Park’s ruling demeanorOn Jan. 23, 2008, president-elect Lee Myung-bak sat down with Park Geun-hye, his political rival within the Grand National Party (now called the Saenuri Party). She came from a trip to Beijing as a representative of the president-elect, who brought the conservative party back to power after a decade in the opposition.
But their conversation did not focus on her trip to China. It was all about the guidelines and processes to select candidates to run in the general election scheduled for April of that year. At the end of that meeting, the two announced that they had worked out nomination guidelines, although the nominations did not proceed according to that agreement.
Those details about that meeting have been disclosed in the past. But there is another behind-the-scene episode from that day. Before she stood up to leave, Park handed an envelope to the president-elect.
Such a thing has happened before. Kim Young-sam, the formidable presidential candidate from the ruling party, handed over an envelope during a tete-a-tete with President Roh Tae-woo in 1991. The envelope contained a confidential intelligence report on Kim. Kim asked Roh why he was spied upon.
What was in Park’s envelope? According to an official who shared the story, on the condition of keeping it off the record until the end of the term, Lee immediately handed the envelope to his aides. An aide was dumbfounded upon opening it. The envelope was empty. He tried to find out if there had been mistake. But the sealed envelope was intentionally empty. Aides were stunned and scrambled to decipher its meaning. It would have been simpler if it carried a list of names Park wanted to be included in the election nominations.
It was highly sophisticated and unfathomable gambit by Park. Few others would have been bold enough to make such move toward the president. President Lee was perplexed and couldn’t decide on a response because he could not read her intentions.
Park is an expert in political warfare. While maintaining a poker face, she measures every detail when facing an opponent. She also doesn’t make it easy for lawmakers to meet her. One lawmaker said he was told to meet her at a certain place and time. When he arrived, a car was waiting to bring him to a second location. Park’s highly secretive nature augments her status as an enigmatic and difficult-to-approach figure.
What has become the unquestionable signature of her character is a stubborn adherence to her decisions and ways.
She stands by her so-called convictions no matter what. Former President Roh Moo-hyun recalled after a 150-minute tete-a-tete with Park in 2005 that he felt like he was talking to a wall. Many feel the same after having a conversation with her. She is not like any other politician. She does not bargain or compromise. She insists on her position until the other party finally gives in. Her aides say she wins all the time because she speaks a different language when disputing with others.
Such one-way communication is understandable for the head of an opposition party or a smaller faction of the ruling party. It is the style of a weak party. A weak party in our political world usually is granted an advantage or tolerated to a certain point. Park has been given more leeway and slack because of her background, having lost both parents through assassinations and having gone into self-exile after her father’s death. She may look vulnerable and weak, but in fact she’s used to being on top. Her words are rarely opposed. Even presidents paid her special attention.
But the circumstances are different now because she is at a high and mighty rank. A president should answer in actions not in words and is obliged to produce results. Both the processes and the outcomes matter. Park will have to yield even when she believes otherwise. She must bargain with the opposition as well as the ruling party for legislative support for her decisions and policies. She will have to take the blame for the ruling party’s railroading of matters. She must be humble, which is exactly what the president should be to serve the nation and people.
Even before she steps into office, Park’s leadership style is being seriously questioned. She insists on her proposal to reorganize the government structure despite protest from the opposition and government. She also stands by her choices for cabinet members despite their dubious credentials. She follows the old authoritarian way. Even President Lee, who has been criticized for lacking political and communication skills, surrendered three of his candidates for ministerial posts before his government was launched. The compromise was made not because the opposition was right, but because the president has the duty to keep the government running.
When she was head of the opposition, Park said the minority party has little to cede because, at the end of the day, the ruling party always wins. It is time she steps into the other party’s shoes.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?