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.
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.
" 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.”
This economic system is mostly a vestige of Park Chung-hee’s rule. But now Park Geun-hye wants to limit the power of the chaebol by, among other policies, increasing punishments for embezzlement and other financial shenanigans. She also wants to provide more aid to small and medium-sized enterprises, a historically underdeveloped sector of the Korean economy. Park calls this “economic democratization.” She also wants to attack the deficit, which stands at about 2 percent of GDP. She’s a bit vaguer on this subject, though. Park compares herself to a Korean mother; in Korean households, it’s often the women who are in charge of balancing the household checkbook.
Moon’s approach is decidedly more government-centric. He promises a draconian crackdown on the chaebol, proposing to eliminate the so-called cross-shareholding system, which allows a conglomerate to maintain control over its circle of subsidiaries with a relatively small number of shares. (This complex system is a boon to the chaebol.) He speaks about retaining only “the good parts” of the market economy. And Moon wants to go on a hiring binge, adding some 400,000 bureaucrats to the public-sector payroll.
As of 2010, the last year for which data were available, South Korea was ranked 28th out of 29 OECD countries in welfare expenditures. The government spends less than 11 percent of GDP on welfare programs, compared with 32 percent in France and Sweden. (The OECD average is closer to 20 percent.) Both candidates want to increase welfare spending, but with a huge difference in degree. Park, for example, wants to expand government spending on health care, targeting coverage of specific illnesses, like cancer. Moon, meanwhile, wants to increase health care spending by triple the amount that Park proposes. Park makes the point that while Moon offers only redistribution, her platform is designed for both increased redistribution and increased growth.
It’s unsurprising, given the presence of a nuclear-armed, Stalinist state just 40 miles north of the nation’s capital, that foreign policy is also playing an important role in the election. Park stresses the importance of maintaining the close military alliance with the United States that sees 28,500 American troops stationed here. Given Korea’s location, relations with Beijing will be pivotal. Intriguingly, a party spokeswoman suggests that Park could have better relations with the Chinese government than would Moon, because the Chinese authorities have, in many important ways, self-consciously emulated her father’s policies of the 1960s and ’70s.
It’s always a good sign when a candidate is criticized in North Korean propaganda. And, indeed, the North Korean media have claimed that Seoul will suffer “unbearable misfortune” should Park be elected. She’s earned the opprobrium. Madame Park rightly points out that simply sending unconditional aid to Pyongyang represents nothing but a “fake peace.” She also doesn’t shy away from pressing the moral case for democracy in North Korea. Given her lineage, that requires something of a straddle. But she’s attempting to square this circle. In a September press conference, Park apologized for human rights abuses that occurred under her father’s regime. “Behind our history of miraculous growth, there were the sacrifices of workers who suffered under harsh working environments, and behind our guarding of national security against North Korea there were violations of human rights by public authorities. I once again offer my sincere apologies to the people who suffered wounds and hardship as a result, and to their family members,” she declared. It was a shrewd move; even in her apologetic statement, Park alluded to her father’s record of “miraculous growth.”
One of the central ironies of South Korean politics is that many of the politicians who most support “engagement” (read: unconditional aid) with the North Korean government are the same people who steadfastly opposed South Korea’s dictatorship. The case of the late Kim Dae-jung is instructive here. Kim spent much of his career bravely making the moral case for democracy in South Korea, even while exiled in Japan, where the South Korean dictatorship attempted to assassinate him. But when he was elected president of South Korea in the late 1990s, Kim initiated the “Sunshine Policy,” which saw the South Korean government shower the North Korean regime with aid, and all but ignore its woeful human rights record.
Moon Jae-in represents a continuation of this noxious trend. Not only does the former anti-dictatorship activist support opening talks with the North Korean regime without any preconditions, but he also backs restarting various exchanges and aid programs, which were suspended in the wake of North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean island, both of which occurred in 2010. Even North Korea’s planned missile launch has not deterred Moon’s zeal for “engagement” with the evil regime in Pyongyang.
For most of the campaign, it looked like Park was going to coast to victory. Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent, liberal-leaning professor and former businessman was also in the race, drawing a large bloc of support from the young. Ahn, who is prone to spouting airy platitudes, was basically the TED Talk candidate, as befits a man most commonly referred to by the ominous moniker of “software guru.” It looked like Ahn and Moon would split the liberal/left vote, allowing Park to waltz into office. But, for reasons that are still unclear, Ahn dropped out in late November, leaving a one-on-one race between Park and Moon. With a majority of Ahn supporters switching their support to Moon, Madame Park has a real dogfight on her hands. Recent polls show her support at 47 or 48 percent, while Moon draws 44 or 45 percent.
Walter Paik, a spokesman for Park’s campaign, appears confident, averring that South Korea is a fundamentally conservative country. He points out that when leftist candidates are elected president, it’s always by a tiny margin (Roh Moo-hyun was elected by only 49 percent to his opponent’s 47 percent in 2002), whereas conservative presidents are often able to run up huge wins (the current president, Lee, won by more than 20 points). This will benefit Park’s candidacy. She’ll also be helped along by the country’s overwhelmingly conservative media. Wired though Korea may be, some 60 percent of the public here still reads at least one print newspaper regularly, and with one prominent exception, those papers are conservative. Park should dominate among older men. To win, Moon, the leftist, will need to capture Obamaesque numbers among women and the young. Against a female opponent, he may have a hard time doing so.
And while Madame Park is not exactly a charismatic presence on the stump, she projects an air of being “cool, calm, and collected.” In an aging country facing some serious problems, that should be enough. It might not be a walk in the park, but the dictator’s daughter has a good chance of being South Korea’s next democratically elected president.
Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.