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[Kim Myong-sik] Park stirs up politics in epidemic-stricken nation

Three years after her impeachment and subsequent imprisonment, former president Park Geun-hye revealed her intent to play a part in Korean politics and she proved she still could. Her letter from prison publicized by her defense lawyer called for unity of her supporters and other anti-government forces, alarming both ruling and opposition camps ahead of the general election about a month away.

In the handwritten letter of some 250 words, she expressed her deep concerns for the people of Daegu and the surrounding North Gyeongsang Province, her home turf where she had been elected to the National Assembly for five consecutive terms. Unfortunately, the region, commonly called the T-K zone, is the one hit hardest by the COVID-19 epidemic.

Since the days of Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian president and father of Park Geun-hye, the T-K zone has been a conservative stronghold, having produced leaders in the political and industrial communities. Public antipathy remains high there toward the leftist government of President Moon Jae-in, who hailed from the rival city of Busan on the south coast.

Chiefly responsible for the disaster in the T-K zone was a large chapel in Daegu of a religious cult which became a transit center for the virus from China, probably because of its members returning from Wuhan. Most ridiculously, some pro-government activists fell to the temptation to link the suffering of the people in the region to their predominantly antigovernment nature.

Writer Gong Ji-young posted two graphics in her Facebook account, one showing the prevalence of COVID-19 in Daegu and North Gyeongsang and the other portraying the fourth largest city of Korea and the province as the only constituencies where opposition members were chosen in the 2018 local elections in which Moon’s Democratic Party swept 13 other gubernatorial seats. “T-K residents should vote correctly this time,” the liberal novelist said as if to advise them on how to avoid a region-wide calamity.

A leader of the ruling party’s youth committee suggested that “we may have to give them up in this election again and let them suffer whatever consequences they deserve.” These diatribes apparently reflect the jitters that have caught left-wingers who find the rapid spreading of the epidemic as a major threat to the ruling camp’s election campaign across the nation and in the T-K zone in particular, with its 27 parliamentary seats.

While the T-K zone accounted for some 90 percent of total COVID-19 sufferers, members of the Sincheonji Church occupied more than 70 percent of the infected. In this harrowing situation came Park’s letter from prison. “Greetings from Park Geun-hye to my dear people of the nation,” the letter began. It was the first direct address to the public since she was arrested on March 31, 2017. From prison, Park consoled the T-K people and moved a little further.

During the past three years, the 68-year-old former president has consulted her legal affairs exclusively with her defense counsels and rarely met her former associates. She looked frail in court and remained silent constantly in hearings at district and appeals courts. But, she was clear and straightforward in the letter, even citing up-to-date figures about the infections in Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, which she said were breaking her heart.

Park said that the present power group that she described as “incapable, hypocritical and audacious” has put people’s lives into increasing difficulties and deprived them of hopes for the future. She also deplored that the “lethargic” main opposition party failed to check the mistakes of the present government, but she said she had chosen to stay silent because her negative words could cause further splitting among the opposition.

There were no words of apology to the people or to her supporters for what had happened in the past, nor was any complaint of her present treatment. The former president observed the country was in an unprecedented crisis and then made it clear that the purpose of the letter was to appeal “all Taegeukki forces” to unite with the largest opposition United Future Party in order to save the nation.

“I will be with you when you join forces in one,” Park concluded. Hwang Kyo-ahn, chairman of the UFP, released a sigh of relief as the letter exhorted multiple pro-Park groups to come under the UFP banner. Dismayed are Cho Won-jin, Kim Moon-soo, Seo Chung-won and Hong Moon-jong who wanted Park’s endorsement of their new party aiming at conservative votes in the upcoming election.

Watching Park Geun-hye’s trial moving in slow pace to reach a sentence of 33 years in prison term fines and forfeitures totaling 23 billion won ($20 million), people of the nation, whether they had joined in the candlelight demonstrations of 2016 or not, had time to make their own assessment of the sins she committed while in office. The “public jury” is split and I am sure a substantial part of it must by now believe that Park has paid enough for her guilt with the three years of incarceration.

While writing her letter to the people last week, it seemed, she wanted to get a clearer verdict in the result of the April 15 elections. A unified opposition can better prepare for it.

The ruling force immediately criticized the disgraced former president’s interference in party politics with an illogical logic that she was trying to “disrupt national consensus and harden left-right confrontation.” Yet, Democratic Party strategists may expect it to help bring back pro-Moon elements that were wondering away under mounting problems in his governance. The COVID-19 epidemic was just a sudden addition to them.

The dormant economy, the non-progress in the denuclearization process with North Korea and the damage to overall credibility from the complex Cho Kuk scandal are the top items in the score card written by the Moon administration during the past three years when Park Geun-hye was behind bars. If the power holders have not had enough time to prove their collective capability or individual integrity, nothing much could be expected of them for the remaining two years.

When the government somehow survives the current fight against the new strain of virus, President Moon will find himself confronting wholly new political scenes not limited to a new composition of the legislature. It will require a great deal of resolve and wisdom in him to deal with something that he had never experienced -- the cruelty of a lame duck period.

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at -- Ed.