Rep. Park Geun-hye, the presidential candidate of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, has seen her two liberal rivals stealing the spotlight from her in recent days. The media focus put on her after she won the Saenuri’s ticket last month has been overshadowed this week by the nomination of Rep. Moon Jae-in as the candidate of the main opposition party and a news conference by entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol-soo on his bid for the presidency.
She is said to be planning to recapture voters’ attention by announcing a set of programs on new jobs and more welfare benefits, and possibly her “advanced” stance on the shadowy aspects of her father’s 18-year rule, which ended in 1979 with his assassination by his intelligence chief. What is supposed to become her conclusive statement on late President Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule, which has been both credited for modernizing the country and criticized for suppressing democracy, might have a crucial impact on her second and probably last challenge for the top elected post.
Some aides to her hope she will put forward a position closer to the public sentiment toward her father’s legacy at an early date ― preferably before the Chuseok holiday at the end of this month ― to put a lid on the opposition’s attacks on her historical views.
Park has shown a reserved stance on calls for admitting and apologizing for her father’s oppressive rule and the suffering it inflicted on pro-democracy activists. In July, she said her father made “the best choice in an unavoidable situation” in reference to the May 16, 1961, military coup which took him to power. In 2007, she described the coup as a revolution.
After her nomination as the ruling party’s standard-bearer, Park seemed to be easing her staunch advocacy of her father’s legacy and went so far as to visit the graves of late liberal leaders Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun and call on their wives, scoring points from her opponents as well as supporters. But her move toward historical reconciliation hit an unexpected stumbling block earlier this month when she expressed a reserved position on the execution of eight allegedly pro-communist young activists in 1975, saying the case should be left to historical judgment.
Her comments apparently contradicted the view held by a majority of Koreans, who regard it as an abusive act aimed at suppressing dissent against her father’s dictatorship. She has since seen her approval rating slip continuously, with the gaps with her liberal rivals being narrowed.
Park is said to be regretful of the past issues that hamper her efforts to present a future vision to the people. But she needs to realize she could make the public ready to hear whole-heartedly on her plans for them when she shares a common view with them on the nation’s modern history.
She could achieve a “100 percent Korea,” as she hoped to in her nomination speech, so long as she draws a parallel with more Koreans about past issues. A series of surveys show that a majority of people give credit for her father’s contribution to industrializing the nation but still have critical views of the way he ruled.
As this paper has noted, she will have to draw a clearer line between the merits and mistakes of her father. It may be difficult for a faithful daughter, but an indispensable task for her to become a national leader on a par with her predecessors, including her father.