth and the prime creator of jobs.” Park tries to walk a careful middle line on economic issues. The Chaebols are unlikely to come under direct fire, but neither did she treat them with kid gloves. The new President warned: “In order for a creative economy to truly blossom, economic democratization must be achieved. I believe strongly that only when a fair market is firmly in place can everyone dream of a better future and work to their fullest potential.” There is a slow change in the Korean public’s view of Chaebols and big business and Park is smartly adapting to this, but will her bite follow her bark.

The bombshell

Despite some similarities Park chose near the end of her speech to clearly and definitively send the message that this is a new government, and she is not looking to follow in Lee’s footsteps, at least not his ones that were weighed down by black briefcases full of money. “I will earn the trust of the people by ensuring that our government remains clean, transparent and competent. I will endeavor to shed popular distrust of government and strive to elevate the capital of trust.”

Park Geun-Hye’s full speech transcript can be read at Yonhap

Lee Myung-Bak’s speech can be read at The HankYoreh