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[Newsmaker] After tumultuous year, Park to focus on economy

President eyes economic reforms to win public support before lame duck status sets in

President Park Geun-hye had high expectations for 2014. In her second year in the office, Park unveiled a three-year plan to reinvigorate the economy by driving out irregularities in both the private and public sectors. She also vowed to kick-start preparations for reunification, calling it an “economic bonanza” for Korea and neighboring countries.

Her vision started out fresh enough to captivate the public, with her approval ratings soaring past the 60 percent level.

But the ferry disaster in April, killing more than 300 off the country’s southeastern coast, left the nation grieving and divided.

Public criticism mounted over the government’s bungled early responses to the accident, which was later found to be a man-made disaster. The blame also turned to Park, the nation’s commander-in-chief, who was urged to take ultimate responsibility.
Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)
Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)

The Sewol tragedy put Park’s leadership into question. While she wasn’t to blame for the accident, her way of expressing regret over it was widely viewed as insincere and inappropriate for the leader of a country stricken with an unprecedented disaster.

She made several apologies during meetings with ministers. But the public saw them as empty gestures. The opposition parties attacked Park, claiming that she failed to embrace the pain of the people. Her approval rating plunged to nearly 40 percent, while her drive for state reform also lost momentum.

“The Sewol crisis could have been an opportunity for her to prove her leadership and to push ahead with the state reform she wanted from the beginning. But she failed,” said Lee Jeong-hee, political professor at Hankuk University for Foreign Studies.

“An open-minded person, a leader who is ready to listen to others candidly ― Park has proven that she is not that kind of person,” he said. “She seems to have limits in that.” 

Nomination debacle, scandals

Park attempted to placate public criticism by announcing a handful of reform measures to eradicate wrongdoings in public offices, to improve safety standards and to launch a new control tower for national crises. She wanted a new prime minister to lead her reform drive, but was left retaining the incumbent prime minister after more than two months of repeated nomination failures. Two candidates, a former prosecutor, and a conservative journalist, withdrew their nominations in the face of strong public resistance to their alleged ethical misdeeds.

Not only was Park’s leadership put under public scrutiny, but also her secretive approach to personnel appointments. Disputes escalated over Park having a limited pool of candidates and not accepting recommendations outside of the presidential inner circle. Opposition parties urged Park to replace chief of staff Kim Ki-choon, her long-time aide who has been criticized for exercising too much power behind the scenes.

Park had more to suffer: scandals. Just as Park was breathing a sigh of relief in the summer after launching a new Cabinet in the aftermath of the Sewol tragedy, opposition lawmakers raised speculation that Park was not at Cheong Wa Dae when the ferry capsized on the morning of April 16. Rumors quickly spread that the unwed female president was meeting a male confidant at a location outside the presidential office. Cheong Wa Dae accused a Japanese conservative newspaper of making groundless reports and badly insulting the head of state. Trials are underway for the Seoul bureau chief of Sankei Shimbun. The prosecution has indicted the Japanese reporter on charges of defaming Park.

A major influence-peddling scandal also broke out in late November that involved her former aide and her own brother Park Ji-man. Chung Yoon-hoi was rumored to be meddling in state affairs and engaging in a power struggle with the president’s brother. The prosecution concluded that rumors were groundless. But the controversy intensified as allegations were brought by a local newspaper that disclosed a leaked presidential document reporting on Chung and his secretive meeting with Cheong Wa Dae staff. The scandal highlighted Park’s closed-off image, and internal conflicts among her secretaries at the nation’s top office. Some analysts also gave a negative outlook, saying that the scandal could give the president early lame duck status in the New Year.

Despite her blueprints for 2014, Park has failed to show the public that she is taking forward steps.

“From Sewol and the nomination debacle to the document leak, it is hard to get the impression that the president has been making progress on her reform efforts,” said Yoon Sung-yi, political professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

“She faced many difficulties in 2014. But her image of sidestepping and turning away from problems has disappointed many,” he said.

Despite the negative evaluation of Park, Lee Jeong-hee of HUFS said Park may have secured a solid group of supporters due to her image as a president of principles.

“Park may lack communication skills, but she is a person who sticks to her principles and has the right way of thinking,” he said.

In particular, Park has shown excellent skills in selecting issues, said Lee, having listed her agenda priorities as universal welfare, pension reform of civil servants, and unification.

Key for 2015 ― economy

As Park closes out a chaotic second year in office, the president vowed to revive the nation’s sluggish economy in the New Year.

At a meeting held to review her state agendas, Park ordered officials to put everything they had into her three-year economic reform plan, stressing that the New Year would be the “last golden time” for the government to revitalize the economy.

Her remarks were viewed as renewing her strong determination to achieve economic reform, and suggesting that she would try to launch more intensive reform measures in the New Year. Officials say that the president expects to see substantial progress in her state reform agenda next year as she enters her third year in the office. Park’s term ends in early 2018.

“2015 will be the last chance for her to produce tangible results. And her strategy to focus on the economy could help her win public support,” said professor Yoon of Kyung Hee University.

“But if she plans to raise the economic indices by promoting conglomerate-driven growth strategies, the president would see a worsening income inequality and deepening social divide,” Yoon said.

But professor Lee of HUFS said Park putting her focus on economy is a mistake, stressing that she needs find a breakthrough in her leadership by highlighting her support such as toward the so-called “Kim Young-ran bill.” The anticorruption bill, named after the former Supreme Court Justice, aims to end influence peddling in officialdom by making it a crime to receive any kind of unofficial monetary payment.

“Rather than bringing up the issue of economic growth, Park needs to push parliamentary endorsement of the Kim Young-ran bill to demonstrate her reform drive,” he said.

North Korea, diplomacy

On cross-border relations, critics say 2014 has been a year of near-zero accomplishment.

Park has been criticized for a lack of flexibility and creativity in her approach toward the unpredictable Pyongyang regime.

Despite her repeated foreign policy mantra of “trustpolitik,” distrust between the two nations has deepened as Pyongyang has insisted on developing its nuclear program, while Park has pushed the North to renounce its nuclear ambitions and improve its woeful human rights record.

As her government enters the third year of its five-year term, analysts called on Park to employ a more creative, practical approach to address inter-Korean tensions rather than merely stick to its tough denuclearization demand in line with U.S. policy, which critics call a policy of strategic indifference.

In handling the inter-Korean relations, observers also noted the need for Park to pay more attention to building public consensus first as the internal ideological division over the North Korea policy has hampered the efforts to maintain a consistent policy stance.

On the diplomatic front, Park has been praised for her handling of the relations with the U.S. and China. From the start of her presidency in 2013, she has paid foreign policy attention to maintaining both the strategic partnership with China and the long-standing security alliance with the U.S.

Although her efforts to restore ties with China have created fears that South Korea would be put under the sphere of China’s geopolitical influence, observers said her policy move has helped raise South Korea’s strategic influence amid an intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry.

Her endeavors to improve ties with China ― a crucial partner for trade, tourism and efforts to denuclearize North Korea ― were made as the Sino-South Korea relationship deteriorated under the previous government that focused mostly on its alliance with the U.S.

By Cho Chung-un (

Staff reporter Song Sang-ho contributed to this article. ― Ed.