The approval rating of President Park Geun-hye has dropped to around 40 percent, which is dangerously low compared to the figures recorded by her predecessors in their first few months in office. Obviously, what cuts back on the rate is the sloppy manner with which she has chosen members of her Cabinet and heads of some key agencies. Yet, is that all that has turned so many people away from the new president when it is still too early to test her policies?
People are uneasy about the government and that unease is from their realization that they know too little about the leader. We do not know how President Park Geun-hye picks people for appointments or makes policy decisions, or with whom she consults on such important matters. And then we do not know how the single president spends her evening in the large living quarters of the Blue House, except that she eats alone most of the time and has had no official function there.
The presidential campaign provided candidate Park’s political philosophy and her platforms on economic revival, welfare, security, education, cultural enhancement, etc. She proved her superior energy through rigorous stumping and revealed her tender feminine side as she grieved the death from a traffic accident of her long-time personal aide. And people know about her tragedies of losing both parents as victims of assassinations in the span of five years.
She has written six biographical books between 1993 and 2007. None of them entered bestseller lists but their readers were informed of how the young lady pulled herself together from the events of 1974 and 1979 and eventually joined politics nearly two decades later. Park’s latest publication, “Despair Trains Me and Hope Moves Me” (July 2007), describes the rocky path that she experienced since becoming an Assemblywoman, but it did not contain much beyond what had already been covered by the media.
After the military rule ended through the transitional Roh Tae-woo presidency, we had four civilian presidents before Park Geun-hye. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung played in the political arena since the 1960s and every bit of their lives was known to people through their constant public exposure and numerous episodes conveyed by their aides. Roh Moo-hyun’s political career was relatively short but his fiery character and populist activities inside and outside the National Assembly well familiarized him with voters by the time he challenged for the presidency in 2002.
Lee Myung-bak was already a legend in the business world with his rags-to-riches saga when he first successfully ran for Seoul mayor. Park Geun-hye was in the public spotlight during her days as the eldest child of President Park Chung-hee and when she served as the de facto first lady after the death of her mother. But for the 18 years between her father’s assassination and her election to the National Assembly in 1998, she remained in nearly complete public oblivion.
There were occasional media reports about her family, not quite glowing as they concerned how her late father’s worshippers helped the rehabilitation of her brother Chi-man from drug abuse or how she and her younger sister Geun-ryeong became estranged over the operation of the Yuk Young Foundation for children’s welfare, a legacy from their mother.
Park Geun-hye’s rise from political limbo accompanied the growth of conservatism in Korean society. As the democratization process neared its goal, the economy slowed down and the nostalgia for the economic takeoff of the Park Chung-hee era occupied many people’s minds. The conservatives needed Park Geun-hye as a sort of rightist standard bearer. Her symbolic value did not need much augmentation with facts of activities.
Park exhibited her own political prowess over the five years since her defeat to Lee Myung-bak in the Grand National Party presidential nomination. She effectively checked the power of President Lee who had a weak root in the party throughout his tenure and maintained a formidable force of loyalists who helped her clinch the presidential ticket last year.
Whether or not they voted for her, people want a stable, efficient and trusted government and they want to know more about the leader to understand her policies and give their support if they are deemed right. Everybody speaks about the need for better communication between the president and the people in various social sectors. That communication doesn’t exist in short media briefings in halting languages by presidential spokespersons ― such as the 17-second proxy reading of a statement of apology from the presidential chief of staff last week over recent botched appointments.
People are thirsty for candid, spontaneous speeches by the president kindly explaining her policy decisions and earnestly seeking their understanding, instead of parrot-like renditions by aides who seem afraid to say anything outside of direct quotations of presidential jargon. Lee Myung-bak’s monthly radio speeches did not have the intended effect as they lacked naturalness and sincerity. President Park may develop a unique way of reaching out to the public, using her femininity as a weapon. She may even consider revealing a little bit of her private life to quench the curiosity of the people who are having the first and perhaps last female president in their lifetime.
President Park composed the Blue House staff, the Cabinet and key agencies with scholars, seasoned bureaucrats and ex-generals, but fewer partisans than expected. The “pro-Park” loyalists seemed indignant at the moment for having been sidelined in the launching of the new administration. They berated presidential secretaries for unilateral governance in the first party-Cabinet-Blue House consultation meeting last week. But it could be more desirable to instead witness the president’s equal accommodation of all political groups at least within the party.
Yet TV footage of a daily staff meeting at the Blue House these days gives us dismaying signals. Almost all senior presidential secretaries at the session are seen avidly taking notes of the president’s remarks, probably word for word like students in a high school classroom. In this strictly top-down atmosphere, the presidential staff’s role as the bridge to the general citizenry can hardly be expected, and the president will be increasingly isolated.
Presidential remarks made in her official capacity are in principle public assets from the time of their utterance, and should therefore be made available to every individual in this republic with the only exception of state secrets. We want to know more about the president’s thoughts and ideas and about her 24 hours.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer of The Korea Herald. ― Ed.