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Democracy, Gangnam-Style

South Koreans pick a president

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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" A Well-Prepared Woman For President,” read the banners at Madame Park’s campaign events. There’s no doubt about the veracity of the “well-prepared” part. The 60-year-old Park’s whole life has been defined by her proximity to power. The oldest of three children, she was 9 when her father took control of the presidency, and following her mother’s assassination in 1974, she served as South Korea’s official “first lady,” accompanying Park Chung-hee to all national functions. Her own career began in earnest in 1974, when she was appointed the honorary president of Girl Scouts Korea. From there, she pursued a number of philanthropic endeavors, leading hospitals, senior citizens’ associations, and cultural foundations.

South Korea transitioned to democracy in the late 1980s, but Madame Park didn’t enter the political arena until about a decade later. According to her campaign biography, the 1997 financial crisis “proved to be a turning point in Park’s career. Fueled by a desire to support the country towards stabilization, Park decided to enter politics for the first time .  .  . she ran for office .  .  . and was elected to the National Assembly.” She served in the assembly from 1998 until this year, leading the country’s conservative party, then the GNP, now named the Saenuri, for a time.

But the “woman” part of Park’s slogan has caused some trouble. South Korea is still a relatively patriarchal society; to give one example, only about half of Korean women are in the workforce (compared with about 65 percent in the United States and nearly three-quarters in Denmark). Park has never married and is childless—another fact that has tongues wagging from Seoul to Busan. A professor at one of Korea’s leading universities even said in a televised interview, “Women, in social terms, indicate those who get married, give birth, and raise children, in short, living their lives as women. Park may have the genitals of a woman but has never performed her role as a woman.” Park’s line in response to this vicious attack is that she’s “married to the country.”

Park’s main opponent in the presidential contest is a man named Moon Jae-in. (Several fringe candidates are also on the ballot.) If Park is South Korea’s conservative standard-bearer par excellence, Moon is a doctrinaire liberal, with deep roots in the South Korean left. As a student, he was expelled from university for protesting Park Chung-hee’s regime; he went on to work as a human rights lawyer, one steadfastly opposed to the dictatorship. Later in life, he became a founding editor of South Korea’s leading left-wing newspaper, a sort of Seoul-based Le Monde or Guardian.

In the current campaign, Moon has gone out of his way to remind Koreans of his association with Roh Moo-hyun, the country’s left-wing president from 2003 to 2008. (Moon, a friend and law partner of Roh’s long before his presidency, served as his chief of staff.) That’s a pretty brash move, given that Roh’s presidency—which included a bribery investigation and Roh’s impeachment—is now widely viewed as a disaster. (One middle-aged man I spoke to in Seoul, no doctrinaire conservative he, labeled Roh “Korea’s worst president ever.”) In a way, the identity of each candidate is clarifying. Through their biographies alone, they each represent the very apotheosis of their side; it’s as if William F. Buckley were running against William Ayers.

Park’s campaign says that the two top issues on the public’s mind in the election are—surprise, surprise—the economy and foreign policy. In some ways, South Korea’s economic problems are familiar to any resident of Europe, the United States, or Japan: The country suffers from high household and government debt, an aging population (see Jonathan V. Last’s “Where Have All The Children Gone?” from The Weekly Standard’s November 12 issue), yawning federal deficits, wage stagnation, painfully slow economic growth, and near-record levels of income inequality.

But the South Korean economy has some unique characteristics. Most important is the chaebol, a network of family-controlled conglomerates (again, think Samsung), which utterly dominate the economy here. According to Bloomberg, “The country’s 10 biggest conglomerates make up more than half the total value of the 1,779 companies on the Korea Stock Exchange. And they continue to grow. In the past four years, the number of companies linked to the top 35 business groups has almost doubled, to nearly 600. .  .  . Exports by the 30 largest chaebol accounted for 84 percent of South Korea’s overseas shipments in 2010.” More ominously, “those 30 employed just 6 percent of the nation’s workforce.”

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