Park Geun-hye’s four years in office leave a legacy of corruption, division and incompetence

Posted on : 2017-03-10 17:41 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Scandal involvement Choi Sun-sil finally undid Park, who broke a series of promises to listen and unify the country
Former President Park Geun-hye (Hankyoreh file photo)
Former President Park Geun-hye (Hankyoreh file photo)

“Regardless of whether or not you support me, I will continue listening to your diverse opinions. Through reconciliation and a policy of national unity, I will work to sever the historical bonds that have provoked severe division and conflict for the past half century.” —President-elect Park Geun-hye’s acceptance speech from December 2012

Former President Park Geun-hye ascends a staircase to the Blue House on Feb. 25
Former President Park Geun-hye ascends a staircase to the Blue House on Feb. 25

The four years of Park Geun-hye’s presidency was a time in which she ran in the exact opposite direction from the promises she made in her presidential acceptance speech. Domestically, she engaged in divisive politics throughout her time in office, separating “us” from “them,” and she piloted the Korean Peninsula into stormy seas with her hardline and unilateral foreign policy. She sowed discord in politics by degrading the National Assembly, which is supposed to represent the people, into a rubber stamp of the executive branch of government, and even more seriously she failed in her basic responsibility of protecting South Koreans’ lives and safety.

 2013
2013

An inept government that could not protect Koreans’ lives

The Sewol sinking, which drowned the country in shock and anguish, occurred on the morning of Apr. 16, 2014, but it was not until 5:15 that afternoon that Park made her first appearance at the government’s headquarters for disaster relief. “They’re saying that all the students had life jackets on, so why is it so hard to find them?” Park asked, showing that she didn’t even grasp what had happened to the ferry. Her only action was to disband the Coast Guard and create the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, while she remained reluctant to prosecute the guilty parties or to investigate the accident. Rather than offering consolation to the bereaved Sewol families, she even refused to give them an interview, and a memorandum by former Blue House Senior Secretary for Civil Affairs Kim Young-han documented the fact that she essentially blocked the enactment and the operation of the Special Sewol Law, stating that “outside forces must not be allowed to politically exploit the [victims’ families].”

 after her inauguration ceremony as the 18th president of South Korea. (Blue House photo pool)
after her inauguration ceremony as the 18th president of South Korea. (Blue House photo pool)

The MERS outbreak that occurred one year after the Sewol tragedy reconfirmed the incompetence and the irresponsibility of the Park administration. After the first MERS case occurred on May 20, 2015, and while the virus was spreading around the country by way of infected people in hospital emergency rooms, Park remained out of sight. She received her first in-person briefing during a cabinet meeting six days after the first case was diagnosed, and it was not until June 3 that Park presided over an emergency meeting reviewing the joint public-private response to MERS. By the time the tragic outbreak was officially declared over on Dec. 23, 186 people had been infected, and 38 lives had been lost. Neither at the time nor afterward did Park apologize for the MERS outbreak.

Former President Park Geun-hye listens to a briefing on the sinking of the Sewol ferry
Former President Park Geun-hye listens to a briefing on the sinking of the Sewol ferry

THAAD blitz and diplomatic missteps stoke uncertainty on Korean Peninsula

Amid the worsening conflict with Japan over the installation of an additional comfort woman statue in Busan at the beginning of the year and China’s demands for the cancellation of the decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system, South Korea is beleaguered by numerous diplomats challenges. Even as China’s economic retaliation grows harsher, the South Korean government has failed to devise any effective measures. The person who brought these conflicts on the country was Park. In July 2016, the Park administration officially decided to deploy THAAD in the face of strong opposition from China and Russia, which argued that deploying THAAD in South Korea would upset the strategic balance in all of Northeast Asia. As South Korea hurries to deploy THAAD without making an effort to win over those two countries, China has been putting pressure on South Korea using various measures in the areas of society, culture, and the economy.

South Korea’s agreement with Japan over the comfort women on Dec. 28, 2015, has gone down as a diplomatic catastrophe for the Park administration. The government made a “final and irreversible” agreement that was strongly slanted in Japan’s favor despite the opposition of the former comfort women themselves. The South Korean government effectively sacrificed any chance of receiving an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government.

While inter-Korean relations had entered a thaw after high-ranking officials from Seoul and Pyongyang reached an agreement on Aug. 25, 2015, inter-Korean relations have since regressed to the chilly time before the North–South Joint Declaration on June 15, 2000, because of North Korea’s nuclear test, its launch of long-range missiles and Seoul’s decision to completely shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

 off the coast of South Jeolla Province
off the coast of South Jeolla Province

Turning the clock of democratization back to the 1970s

While the decisive factor that ended Park’s presidency was the Choi Sun-sil scandal, this atrocious example of government manipulation can be traced back to Park’s anachronistic leadership style. Park’s reliance on shadowy advisors instead of the official hierarchy was foreshadowed by the appointment debacle in the first year of her presidency. During her first month in office alone, five of her nominees for minister and vice minister were rejected, one after the other, as she came under fire for relying on “names in a notebook” and for being “out of touch.” Among her nominees for prime minister, Kim Yong-joon, Ahn Dae-hee and Moon Chang-geuk withdrew their nominations before their hearings, and while Lee Wan-koo did manage to become prime minister, he resigned after allegations were raised that he had accepted money from former Keangnam Enterprises chairman Sung Wan-jong.

Park, by contrast, had mastered the “politics of changing the topic”: whenever an issue arose that was disadvantageous to her, instead of tackling that issue head on she would shift the focus to another issue. When an indictment in the National Intelligence Service comment investigation (related to interference in the 2012 presidential election) threatened to challenge the legitimacy of her administration, she shifted the narrative to then Prosecutor General Chae Dong-wook’s illegitimate child. Park also managed to weasel out of the scandal over documents indicating that Chung Yoon-hoi had wielded inappropriate influence by focusing on the fact that the documents had been leaked. This was also why she attacked Blue House Special Inspector General Lee Seok-soo for spilling secrets while he was investigating charges of embezzlement and abuse of power by former Blue House Senior Secretary of Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo.

 at the Central Government Complex in Seoul
at the Central Government Complex in Seoul

During the presidential election, Park had vowed to represent the entire country, but after her inauguration, she practiced a “two country strategy,” by plowing ahead on issues that sharply divided public opinion, such as the dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party and the state authorship of a single history textbook. Park accused political parties opposed to her approach to running the country of putting political goals before the public livelihood, which increased public disgust with politics. Her divide-and-conquer approach to politics continued throughout her four years in office and until the bitter end in the impeachment trial. During the fierce public protests – divided into “candlelight rallies” supporting Park’s impeachment and “Taeguki rallies” (‘Taeguki’ means ‘South Korean flag’) opposing it – Park only sent a message of gratitude to the organizers of the Taeguki rallies (the Association of People Who Love Park Geun-hye, known as Parksamo) without making any effort to unify the country.

By Choi Hye-jung, staff reporter

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