Rep. Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, who has her sights on the presidency, looked invincible only a few months ago. She was not just the indisputable frontrunner for nomination but ranked the highest in approval ratings among potential presidential candidates.
That is no longer so. Her leadership is under attack. True, her nomination still looks assured, with the party placed under her tight control. Moreover, no rival in the party is putting up an effective challenge against her. In opinion polls, however, she is now trailing behind Ahn Cheol-soo, a Seoul National University faculty member, who has yet to declare his bid for the presidency.
Most threatening to her pursuit of the presidency is the money-for-nomination scandal involving one member of her close-knit faction and a lawmaker who is suspected of buying her nomination for a proportional representation seat in the National Assembly. She is also harried by the legacy of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee.
Park made a serious mistake when she failed to appreciate the gravity of the scandal at the outset. But the nation was shocked to hear that Rep. Hyun Young-hee allegedly gave 300 million won to former lawmaker Hyun Ki-hwan in exchange for her nomination ahead of the April parliamentary elections.
When the scandal came to the fore, however, Park acted as if it had nothing to do with the party. She brushed it aside as a personal matter involving two errant politicians. She passed the buck to the prosecution when she said, “It is a matter that should be dealt with by the prosecution, which will have to leave no stone unturned.”
Instead, she should have taken the bull by the horns, given that she virtually had the final say on nominations as President Lee Myung-bak was slipping into lame-duck status. Members of President Lee’s faction were not only shut out of the nomination process but most of them were denied nomination.
Belatedly recognizing the rising public anger over the scandal, she said the party would be held accountable if the money-for-nomination deal was confirmed. Among the measures being considered is the resignation of Rep. Hwang Woo-yea as chairman of the party.
Another problem with Park is that she refuses to look squarely at the historical facts regarding the toppling of a legitimate government by her father. As an Army general, Park Chung-hee took power in the 1961 coup d’tat.
Initially, she made the misguided claim that what her father did on May 16, 1961, was not a coup but a “revolution that saved the nation” from the security threats of the North Korean communists. She was refusing to call a spade a spade. What Gen. Park did was nothing less than a coup.
It is moot whether or not Gen. Park’s military action helped protect the nation from the communist security threats. She would have been more persuasive and logical if she had acknowledged what her father did was a military coup and claimed that it eventually saved the nation from the communist threats.
Just as it is a historical fact that democracy was suppressed by his authoritarian rule, so is it that the South Korean economy remarkably advanced under his leadership. As such, she may claim the newly gained economic prowess served to deter an aggression from a impoverished North Korea and that due credit must be given to her father.
Still, his contribution to the economic development did not turn the coup into a revolution, which is a complete overthrow of a government by the people it governs. A coup is a coup no matter what.
On Wednesday, she took one step back from her earlier claim. She said that what happened on May 16, 1961, could not be denied, be it called a coup or a revolution. She proposed to let history determine its nature.
But this time she gave the impression that she was being evasive. If she aspires to become a national leader, she will have to be much more resolute ― both in facing up to her father’s coup and dealing with the money-for-nomination scandal.