[Viewpoint] Park breaks the ice, but more neededFormer Grand National Party Chairwoman Park Geun-hye’s decision to lecture to college students on November 23 marks a departure from her signature style of politics. When she met with the students of Daejeon and Hannam universities, she was completely different. More accurately, it was a chance for her to try to show a different side of her personality.
First of all, she became talkative. Park is known for her short answers and one-liners, but she spoke enthusiastically all day. The transcript of her comments contained over 30,000 words. Secondly, the content of her remarks was notably different. She used to be extremely reluctant to discuss her private life. However, during the meetings, she freely answered questions ranging from her past relationships to her diet. Park even mentioned the knife attack she suffered in 2006 while stumping in Seoul. The traumatic experience has always been a taboo for reporters and others who have met the chairwoman in the past.
Thirdly, she did not hesitate to make politically sensitive remarks. She sounded repentant when she said, “The Grand National Party is being punished for the mistakes it has made,” and described the budget for assisting with college tuition fees as “lacking” and “not realistic.” She also came close to criticizing President Lee Myung-bak, although it is something of a tradition for the presidential candidate of the ruling party to try and distinguish himself or herself from the current administration.
Fourthly, the “Ice Princess” showed the public that she is capable of warming up by taking a more leisurely and sentimental approach when dealing with the students. Instead of reading a prepared speech, she gave a presentation, showed a few photos and wandered around the floor. She gave straight answers to the questions written on a paper airplane that was sent her way by students. She also shared her meal with one of the students sitting next to her and showed them some old photos. Some student protestors interfered with her visit in opposition to the recently-ratified Korus FTA, but she stayed calm and collected and wrapped up her visit with a smile.
Beset by bad press and with the party seeing its popularity wane, Park was desperate to reinvent herself to stave off threats posed by the growing following for figures such as software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo. It has been confirmed that Ahn’s popularity is not a passing fad, as he proved his influence on voters in the by-election for Seoul mayor in October. Ahn’s rising ratings slowed down temporarily, but when he announced on November 15 that he plans to donate 150 billion won ($130 million) to society, his approval rating shot past that of Park. Moreover, the challenge that Ahn represents is growing in the run up to next year’s presidential election, even though he has not said whether he will attempt to run.
On November 23, the monk known as the Venerable Beopryun, one of Ahn’s known mentors, announced that he plans to found a new political party by the end of the year. He suggested the party would participate in the general election in April and nominate Ahn as its presidential candidate.
The monk also obliquely criticized Park by issuing his belief that “As a woman, being a president is not the most important thing. There is nothing more important than raising children properly.” He said he was not speaking of Park specifically, but a few took this last comment seriously, as Park has never been married and not borne any children.
Former Grand National Party lawmaker Yun Yeo-jun, a political advisor for Beopryun, added that the current political establishment, represented by Park, is not functioning properly.
These moves have been encroaching on Park’s power. Fewer visitors come to visit her camp and the politicians who claimed to be pro-Park have started to look elsewhere for inspiration. As her centripetal force is decreasing, the ruling party is about to break down. Gyeonggi Governor Kim Mun-su, who is not shy about promoting his presidential ambitions, has criticized her for having “vested interests.” Meanwhile, some members of the party who stand as loyalists to President Lee Myung-bak are preparing to leave its fold.
Park has to begin reinventing herself, as her political career is at stake. She has already shown her will to change on a superficial level, but now she needs to show she can also move forward in terms of her platforms and policy.
*The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Oh Byung-sang