Can the Daughter of a Dictator Lead a 21st Century Korea?
Politics can change on a dime, and that is especially true in Korea. Park Geun-hye was elected Korea’s President in a close but convincing election as the country’s first woman president. True, she is the daughter of a former president. Nevertheless, in a country that not ago had talk shows with subjects such as “Women who want to work outside the home and their husbands who are angry about it,” Ms. Park’s election is nonetheless impressive and is another step forward for women--and yes, liberals, even if that means she is coming from a conservative political party.
The fact that she is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a divisive figure in Korean history and politics, makes her election even more impressive--especially since the liberal factions, including the electric Ahn Cheol-soo, united around Moon Jae-in’s candidacy. When I lived in Korea during the mid-1990s, I heard a lot about former President Park. One friend took me to a memorial outside of Seoul and explained how he was the greatest president the nation had. But for every Korean who revered Park, others had plenty to say about his abusive regime and horrible human rights record. I was in Korea in 1997 when Kim Dae-jung, a rival of Park’s and human rights activist who seemed to have more lives than a cat, was elected in Korea, a day many thought would never happen.
But just as quickly as Kim became president--as was the case with his predecessors and successors--his administration became mired in political acrimony and allegations of corruption. For someone like Park Geun-hye who is trying to “rise above” politics, the chances are high that she will confront similar problems.
Ms. Park has vacillated between defending her father’s legacy--one of abuses of power and Korea’s transformation into a powerful economy--and apologizing for those hurt by her father’s rule.
But can she effectively manage a country in the midst of huge social change? Korea is the most technologically advanced in the world and his having an impact on the world’s culture and economy. But unlike the days of Park Chung-hee’s rule, Korea no longer has to develop “at all costs.” The gap between the rich and poor is widening, the education system is in trouble because of its high costs and despite improvements under outgoing president Lee Myung-bak, the country confronts massive environmental problems. The cost of living is skyrocketing and poverty is on the increase. Korea will have to make some tough choices about how and if it will develop a stronger safety net for its people, how to maintain economic growth in an extremely competitive global economy and ensure education is fair for all. If Park can make progress on these issues, she may leave a legacy even larger than her father’s--and help Korea move on from its traumatic past.
Image credit: Wikipedia