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Challenges waiting for president-elect

President-elect Park Geun-hye faces tough challenges in the push for sweeping political and economic reforms amid a slowing economy and deepening partisan divide.

Her pledge to engage North Korea also faces hurdles as the belligerent neighbor shows no signs of easing tension following its recent rocket launch.

The 18th presidential election heightened Koreans’ expectations for a fix to confrontational politics, the chaebol-dominated economy and a fragile social security system.

“The presidential-elect will face tremendous pressure to implement the pledges criticized for lacking viability such as in terms of financing,” politics professor Yun Seong-yi of Kyung Hee University said.

“First and foremost, the winner should devote much time to applaud the competitor.”

The campaign aggravated the political antagonism between conservatives and liberals in a close election.

After her victory was confirmed, president-elect Park called for reconciliation and national unity.

Political reform topped her campaign agenda in response to rising public criticism of partisan fighting, corruption and frequent parliamentary gridlock.

Park is poised to push for a series of measures to reduce lawmakers’ privileges, balance presidential power and strengthen oversight over ranking officials’ corruption.

Among other measures, she pledges to introduce an open primary system in which both the ruling and opposition parties would elect their parliamentary candidates through a public vote.

She also wants to restrict lawmakers’ exemption from liability and remove their immunity from arrest while on duty.

To end the “imperialistic” presidential system, Park has vowed to revive the recommendation of Cabinet members by the prime minister and bestow authority for personnel of affiliated organizations to each minister.

To tackle irregularities surrounding the president’s associates and relatives, Park promises to introduce a special investigator system to be handled by the National Assembly. A permanent special prosecutors’ team will be put in place to look into any corruption of high-ranking government officials.

Foreign affairs and security

Overseas, the next leader faces a complex web of thorny problems that have often complicated the country’s relations with regional partners. The new leader will also be tasked with expanding Korea’s role in world affairs in line with its middle-power status.

Foreign affairs and security issues were put on the back burner in a campaign dominated by economic and welfare issues. With Northeast Asia’s security landscape in a fix and globalization sweeping society, however, the new commander-in-chief will be pressured to demonstrate leadership in foreign affairs.

Among top missions at hand is how to tame North Korea’s relentless nuclear ambitions and saber-rattling.

The communist regime successfully launched a rocket a week ago, prompting the U.N. Security Council to condemn what it called a cloaked test of long-range ballistic missile technology. Seoul and Washington are now pondering a fresh round of sanctions that would thrust the reclusive country into further isolation.

Denouncing it as a “provocation,” Park vowed not to waver despite Pyongyang’s repeated attempts to meddle in domestic affairs in the South.

“The people (of South Korea) will not budge an inch no matter how hard the North struggles to intervene in the presidential election and launch the missile,” she said at a rally in Ulsan last week.

“This is a provocation to the Republic of Korea and to the international community and the world.”

Park has boasted of her personal ties with such leaders as Xi Jinping of China and Angela Merkel of Germany, and her ability to manage diplomatic and security matters. Still, the incoming president may have difficulty realizing her promises to mend inter-Korean ties in the face of growing international calls for tougher punishment for the North’s rocket liftoff.

Meanwhile, the increasingly stiff competition between the U.S. and China over regional dominance will call on her to craft smart strategies.

For Seoul, Washington is the mainstay of national security and deterrence against the North with its strategic refocusing toward Asia. Beijing is already one of the South’s top trade, tourism and investment partners and a key stakeholder in multilateral talks aimed at disarming Pyongyang.

“South Korea has to dually manage its security, which is grounded in the ROK-U.S. alliance, and its economic well-being, which is dependent on the ROK-China strategic cooperative partnership,” Han Suk-hee, a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, wrote recently.

Another big question is how to improve the fractious relationship with Japan, the former occupier of the peninsula. Concerns are rising that the new government of Shinzo Abe, Tokyo’s nationalist premier-in-waiting, will spur a rightward shift in Japan and toughen its line on territorial and historical rows with Korea.

