BEIJING - South Korea's historic first-ever female president Park Geun-hye is off to a bad start in the Blue House. The renewed threat from North Korea to scrap the armistice agreement is one thing, but her problem is fundamentally domestic. She is in a nasty partisan quagmire in which the opposition party doesn't give a nod to her plan to restructure the government organization. As a tit to the tat, she chose her famous strategy: shut the door and stay in her room. She used the strategy as an opposition leader. But people are questioning whether it suits a president of a nation.
Two weeks into her presidency, Park has been spending most of her time in her residence, nearly half of them without arranging
official schedules. There has been no cabinet meeting either so far. She is the new chief of the nation, but she is sabotaging her work. South Korea's media use such terms as "vegetable" or "paralysis" to describe her government. People are scratching their heads whether such an extreme measure is befit to a presidential behavior. This should have been the time for her to cash in her political capital to carry out new policies promptly.
True, it's her way of expressing her exasperation. Park hasn't had much luck with her ministerial nominees either. Some of them, including her first prime-minister appointee, backed down amid a series of corruption allegations, tainting her reputation in the early days of her presidency. Yoon Chang-jung, Park's spokesman, is also under fire as he reportedly gave an award to his wife in a newspaper cartoon competition years back when he was working as a journalist, according to Media Today.
A particular setback to Park was her ambitious appointee Kim Jeong-hoon, a Korean-American, who was president of Bell Laboratories and also advised the CIA. Kim was supposed to head the Ministry of Future Planning and Science, the centerpiece of Park's government reorganization plan. Yet Kim withdrew this week expressing frustration at the political quagmire.
Like her father (the late president Park Chung-hee), Park has displayed a tendency to favor those with military backgrounds, which has got under fire too. For example, three of the key ministerial posts - defense, intelligence, and National Security Office (NSO) chief - went to the graduates of the Korean Military Academy, drawing concerns even from the conservative newspapers that back her.
Critics, however, point out that her most inappropriate behavior has been her hijacking of the democratic rule of partisan politics, after she bypassed the National Assembly and appealed directly to the public to pressure the opposition party. The main bone of partisan contention between the governing Saenuri Party (to which Park belongs) and the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) is a proposed transfer of some duties of the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) to the newly proposed Ministry of Future Planning and Science.
On the surface, the issue is a minor provision, but both sides take the matter as the first indication of a war of nerves over political hegemony, which could tilt power balance between the president and her political opponents over the next five years (South Korea's constitution limits presidential term to a single five-year term).
On March 4, Park made a public statement calling for the opposition party to concede unilaterally. "The National Assembly's failure to pass a bill to retool the government is causing a serious bottleneck in state governance," the stony-faced Park said in an angry voice. Instead of entering into negotiation with the opposition camp in a partisan way, she bypassed the opposition camp and appealed directly to the public. Many see this problematic. "In theory, there is little wrong with what she said. But should this be the way the new chief executive handle national affairs in her first week in office?" lamented the March 6 editorial of the Korea Times.
Even the conservative trio of daily newspapers (Chosun, JoongAng, Dong-A) that back Park have frowned upon her handling the matter. Chosun asked her to "look back on her days of being in the opposition camp" in its March 6 editorial. JoongAng said: "We are scratching our heads whether she really had to choose this way even after she has become the president." Lawmaker Kim Yong-tae, who is from the same Saenuri Party as Park, bemoaned: "99% of the negotiation with the opposition party was completed. But it was ditched because of her direct appeal to the public."
Dong-A joined the criticism, pointing out that Park has a communication problem. In a survey conducted by Dong-A, 85% of the opposition Democratic Party lawmakers said her public statement displayed an "arrogant and inflexible leadership". The pro-opposition party newspaper, Hankyoreh, said the problem is that none of the top lieutenants surrounding Park has the guts to point out her problem.
Meanwhile, Park has continued her attacks on the opposition parties, saying on Thursday that they are "not giving her the opportunity to serve the nation by refusing to pass a government restructuring bill." Park is often praised for her persistence and sticks to her words. But people worry that she is turning out to be more like Lee Myung-bak, her predecessor whose moniker was "bulldozer" for his decisive yet uncompromising attitude.
But the liberal Hankyoreh newspaper thinks Park beats Lee on this quality of stubbornness. "Five years ago, the situation was similar under President Lee. The political parties were in a standoff over government-restructuring bill. But two days after his inauguration, Lee decided to convene the cabinet meeting and solved over 80 pending bills."
Critics say what's most striking is her stalwart attitude in demanding the opposition party back down first. The opposition party is not in a position to compromise. After the presidential defeat, the opposition party has been run on an ad-hoc platform. It doesn't want to be seen as weak, not to mention as being cowered by the president. The Saenuri lawmaker Kim thinks Park is going too far. "She has to ask herself whether it was appropriate to corner the opposition party in such a drastic fashion." Moon Hee-sang, the opposition DUP's interim leader characterized Park's way of handling things as "arrogant and conceited" and called on her to "respect the rights of enacting bills of the National Assembly."
Now, after electing the nation's first-ever female president, South Koreans are scratching their heads whether they have placed too much hope on Park, 61, who touched their heart when she said: "I have no family to take care of. I have no child to inherit my properties. You, the people, are my only family, and to make you happy is the reason I do politics."
Kim Myong-soon, a South Korean citizen wrote on the Chosun Ilbo newspaper website: "Park projected herself as a warm motherly figure. It turned out that we selected a president who is like an adolescent middle school student: She refuses to go to school, refuses to eat because parents don't buy her things she demanded. It's more than ridiculous. No one around her dares to tell the truth. They are just twisting their body to please her. In the end, it will be the people who will pay the price for another five years."
Sunny Lee, PhD, is a Seoul-born columnist and commentator, who follows events in North Korea and China. He can be reached at email@example.com
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