The Magazine

Democracy, Gangnam-Style

South Koreans pick a president

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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Buyeo, South Korea
On a blustery afternoon in late November, all of the tensions enfolded in Park Geun-hye’s bid for the South Korean presidency were on display in this mid-size city three hours south of Seoul. Madame Park, as the Saenuri (New Frontier) party standard-bearer is known, had come here to walk through an outdoor market, shaking hands, hugging babies, and smiling for photographs, just like an American candidate at the Iowa State Fair—though with kimchi instead of corn dogs on offer.

Moon Jae-in, left, and Park Geun-hye on the campaign trail

Moon Jae-in, left, and Park Geun-hye on the campaign trail

Just as the conservative Madame Park was to begin her walk, a local Saenuri party representative got up on a platform with a megaphone and began leading the crowd in a chant. He would shout, “Park Geun-hye!” and the crowd would respond, “For President!” But after a few iterations of this routine, the party flack switched things up and began chanting “Park Chung-hee!”—the name of South Korea’s military dictator from 1961 to 1979, who just happens to be Park Geun-hye’s father. The mostly older crowd loved it. When Madame Park completed her walk-through and stood up on the platform to make a few remarks, she didn’t allude to the fact that the crowd had just been lustily cheering the name of a former autocrat.

But that’s the strange position in which Park Geun-hye finds herself in this election: She’s running for president in a free and open election in East Asia’s most dynamic democracy, yet is benefiting from residual attachment to a dictatorship. That’s hardly the only tension animating Park’s candidacy. She’s also a female candidate in a patriarchal, Confucian society. She’s running, in large part, to dismantle—or at least temper—the economic system that her father’s regime built. And she’s steadfastly and courageously opposed to the North Korean dictatorship.

As befits a society as family-oriented as Korea, if Park Geun-hye is elected South Korea’s first female president on December 19, it will have a lot to do with her lineage. Her father, who seized power in a 1961 coup and held it until his assassination by his own spy chief in 1979, is widely seen as the father of modern Korea.

And indeed, it’s difficult to overstate Park Chung-hee’s influence here. Hard as it may be for contemporary visitors to Korea to contemplate—this is a country with blazing-fast Internet, sparkling cities, a designer clothing habit rivaling Milan’s, and heated seats in the Seoul subway—at the dawn of Park’s reign, South Korea was an extremely poor country. In 1961, the nation’s per capita GDP was $92, according to the World Bank. (The same year, the United States’ was $2,935.) South Korea was poorer than Guatemala, Zambia, Iraq, the Dominican Republic, Liberia, and .  .  . North Korea. The country was in terrible shape after 35 years of brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 and the ravages of the Korean War.

Park rapidly modernized the country. Through both state-run companies and close cooperation with the so-called chaebol (the massive Korean conglomerates, like Hyundai and Samsung, that command an amazing percentage of Korea’s GDP), Park’s government transformed a mostly agrarian country into the export powerhouse that it remains today. His government built up the country’s infrastructure, creating the first highway from Seoul to South Korea’s second city, Busan, along with scores of other bridges, dams, and powerplants. The first lines of Seoul’s sprawling subway system were also constructed under his reign. Park’s policies paid dividends. By the time of his assassination, South Korean per capita GDP was nearly $2,000, and the country was growing 9 to 10 percent each year. So it’s little wonder that, to many Koreans, Park’s regime represents something of a golden age.

But Park Chung-hee’s golden age had a decidedly tarnished hue. Park suspended the country’s democratic constitution and muzzled the media, and his security agency ordered the torture—and sometimes the murder—of dissidents. Even so, polls today regularly find that Koreans rank Park as not only the country’s greatest president (which wouldn’t be that impressive, given that the Republic of Korea is still less than 70 years old) but also its most admired leader of all time, outranking even King Sejong, who oversaw the creation of the Korean alphabet.

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