Park’s Latin encounters

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Park’s Latin encounters

When Park Geun-hye met fellow-female presidents, was it a meeting of minds?

President Park recently made what will perhaps be her only visit to Latin America. It’s such a long way from Korea: literally on the opposite side of the world. Park is a seasoned traveller, but she returned so ill with stomach cramps and a sore throat that she had to take to her bed.

First and foremost this was a business trip. South America may be far, but the whole world is Korea’s oyster these days. A record 500 businessmen from 125 firms, over half being SMEs, accompanied the president. She signed 78 MOUs; they inked contracts worth $646 million.

That’s small potatoes, frankly. Trade too has room to grow. Korean trade with Latin America overall topped $60 billion in 2011 according to KITA, but has flatlined below that peak since.

Korea’s very first FTA, signed in 2004, was with Chile. It has since inked FTAs with Peru and Colombia, though the latter has yet to be ratified by Bogota. All three were on Park’s itinerary. Her fourth and final stop was the continent’s giant, Brazil.

Business is business, but politics is also personal. President Park is personable: Meeting and greeting foreign counterparts is something she is good at. Dutifully diplomatic, with a ready smile because that is part of the job, Park is unlikely to reveal what she really thought of any of her Latin hosts. But they must have given her food for thought. So permit me to speculate.

Ideologically only Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos is a kindred spirit with conservative roots. The other three, by contrast, all have roots in the radical Left. Though life and the realities of office have moderated them, their political journeys have been very unlike Park Geun-hye’s.

It’s rare for a foreign head of state to have lived in Korea. That must have been an ice-breaker with Peru’s Ollanta Humala, who was his country’s military attache here in the early 2000s. Before that he was an army officer who attempted a coup: unsuccessfully, unlike Park’s father.

Did they sigh together about how hard it is to find and keep a prime minister nowadays? Park is looking for her third in barely two years; two other nominees fell by the wayside. But there’s always somebody even worse off. Humala has just lost his sixth premier in four years.

Park Geun-hye’s most intriguing encounters were with two fellow female presidents: Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil. Each is the first woman ever to lead her country - in the continent that coined the word machismo. As in Korea, that’s a breakthrough.

But the two Latin leaders got to the top entirely on their own merits. Asia is different. Here, female presidents and prime ministers all had fathers, husbands or brothers who held power previously. Besides Korea, the list includes Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Are there are any exceptions? There surely will be.

Besides gender, another bond is age. Park and her two Latin hosts are all women in their 60s.

But the list of their differences is much longer: mainly biographical, but also constitutional.

Bachelet and Rousseff are each serving a second term as President, but Park Geun-hye has no such option: early in 2018 she must go, never to return. Was she envious of them, I wonder?

She must surely have pondered the sharply contrasting trajectories of her life and theirs. Like Korea, Brazil and Chile underwent military coups which established harsh dictatorships (during 1964-85 and 1973-90, respectively), but have subsequently seen democracy restored.

The young Park Geun-hye became her father Park Chung Hee’s first lady after her mother was assassinated in 1974, till her father suffered the same fate five years later. She then withdrew from politics for almost 20 years before being elected to the National Assembly in 1998.

By contrast, her hosts both fought on the other side of the barricades. Literally, in Rousseff’s case: She was an urban guerilla, severely tortured after her capture in 1970. Bachelet too was tortured. Her father, an air force general loyal to the democratically elected Marxist President Salvador Allende, opposed Augusto Pinochet’s military coup and died after prolonged torture, including by fellow officers. So I dare say Park and Bachelet didn’t talk about their fathers.

Their family situations differ in other ways, too. All three women are single, but the other two were married and are mothers. Bachelet’s first son was born in the then East Germany, where she lived for four years; she also had a spell in Australia. Rouseff was not exiled, but both she and Bachelet remained marked women until their countries finally kicked the generals out.

Park never had to struggle like that. She also lacked administrative (as distinct from political) experience. Bachelet, by contrast, had served as both health and defense minister: a rare range of portfolios. Bachelet did not plan to be President, whereas Park never wanted anything less.

One commonality they could do without. All three presidents face corruption scandals which involve their political associates or family. Bachelet’s ratings fell to 31 percent amidst allegations against her son. On April 29 she announced plans to ban businesses from funding political parties; the state will do so instead. She also intends to revise the Pinochet-era constitution.

Rousseff’s plight looks more serious. Revelations of deep corruption at Petrobras, including payoffs to her party and colleagues, have seriously weakened her. Her economic management was already widely criticized. After huge demonstrations in March, The Economist recently described her as being “in office, but no longer in power” - yet she still has almost four years left to serve. She has lost control of Congress, and there is even talk of possible impeachment.

Park Geun-hye must have left Brazil, her final stop-off, reflecting that although things are not going great for her, they could be far worse. Yes, yet again she must start the search for a new prime minister. (How one hopes for an imaginative fresh choice this time: someone dynamic, maybe even left-leaning. And of course squeaky-clean.) And amid the Keangnam scandal and the Sewol’s refusal to go away, she has to somehow refocus on kick-starting the economy.

Yet April 29’s by-elections saw her Saenuri party cement its parliamentary majority, gaining three of four formerly opposition-held seats - albeit mainly thanks to the liberals’ internecine ineptitude. And her popularity ratings as of May 1 were 39 percent, up 4 percent from a week earlier. She still has almost three years left. Perhaps she will draw some Latin American lessons.

*The author is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, in the United Kingdom.

by Aidan Foster-Carter

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