The president must change

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The president must change

After a crushing defeat in Wednesday’s general election, the Park Geun-hye administration and ruling Saenuri Party is heading into a crisis. The ruling party lost a whopping 30 seats in the National Assembly and handed its majority over to the liberals. For the first time in Korean politics, the party of the incumbent president is not the largest party in the assembly. In an election held amid sharp divisions in the liberal camp — and with the participation of the largest-ever older population in the polls — the Saenuri Party saw the worst possible results.

The leadership of the party is in a state of vacuum after Chairman Kim Moo-sung and senior members of the Supreme Council vowed to step down. Kim attributed the downfall to the party’s arrogance, greed and self-righteousness. We find little to fault in the chairman’s analysis.

At the center of the party’s woes is President Park, who still seems to have trouble making the right kind of appointment — mostly due to a reliance on a tiny pool of aides — and a critical lack of communication skills. Despite her pledge of national integration, major posts of the current administration are occupied by people hailing from Daegu and North Gyeongsang — the home turf of the conservative forces in Korea.

Voters — even her supporters — found the usual political avarice in the ruling party’s nomination process, as evidenced by a decision not to nominate former floor leader Yoo Seong-min. The president’s attacks on the legislature for the opposition’s uncooperative attitude in passing bills went on and on — 20 times since the opening of the legislative session in September. She met with leaders of the ruling and opposition parties only twice in the same period. She repeatedly pleaded with the public to change the National Assembly — in other words, filling the legislature with members loyal to the president — after holding the legislature accountable for the failures of her government.

The pro-Park group blindly followed her orders, including a decision to deprive anyone with connections to Yoo of a ticket in the race. Instead, she replaced them with her loyalists and the so-called “Park Geun-hye kids,” like Lee Jun-seok. The party’s colossal defeat will most likely make the president a lame duck for the remainder of her term.

Park still has 22 months left until she steps down. Korea has to confront unprecedented economic and security crises from an ever-worsening global slowdown and North Korean nuclear provocation. Pundits increasingly criticize her for the administration’s policies to tackle such daunting challenges as the polarization of wealth, rapidly decreasing exports and soaring youth joblessness rates. To resolve them, structural reform in finance, labor, education and the public sector are urgent.

Park must have cooperation from the opposition. The Saenuri Party may have to hand the gavel to the opposition when the 20th National Assembly opens next month — depending on the fate of Park foes who were forced to leave the party after being denied nominations. A large-scale reshuffle of the Cabinet and Blue House staff is also needed to let them take responsibility for the humiliating loss in the election.

That all depends on Park. With a leadership based on exclusiveness and obstinacy, she can hardly solve all the challenges facing the nation. The president had only three press conferences since she entered office in February 2013. A lonely leadership is the biggest impediment to good governance. What’s needed now is dialogue with the liberals and even opponents in her own party.

That’s the starting point for a revamp of the government.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 15, Page 30
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