South Korea's Political Experiment

It would be a piece of cake to answer the question who will be the next president of South Korea if elections were to be held tomorrow rather than in December 2012. Numerous polls show Park Geun-hye of the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) to be the most obvious candidate despite the fact that she would be the first woman to run the country.

Currently considered Korea's most influential politician, the 59-year-old Park doesn't have high negatives although voters are considerably disenchanted with the GNP. Nearly half, according to a recent poll, say they want a change of party. Nonetheless, Park has been treated almost like a rock star, greatly welcomed by Korean voters across all age groups and regional affiliations. From her father, who begot two daughters and a son, Park appears to have learned how to manipulate and interpret the political connotations.

A four-term national assemblywoman and former head of the GNP, Park is the daughter of the former president and strongman Park Chung-hee. Rather than being reviled as a dictator and strongman, Park today is remembered in Korea with a certain amount of nostalgia for a day when the country was growing at a breakneck pace. His daughter is fond of saying that her father made manifest South Korea's economic development. The late president redrew geography, she says. Overwhelmingly acclaimed a national hero among the radical right, the iron-fisted Park ruled the country from 1963 to 1979 in the wake of his 1961 military coup, only to be assassinated by his intelligence chief. Still, he ranks first in popularity among the country's past heads of state, evoking memories of past glories and industrial progress, a corollary to people's frustration with the current government headed by Lee Myung-bak.

Park today is rated as having a 60 percent-plus chance of winning the presidential elections, with no current candidates regarded as able to upend her presidential hopes. A majority of conservative voters say that although she still has to win the presidential primary next year, Park, has been virtually anointed as the country's next leader. It seems fair to assume that Park is very much in possession of the upper hand.

Park's election prospects may depend on herself or her family members, rather than on others. But it isn't going to be easy to mould the political environment in the way that she would like. Park Ji-man, her sole younger brother, has reportedly been close with a businessman who was arrested and is under investigation on charges of bribery and orchestrating illegal loans that led to a mutual savings bank's bankruptcy. People on the street suspect that if her campaign slogan, “Again 2012,” is scuttled, her brother could be remembered as the spoiler.

The right-wing factions, however, are also worried about public skepticism that a woman candidate for president would be the best to take on often difficult and hostile relations with North Korea, frequently referred as the last battle front of the Cold War. Such concerns often arise in a Confucius ideology-dominated society in which in reality, the bar is set higher for female candidates. This is a society in which the public has concerns, however groundless, about seeing a woman in a position in which they are innately accustomed to seeing a man. That said, Park is no wilting flower. She is a tough-minded woman familiar with the cold-hearted power game.

Park Geun-hye also has some formidable experience under her belt. At 21 she redefined herself, assuming the role of de facto First Lady on behalf of her mother, who was shot to death by a pro-North Korean assassin in 1974.

A good deal has been read into various titles. But the presidency is very different from the jobs that Park as a national assemblywoman has mastered. Except for the consistency between her moral and strategic judgments, people do not know exactly what she has stood for in terms of law-making activities. The fact that she is a chip off the old revolutionary block is also far from a trophy to liberal-leaning younger voters. She must go back to gain their confidence.

A seasoned politician, she very much appears to be doing what the people want. And what they want is to build another miracle on the Han River, as her father did in terms of pure economic development, never mind the human rights consequences. Her seriousness and tenacity rather than her political heritage are likely to secure her the crown rather than her heritage, however. No one in the conservative movement doubts that she is a real, no-kidding conservative. An icon of conservatism, she is well aware that she cannot betray the skeptical right-wing tribes.

Certainly, Park appears to know how to solve the political puzzle of President Lee, who is limited to a single term by Korea's Constitution and who could be a serious obstacle if he isn't handled with care. Park is an astute stateswoman, who needs nothing at the moment and won't pester President Lee for the bulk of power in advance of her projected presidential win. To her image, that's simply unseemly.

Emerging from years of chaos and confusion following the violent deaths of her parents, the unmarried politician is campaigning on the proposition that she is there to finish what her father had long dreamed of -- to become president in order to accomplish his dreams. Her political ambitions thus look larger than people imagine. Beyond that, however, she has shied away from enunciating a clear vision of what she wants to do as president. That could end up a liability to the conservatives.. In both 1997 and 2002, the voters dumped the front-runner for a come-from-behind candidate.

Park is neither a Sarah Palin nor an Eva Peron. Analysts say she looks more like a Margaret Thatcher. Whoever she resembles, she appears determined to establish a new Korea, not adding another chapter to her late father's book. This is 2011, however, not the 1970s and Korea and the world live in an uncertain era of globalization. Over time, Park's path to victory will be narrower than her supporters expect, in particular unless she develops national strategies to resolve North Korea's nuclear weapons program. With the North unwilling to cooperate, that will be considerably harder than it looks.

Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow with the Institute for Peace and Cooperation (IPC) in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the IPC.