President Park Geun-hye adjusts her watch while waiting for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key before their summit at the Blue House in July 2013. (Blue House photo pool)
A Saenuri Party lawmaker from the greater Seoul region spoke with trepidation on July 17 over the recent string of “incidents” coming from the party, administration, and Blue House.
“It‘s impossible to predict anything anymore. It seems like there’s some mine going off internally every day,” the lawmaker said. “I’m worried about the future.”
The fear is that the Park Geun-hye administration’s downhill slide could accelerate in the remaining nineteen months of its five-year term. If the first three years and five months were a time of Park flailing at the helm due to her administration’s incompetence and uncommunicativeness, recent months have left it reeling as previously hidden corruption and improprieties have come to light and Blue House relations with the party have gone through rapid change. Its “lame duck” phase may already be becoming apparent.
The allegations swirling around Blue House Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo - considered one of the Blue House’s most powerful figures - show the presidential office’s grip is not what it used to be. Opposition parties are pressuring for his dismissal over charges of over 130 billion won (US$114 million) in illicit real estate transactions and demanding Park express her personal position on the matter. The Saenuri Party has joined in, with floor leader Chung Jin-suk declaring plans to “demand an investigation from the Blue House into Woo’s case.” Even as the Blue House moves to shield Woo, internal signs point to fears that the episode could weaken Park’s control of governance.
Affairs within Saenuri are not the Blue House’s liking either. Lawmaker Suh Chung-won - seen as the “big brother” of the National Assembly’s pro-Park wing - announced on July 19 that he would not enter the race for leader at the party’s Aug. 9 convention.
“What really worries me is standing at the center of the party’s conflicts,” Suh said. “Instead of me stepping forward, it’s time now to give a chance to my younger colleagues.”
A crucial factor in his decision was the disclosure of telephone transcripts showing pro-Park lawmakers Choi Kyung-hwan and Yoon Sang-hyun pressuring former colleague Kim Sung-hoe to transfer a requested nomination constituency. The Blue House had hoped to back Suh as party leader, even if it meant benching other prospective candidates from the Park wing. Choi announced on July 6 that he had no plans to run. The situation now dashes Park’s dream of installing a loyalist as party leader to ensure a pro-administration camp for the remainder of her term. Meanwhile, additional transcripts released on July 19 showed interference in nominations by former senior secretary to the President for political affairs Hyun Ki-hwan.
“This stuff would have been unimaginable early on in the administration. As soon as its power weakened, all of these instances of being unfairly victimized by abuses started coming to light,” said a Saenuri lawmaker.
Once taboo, criticism of the President within the party is becoming more and more overt. A symbolic moment came in the postmortem white paper published by the Saenuri Party after its general election defeat in April - devoting a substantial portion of its text to criticizing the Blue House. In it, the Blue House was pinpointed as the source of factional conflict and accused of arrogantly and “uncommunicatively” pushing policies without support.
At the same time, Saenuri members have given candid interviews with calls for Park to leave the party. Choung Byoung-gug, a member of the non-Park wing, even spoke of the pro-Park wing “blaming the President for the general election defeat.” In the past, criticisms of Park’s associates were used as a roundabout way of targeting her; now, the comments have become much more outspoken. Speaking on the Choi/Yoon transcript scandal, party leadership candidate Kim Yong-tae asked, “Were the public and the President both taken in by those people selling the President?”
“It’s time for President Park Geun-hye to give an answer,” Kim declared - suggesting the case wasn’t just a matter of associates “borrowing” Park’s power, but something she herself went along with.
Meanwhile, Park’s once rock-solid base in the Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province has also weakened. Numerous opinion polls have shown a steep slide in the region after a string of hot-and-cold policy measures, including the cancellation of plans for a new airport in the southeast, a pledge to relocate a military/civilian airport in Daegu, and the recent decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in North Gyeongsang’s Seongju County.
Saenuri lawmakers and experts said the Park administration seemed to be succumbing to the same “lame duck” pattern previous administrations have faced in their fourth year. The Kim Young-sam presidency (1993-98) began its slide with allegations of corruption in the 1996 general elections and bribery involving first Blue House private presidential secretary Jang Hak-ro, the Kim Dae-jung presidency (1998-2003) with a defeats in the two by-elections in 2001 and allegations of corruption involving Kim’s sons. Both the Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) and Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) administrations also hit their lame duck moments with a failed coalition proposal and a savings bank scandal, respectively.
“The packaging of administrative power that once hid the Park administration‘s corruption and abuses is now coming off,” said one prominent Saenuri lawmaker.
“The difference from before is that now we’re seeing serious cases of things like corruption allegations involving the Blue Senior Secretary to the President for Political Affairs and abuses of power by pro-Park heavyweights who treated nominations like toys,” the lawmaker added.
Experts suggested Park should change her philosophy on governance.
“The administration doesn’t have a lot of momentum to stop a lame duck situation when it lacks clear results,” said Myongji University professor Kim Hyung-joon.
“A President’s power comes from persuasion. She needs to meet with people from the opposite side, be they Seongju residents or opposition lawmakers,” Kim suggested.
Citizens‘ Coalition for Economic Justice co-representative In Myung-jin also called for change, saying Park should “cooperate with the opposition instead of just trusting her own wing.”
“The only way to regain trust in through governance that is not about bullying the public,” In said.
By Seong Yeon-cheol and Choi Hye-jung, staff reporters
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