With public diplomacy emerging as a crucial tool of statecraft, Park will have to shake off her out-of-touch image and engage peoples at home and abroad.

Her vision for an “era of diplomacy by the people” includes broader opportunities for the Korean youth to take part in development programs, more overseas Korean language schools and support for cultural exports. She has also pledged to scale up official development assistance and house at least five more international organizations here.

Countries around the world have been stressing “soft power” to promote national interests and elevate national prestige.

Diplomats are engaged in greater outreach efforts, while inviting other sectors such as culture and sports to create synergy. At the same time, rapidly advancing social media and information technology are aiding agenda-setting and instant communication.

“The world of traditional power politics was typically about whose military or economy would win. In today’s information age, politics is also about whose ‘story’ wins,” Joseph Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and now a professor at Harvard University, said in a 2010 essay.

Economy and welfare

Another of her key pledges is “economic democratization” as big income disparities and bloated power of the nation’s top conglomerates have escalated calls for greater fairness and equality in the market.

Focusing more on a “fair market” than “chaebol reform,” Park pledges to protect the economically vulnerable, prevent large conglomerates’ exploitation of power and reinforce consumer protection.

Dozens of measures put forward by Park are aimed at fostering growth of small and medium enterprises and restraining abuses of power by large family-owned businesses. She also underscores that large businesses’ positive roles to spur growth and create jobs must be maximized.

However, her economic democratization policy faces hurdles amid a gloomy outlook for next year.

The growth rate for the third quarter of this year was virtually zero percent, while the annual rate for the past two years stood in the 2-3 percent range.

Major organizations have predicted around 2 percent growth for 2013, with projections taking into account worries about a hard-landing for China’s economy and the drawn-out Eurozone crisis.

The domestic front faces worsened employment conditions, high household debt, falling real estate prices and growing private education expenses.

Welfare has become one of the top priorities for the country’s next president, whose campaign was anchored on solutions for the nation’s growing economic inequality and diminishing fertility rate.

In less than a half century, Korea rose from being one of the poorest countries to one of the wealthiest in the world. However, the economic miracle has been followed by a widening income gap, an aging population and a falling birthrate.

Worse, an increasing number of well-educated people are without jobs. According to OECD reports, about 15 percent of Koreans earn less than 50 percent of the median income. One in every five college graduates is still searching for a job. The poverty rate among seniors is one of highest in the world, while the proportion of women working is far below the average for rich countries.

Park, the first female president of Korea, will face public desire for a fairer society and demands for improved social security to match the nation’s economic prosperity.

From medical support, pension and child care to other public services, Park has promised that her administration will introduce welfare programs tailored for all age groups so that people can secure jobs and a stable income throughout all stages of life. Her welfare policies are also selective, designed to deliver bigger benefits to those most in need.

For Park, welfare is a key to identifying herself with middle-class voters and to efface her long-established image as a daughter of former president Park Chung-hee. Stressing that she has no family to take care of or child to inherit her property, Park attempted to project an image of a guardian of the state and the people. She promised to increase the proportion of the middle class to 70 percent by implementing diverse welfare policies.

Park’s key campaign policies include providing free education for high-school students, expanding health care for the elderly and child benefit. Introducing one month’s paid paternity leave, so fathers can take care of their newborn babies, is also one of her welfare highlights. Park said her government would generate 27 trillion won extra in revenue a year, or 135 trillion won over the next five years, by reducing inefficient government spending and expanding tax revenue.

However, the president-elect will have to prove how those pledges are financially feasible and whether they are directed at those in need during the policymaking process.

The new president also needs to weave her welfare policies together and create a synergy effect as her plans have been often criticized as being vague and inconsistent.

“Park’s pledges may look as if they would cost less than Moon’s, but her disparate campaign policies, if carried out without a broad welfare infrastructure, would fail, and this would end up wasting money,” said Hong Yong-joon of Sangmyung University.

She is also tasked with establishing a control tower to efficiently deliver programs and coordinate jobs among related ministries, and developing her welfare pledges into viable policies. 

By Lee Joo-hee, Cho Chung-un and Shin Hyon-hee
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