Throwing it all awayPresident Park Geun-hye is poised go down in the history books as a failed leader. She is bringing the legacy of her father, former president Park Chung Hee, and the country down with her. How did things go so wrong?
The younger Park is heavily indebted to her father. She became the country’s first female president all thanks to her father. Without her pedigree, she could not have been elected to the National Assembly. She should have paid her debt by demonstrating successful leadership. She should at least not have tainted the family name. She may now be forever beholden to her father.
When Park Chung Hee suddenly lost his wife in 1974, the strongman felt lonelier than ever. Many advised him to remarry. According to archives, former house speaker Kim Jai-son delivered a message from Japanese corporate and army big shot Ryuzo Sejima pleading with his friend in Seoul to find another wife. Park stayed quiet and later mumbled, “There is Geun-hye.”
His full-grown first daughter was quietly enjoying playing the role of the first lady. She went on a charity tour around the country with her so-called mentor Choi Tae-min. She received red-carpet treatment wherever she went. The 20-something daughter was oblivious to her father’s loneliness. If she had been willing to step aside as the hostess of the presidential palace for a stepmother, her father would have gotten a new wife. Many things would have been different. Park would not have befriended his die-hard security chief or secretly had women come to his private chamber.
The conservative camp was devoted to Park because she had been the darling daughter of the revered president and they needed a strong candidate to compete against liberal and left-wing forces. The younger Park also proved herself. She fought for a conservative identity against the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun administration. She saved the conservative Grand National Party when it was on the brink of collapse. But without support from conservatives, she would never have had a chance to make it big time.
Park eventually made it to the peak. She stood atop Mount Everest, the highest summit of the Himalayan mountain range. But once she got to the top, she forgot about the people beneath her. She neglected the conservative veterans, leaders, journalist, scholars and activists who helped her reach the summit. A few that willingly became her buttress received phone calls from her asking for advice after she became the new controller of the Blue House.
The conservatives nagged and nagged. They advised her to keep better aides. But Park did not pay attention. She kept to a tight circle of bizarre hangers on — fawning politicians, the so-called experts and professors with questionable credentials, and even an aged comedian who volunteered on her campaign trail.
Few among her staff were able to talk straight to her. Her chief of staff Lee Won-jong claimed Choi Soon-sil was no close friend of the president. But soon the president had to make a televised apology for the excesses of her friend. How can such an ignorant chief of staff be the spokesman for the president? She steadfastly backed Woo Byung-woo, her senior secretary for civil affairs, regardless of multiple charges of corruption and power abuse. He is responsible for all the personal wrongdoings related to Choi Soon-sil and her clandestine fund-raising activities. The president may be misunderstanding the concept of loyalty.
The damage to the nation is severe. A leader must see things clearly. The country already paid dearly for her political naivety. She vehemently opposed former President Lee Myung-bak’s plan to overturn his predecessor’s promise to create a new administrative city, Sejong, in the central part of the country. Breaking up the government went against the international trend of integration. She should have backed Lee’s plan, but claimed that video conferencing would be enough. As a result, the administration is in pieces generating heavy losses because officials spend more time on the road going to and from from Seoul and Sejong.
Her unreasonable hard-headedness only got worse after she came to power. She was repeatedly asked to connect and communicate with the people. She was told to come out of her shrouded palace, down from her high mountain peak to mingle with government officials and politicians, and seek second and third advice on her choices of people. She would have made fewer follies if she had listened. The leadership void before the Sewol ferry sank and during the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome as well as the scandals with her friend could have been avoided. But Park stayed stubborn. She kept to herself. She held a press conference once a year.
It may be premature to conclude a total failure in her presidency as there is still time left in her term. She has had some successes — an unwavering policy on North Korea, the creation of a monthly basic subsidy for low-income senior citizens, reform in government employees’ pensions, and a mechanism to prevent illegal strikes. Many of her unfinished work can be blamed on the opposition.
But those successes can hardly be called extraordinary. Most of her achievements were just part of her job. Her missteps were truly extraordinary. She stubbornly remained deaf to public cries and pleas for communication. Whether it was arrogance or ignorance, the president in her self-imposed blindness got bruised but failed to take off the blindfold. She finally went over the cliff with the Choi scandal.
Park was one the first female leaders among the top 10 world economies. It was a great legacy. Her father, supporters, and nation gave her that fame. She has thrown it all away.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 26, Page 35
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.