South Korea: Back to the Blue House

IT WAS 34 years ago that Park Geun-hye left Cheong wa Dae (the “Blue House”), South Korea’s presidential mansion. south koreaHer father, Park Chung-hee, was the autocratic strongman who led the “miracle on the Han river” in the 1960s and 70s. From 1974 until 1979, when he was assassinated, his daughter served as his first lady. Since she won a perfectly democratic election in December 2012, she returned to the Blue House today as the country’s president.

Her inauguration ceremony was an upbeat, twenty-first century affair, down to the appearance of Psy, who belted out his ubiquitous mega-hit, “Gangnam Style”. But the past was never too far away. In her first speech since taking office, President Park mentioned the economic “miracle” several times, and referred explicitly to the “can-do” spirit of the first Park era.

She comes with a very different set of priorities than her father’s, though. South Koreans today are more concerned with the distribution of wealth than they are with headline GDP figures. The popular perception is of a successful country that is stricken with economic inequality, excessive power in the hands of the chaebol conglomerates, and a lack of decent jobs for young graduates. Ms Park won power having promised to relieve these ills, while expanding the welfare state. Today, she spoke of “a new era of happiness” for Koreans.

In that respect, she differs from her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who has just retired. (Korean presidents are only allowed a single term.) He had swept into the Blue House five years ago with a mandate to pursue his “747 pledge”: 7% annual GDP growth, $40,000 GDP per capita, and the seventh-largest economy in the world. Such promises were fanciful, but they were useful in setting the tone for his term in office, as well as in getting him elected. At some point during the past five years however, Koreans grew tired of the growth mentality. Mr Lee suddenly looked to be a man of the past.

Despite her father having been the very architect of the Korean-model development state, Ms Park has managed to move with the times. She brought the main conservative party to the political centre, with her talk of “economic democratisation”. She achieved this while retaining her core support—the older voters who remember her father with fondness.

In terms of foreign policy, she offers mostly continuity. She will seek to improve relations with China, but not at the expense of South Korea’s alliance with America. Unfortunately, she inherits troubled ties with Japan—the result of perennial tensions over the history of wartime sex slavery, and also over the Dokdo islets (known to the Japanese as Takeshima), which both countries claim. Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, attended today’s inauguration, but his new government’s relatively less apologetic attitude will make it difficult for Ms Park to bring the two nations any closer together. The emerging weak-yen policy is making Korean exporters grumble too.

And then there is the small matter of North Korea. Ms Park’s main rival in the election, Moon Jae-in, had proposed a full return to the South’s “sunshine policy”—offering generous aid to North Korea in the hope of inspiring better behaviour. Ms Park talks instead of “trustpolitik”, where assistance is to be regarded as conditional on good behaviour. Nuclear tests and rocket launches, it must be noted, do not fall within anyone’s definition of good behaviour.

Though Ms Park has just become South Korea’s first female president, the excitement over that should be short-lived. Among her cabinet nominees only the minister for women and minister for maritime affairs are women. This remains a country where gender equality is a distant dream. South Korea has the highest median male-female pay gap in the OECD. Future generations of Korean women seem likely to judge this president more on what she does about this than on her gender itself.

With South Korea at an economic and social crossroads, and the North proving an ever-more resourceful menace, Ms Park has her work cut out. Certainly, a touch of “can-do” spirit would be useful, and a “miracle” wouldn’t hurt, either. We wish her all the best.


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