South Korea: Park Likely to be First Female President


LIGNET

South Korea is poised to elect its first female president this December after the conservative New Frontier Party voted to nominate Park Geun Hye by an overwhelming 84 percent. The daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee, Ms. Park is widely viewed as a centrist who is attempting to distance herself from both her father’s legacy as well as the current ruling party, which is also conservative but is plagued by numerous scandals.

Ms. Park is widely seen as the front runner, particularly since the opposition has yet to name a candidate. The possibility of a third party candidate, Ahn Chul Soo, a former head of a software company and philanthropist, could also shake up the race, though he is still polling behind Ms. Park. Given the centrist position of the likely candidates, LIGNET assesses that personality-related issues will dominate the race.

Background

Park Geun Hye, the 60 year-old daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee, cruised to an easy victory in the nomination for New Frontier Party (NFP) by beating 4 other candidates with an impressive 84 percent of the vote. A newly formed conservative party, the NFP was created in large part to distance itself from the existing conservative Grand National Party (GNP).

The South Korean presidential election will be held on December 19 to replace incumbent President Lee Myung-bak. Presidents in South Korea are only allowed to serve one term.

Incumbent GNP President Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2007, but his tenure, particularly the past two years, has been tumultuous. Lee’s term has been marked by infighting, lackluster economic performance, corruption scandals, and foreign policy snafus that have significantly undercut his support. One recent poll showed that only a 30 percent job approval rating. Just last month, three Lee associates – his elder brother, a former ruling-party lawmaker, and the speaker of the National Assembly – were arrested on bribery charges.

Ms. Park has gone to great lengths to draw contrasts between herself and President Lee. She has publicly criticized the incumbent, for his support of a landmark intelligence-sharing deal with Japan out of fear it would revive criticism of Japan’s colonial legacy. Park has also promised transparency in government to distance herself from the corruption scandals haunting the current government.

Having spent her life in politics, Ms. Park is the first female candidate from a major party to run for president in South Korea. Park, who is single, has often commented that she is “married” to the country. Her father ruled South Korea as a dictator for 18 years until he was assassinated by his own spy chief, and oversaw the country’s massive industrial transformation. Park became the acting first lady at 22 after her mother was killed during an assassination attempt on her father.

Despite being the daughter of a former South Korean ruler, Park has demonstrated independence from his legacy. For example, she has backed away from support of her father’s export-led growth policies in response to slowing demand in Europe. On North Korea, she has toned down the tough rhetoric and instead emphasized creating peace on the peninsula and breaking “the vicious cycle of distrust” with Pyongyang.

Although the main opposition Democratic Party has not yet named a candidate, it most likely will select former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in. Moon was chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, Lee’s predecessor, and has served in government since 2003. Moon was a student activist jailed under the dictatorship of Park Chung Hee and was also a member of the special forces.

A third potential candidate is Ahn Chul Soo, the millionaire former head of a software company and well-known philanthropist. Ahn, who is center-left ideologically and opposes the power of traditional family-run conglomerates, says he has not yet decided whether he will run. He is extremely popular with young voters seeking an alternative from the two major parties. Ahn, who has no political experience, became a much talked about candidate last year after he successfully and publicly backed social reformer Park Won Soon for mayor of Seoul when that position became vacant. Ahn currently polls with 31 percent of the vote, behind Park with 35 percent and ahead of Moon with 11.3 percent.

Both Park and Moon espouse a softer line toward North Korea and emphasize economics instead. They support breaking the hold of the chaebols, the family-run conglomerates, and economic democracy. They say the current market system is not open and needs revamping. They also all support some form of welfare, such as state-supported day care centers and food subsidies.

Analysis

Despite labels of “center-right” and “center-left,” the two major parties are all putting forward similar messages. Consequently, it is likely the election will become a personality contest. To the extent substantive issues are discussed, it is clear the focus will be the domestic economy, especially youth unemployment, welfare policies, as well as ending the enormous power of family-run business conglomerates. Foreign policy is not likely to figure prominently in the election given that both major parties support softening the country’s stance toward North Korea.

Park will try to take advantage over the next few weeks of the absence of a major part opponent to get a jump on voters, touting her new economic ideas of overcoming youth unemployment and reducing income inequality. She is popular with older Koreans who see her as patriotic and strong, but will have to increase her popularity with youth voters to secure a win in December. She also needs to continue to distance herself from the scandals of the current administration.

Moon, who is well-respected, is fighting a negative public perception of his party and must move from the shadow of former president Roh. The Democratic Party has suffered from weak leadership and lack of a clear message, which has cost the party voter support. Moon is likely to emphasize his human rights background balanced with his special forces experience. Like Park, he too will also underscore welfare reform and economic policies to stimulate growth in hopes of convincing voters of his competence.

While Ahn is enormously popular with young voters, his lack of any political experience will likely undermine his ultimate ability to win the presidency, assuming he does he decide to run. However, Ahn could decide to back Moon, significantly bolstering the chances of the Democratic Party candidate. This combination would take advantage of Moon’s experience and Ahn’s charisma. If this strategy plays out successfully, Ahn could then gain a position in a Moon government to gain political experience, positioning him for the next round of elections.

Conclusion

Park Gye Hye made history by becoming the first female to be nominated to run for president of South Korea by a major party. Her power base is with older voters who view her as a strong performer, but she may struggle with younger voters. She has gone to great lengths to establish an identity independent of current conservative leaders, many of whom are tainted by scandal, and her father. While polling strongly at the moment, she could face a challenge from the likely center-left candidate Moon Jae-in, particularly if philanthropist Ahn Chul Soo decides to back him.

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