[Viewpoint] For Park, reform the secret ingredient

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[Viewpoint] For Park, reform the secret ingredient

Park Geun-hye was selected as the Saenuri Party’s presidential candidate yesterday. In doing so, she became the first Korean woman to win a presidential primary, a landmark achievement but also one befitting a world top-10 economy.

There are precedents in terms of Korea having a female leader, but never a woman president. Queen Seondeok of the Silla Kingdom became the nation’s first official matriarch in the 7th century, and acquitted herself well by paving the way for the unification of the peninsula’s three kingdoms. While it remains to be seen what Park will be able to achieve should she triumph in December’s elections, hope will no doubt be pinned on what she can do to elevate women’s status in society, while also tackling severe economic conditions and moving to escape from her father’s oppressive shadow.

New Zealand became the first nation to extend the right to vote to women in 1893. British women won suffrage in 1928, and Korean women first got to vote in 1948. In the late 20th century, female politicians started to emerge as prime ministers in countries with a parliamentary system. The first female prime minister in Europe was Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, who served from 1979 to 1990. Angela Merkel became the first female chancellor of Germany in 2005.

It is far more difficult for a woman to become a president than a prime minister. They can ascend to the latter role after serving as the chairperson of the majority party. If Korea had a parliamentary system, Park could have potentially served as prime minister on two occasions already. But a president is directly election by voters. In over 230 years of U.S. history, for example, there has not been a female president. France and Russia have also never had a female leader. And while Brazil and the Philippines have both had female presidents, these nations are not yet considered major world players.

Northeast Asia is shaping up a new powerhouse in global economic affairs, but a woman has yet to become a premier, president or prime minister in the region, which is still deeply infused with its Confucian culture. The situation was such that a former president of Korea once asked, “Can a woman ever become president?” So if Park is elected, it would be an historic event, and a shock to the male-dominated power structure.

However, Park’s nomination as a presidential candidate is a dramatic event in itself. Her parents, who once served as the president and first lady, were both assassinated decades ago. In traditional Korean culture, it is usually up to the oldest son to continue the family legacy, but not in this case. At the time of his mother’s death in 1974, the eldest son was still in high school, and Geun-hye was named by her father as the acting first lady.

She has since lived a turbulent life, although one she says he is eternally grateful for after she survived an attack on her life in 2006 while stumping for local elections by a man wielding a box-cutter who almost slashed an artery on her neck.

Will Korea become the first major nation to have a female president in December? The world is watching the election, but her campaign is not going smoothly. Her opponents are attacking in full scale, and the Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Cheol-soo may yet join forces to field a single candidate. More bad news came recently when the cranium of a former political opponent of Park Chung Hee was unearthed and an autopsy performed to check claims that he was tortured to death at the request of the military strongman.

Now Park must show that she is different from former President Roh Moo-hyun or incumbent leader Lee Myung-bak by stressing the right kind of reforms. But she is not waging a good fight. While so many people are calling for drastic reforms, Park does not seem to have grasped the sense of crisis gripping the nation. She is surrounded by cronies and “yes men,” and the head of her election campaign camp was found to have a history of taking bribes.

Her family’s shenanigans are hardly helping her cause. Her sister-in-law served as a legal advisor for a savings bank, which have been embroiled in numerous controversies lately, and her nephew is known to be receiving the most expensive and elite education available. As such, it will be harder for Park to bridge the perceived gap between her aristocratic image and the needs of the general public.

Thatcher and Merkel overcame the odds to become prime minister, despite their relatively humble backgrounds. The keyword of their lives was reform. Park has to change her attitude, aides and strategies. Only then will she have a prayer of entering the Blue House.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin
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