Stumbles of SKorean leader distract month into job
South Korean President Park Geun-hye's honeymoon was over before it even began.
Only a month on the job, Park has stumbled repeatedly in the face of bitter opposition to policy proposals and her choices for top government posts.
Half a dozen Cabinet appointees have quit under clouds. The latest is Han Man-soo, who withdrew his nomination for antitrust chief Monday amid allegations he stashed millions of dollars overseas to avoid taxes. Other claims that have brought down Park appointees include real estate speculation, a sex-for-influence scandal, bribery and links to an arms broker.
"A couple of flops would've been acceptable, but having a total of six failures in the first few months means that the problem lies with her style," said Lee Cheol-hee, head of the Dumon Political Strategy Institute think tank. "She seems to think she can just hand down a list of people she prefers, without thinking hard about whether those people's credentials and ethical records fit the jobs they will be handling."
Critics also complain that she's still short on specifics about how to deal with pressing issues including an increasingly belligerent North Korea and serious domestic anxiety about fewer stable jobs, heavy household debt and a wide income gap. Compounding her trouble was a long deadlock that ended just last week over her ambitious proposal to overhaul government structure.
"Because the launch of the new government has been delayed by one month, we should work harder to fulfill our vision," Park said Monday.
Presidential spokeswoman Lee Mi-yeon defended Park's candidates as fresh and different choices, highlighting nominee Jeong H. Kim, a Korean American who was the former head of Bell Labs in the United States, for head of a new science and technology ministry.
Kim resigned earlier this month, citing political wrangling over the responsibilities of the science and technology ministry. Opponents questioned Kim's links to the Central Intelligence Agency as an external advisory board member for four years until 2011.
"The president has chosen people based on their expertise and competence, and she has acquainted herself with them through various activities," Park's spokeswoman said. Lee said the failed appointments have to do with each nominee's credentials rather than with Park's style. Lee also said many key appointments have now been made and the government believes it has turned a corner.
The troubles of the country's first female president have a lot to do with the fiercely divided political and social landscape in this still relatively young and rambunctious democracy. She also carries the heavy historical baggage of being the daughter of a dictator whose legacy still divides South Koreans.
The 61-year-old president, who was elected in December and inaugurated Feb. 25, has long faced claims of being aloof and an "imperial" decision-maker. The genesis of this criticism comes from her upbringing.
She is the eldest child of late President Park Chung-hee, who led South Korea for 18 years in the 1960s and `70s and is both denounced for human rights abuses and praised as a strong leader. She grew up in the Blue House and served as her father's first lady for the last five years of his rule, after her mother was killed in 1974 by an assassin who said he was sent by North Korea.
"When her father ruled, no one questioned the president's picks," Lee, the analyst, said. "But things have changed since. ... It's like Park is driving a car with a navigator system that has only decades-old maps."
Even Park's own ruling Saenuri Party has been critical. A spokesman called for a better system of screening appointees, and said whoever vetted the failed candidates should be held responsible.
Park spent much of her first month in office negotiating with opposition lawmakers over an ambitious government reorganization plan that aims to focus on science and economic growth. An agreement was reached only last week, more than 50 days after Park's party floated the proposal.
Her economic team met for the first time since her inauguration only on Monday, and critics said there was little other than promises of major policy goals and specific plans in coming days and weeks. Her economic policies include buzzwords like "economic democratization" and "creative economy."
"These are slogans more rhetorical than real, and few seem to know exactly what they mean, let alone how to realize them," the Korea Times said in an editorial Wednesday.
Park has made some progress, including an announcement this week of the start of a $1.35 billion fund to provide debt relief for more than half a million people unable to repay loans. The fund, however, is less than one-tenth the size of the one she promised during her campaign.
Despite North Korean threats that have followed new U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's recent nuclear test, Park has pressed forward with a vow to create trust and renew dialogue after five years of tension and animosity under her hard-line predecessor. She approved a shipment of anti-tuberculosis medicine to North Korea last week.
Things, however, may get worse if political gridlock and bickering continues.
Park faces an opposition with a strengthened veto power, and the possibility of organized resistance to her foreign policy initiatives by prominent liberal groups, Park Ihn-hwi, a professor at Ewha Womans University in South Korea, wrote on the Council on Foreign Relations' website.
Some also see growing cynicism with Park among young South Koreans, many of whom voted for her liberal opponent.
"If a political issue emerges to turn apathy into opposition, there is a real possibility that street demonstrations similar to those that occurred in the early days of the Lee Myung-bak administration could further hamper Park's ability to get things done," Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a blog posting Wednesday.
Lee, Park's conservative predecessor, saw tens of thousands take to the streets in 2008 to protest what opponents called a hasty government decision to allow U.S. beef imports to resume.