Korea's Presidential Election - Part I: Park Geun-hye

Dear Korean,

Can you explain a little bit about the current Korean presidential election, mainly about the candidates running today? What are the problems S.Korean citizens are most concerned about and should be concerned about as well as the candidates' positions on those issues. And who would you prefer, if you do care?

Paul K.

Korea's presidential election is now approximately 40 days away, and exciting times are ahead. First, if you are completely unfamiliar with the general landscape of Korean politics, the Korean would recommend reading this post first for an introduction.

Let's address Paul's question in reverse order. What are the biggest issues at hand for the upcoming presidential election? Interestingly, this election has been a relative anomaly because there has not been a big campaign promise that is dividing the electorate. For example, in 2002, the winning candidate Roh Moo-hyun promised that he would move the capital away from Seoul to promote balanced regional growth. In 2007, the winning candidate Lee Myung-bak promised that he would construct a Grand Canal that would make transportation more efficient. Each promise was controversial, and Korean electorate spent a great deal of time debating them.

This time around? Not as much. To be sure, there currently is a very strong policy demand from Korea's electorate -- namely, expansion of the welfare state. But the demand is so strong that even the conservative candidate, who might oppose such initiative under regular circumstances, is promising free childcare for children between ages of 0 and 5, increased welfare payments for the disabled, expansion of public housing, etc. While there are certainly differences in the specifics of the campaign promises from each candidate, it is fair to say that the campaign promises are at least directionally the same. Thus, the current election is driven more by the personalities of the candidates, and the standing ideologies that they represent, rather than any particular policy ideas. Which is just as well, because each candidate in the running are extremely interesting in his/her own way.

Thus, this series will examine the three major candidates currently running in the presidential election, and what the standing ideologies that they represent. As of now, the three major candidates are:  Park Geun-hye of the conservative New Frontier Party, which is the majority party of the National Assembly and the current holder of the Blue House; Moon Jae-in of the progressive Democratic United Party, the minority party of the National Assembly, and; independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, a Seoul National University professor who made a fortune through a start-up anti-virus software company. Then the series will conclude by giving the current state of play.

At this point, full disclosure:  the Korean supports Moon Jae-in of the DUP. Each part of this series will examine each major candidate. At the end of the series, the Korean will briefly explain why he supports Moon. First up is Park Geun-hye, after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Park Geun-hye (New Frontier Party)

Park Geun-hye [박근혜]

Park Geun-hye's identity as a politician is centered around this fact:  she is the oldest daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator who came to power by rolling tanks into Seoul and ruled the country for 18 years. Park is a National Assemblywoman of the New Frontier Party, the conservative majority party of the National Assembly. (The current president Lee Myung-bak also belongs to the NFP.) Born in 1952, she was thrust into politics early when, in 1974, her mother was shot and killed by a North Korean spy who was aiming at her father. After her mother's death, she acted as the de facto First Lady to her father, directing the operation of the propaganda machine for her father's dictatorship. However, after her father was assassinated in 1979, she stayed away from the public's eyes for more than 20 years.

Park re-entered politics in 1998, by winning the National Assembly seat based in Daegu, her father's hometown. She eventually made her way to be the head of the party in 2004, and made her first presidential run in 2007 against Lee Myung-bak, who was then a popular mayor of Seoul. In a hotly contested primary election, Park lost to Lee, who went on to win the presidential election. For the next five years, the Grand National Party (which later changed its name to NFP) would be divided into a pro-Lee faction and a pro-Park faction. Lee went on to become an extremely unpopular president, which played to Park's advantage. Her presidential run in 2012 was considered an inevitability as early as two years ago, and she indeed won her party's nomination by handily winning the NFP primaries.

Park is nicknamed the "Queen of Elections," and for a good reason. Twice -- in 2006 and 2012 -- she delivered the NFP from the brink of death. Perhaps because of her extensive experience with Korean politics that reaches back into her childhood, she has an instinctive sense of emotionally connecting with the electorate -- particularly the part of the electorate that forms her base. She has also shown remarkable poise and determination in her public life, projecting an image as a steady and grounded leader. In 2006, while being on a campaign trail, Park was attacked by a knife-wielding lunatic who cut her from underneath her ear to her jaw, for as deep as an inch and a half. After Park woke up from the surgery, reportedly her first words were: "What happened with Daejeon?" -- asking about the battleground city. She also more or less successfully distanced herself from the very unpopular outgoing president Lee Myung-bak by systematically eliminating the pro-Lee faction from the NFP.

But of course, even as one can recognize Park's formidable achievement as an individual, no responsible overview of her politics can omit the long shadow of her father. Park Chung-hee's legacy remains to be a complicated and conflicted one. There is no question that, under his 18-year rule, Korea achieved an economic growth that was unprecedented in human history, set upon a path toward becoming a significant world power only several decades after being one of the poorest countries in the world. But there is also no question that, under Park Chung-hee's 18-year rule, South Korea did not look all that different from North Korea -- elections were rigged, Park's political enemies were assassinated, propaganda was 24/7, protesters for democracy were imprisoned and tortured.

Depending on how a Korean made out of his 18-year rule -- which ended only 30 years or so ago -- her assessment of Park Chung-hee's rule is bound to be starkly different. For a significant number of Koreans, Park Chung-hee was a hero who delivered Korea from the twin threats of poverty and communism. For equally significant number of Koreans, Park Chung-hee was a mass-murdering dictator who stunted the growth of democracy and freedom in Korea. And the particular Korean's assessment of Park Chung-hee's rule will directly impact her assessment of Park Geun-hye.

This is even more so because Park Geun-hye's awkward stance with her father's legacy. Based on her public statements, perhaps the best way to describe Park's position with respect to her father is that, while she is sorry to see a lot of people were hurt in the process, she is not sorry for her father's legacy of elevating Korea from poverty and combating communism. (Of course, she hardly ever mentions that most people who were branded as "communists" during Park Chung-hee era were actually her father's political enemies.) Park did issue multiple apologies to those who were injured during her father's rule, but until very recently, she stonewalled the calls for her to recognize that her father was in fact a dictator who destroyed the constitutional order. As recently as four months ago, Park claimed that her father's coup d'etat was an "unavoidable, best possible choice" given the circumstances.

This stance came to a head when Park seemed to suggest that eight democracy activists were executed in 1972 for allegedly being in the People's Revolutionary Party -- a phantom organization made up by the KCIA -- received a fair trial and a fair sentence. A publicity crisis and sinking poll numbers compelled Park to do an about-face, as she finally issued a statement in late September that "ends could not justify the means" and her father's rule "caused damages to the constitutional values." But in late October, Park did another semi-about-face, claiming that she currently had nothing to do with Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation, the organization that (still!) manages Park Chung-hee's remaining slush funds. (The president of JSF would soon disprove Park's claim when, unaware that he was being recorded, he said JSF's funds should be used to support Park's campaign.)

With a little more than a month to go, the defining issue for Park Geun-hye will be about the shadows of the past. Which is quite interesting, as the subject of the next part -- Moon Jae-in -- is not free from the shadows of the past either.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.