[Viewpoint] Park needs to return to her old styleFormer Grand National Party head Park Geun-hye, a conservative favorite widely expected to run to succeed President Lee Myung-bak in 2012, has veered onto a rocky road after hitting a detour called “Sejong City.” Park has been losing popularity from the beginning of the year, and a recent poll found her rating has plunged to 29.7 percent from a once lofty figure of over 40 percent.
Park’s ratings remained steady at 40.5 percent even after President Lee appeared on TV in early December to officially seek to reverse the 2005 legislation on Sejong City that Park helped pass. That legislation defined the new municipality as a multifunctional administrative city.
She responded curtly to the president’s new plan for the city to become a high-tech business and science center, saying, “I have already made my thoughts clear and there has been no change in my position.”
As a formidable faction leader in the ruling party, she unequivocally opposed the president’s proposed changes. She has given one reason for her opposition - a politician cannot go back on his or her word. Many applauded her resolute defense based on principles and trust.
Then why has she suddenly fallen out of favor with the public? The downward spiral in her ratings began as she became more vocal on the revised plan. On Jan. 7 she said: “I won’t comply even if the revised plan is decided as the party line.”
Then, on Jan. 12, she assured us, “If keeping a promise is the mark of a tyrant, I will be one.” On the suggestion that she meet with the president to discuss the matter, she snapped, “The government has its position and I have mine. What is there to discuss?”
Later in January, she collided head-on with GNP head Chung Mong-joon, exchanging inflammable insults disguised as euphemistic ancient quotes on disloyalty. In early February, her attack directly targeted President Lee, claiming he more or less “robbed” Chungcheong voters. When one of her most loyal stalwarts, Rep. Kim Moo-sung, attempted to mend the fence between the two political leaders by offering a compromise deal, she called the idea “worthless.”
Her popularity took a beating as she turned more militant.
Park, who acted as the first lady to her father, President Park Chung Hee, after her mother’s death, has long enjoyed a reputation as a politician with a soft touch. She carried a gentle and modest aura with an engaging and soothing smile that reminded many older Koreans of her mother, Yuk Young-soo, their favorite first lady. Her comments, often short and to the point, flashed with insightfulness and composure. She was firm, but not without a deft mildness.
But she appears to have changed in the new year. Many have begun to notice her face is missing its signature smile. Park has become more rigid than soft, more obstinate than modest, and more aggressive than gentle. And with her transformation she has begun to lose many fans. It isn’t about who is right and wrong about Sejong. It is about the new leadership style.
Her loyalists shrug, saying popularity ratings are always erratic. She is fighting a lonely battle over a noble cause, they say.
Indeed, that is a quality our society must familiarize itself with in order to evolve. Her effort to stand her ground has meaning in itself. “Everyone comes across adversity. But depending on how one uses it, adversity can be a stepping stone to jump further,” she wrote recently on her Web page. She clearly indicated that she will go her way even if she loses favor with potential voters.
But she has been deaf to another virtue that today’s society eagerly yearns for - accommodation and communication. Society has grown sick and tired of conflict on the political stage. Until now, she had been seen as extraordinary, but now she is seen as a mere member of the uncompromising and authoritative political class. The virtue of promise and trust is at a polar end with the virtue of reconciliation and communication. If the public is forced to choose, what kind of virtue and leadership would they select?
Park is still a front-runner among potential candidates for the next presidential race. But she cannot rest assured that she will retain that position. The collapse of approval ratings below 30 percent may cause ripples. She stands at a critical juncture.
Nobody likes an angry face. A smile particularly becomes Park. The gentle, approachable image is her winning asset. There is no reason to throw it away. She must show she can maintain her principles with a smile.
Religious thinker Ryu Young-mo preached that one must perpetually change in order not to change.
Like the saying goes: Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but paddling like the dickens underneath.
*The writer is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Heo Nam-chin