What many Korean people loved about President Park Geun-hye was her leadership based on principle and rule of law, her image of being firm and unwavering, as well as her spirit as a fighter with the determination needed to ride out a storm.
So there was some optimism when the nation’s first female leader took power two years ago, vowing to usher in “an era of happiness” through a creative economy, expanded welfare and trust-building between the two divided Koreas.
Contrary to those expectations, President Park who has just entered her third year in office, now faces a political crisis, beset by deepening public distrust in her leadership and an escalating feud with her ruling party.
Her approval ratings plummeted more than 10 percentage points in three weeks to below 30 percent on Jan. 27. It was her lowest rating since she entered office and far lower than when her leadership was questioned in the wake of the Sewol ferry accident. Her disapproval rating also polled above 60 percent for the first time.
Gallup Korea noted recently that its survey showed that the positive ratings of Park among those in their 50s ― often regarded as the president’s core support group ― have started to decline. Even among supporters of the ruling Saenuri Party, 37 percent said they disapproved of her state management.
A series of political scandals involving conflicting groups of aides as well as the government’s inconsistent policies on tax and health insurance have damaged her credibility.
Presidential documents were leaked to media late last year, raising speculation over lax discipline within Cheong Wa Dae. Park has also come under fire after she refused to abandon her aides involved in a related influence-peddling scandal.
In her New Year’s news conference, Park said she would keep them by her side, despite growing demand from opposition parties and the public. The president said she trusted the three secretaries, citing the prosecution’s investigation that concluded the scandal as groundless.
She continued to struggle over her tax policies as the government’s initial plan to revise the tax settlement scheme backtracked in the face of public worries that the middle class will have to pay more.
But the greatest fault, critics say, is her “rigid” and “closed-off” leadership that has failed to embrace public demands.
“Her greatest asset is that she is a stable leader. But what lies behind the leadership that pursues stability is a leader who refuses to change and listen,” said Choi Jin, president of the Korean Association for Presidential Leadership Studies.
“The president remains impervious to public demand,” said Choi likening her to a rock that won’t budge. “But the president has to realize that she is just walking in a dark tunnel now which would lead her to a lame duck status.
“She needs to take action right now and seek change, otherwise her political career will collapse.”
Her lack of communication with the public has often been cited as the biggest stumbling block to her political career.
In the event of social or political conflicts, she refused to talk with groups that wanted to communicate with her and maintained her attitude that she describes as being anchored on “principle and law.”
Her political foes have stepped up their offensive, saying she should communicate with them before making decisions to narrow differences, rather than making personal judgments on whether they are wrong or not.
Park seldom interacts directly with people, much less with reporters covering Cheong Wa Dae. She has only held two news conferences ― each at the beginning of a year ― since beginning her presidency.
Her relationship with her own party is also at stake.
Rep. Yoo Seong-min won the primary vote for Saenuri Party leader on Monday, defeating former Maritime Minister Rep. Lee Joo-young, who is considered a pro-Park lawmaker. Yoo’s victory was seen as a shift of power in the party’s leadership, as the nonmainstream lawmaker was expected to take a critical approach to the president’s policies.
Critics say Yoo’s victory will consolidate Saenuri chairman Rep. Kim Moo-sung’s control of the party. Kim is known as a longtime rival of Park.
“Saenuri lawmakers picking Rep. Yoo as a new floor leader clearly shows that the party has started to react to public demands and decided to forge its own voice by disconnecting itself from Cheong Wa Dae’s influence,” said Yoon Pyeong-joong, political professor at Hanshin University.
Saenuri leader Kim also went head-to-head against Park’s welfare policies on Tuesday, claiming it was impossible to implement welfare expansion without a tax hike.
Park remained mute over Kim’s call but instead urged officials to enhance policy coordination between the presidential office and the Cabinet.
Professor Yoon, quoting a previous interview with Park’s former aide, said that another serious problem is that she may understand the gravity of the situation but doesn’t know how to make changes.
Critics say that the president should make a “massive” and “radical” Cabinet shake-up first, by assigning figures with progressive and future-oriented ideas to ministerial seats, in order to freshen up the atmosphere.
Last month, Park vowed to conduct “a small-scale” Cabinet reshuffle and reorganize the presidential office. She appointed former Saenuri floor leader Lee Wan-koo as new prime minister and replaced some of her senior secretaries. It was widely expected that Park would announce new Cabinet lineup within this week to restore confidence.
Park’s unilateral personnel choices have come under scrutiny as her decisions were often seen as favoring figures with legal background and those who are from the Gyeongsang area, where she has a strong foothold.
With a new lineup, the president also needs to keep her pledge to share more responsibility with the prime minister and minsters by allowing them greater discretion in decision making, and personnel choices, said Yoon of Hanshin University.
Even before she entered office, Park faced a series of attacks over her administrative approach, including her personnel failures. Her appointment of political veteran Kim Ki-choon, who was an aide to her late father, authoritarian former President Park Chung-hee, was one of them.
Not just the lack of discretion by each minister, Yoon also pointed out her lack of communication within the Cabinet.
“At the (televised) news conference, Park asked ministers ‘Do you think a face-to-face briefing is needed?’ I think it was absurd,” said Yoon.
In an apparent gesture to enhance communication between Park and the Cabinet, Cheong Wa Dae has recently started to hold a coffee-session before the weekly meeting which many argued as “ineffective.”
Despite the worsening situation, political professor Yoon Sung-yi at Kyung Hee University said it was too early to write Park off.
“She has just entered her third year in office, she may seek a turning point,” he said citing her dramatic leadership that has saved her party numerous times in the past.
After its failure in the 2002 election, the Grand National Party, the former identity of the ruling Saenuri Party, suffered a major setback upon the prosecution’s full-fledged probe into its illegal political funds, as well as an attempted impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun that backfired.
By moving the party’s headquarters into a tent and pledging reforms as the newly-elected chairwoman, Park successfully helped her party win 121 seats in the 2004 general election, earning her a reputation as Korea’s “election queen.”
Until she stepped down as chief in 2006, the GNP won in all elections, leading to a total of eight resignations of rival ruling party leaders.
“I think what she needs now is that sense of emergency that she had in the tent headquarters she led in 2004,” said Yoon.
“If only she takes this current political crisis as an opportunity to improve herself, the public would return to her.”
By Cho Chung-un (firstname.lastname@example.org