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Park’s retro language arouses more than nostalgia

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Published : 2013-11-11 20:05
Updated : 2013-11-12 09:45

In the eyes of President Park Geun-hye, the utopian state of South Korea is where the people are destined to live in an “era of happiness” through the “second Miracle of the Han River” by evolving the legacy of the country’s rapid industrial growth in the 1970s.

Having riveted a majority of the voters with what pundits call her “politics of authenticity” in last year’s presidential election through a compassionate pledge of economic democratization, Park has now effectively moved onto a “revival of economy” and “cultural enrichment” as her new platform.

Furthermore, Park is urging people to embrace the new “Saemaul Movement” in order to “reform the mindset” and “restore the communalism,” for it to become a “cultural and pan-national movement.”

President Park Geun-hye looks at a photograph of her late father, former President Park Chung-hee, at an exhibition in Incheon on Oct. 18. (Yonhap News)
Park’s vision is verbalized through such noticeably retrospective and growth-oriented words as reconstruction (“buheung” in Korean), prosperity (“yungseong”) and rich and powerful (“bugang”) that are eerily reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. The language arouses nostalgia from the older population, but is increasingly repellent to the younger generation.

To some disconcerted eyes, Park’s preferred terms are seen to expose the true colors of her political existence that is rooted in her extraordinary experience with her late father, former President Park Chung-hee, during the Cold War era.

“Political leaders who have lived an incredibly impressive life at a young age tend to have the style of the past protrude externally later in life,” said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.

“Because Park had lived an extremely dramatic life in the era of turbulence with her father, such direct or indirect manifestation after becoming president is somewhat natural,” he added.

Park had repeatedly indicated her reason for breaking from seclusion since Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979 to join politics in 1998 as deriving from the devastation that the country built to today’s prosperity by her father was faltering upon the financial crisis at the time.

“I always think to myself, ‘What would my father do?’” Park had said during a memorial ceremony in November 2006.

Veiled by her mystic positioning in otherwise boisterous politics, and shielded by the conservative watchers’ empathic portrayal, Park has so far succeeded in capturing the attention of the people here and abroad for her exceptional personal story and charm.

But nine months into her inauguration, Park’s administrative formula is constantly attacked by the opposition as being dominated by her allegiance to her father, who ruled Korea for 16 years through oppression.

The country has since been rattled by a series of politically sensitive controversies, including the debate over state institutions’ alleged election interference, suspected bias in the investigation into a missing presidential transcript, alleged pressure on the resignation and reprimand of defiant members of the prosecution, and the government’s crackdown on progressive organizations.

Park, nonetheless, remains unfazed by the opponents’ attacks with her adamant conviction of “principles” and “trust,” and her level of confidence has shot through the roof since her February inauguration, in many part due to North Korea’s rash provocation that re-fomented a sense of anti-communism: One of the main substances of the Park Chung-hee model along with a growth-first mentality, regionalism and authoritarianism.

Like Park’s unusual background, Park’s unique colloquial expressions have augmented her image as sincere and principled, making her stand out from the traditional men in grey suits.

In 2007, Park curtly outplayed Roh Moo-hyun’s proposal for a constitutional revision for a four-year, single-term reelection by saying, “Does the president only think about the election? He is a truly bad president.”

When her faction was dropped en mass from parliamentary election nomination during the Lee Myung-bak administration in 2008, Park simply said, “The people have been deceived, I have been deceived.”

More recently, Park’s only response to the opposition’s attack against the National Intelligence Service’s alleged electioneering via negative campaigning online reportedly was, “You actually believe I was elected through web postings?”

Kyung Hee Cyber University professor Ahn Byong-jin explains Park’s speech style as simple and weighty that enables politics of authenticity by channeling the public’s yearnings by proxy.

“It is a political style that sincerely pursues values and meaning…It does not matter whether there really exists authenticity. It matters how the people perceive it,” he said in the book “Park Geun-hye Phenomenon.”

Rather than authenticity like that of former President Roh Moo-hyun which was delivered in elaborate rhetoric and passion, Park’s way of speech is more relevant to aristocratic populism that fulfills the desire of the public through prudence and aloofness that creates admiration, Ahn explained.

“As displays of policies in Korean politics have the tendency of overturning at any given time, it instead mattered what the people desired through the medium of Park,” he said.

With such magnetism, Park’s major strategy in last year’s presidential election was not to repeat the errors of five years ago, when she lost to Lee Myung-bak in the primary.

Boldly moving away from her initial growth-oriented stance of small government and big market based on neo-liberalism, Park highlighted the other side of her father’s philosophy, to care for ordinary citizens through distribution and welfare. Her campaign effectively took over the progressives’ platform of welfare. Some critics questioned the contradiction in her policies, branding her newfound compassionate conservatism as a political technique.

Observers point to the fact that Park’s political energy is largely backed by her authenticity, which poses an equally high risk regarding her seemingly new turn, or rather, return to conservatism indicated since her inauguration.

“Those that supported Park with hopes that her consistency will heal the anxiety caused by the polarization of society and economy, will gradually leave her when the economic democratization pledges are substantially discarded,” said professor Cho Sung-dae of Hanshin University.

So far, Park has surrounded herself with bureaucrats, military men and figures from the past, particularly those who have experience working with her father such as presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon.

Her unwavering resolution against any compromise with the opposition, praised by the conservatives for her integrity, was frowned upon by the moderates.

Progressives argued Park was resorting to protecting the fundaments of her conservatism, citing a line of measures taken economically, politically and socially.

They refer to the replacement of economic democratization with “fair market order” considered more lenient to conglomerates, purported backtracking of welfare pledges, de-legalizing of the progressive teachers’ union, or the designation of a right-wing scholar to head the National Institute of Korean History.

Main opposition Democratic Party chairman Kim Han-gil, as his party struggles in gridlock posed by the ruling party, slammed Park by saying, “Some historians criticize that despite it being only the early stage of (Park’s) administration, symptoms similar to that of the last stage of the ‘Park Chung-hee administration’ are emerging.”

Pundits say it is left for Park to find balance between the ghost of her past and the possibility of the future, while stepping beyond her “one-word” politics deriving from a defense mechanism.

For the time being, Park’s conviction seems to be working, with her approval ratings standing at least above the 50-percent mark.

“Park and her people that are the professional strategists are confident that they can win back the moderates at any time such as through diplomacy. Since she has been elected and the next election will not involve her, the focus is on further solidifying her original conservative supporters,” Ahn from Kyung Hee Cyber University told The Korea Herald.

On a lighter note, Park is also seen to be attempting to get in better touch with the younger generation, such as by dropping jokes at public events, although her jokes often fall flat for being outdated. In a luncheon with journalists in May, Park offered her share of humor by saying, “Do you know how to roast a pig at once? You simply put a socket in its nose.” The reaction was, mildly put, courteous.

“It is a crucial task for Park. While the retro and authoritative image offers stability to the conservatives, it reconstitutes authoritarianism to the younger generation,” Choi Jin said.

“As it is the innate handicap for Park, she must be aware that she, more than any of her predecessors, must show a reformist side of her.”

Ahn agreed. “Park is (without her realizing) gradually losing her biggest asset for her leadership that is authenticity.”

By Lee Joo-hee (jhl@heraldcorp.com )